The ever-insightful philosopher Peter Smith has a number of interesting things to say about abortion, but I found one of those things particularly striking — partly because I don’t recall ever having thought of it before, and partly because, in retrospect, I don’t see how I could have failed to think of it.
Namely: The argument is made that zygotes/embryoes/fetuses, even at a very early stage, have the full moral status of human beings. Yet if that were true, surely we’d want to divert a substantial portion of the medical research budget away from relatively minor scourges like, say, cancer, to the spontaneous abortions that take the lives of something like 30% of these full-fledged humans. In a typical year, there are about 8 million cancer deaths worldwide; the number of early-stage spontaneous abortions must be at least twice that.
In Smith’s words:
very few of us are worried by the fact that a very high proportion of conceptions quite spontaneously abort. We don’t campaign for medical research to reduce that rate (nor do opponents of abortion campaign for all women to take drugs to suppress natural early abortion). Compare: we do think it is a matter for moral concern that there are high levels of infant mortality in some countries, and campaign and give money to help reduce that rate.
Smith is struck by the fact that this attitude is very widespread; I am more struck by the fact that it seems to be very widespread even among those who characterize themselves as pro-life.
Nothing here proves the pro-lifers wrong; maybe instead it means that the whole world has its medical research priorities upside down. But then what are we to make of the fact that even ardent pro-lifers seem, for the most part, to acquiesce in those priorities?
I’m sure that with enough contortions, one could reconcile a near-indifference to the problem of spontaneous early abortion with a sense of moral outrage against intentional abortion. But even then, I suspect one might be forced to abandon one’s insistence that a three-day-old zygote has the same moral status as, say, a ten-year-old child.
Edited to add: Some commenters have tried to address the question “Why would you care more about induced abortion than spontaneous abortion?”; their answers tend to reference a distinction between natural versus intentional acts. But that’s not the interesting question. The interesting question is “Why would you care more about cancer than spontaneous abortion?” Cancer and spontaneous abortion are, after all, equally natural.