Working Moms

As mentioned in our previous post, there is a discussion ongoing at The Maverick Philosopher on the subject of abortion. The argument put forward (see yesterday’s post for a very brief synopsis) is that a fertilized zygote has the potentiality to become a fully developed, rights-possessing adult — and, in virtue of that, should be accorded moral consideration, and the right not to be deprived of life, from the moment of conception. I think this is an oversimplification of at least two aspects of the problem.

The first thing that needs to be got out in the light of day for closer inspection is the intuition that the zygote will develop into an adult “under its own power”, as long as we don’t interfere — that it is a passive role on the mother’s part that leads to birth, and only by a positive act of abortion will the process be terminated. In a sense this is obviously so, but it is only because the mother’s role in nurturing the conceptus is one that proceeds without requiring conscious volition and intervention, like her digestion or the circulation of her blood. In particular it is important to keep clearly in mind the fact that the mother’s body is in no sense whatsoever a passive substrate, a mere vessel. She must provide — at burdensome, and occasionally ruinous or fatal, expense — a constant supply of oxygen and nutrients, and a luxuriously appointed gestational suite. Automatic mechanisms in the fetus release substances into the mother’s blood that hijack her normal metabolic processes, causing complications that can result in hypertension, diabetes, and a host, (forgive the pun) of other physiological woes. The fetus is in any meaningful sense a parasite.

I believe our intuitions about this relationship would be very different indeed if — instead of our evolutionary design having arranged matters so that the mother’s body provides this generous hospitality without explicit consent — she had to care for this stowaway as a matter of conscious volition. If, in order to keep the zygote going, she had to make a consciously deliberate and effortful exertion on an minute-by-minute basis, I think we would begin to see gestation as much more of a positive choice on the woman’s part, and far less as a process in which her only active option is to interfere. But this exertion is indeed taking place throughout her pregnancy: the important point is that her body, by no morally assignable choice of her own, offers this thriftless generosity without her voluntary approval.

The second problem has to do with the way the idea of potential itself is being presented; that’s for the next post.

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