The Scourge of Our Time

Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.

Since it must be treated from conception as a person, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible, like any other human being.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2270, 2274

In this paper, Toby Ord advances a strong reductio ad absurdum of the standard pro-life position that life begins at conception. I’ve heard versions of this argument before, but hadn’t seen it laid out so clearly.

Here’s the argument:

  1. The majority (~62%) of embryos die within a few weeks of conception (mostly from failure to implant in the lining of the uterus wall). A mother of three children could be expected to also have had five spontaneous abortions.
  2. The Catholic Church promotes the premise that an embryo at conception has the same moral worth as a developed human. On this view, more than 60% of the world population dies in their first month of life, making this a more deadly condition than anything else in human history. Saving even 5% of embryos would save more lives than a cure for cancer.

  3. Given the 200 million lives per year at stake, those that think life begins at conception should be directing massive amounts of resources towards ending spontaneous abortion and see it as the Scourge of our time.

Here are two graphs of the US survival curve: first, as we ordinarily see it, and second, as the pro-lifer is obligated to see it:

Screen Shot 2018-04-05 at 2.22.12 PMScreen Shot 2018-04-05 at 2.22.22 PM

This is of course a really hard bullet for the pro-life camp to bite. If you’re like me, you see spontaneous abortions as morally neutral. Most of the time they happen before a pregnancy has been detected, leaving the mother unaware that anything even happened. It’s hard then to make a distinction between the enormous amount of spontaneous abortions naturally occurring and the comparatively minuscule number of intentional abortions.

I have previously had mixed feelings about abortion (after all, if our moral decision making ultimately comes down to trying to maximize some complicated expected value, it will likely be blind to whether is a real living being or just a “potential” living being), but this argument pretty much clinches the deal for me.

2 thoughts on “The Scourge of Our Time

  1. I’m confused about why this clinches a deal for you…

    You were initially trying to find a difference in expected value (birth vs. embryo dying before birth) and found it ambiguous. Then you learned one outcome happens more often than you originally thought, because of accidents of biology.

    Why does this change your expected value estimate? This thing happening all the time doesn’t give any evidence that it’s better than the alternative.

    If you were concerned about abortion before, I think you should continue to be concerned and also be just as concerned about all the failed implantations.

    But also—I think you should have been just as morally concerned even if you *didn’t* learn about implantation failure rates. If your ev function doesn’t differentiate between potential and real things, you’re actually wondering about “birth vs. non-birth for any reason” (not “birth vs. embryo dying before birth”).

    You already had an idea of the number of births per year. You just thought the cap on that number was almost all due to non-conception (let’s say), then discovered it’s actually due largely (let’s say) to implantation failure.

    I.e.: At first you had some estimated number of non-births, and afterwards you had the exact same estimated number of non-births, but attribute some amount of them to a different cause.

    That number of non-births should be equally worrying to you regardless of why they’re happening. If you think the loss of an individual embryo is morally questionable, I think you have to be worried about “the scourge of our time” no matter how you look at it :O There are quite a lot of preventable non-births happening out there.

    PS: There’s such a bad selection affect here—this is the only post in the history of this blog I haven’t absolutely loved every word of. <3 So of course it’s the one I comment on. 😛 Sorry bout dat.

    1. Thank you for pointing this out! I agree with everything you said – if my moral intuitions on abortion were based purely off of the EV-calculation framework, it wouldn’t make any sense for this argument to sway me at all.

      Upon reflection, I think what that means is that my moral intuitions aren’t entirely coming from a EV-calculation framework. I suspect that deontological intuitions about “murder” always being wrong, combined with the EV-derived notion that there’s not a significant difference between ending a life and ending a potential life, are what’s at play here. (Actually trying to justify this intuition seems like hard work :P)

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