Abortion is obviously a controversial subject, even among Objectivists, especially given an apparent ambivalence in Rand's and Peikoff's positions.
In "A Last Survey," Rand wrote, "One may argue about the later stages of a pregnancy, but the essential issue concerns only the first three months." (emphasis added) She also wrote that, "Not every wrong idea is an indication of a fundamental philosophical evil in a person's convictions; the anti-abortion stand is such an indication." (emphasis in original) (Nov.-Dec., 1975, The Ayn Rand Letter.)
In June, 1986, in TOF, Peikoff wrote, "The outstanding example of this fact is (the) insistence (of the New Right) that the state prohibit abortion even in the first trimester of pregnancy." In OPAR, 1991, he writes, "Rights belong only to man -- ...entities, organisms that are biologically formed and physically separate from one another. That which lives within the body of another can claim no prerogatives against its host."
What are we to make of these statements? Are they incompatible? Are they evidence of confusion and thus an indication of a flaw in Objectivism? Is abortion permissible in any and all circumstances throughout a pregnancy up to the moment of birth? Or should it be limited only to the first trimester?
In order to answer such questions, we need first of all to examine what it means to be a person. The definition of a human being is "a rational animal." As others have pointed out, the distinguishing trait to be considered -- the characteristic which sets us apart from other animals -- is our capacity for rationality. The obvious question then is the point in human development where this is philosophically, morally, and legally significant. To deal with this issue, we need to appeal not only to philosophy but to science, as well.
A book which I believe can help us unravel this seeming Gordian knot is Science and the Unborn: Choosing Human Futures by Clifford Grobstein (Basic Books, 1986.) Grobstein is/was (?) an embryologist, Professor Emeritus of Biological Science and Public Policy at the University of California, San Diego.
While I obviously cannot summarize the entire book, I believe some of the points he raises might help to clarify this contentious subject. First, I will provide relevant and representative quotes from his work. Then I will offer some discussion and analysis of how we might use this information.
(My interim comments are set off in brackets.)
Grobstein asks, "How should we regard and treat the unborn. ...(W)hat should their status be? Should they be treated like the rest of us -- in provision of medical care, in human rights, in level of social investment? Or should they remain in an ambiguous policy limbo...?" (p. viii) He says, "...that during the unborn period the individuality that we so prize in society, and that is so central to the concept of a person, is progressively emerging. In truth...we can trace the genesis of individuality." (p.ix)
[It is an error to view this issue of abortion and rights as though viewing a snapshot. People do not exist in an "instant" of time. As Grobstein points out in the next quote, context is important -- indeed, essential -- in establishing understanding and making judgments. While we need to examine the various issues and facts, it is equally imperative to reintegrate them before preceding.
[We must also not sink into rationalism but keep our evaluation intimately tied to the reality of such situations when deciding how to proceed.]
There are "at least six reasonably different aspects [of individuality]: genetic, developmental, functional, behavioral, psychic, and social. Each must be distinguished and considered separately and then together, in order to understand the whole process of which they are part." (p. ix) "The question of human status does not arise as an abstraction, it arises in specific contexts where the question is: How may I treat these embryonic cells, this embryo, this fetus? Whose interest must be regarded, whose is the responsibility?..." (p. x)
"(A)bstract moral principle or bloodless constitutional dogma are no better by themselves (than is scientific fact). In practice, these and all other relevant considerations must be applied to particular people in particular situations in particular states of being. The matter ends up as a multiplex human judgment, with many factors having their role." (p. x)
[Treating such concepts as "human" or "rights" as floating abstractions violates common sense and the proper requirements of epistemology, ethics, and politics.]
He points out that scientifically, a single zygote is "human to its core" but that to treat an individual cell as fully human would make "as much sense as declaring acorns to be trees and selling them at oak tree prices." (p. 6)
Until a fertilized egg implants itself in the uterine wall, the preembryo is "not importantly interactive with" the mother. (p. 8) Only with implantation -- not fertilization -- does pregnancy occur. At this stage, "conditions necessary for preembryo development external to the mother are readily supplied in the laboratory." (p. 9) Genetic and gestational motherhood can be distinct at this point (in cases when a preembryo is transferred to a host mother). There is also the issue of cryopreservation in which the preembryo could conceivably remain viable after the death of its parents.
[While not directly related to the issue of abortion, such issues must be faced as technology and medical techniques advance.]
Among the points he believes must be considered is, "First, and probably foremost, is the widely expressed need to preserve the special quality and dignity of human life." (p. 17) This end, however, must be established in non-religious terms given the nature of our government.
[A proper government must set up the conditions necessary for anyone -- regardless of religious beliefs -- to practice his morality. Inserting religious considerations into our laws not only makes that law non-objective but further exacerbates special interest group warfare, in this case, each religious group seeking to inject its particular dogma into our legal code. For a background essay on this issue, see my "Imposing Freedom," Summa Philosophiae, May, 1997.)
"...in considering what status to assign to the unborn -- and when -- a foundational factor is the nature and degree of their individuality....the unborn do not begin as individuals in the usually accepted social sense." (p. 21) A single cell is, rather, a biological phenomenon and conception.
"In the most general terms, to be an individual is to be a single and particular entity, therefore recognizable as both unitary and unique." (p. 22, emphasis in original) These two meanings of "individual" (unitary [singleness] and unique [distinguishable from others]) arise at different times in the process of development.
Grobstein discusses six aspects of individuality across a lifetime:
1. Genetic (capable of being transmitted generationally), 2. Developmental (achievement of singleness) 3. Functional (activities essential to survival) 4. Behavioral ("integrated activities of the whole in relation to environments" [p. 22]), 5. Psychic (inner experiences accompanying behavior), and 6. Social (self-aware interactions with other people).
[Each of these types of individuality build upon the earlier ones, though there is overlap among them.]
1. Genetic individuality (via DNA) can be thought to begin with fertilization, but unity (and thus full individuality) has not yet been achieved. A zygote may split into twins (or so on). Yet we still recognize human identical twins as individuals despite the sameness of their genetic codes.
2. Developmental individuality occurs when the later-stage blastocyst (a transitional stage of the fertilized egg) implants itself in the uterine wall and its inner cell mass (as opposed to its placental and other membrane cells) "becomes committed to the production of a single individual." (p. 27) This is "primary embryonic organization." That inner cell mass then develops into an embryo.
3. Functional individuality occurs during "organogenesis," the time when cells begin to specialize as particular kinds of cells, i.e., organs, and continues for roughly eight weeks. During this period, "as more mature functional activities are realized, the offspring's potential for existence independent of the mother is increasing." ( p. 28) The beginning formation of the nervous system (among other systems) occurs here. Somewhere in this time frame (at around eight weeks), the embryo is said to become a fetus.
4. Behavioral individuality is first manifested reflexively when muscles and nerves have formed to a degree sufficient to respond to various stimuli. Limbs may move, startle responses become evident, hiccups and sporadic breathing are seen, then yawning, swallowing, and sucking. Some of this latter behavior occurs in the absence of known external stimulation and can be seen as spontaneous. This may occur via autonomic stimuli or may result from "initiation within the central nervous system itself, without any incitatory information from the periphery." (p. 51)
5. Grobstein defines psychic individuality as designating "inner subjective experience." (p. 33) He uses the synonyms of sentience, self-awareness, and consciousness. Despite the difficulty of determining inner awareness vs external response, he notes that psychic individuality "is not known to exist in the absence of a complex neural substrate that includes a brain." (p. 34) The problem is the uncertainty in completely defining what this minimally adequate substrate might be and when it might develop.
6. "Social individuality is conferred through recognition by others." (p. 35) This can occur at various times in different societies and "may be conferred, intentionally or inadvertently, either before or after psychic individuality is present." (p. 35) Thus, because an embryo may look like a person -- even in the absence of inner awareness -- others may become protective of it and seek to treat it as fully human.
[With this "social individuality" comes many fallacious "appeals to emotion" in support of anti-abortion stances. Appearances in this instance, however, can be very deceiving and, unfortunately, lead to appeals to legal remedies unsupported by facts.]
Each level of these successive stages relies upon the earlier stages for its expression. In deciding how to assign status to the unborn, not only the emerging aspects of individuality but also the purposes and circumstances of dealing with it (e.g., in contemplating abortion) must be evaluated. (These points would also apply to fetal research or surgery.)
[This issue of the physical structures accompanying "psychic individuality" -- and upon which that individuality depends -- presents us with ambiguity that makes it even more difficult to determine what proper policy should be.]
Neural development begins early and continues throughout the process of maturation of the unborn. Its maturation and function is "a central component of the status issue." (p. 41) [Here Grobstein refers to "status" in terms of personhood and how that should be recognized and dealt with ethically and legally.]
"...no human characteristics dependent on a nervous system are present during the first two weeks of development, when not even a rudiment of a nervous system exists. [This]...also would apply to the third and fourth weeks...when a neural rudiment is present but neither neurons nor synapses have yet formed." (p. 49)
At this juncture, questions may arise regarding the experience of pain by the unborn, an experience which some take as evidence of humanity. Given the lack of an appropriate substrate, however, "there is no objective basis for assuming even the most minimal inner experience, including pain, during the first half of the first trimester." (p. 54)
The same is less clear during the second half of the first trimester. However, "if inner experience and pain depend on a significant degree of brain function, they cannot be present at any time during the entire first trimester." (p. 54) [Recall here Rand's quote above regarding the "essential" issue of abortion during the first trimester.] Indeed, it is "unlikely even up to twenty weeks" (p. 55) given the likelihood of the involvement of the thalamus and cerebral cortex in such experience. (Initial synapses among cortical neurons appear at about 18-20 weeks; fibers into the cortex from the thalamus not until about 22 weeks.)
At about 25 weeks, "thalamic fibers begin to synapse with cortical neurons and the latter begin to develop the extensive branches, studded with prickly spines for synaptic connections, that characterize the adult cortex." (p. 55) This presages EEG's which resemble "adult patterns associated with sleeping and waking states." (p. 55) Some researchers "suggest that an adequate neural substrate for experienced pain does not exist until about the seventh month of pregnancy (thirty weeks), well into the period when prematurely born fetuses are viable with intensive life support." (p. 55)
Given the uncertainties connected with this issue, however, Grobstein suggests this is a rather "thin base" for making policy. He calls here for further research.
Grobstein discusses the difference between being "biologically human" in terms of DNA, chromosomes, etc. and being "a person." Even dead people meet this biologic definition of humanity, yet few of us are prepared to treat a dead body as "a person" in the sense relevant here. [In the abortion debate, those opposed to abortion often equivocate on this clear distinction -- these two senses -- of what it means to be "human." This is precisely where, however, conceptual and definitional clarity is paramount.]
It is also clear that from preembryo onward, the cells in question are "alive." To pretend they are not as do some who favor abortion is ludicrous. [The fact that these cells are "alive," however, is irrelevant to the permissibility of abortion.]
Preembryos are, however, not the same as, for example, skin cells. A viable preembryo has the unique potential to develop into a person in the fullest sense of that term and thus should have this objective fact of its nature recognized and dealt with when deciding how to treat it. Still, at this stage of organization, a preembryo "much more resemble(s)...human cells or tissues separated from the body" than it does an infant or adult. (p. 67)
Grobstein spends time discussing preembryos and embryos in terms of research, surrogate mothers, cryofreezing, and other issues regarding their status. [While interesting, this is only tangentially related to the issue at hand. At least this should be so for those who do not believe "personhood" is conferred at fertilization and who are, instead, seeking to determine when this status might reasonably said to be obtained.]
"...a central issue in considering the status of the unborn is when in pregnancy a woman should be considered to be two individuals rather than one." (p. 87, emphasis in original) [I know of few who would disagree that whenever the unborn achieves full individual status, unjustifiably killing it should be considered murder.] The cost to a woman in carrying even a desired child can be considerable, up to and including her life. "...the relationship between the unborn and its maternal host is reciprocal and intense but not always equally beneficial to the parties involved." (p. 87) "...the mother's reproductive privacy and rights are important 'externalities' [to the embryo] to be kept constantly in mind. (p. 87)
[The fact that the embryo and, later, the fetus is dependent and symbiotic/parasitic on the mother provides us an avenue for evaluating when abortion may be permissible late in a pregnancy. See my discussion later in this essay. I think here is a way to integrate Rand's and Peikoff's seemingly disparate statements regarding timeframes for abortion.]
The unborn is labeled a fetus from about week eight until birth and is an intermediate stage between the embryo and the infant. Another commonly raised issue emerges during this period: fetal "viability." This "refers only to capability to survive disconnection from the placenta." (p. 109) The "independence" of such a disconnected fetus is, of course, only partial and dependent on available care. The point at which viability can occur shifts as technology improves. This boundary change is often seen as further restricting the mother's privacy right.
[As Grobstein later says, the shifting nature of this "viability" makes it a poor candidate for an objective standard in judging how we are to treat the unborn.]
Issues of a mother ingesting substances potentially harmful to the fetus, of what happens to a fetus if the mother is brain-dead yet physiologically still alive, and the status of anencephalics (fetuses without brains yet with a brain stem) are all complicating factors in determining the status of unborns. There have been cases when doctors and the state have combined to force pregnant women to refrain from or to engage in certain behaviors because of concern for fetal development. This only emphasizes the need to establish objective guidelines for judging the person-status of the unborn.
While birth is generally (though not universally) acknowledged as a definite sign of person-status, this still does not resolve the problem of how to treat a fetus at various stages of its development. "For many and, very likely, most people, the crucial issue of fetal status is the existence or nonexistence of psychic individuality -- that is, the question of sentience and consciousness." (p. 122)
[In other words, when does the unborn have the neural capacity -- in the sense of basic physical equipment -- necessary for that rational capacity which makes it uniquely "human." (Even if that capacity is not exercised at that time.)]
Massive neurological development occurs during the fetal stage, and this stage can, itself be divided into early (9-20 weeks), middle (21-30 weeks), and late (31 weeks to birth) periods (the latter providing only quantitative differences between the fetus and infant, save the discontinuity of birth itself).
The criterion of "viability" can be problematic for delimiting abortion. As noted earlier, a "viable" fetus at 26 weeks can hardly be seen as equivalent to a "viable" newborn. Yet even a viable newborn is not in any true sense "independent." It relies on external others for its existence (e.g., to supply its food) as surely as a preemie relies on external others for its oxygen and other needs. Thus "viability" for a fetus is related more to technological effectiveness than to any particular property of the fetus itself.
"Fetal behavior" as a standard is also unclear. Movement begins early (weeks 6 to 8) but does not indicate sentience. But obviously movement is important in evaluating a fetus. A more physically developed fetus which failed to move would indicate imminent death of that fetus.
From weeks 29 to 32, "electrical activity of the brain begins to show intermittent patterns resembling some of those seen in normal adults....Beyond about thirty weeks, the cortical neurons themselves gradually increase their synaptic connections...At this stage, therefore, the cortex -- known to be central to higher coordinative function -- takes on for the first time some of the appearance of the adult." (p. 129)
Fetal infants of about 28 to 32 weeks growth may exhibit "what might be primitive, transient, and fluctuating sentience." (p. 130) "The available facts speak against the presence of an imaginable state of sentience prior to twenty weeks and for a period of uncertain duration beyond -- in all likelihood to at least thirty weeks, when cortical maturation and connectivity noticeably rise. To provide a safe margin against intrusion into possible primitive sentience, the cortical maturation beginning at about thirty weeks is a reasonable landmark until more precise information becomes available." (p. 130, emphasis added)
To restate, this translates into seven and a-half months into a pregnancy before the fetal brain is developed enough to show strong evidence of a capacity for awareness.
"Therefore, since we should use extreme caution in respecting and protecting possible sentience, a provisional boundary at about twenty-six weeks [6 1/2 months] should provide safety against reasonable concerns. This time is coincident with the present definition of viability, in the context of contemporary  life-support technology. The proposed boundary, however, would be based on a substantial neurological rationale relating to intrinsic fetal properties rather than to physiological viability that may shift with technological advances." (p. 130, emphasis added)
It is important to make such distinctions for a number of reasons. First, it is important to respect our humanity and to treat the unborn appropriately at each stage of its development according to its particular objective characteristics during this process.
Second, we should recognize the potential inherent in a fertilized egg: it is objectively not equivalent to, say, skin cells. That stated, however, "It is important...to recognize that potential refers to latent but not yet realized properties and characteristics. In this sense, potential is not to be confused with a state of actual being or even with assured realization. For potential to be realized requires further actualizing changes that are dependent on essential enabling circumstances. Stated another way, potential to become a person is not equivalent to being a person." (p. 133, emphasis in original)
[Obviously, many of those "enabling circumstances" concern the mother. Thus, her context must -- when appropriate -- take precedence over that of the fetus.]
Third, since we lack direct means of assessing fetal sentience or communicating with the fetus, we must appeal to "less-certain indirect behavioral indicators to gain some credibility." (p. 135) Given our uncertainty, however, we should provide a safety margin to keep us well on the side short of any developing fetal awareness.
What seems lacking in much of the discussion relating to the issue of abortion and the nature of rights (i.e., when and how they apply to a fetus, newborn, or child) is any real consideration of context. As Rand stated, it is often relatively easy to state a principle. It can be very difficult, however, to know precisely how to apply a principle in a particular context. Indeed, different principles may be applicable which give different answers when context is ignored. The only way to determine which answer to accept is to weigh the factors involved, rank them hierarchically given the context, and then decide.
(For example, lying is generally seen as violating the principle that one should not distort reality. Yet if the questioner seeks illegitimately to harm you with your answer, it would be self-destructive to tell him the truth. The moral answer would be to lie.)
Those who hold the position that newborns have no rights because they cannot yet fully exercise their rational faculty; that because of this lack of rights, infanticide must logically be permitted; that parents thus also have no obligation to provide for their children; or any other such beliefs that fly in the face of common sense; such individuals seek to treat principles as rules, carving up reality into arbitrary compartments in order to have all cases fall neatly on one side or another of the proposed boundary. (See David Kelley's discussion in IOS Journal, Feb., 1997, on the difference between rules and principles. R. W. Bradford of Liberty magazine also seems fixated on this rule-bound approach in attempting to discredit Objectivism.)
In treating principles as rules, (too) much is made of borderline cases. In dealing with abortion (or infants and rights), comparisons are often made with unconscious or sleeping adults as though these somehow prove or disprove what the proper application of rights should be.
But our principles (and our concepts) must fit reality. Reality does not have to fit our principles (and concepts).
Reality simply is what it is. It is up to us to identify and understand that reality (e.g., via concepts and principles).
Not every situation in reality will be neatly covered by a particular principle. Just as with concept formation, some aspects of reality must be dealt with descriptively with (perhaps) various principles applying only partially. (Is a platypus a mammal or a bird or...?) We must first establish our concepts and principles by examining what the predominant and normal situation is. Only then will we have any reasonable hope of applying those principles to more ambiguous contexts.
As others have noted regarding injured and unconscious adults and small children, one cannot judge them merely and solely according to their immediate circumstances. One should judge them by appealing to the full context of their lives. For an injured, unconscious adult, we recognize their prior conscious rationality and the possibility of that kind of awareness again becoming evident. (If we are convinced this will never happen, we may declare them "brain dead" and no longer a "person." But as Grobstein pointed out, they are still biologically "human." Because of the special status of humans, we should treat the bodily remains with respect and not merely toss them into the trash bin as we might non-biological or nonhuman matter.)
As for children, they may not be fully rational (indeed, when first born, they may exist almost totally on a perceptual level). But an objective judgment of their status must take into account their humanity and the full context of their lives to come in which their rational faculty will (barring accident or disease) reach its full capacity.
As Rand stated, rights apply fully only to adult humans. This does not mean children have no rights! As children mature physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, they grow more and more capable until their minds are able to grasp abstractions and their physical status permits them to support themselves through their own efforts. As guardians, parents must judge their children based on individual circumstances. They must then decide how much of his potential rights any particular child is able to exercise.
(Even mentally retarded people must be granted their status as rational beings. If they can use language -- even if only on a primitive level -- that is de facto evidence of their conceptual nature.)
Too much of this abortion/children's rights discussion equivocates on terms and fails to make the kinds of contextual distinctions which Grobstein suggests are important, e.g., between "biological human" and "fully human in terms of self-awareness."
I don't see any real contradictions between Rand's/Peikoff's views on abortion and their seemingly different criteria for when rights are applicable, i.e., between the notion of rights at birth vs arguing about the later stages of a pregnancy regarding abortion.
A woman's life -- the actuality of who she is in her particular circumstances -- must ultimately trump the life of the unborn up until the time it is born. If in the extremely unlikely event a woman could only save her life in the ninth month of pregnancy by killing the unborn, then her life, her existence must and should take priority over the life dependent upon her.
After all, if the fetus (in this improbable scenario) could not be removed from the woman and could not exist on its own (for whatever strange reason), then nothing would be gained by allowing the woman to die merely because we did not want to kill the fetus. Any "right" it had to life would and should be subordinate to the actual, independent existence of the woman keeping it alive. It would be an abomination to force the woman to lose her life because of such a specious "right."
Yet in other contexts, the objective nature of the fetus would have to be considered. As Grobstein points out, the development of the cortex is necessary for self-awareness. Tibor Machan and others have also noted that it is our rational capacity which separates us from other animals. (Remember the definition of a human being as "a rational animal.") That rational capacity is dependent upon a certain level of cortical development (as outlined above).
Before that level of brain development, there is nothing essential which separates the human fetus from the fetus, say, of other higher mammals/animals. If we use philosophy to determine what property makes us distinctive as a species (our rationality) and medical science to determine when in our development that property emerges biologically (as Grobstein pointed out, conservatively at week 26 or into the third trimester), then I believe we have not only established our objective standard for determining when a fetus might be accorded "psychic individuality" (personhood) but what might be a reasonable standard for limiting abortions when the life of the mother is not in danger (and the fetus does not provide evidence of crucial deformity).
Don't forget that twenty-six weeks is six-and-a-half months or two-thirds of the way into a pregnancy! Surely, a woman who wanted to terminate a pregnancy could make such a decision long before that point. Her reasons for seeking an abortion must presumably (and should) be more serious, less trivial or frivolous the longer the fetus matures (in keeping with the changing nature and status of the fetus). Just as with any other area of life, what is appropriate behavior in one context may not be in another. (An infant which wets its pants faces no social or moral opprobrium. An adult who does so because he is too lazy to walk to the bathroom would hardly be evaluated so charitably.)
As for the first trimester, as per Grobstein, Rand, and Peikoff, there is no conceivable, rational, objective reasons why abortion should be prohibited during those first three months. To insist that the preembryo, embryo, or fetus at that stage has "rights" of any kind is to obliterate the nature of rights for real actual humans.
As Grobstein/Rand/Peikoff make clear, a potential human is not the same as an actual human. An acorn is not an oak tree...but an acorn which has transformed into a tiny plant with leaves, stem, and roots is an oak tree...no matter how little it resembles a progenitor three-hundred years old. So, while we treat a small oak tree as a tree, we could hardly expect from it what we could of a mature tree (not in terms of shade, more acorns to eat, or what we could hope to sell its wood for).
The same idea applies to children, whether newborn, toddlers, or whatever.
Anti-abortionists who merely assert that from conception onward those simple human cells are a person/baby (and thus that abortion is murder) and pro-abortionists who merely assert that those cells are not human are wrong. Mere assertions prove nothing.
In dealing with this contentious issue, we must define our terms, pay scrupulous attention to the widest context available to us, and look to science and objective reality to determine what is the best course to follow. The situations may often be murky, and we may refine our positions in the light of further knowledge, but we must, as Rand pointed out, deal first with the essential issue of whether a woman's right to her life must be paramount. Only once that core foundation is established will we -- with any reasonable chance of success -- be able to tackle the thornier borderline cases.