Abortion is morally wrong
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“Abortion is Morally Wrong.”. John T. Noonan. Humanity. How do we determine the humanity of a being? How do we know when a being is human? What properties make up a being human?. Ancient Theories.

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  • How do we determine the humanity of a being?

  • How do we know when a being is human?

  • What properties make up a being human?

Ancient theories
Ancient Theories

  • Medieval theology maintained that the fetus, at some point in its developmental stage, received its soul.

  • This is referred to as “ensoulment”.

  • It was at the point of ensoulment that the fetus because a human person.

  • Some held that “quickening” was the sign of ensoulment.

Ensoulment theory
Ensoulment Theory

  • The ensoulment theory made no distinction between potential human and human. Once a fetus has a soul it is100% human.

Criteria for determining humanity
Criteria for Determining Humanity

1) Viability Distinction

2) Experience Distinction

3) Sentiments of Adults Distinction

4) Sensation by Parents Distinction

5) Social Visibility Distinction

6) Conception


  • Some argue that the moment of viability is when the fetus becomes human.

  • Viability takes place when the fetus no longer requires the help of the mother to continue its survival.

Objections to the viability criterion
Objections to the Viability Criterion

  • First, viability is an elastic concept that can change depending on the child, race, or technology.

  • As incubation technology improves the moment of viability will take place much earlier.

  • Second, the notion that an organism’s dependence on another organism for its existence can affect its nature makes little sense.

  • Finally, dependence does not end at viability. Even a new born is dependent on others for its survival.


  • The argument for experience claims that being human consist in having human experiences. Thus a being that has no experiences cannot be considered human.

  • A fetus does not have experiences and therefore cannot be considered human.

Objections to the experience criterion
Objections to the Experience Criterion

  • First, it is not the case that fetuses do not have experiences. In fact, at 8 weeks the fetus already is responsive to touch and therefore can have some very basic rudimentary experiences.

  • Second, what about an adult who has aphasia and loses memory of her experiences. Do we want to say that such a being is no longer human because she has no experiences?

  • Third, if we say that to be human requires more sophisticated experiences such as love and understanding, then that would exclude a large class of people (such as children) from our conception of humanity.

Sentiments of adults
Sentiments of Adults

  • The sentiment criterion claims that the humanity of an organism can be determined by how others feel about it.

  • For instance, a mother will grief much more over the loss of a 5-year-old child than a 2-week-old fetus.

Objections to the sentiments criterion
Objections to the Sentiments Criterion

  • First, there are many cases in history that people did not have feelings toward a group of people, but the lack of sentiments did not alter the group’s nature.

  • Second, the sentiments of a mother toward its offspring is determined by the psychological states created by the relationship between them, and NOT by the nature of the child. The fact that a mother does not feel anything for its offspring does not make the offspring any less human or valuable.

Sensations by parents
Sensations by Parents

  • The sensation criterion argues that, if a parent cannot feel or see a fetus, then we cannot consider the fetus human.

Objection to the sensation criterion
Objection to the Sensation Criterion

  • First, the notion of feeling is derived from the notion of ensoulment or quickening. This is the ancient Aristotelian view that the fetus receives its soul when it begins to move and the mother feels it. This view we discussed in the beginning and has no legitimate support.

  • The feeling of movement will not distinguish between the humanity of 2 growing, living fetuses.

  • Sight is even less convincing. The idea that we need to see an organism for it to be human makes little sense. Moreover, in history, it was based on sight that some human groups incorrectly excluded other groups from the category of humanity.

Social visibility
Social Visibility

  • The social visibility criterion argues that to be human one needs to be recognized by others as human.

Objection to the social visibility criterion
Objection to the Social Visibility Criterion

  • The idea that one’s humanity (one’s nature) can be conferred on one by people’s opinions is, at best absurd, and, at worst, a very dangerous notion.

  • It is easily apparent that the social recognition criterion can have dehumanizing effects for marginalized groups.

  • Groups that are not wanted in society can simply be categorized as nonpersons, allowing others to then deny their human rights and dignity.

Distinctions that matter
Distinctions that Matter

While the distinctions of viability, experience, sentiments of adults, sensation by parent, and social visibility might have some relevance in assessing some other concepts, they are not helpful in determining Humanity.

We cannot know humanity
We Cannot Know Humanity

  • Noonan argues that even though we cannot determine when the fetus is human, there is a strong argument from probability that supports the view that a fetus should not be terminated from the moment of conception.

Argument from probability
Argument from Probability

  • A spermatozoa has a probability of 1 in about 200 million that it becomes human.

  • The probability of an oocytes is greater but still very weak.

  • However, once an egg is fertilized, the new zygote has an 80 % (4 out 5) chance of becoming a human person.

  • Hence, at the moment of conception there is a monumental shift in probabilities.

Probability and moral thinking
Probability and Moral Thinking

  • Noonan points out that the notion of probabilities is essential in moral reasoning and moral judgments.

  • Prudence and negligence are directly determined by the known probabilities of a given case in question.

  • In all our moral practical reasoning we implicitly (sometimes explicitly) use probabilities in our deliberations.


  • If a person shoots into the bushes and kills a human being, knowing that the probabilities that the movement in the bushes was caused by a human being is 1/200 million, we WOULD NOT hold this person negligible in shooting a human being.

  • However, if a person shoots into the bushes and kills a human being, knowing that the probabilities that the movement in the bushes was caused by a human being is 4/5, we WOULD hold this person negligible in shooting a human being.

Probabilities and conception
Probabilities and Conception

  • What this argument shows is NOT that the fetus at conception is human but rather that our moral decisions concerning our treatment of the fetus at conception ought to change, given our knowledge of its probably of becoming a human being.

  • Noonan wants to argue that we can draw an important moral line at the moment of conception without having to prove that the fetus is human.

Moral judgments
Moral Judgments

  • “All the metaphors suggest that, in the moral judgments made, comparisons were necessary that no value completely controlled.”

  • The point Noonan wants to make is that all moral evaluation requires weighing the different, and sometimes, conflicting values involved.

  • Moral Christian theologians always gave the fetus a value of more than zero and one that applied to the fetus independent of the mother.

Christian view
Christian View

  • Noonan argues that the Christian view on abortion can be understood as supported by the notion of “loving one’s neighbor.’

  • Once the special status of the fetus as “almost human” is concluded. The fetus becomes a neighbor and we are required, through the Christian commandment of love, to love it and care for it.

Cantens objection
Cantens’ Objection

  • I appreciate Noonan’s argument and his use of probabilities to establish a morally relevant line that should influence our moral reasoning when it comes to abortion.

  • However, I disagree on HOW MUCH this new line should influence our reasoning on abortion.

  • I argue that it does not change the issue very much.

Cantens v noonan
Cantensv. Noonan

  • Noonan argues that after knowing that a fetus at conception has 80% chance of becoming a human, we should not perform an abortion because doing so is LIKE shooting into a bush knowing that there is an 80 % chance that there is a human person in the bushes.

  • I want to argue that this analogy is seriously flawed.

The problem
The Problem

  • To make the analogy comparable to the abortion case we need to change it somewhat.

  • Imagine that you shoot into the bushes and you kill a homo-rabbit (a new species of rabbit that starts their lives off as rabbits and later convert to humans with an 80% success rate).

  • In this case, even if you know that you are shooting a homo-rabbit, you also know that you are NOT shooting a human.

  • Notice that in Noonan’s analogy you actually shoot a human being!


  • In some sense we are right back to where we started: Is the fetus a human being?

  • According to Noonan, it is not human but has a good chance of becoming human. But how does this change the argument?

  • If the fetus is only potentially human, does it have human rights?

  • Noonan must agree that an abortion does not kill a human being, only an organism that has a good chance of becoming human.