Pro-choice paradigm lacks compassion on Zoe's Law


FoetusA NSW bill seeks to create a new offence under the Crimes Act for causing serious harm to, or the destruction of, a child in utero.

The bill was originally introduced by Christian Democratic Party MP Fred Nile and dubbed 'Zoe's Law' in honour of the unborn child killed when her mother was hit by an allegedly drug-affected driver. Dismayed at the lack of legal recognition for their daughter's death, Zoe's parents have since campaigned for a change in the law, stating that: 'There has to be a specific law that recognises the viability of life and protects an unborn child.'

But the NSW bill has met with opposition from an unexpected quarter, with some feminist and pro-choice groups concerned that Zoe's Law is the start of a slippery slope toward more restrictive abortion laws.

The bill specifically states that it does not apply 'to anything done in the course of a medical procedure', or 'to anything done by or with the consent of the mother of the child in utero', and applies only from 20 weeks gestation. Indeed, Zoe's mother is herself pro-choice and worked with her local MP Chris Spence to ensure that a redrafted bill would not impinge on legal access to abortion. But the bill nonetheless worries abortion supporters because its premise cuts to the heart of the moral and philosophical contention over abortion.

Some people in our society believe that a foetus is a human being endowed with moral rights and deserving of the same legal protection afforded all other members of our species. Many people do not share this belief, though it is typically only in the vexed context of the abortion debate that this profound disagreement comes to the fore.

We have learned, as a society, to put the abortion issue to one side. Taking a cue from America, we prefer to let it remain a 'private' matter. As a 2004 survey of Australian attitudes to abortion suggested, most Australians support legal access to abortion even when they are ambivalent or uncomfortable with it in moral terms. The common refrain of 'personally opposed' but not willing to impose one's beliefs on others rings true for many Australians, while 'Don't like abortion? Don't have one!' neatly summarises the status quo for many others.

But the philosophical wing of the pro-life movement maintains that this awkward détente cannot endure forever, that we either respect the lives of all human beings equally, or we find something else to respect. This logic played out in the surprising public outrage against two Melbourne philosophers who argued that 'a foetus and a newborn are equivalent in their lack of a sense of their own life and aspiration [and] this justifies what they call 'after-birth abortion' as long as it is painless, because the baby is not harmed by missing out on a life it cannot conceptualise.'

Human reason pushes us towards coherence and consistency. We bridle at unfair or inconsistent laws, principles, and treatment. We love the idea of equality, even when we argue over its precise application. So it should come as no surprise that pro-choice feminists and other supporters of access to abortion are strongly opposed to a law that invokes the moral significance of an unborn child's life.

The heart of Zoe's Law is in her parents' recognition that their daughter was not merely a 'potential person' or some other morally diminished non-entity, and the injustice of a legal regime that fails to appreciate the extent of the harm done to Zoe, her family, and the whole community.

We have the curious idea that 'pro-choice' is synonymous with compassion, respect, inclusivity and empowerment, yet opponents of Zoe's Law are philosophically unable to support a compassionate response to Zoe's mother, warning instead that 'We cannot accept a foetus being considered as a 'child' in NSW law.' Such groups may claim to represent the 'three and a half million women of NSW', but mothers seeking justice for their unborn children will have to look elsewhere for support.

Who would have thought that abortion activists would one day seek to dictate our response to a family grieving the tragic death of their unborn child?

The fact is that our society treats the unborn in radically different ways depending on the context, and most of us simply ignore the inconsistencies, never imagining that our devaluing of the unborn in the context of abortion would have implications for our valuing of the unborn in another context.

The pro-choice movement has historically skirted these inconsistencies, using 'wantedness' to account for the grief associated with miscarriage, or to bypass the incongruity of a medical system that fights to save the lives of premature infants on the one hand, while 'terminating pregnancies' of equivalent age on the other. Zoe was 'wanted', but under the pro-choice paradigm how can that ever truly count?

Zac Alstin headshotZac Alstin is a freelance writer and aged care researcher in Adelaide. He has an honours degree in philosophy, a graduate certificate in applied linguistics, and is currently studying towards a PhD in philosophy of religion.

Foetus image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Zac Alstin, NSW, abortion, Zoe's Law, Fred Nile



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Existing comments

The proposed Zoe's Law is a fitting response to the New Eugenics of Giubilini, Minerva, Singer et al. Of course the pro-choice lobby should be afraid that this proposed law will start the long-stalled debate about the dignity of life and the necessary attitudes a society needs to have towards it in order for that society to be an authentically human one. Any judgement that one life is less equal to another is the stuff that has fuelled Eugenics and NAZI-ism, the shadows of both still very much in view today.
Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 17 September 2013

I have always been unsettled with this argument. Could someone help with the case of the pregnancy resulting from rape?
Mahdi | 17 September 2013

I think this bill is worrying because it differentiates between a wanted and an unwanted foetus. I believe that there are circumstances where an abortion is the best of a number of bad choices, which I guess makes me technically pro-choice, but I think this bill is based on convenience rather than ethical principles. That worries me.
Judy Redman | 17 September 2013

Glad to, Mahdi. There are lots of human beings walking around on earth today who were conceived as a result of rape. May we kill them because of their violent origins? If not, then what changes when considering those innocent human beings, likewise conceived, who happen to be still in the womb? Why should a mere change of physical circumstances so drastically alter the moral status of a human being? Why should they be victims of violence a second time over? As Zac says, "we bridle at inconsistent treatment". The rape excuse for abortion is a classic instance. P.S. Great piece, Zac - you're an oasis in the desert.
HH | 17 September 2013

What is the law re an unborn child being the beneficiary of a will? Do the states differ? jh
J Hargrave | 17 September 2013

The product of conception is living tissue. It is human albeit the very earliest stage of a human being. If it were not, abortion would not exist. Abortion exists only because the inevitability of conception is human life which in its early extra- uterine life demands the time and attention of its mother, something which of necessity interfers with career, income, social activity and good looks. Any truely humane and civilised society could reasonably be expected to care for human life in all of its dimensions, even when terribly stricken by disease, accident, old age, dementia and infirmity. Laws to protect human life in its earliest days within the mother's womb (a normal situation) are essential to a civilised society. Such law is the epitome of ethical principle I would suggest, Judy Redman, rather than a matter of "convenience". If we set out to destroy any human life that impinges on our personal conveniences we might as well start ridding ourselves of lawbreakers, those requiring costly medical care, the demented, the poor, competitors that threaten our personal advancement, and those whom we dislike because of ethnic origins or means of entry into our county etc. Abortion is as barbaric as any of the above might seem to be since it destroys equally as valid human life.
john frawley | 17 September 2013

Mahdi, for a story of someone conceived in rape you could try Rebecca Kiessling at
Ross Howard | 17 September 2013

Post abortive women are six times more likely to die within 12 months of an abortion than women who have their baby. The majority live with regret, their lives shackled with self loathing. Women don't benefit by society telling them that it is OK to kill their unborn child. They suffer greatly because of that lie. Their suffering is only compounded by the lie that they should not be worried about what they have done. To treat it as a private matter that is of no concern. We all lose when as a society we don't respect human life. What frightens me is that good people can think that regarding the killing of our young, at times,"It's for the best". This is a delusion. As a society we should promote the good of all human beings, not just those whom we want or those who meet our own definition of person.
Christopher Howard | 17 September 2013

John Frawley's reference to pregnancy 'interfering' with a woman's 'career, income, social activity and good looks' is extremely condescending and makes light of the massive social, physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual implications that the reality of pregnancy and childbirth - wanted or unwanted, actual or prospective - has for women in our society. For a woman the mere possibility of pregnancy impacts on every one of these levels in a profound way, and to an extent that it can never impact upon a man, even if he is the father of the child/prospective child in question. This debate has no shortage of righteous men sitting astride their moral high horses with their indelible 'rational' arguments. Please, give it a rest.
Charles Boy | 17 September 2013

Great work Zac. Why is Zac's message on the inestimable value of the unborn not heard from our parish pulpits? I hate to say it, but could it be that many of our pastors (certainly not Fr MacAndrew) would fear to be no longer appreciated as "clerical gents" by the "progressives" in our society, if they were to preach the pro-life message to our Catholic communities.
Claude Rigney | 17 September 2013

John Frawley, the law that I was referring to was the law that Zac Alstin refers to in his article - one that makes it possible to protect the life of an unborn child that is wanted by its parents but that does not apply 'to anything done in the course of a medical procedure', or 'to anything done by or with the consent of the mother of the child in utero', I cannot see how what you have said responds to my post.
Judy Redman | 17 September 2013

We are fortunate to have well-educated men like Zac willing to discuss what women should do in these cases, within a moral framework. As another concerned reader, I think we need to be taking this further though. Who is standing up for the rights of a sperm? Once outside the male body, it's only a short amount of time before a sperm will die unless given a home in the uterus where it can be kept alive. If no uterus houses the sperm, its potential to become the person it could be is lost. In other words, the sperm is killed and its future self never allowed a chance at life. It might be inconvenient for men to only ejaculate when having sexual intercourse, but when it comes to the sanctity of human life, I think 'inconveniences' need to be put in perspective, as Zac said.
M Grey | 17 September 2013

Charles. Delighted that you found the argument "indelible and rational".
john frawley | 17 September 2013

Thank you Zac for such a cogent point of view. Your comment; "The fact is that our society treats the unborn in radically different ways depending on the context, and most of us simply ignore the inconsistencies, never imagining that our devaluing of the unborn in the context of abortion would have implications for our valuing of the unborn in another context." really gave words to the often not considered societal impact of what is commonly considered a private right.
Martin Loney | 17 September 2013

M Grey, you need to brush up your knowledge of science. Human sperm cells are not human beings and neither are unfertilized human ova. The life of a human being begins when a sperm cell unites with an ovum - i.e. at conception. Your expressed concern for the sperm-as-human-being is thus based on a false premise.
HH | 17 September 2013

Abortion of a fully formed and independently viable unborn child has to be, rationally and logically considered, as destructive as the killing of a new born. Surely the health risk to abort at that time would also be as great to the woman than a natural birth.
Michael Gravener | 17 September 2013

M Grey, I'm not sure how your comments relate to the issue in question, which is the legal and philosophical contradiction between valuing unborn life in one context and devaluing it in another. While your concern for the moral value of human sperm is impressive and no doubt valuable, I'm afraid it is a bit too far beyond the scope of this discussion at the present moment.
Zac | 17 September 2013

Why judge the innocent offspring of rape as a criminal, to be punished and executed at will, without bar bench or jury, [but rather a bevy of invasive obstetric personnel cum bloodied gloves and Gynaecological bucket aready?]
Father John George | 17 September 2013

Hello, Judy Redmond. You are quite right. Your concerns are indeed very valid and I confess that I did misread your message. It is truely a difficult ethic to differentiate between a wanted and an unwanted pregnancy since in eityher case both are equally valuable human lives. Anything done "with or by consent of the mother" is however not valid from an ethical viewpoint in my reading of the situation since it means to me that if a mother consents to destroy a human life (foetus) then that is acceptable. The matter of removing a pregnancy in the course of other life saving surgery for the mother (eg, the removal of a uterus containing a viable normal pregnancy as the essential cure for an agressive uterine malignancy) is ethically and morally accepted as valid by both the Catholic Church and the medical profession. Please accept my apology for misinterpreting your earlier post.
john frawley | 17 September 2013

Zac has rehashed his previous article, so no point going over his mistakes again. If he wants to write about this particular Bill it would be better for him to address the objections set out by, for example, the New South Wales Bar Association. As for the church, it lost half its members because of ranting about this issue, and of the ones that remained many of them, like my mother, voted for law reform - they just knew you couldn't expect priests to understand the harsh realities that life sometimes throws up for people. So Zac, why not start by telling us what will happen, if the foetus were to be given legal standing equal to you and me, when there is a pregnancy that threatens the mother's life?
Russell | 17 September 2013

Russell.kindly show scientific surveys corroborating your assertions eg" church "lost half its members because of ranting about this issue, and of the ones that remained many of them, like my mother, voted for law reform" Surely we don't have here unscientific wishful, opportunistic, anecdotal outburst projected from "mum"!
Father John George | 18 September 2013

Russell says of the Church's insistence that no innocent human being of any shape, colour, sex, size or age may be intentionally killed: "As for the church, it lost half its members because of ranting about this issue" John Chapter 6, when Jesus insisted on another difficult doctrine: “After this, many of his disciples left him and followed him no longer."
HH | 18 September 2013

HH, I hadn’t realised this article was about science. I thought it was an ethical/ philosophical discussion of the point at which human life can be said to begin. OK, science. At the point of ovum fertilisation, a cluster of cells are in an environment that has the potential to create human life – as opposed to the cells being an actual human being. Like a seed planted in soil. A seed is not a plant, but a plant can grow from the seed if the environment remains conducive. So really we’re attempting to place value on the potential for life (up to the point where the foetus can survive independently, that is). Following that, a sperm clearly has potential to create life – so I don't understand why this is beyond the scope of this discussion. When a man prevents the circumstances necessary to create life through discarding his (viable) sperm, rather than fertilising ovum with it, this seems to be the same as a woman preventing the circumstances necessary to create life in her uterus. Unless you are claiming the sperm’s value is contingent on whether it’s inside or outside a uterus (an argument that sounds oddly familiar).
M Grey | 18 September 2013

This is a very sensitive issue which I think the church and right wingers should stay out of at the moment to avoid causing more damage. They have lost their moral mandate and it's time to talk about this human rights issue in human terms - not religious politics.
AURELIUS | 18 September 2013

I wasn't quoting a 'scientific survey' though if I wasn't lazy I'm sure I could find stuff on how many people left the church. From my class at school, how many stayed in the Church, oh, I think, maybe 10% (they send their kids to the schools because 'nicer' people are there). In the late 60s, early 70s we heard an awful lot from the Church about abortion, and it turned a lot of people off. I think you know that even of those who were still calling themselves Catholics, many voted for law reform, and there won't be any going back. But that won't stop Catholics claiming that pro-choice people can't feel compassion for a woman who may lose her baby. How ridiculous. Of course people feel compassion for a woman who has been so harmed. It's not only Vatican- obeying Catholics who are good people.
Russell | 18 September 2013

M.Grey,I wonder what you mean by "the point where the foetus can survive independently". I would have thought this point came several years after the foetus stopped being a foetus.
Gavan Breen | 18 September 2013

M Grey: a typical embryology text treatment of fertilization: "Almost all higher animals start their lives from a single cell, the fertilized ovum (zygote)... The time of fertilization represents the starting point in the life history, or ontogeny, of the individual." [Carlson, Bruce M. "Patten's Foundations of Embryology." 6th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996, p. 3] Moreover, a (fertilized) plant seed is a plant, in the sense that, as the dictionary says, it contains an embryonic rudimentary plant. A seed thus has the same ontological status as the tree it grows into, just as a baby boy, who is not an old man, has nevertheless the same ontological status as the old man he grows into, being an individual human. Likewise the human conceptus/zygote, as the embryology textbooks point out - and in contrast to the pre-existing male and female gametes (sperm and ovum).
HH | 18 September 2013

Zac provides ample evidence that the mindset of the "pro-choicers" is often illogical and inconsistent . But I could also contend that the "pro-lifers" are also frequently too sure of themselves, can lack subtlety and nuance in their arguments, and can be too focused on moral legalism rather than the ambivalences that people have to deal with in the dilemmas of life. Society in the general cannot afford to be quite so "perfect". Catholics in particular are well able to exist with ambiguity and the non-ideal in most areas of life and death, but almost uniquely not in relation to anything to do with reproduction. I often wonder what that says about us?
Eugene | 18 September 2013

Mr Grey,prior to all other key potentialities of the zygote,the fundamental issue at stake is the spiritual soul of the zygote[not present in the sperm constitution]. the spiritual soul gives personhood and inviolable dignity. the sperm has a material soul,superseded by spiritual ensoulment upon unity with ovum-thus beginning immortal personhood in the zygote[All else is secondary though important-eg zygote's later awesome cytological potential: eg adult humans contain about 10 trillion cells, whereas most plant and animal cells are between 1 and 100 µm one-thousandth of a millimetre,[= 0.001 mm, or about 0.000039 inches)and therefore are visible only under the microscope]. Add to that the spiritual soul and personhood to the zygote, and the deceased prezygote sperm R.I.P. is hardly worth a tear drop compared with the philosophico-theologico-cytologico-ethical present significance and potential of the ensouled zygote!
Father John George | 18 September 2013

Russell, I reviewed our previous discussion on my article about abortion and disability. I can see we disagreed on the moral significance of the human being from conception. Many people hold views similar to yours, but in the long running philosophical debate on this issue I'm yet to see anyone put forward a set of criteria for moral worth superior to the view that human beings have inherent moral worth. With regard to your question: "what will happen, if the foetus were to be given legal standing equal to you and me, when there is a pregnancy that threatens the mother's life?" You'll have to be more specific, as different circumstances/complications call for different responses.
Zac | 18 September 2013

Every human being should be proud to say: I was once a sperm and a ovam, living in two different bodies- isn't life amazing?
Annoying Orange | 18 September 2013

"I was once a sperm and a ovam (sic)"... Not according to Catholic teaching and common sense, AO. Only a philosophy such as materialist reductionism comes up with such nonsense. "You" - the person - came into existence at the moment of conception, not a moment before. You the person are not the preexisting sperm and ovum any more than you the person are the decaying remains of your body after death.
HH | 19 September 2013

I am extremely happy as I approach my 79th birthday in December that my mother did not abort me. Sure, my life had its ups and downs but I married a wonderful woman, had eight children one, sadly, dying the night he was born. We now have 24 grandchildren and four great grandchildren. Thanks Mum
NameJohn Morris | 19 September 2013

Reading Zac's last comment I am somewhat confused. In response to the question "what will happen, if the foetus were to be given legal standing equal to you and me, when there is a pregnancy that threatens the mother's life". Zac states: "You'll have to be more specific, as different circumstances/complications call for different responses." If a mother's life is in danger due to pregnancy then surely it is the mother's (and then the father's) call. It's extremely judgmental to attempt to place ourselves in that situation. A specialist doctor, in consultation with the family, would be best qualified to approach that sort of issue.
Pam | 19 September 2013

So how does the Catholic Church justify the following- H.H, given the truth of the Word of God?: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew[a] you? Jeremiah
Annoying Orange | 19 September 2013

After Zac has finished with the objections from the NSW Bar Association, I recommend reading the transcript of the latest Radio National Law Report program, where the Professor of Law interviewed end with this: "I think the US experience is to throw up the problem of once you open up or change this fundamental principle of being born alive, how do we still draw the balance? We are never going to get to the point of everyone having a single agreement that we can all be happy with concerning that fundamental question. So what we need to do in a pluralistic society is adopt a position which is the most stable and which allows for people to have their own values, but at the same time does not cause massive social costs."
Russell | 19 September 2013

Surely in the case of a pregnancy being at risk to a mother's life, it would be up to the mother to be allowed to make personal decision whether she wants to risk her life or not for the sake of her baby. Is there any room for altruism in this debate, or is it all just about the law?
AURELIUS | 19 September 2013

Pam, "It's extremely judgmental to attempt to place ourselves in that situation." I'm surprised you consider it judgemental to attempt to put oneself in another's shoes, so to speak, as this is widely considered to be a prerequisite to the exercise of human compassion. With regard to a mother's life being in danger due to pregnancy, I noted the need for more specific details, as there are multiple medical circumstances to which that statement may apply. Different medical circumstances call for different treatments, and this is reflected in the ethical analysis. Ie. it may be confusing, because 'pregnancy' per se does not threaten the mother's life, hence the need for more specific details.
Zac | 19 September 2013

Russell, I am not sure what you hoped I would make of the NSW Bar Association, or any similar objections to the bill. In my article I noted the basic philosophical conflict in our society on the issue of the moral value of human life. The Bar Association position confirms that such a conflict exists. Whether there advice convinces you that the bill is good, bad, or indifferent, is not particularly relevant to the article. Likewise, you may quote legal experts advocating a 'balanced' position in a pluralist society, but how does one achieve balance between two mutually exclusive propositions? Pragmatically, we ignore the contradiction. Philosophically and legally the contradiction is obvious.
Zac | 19 September 2013

Annoying Orange, Nice question. I'm no theologian but I suspect the answer would be linked to the nature of God's knowledge as an omniscient being existing outside of time (eternal). ie. God's knowledge of His creations pre-exists his act of creation. See also: "Before Abraham was, I am." Note also that the passage you quote acknowledges a point of formation in utero.
Zac | 19 September 2013

Gavan, I mean the point at which it's possible for the foetus to remain alive outside the uterus. HH, while that is very interesting to learn, I still see it that, inherent within the seed is the potential to grow into a tree (for example); a potential that is necessarily reliant on combining with other vital counterparts in order to be realised. The seed is not a tree until various elements contribute to it becoming one over a period of time. Father George, at the heart of this debate from a religious perspective, is the premise you begin with and seemingly assume we all prescribe to - the point of 'ensoulment' as you put it. I don't understand how a priest or anyone else can so confidently say that X is the point when this happens. What evidence do you have of this?
M Grey | 19 September 2013

Thanks AO: Zac has answered your question better than I could. God is outside of time, and knows all of history already, including every human person that will ever exist. And, as Zac notes, He says "Before I formed you in the womb", not "in the bodies of your mother and father".
HH | 19 September 2013

MGrey, thanks: yes, but note I didn't say the seed was a tree: I said it had *the same ontological status as the tree it will grow into* - ie, plant individual. A seed is (or contains) a plant in the embryonic state. A tree is the plant in its mature state. Both are plant individuals. Likewise a baby boy is a human individual in a premature state. An old man is a human individual in a mature state. They are both genuinely individual humans, though. (Put it another way: I'm not more an individual of the species homo sapiens when I am 50 than I am when I am 25.) Likewise a human zygote. But not - note - a human sperm or unfertilized ovum.
HH | 19 September 2013

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible. I consider myself one of God's children. I am currently visible in time, in the form of an adult, even if I was once invisible prior to my being in time in the form of a sperm ,ovum, fetus, toddler, teen etc, adult. One day I will again be invisible to the human eye, out of time, just as God is.
Annoying Orange | 19 September 2013

Zac, thanks for your answer. I feel duly chastened - it is indeed a prequisite of human compassion to attempt to put oneself in another's shoes. But perhaps only Jesus showed a Christ-like all-embracing compassion. Sadly, we often judge from our own experience, or lack of it.
Pam | 19 September 2013

AO, just to reiterate the Catholic position: "you" didn't exist as the sperm and ovum which combined at your conception. The sperm and ovum are the matter from which your material body came into being at conception. It was also at that moment, conception, when your spiritual soul was created (that's Catholic dogma along with all that creed you recited above) and began animating your material body, that the person "you" came into existence. You did not exist before that moment, any more than you existed as disparate atomic particles at the moment of creation.
HH | 19 September 2013

Zac, I think everyone who read your piece would assume you were writing in favour of the Bill, and if you are, you need to address what the effects of it might be, including the ones mentioned on The Law Report program. My first response was angry because I didn't see why you needed to insult people with a view different to your own. Anyway, you write that: "The fact is that our society treats the unborn in radically different ways depending on the context, and most of us simply ignore the inconsistencies, never imagining that our devaluing of the unborn in the context of abortion would have implications for our valuing of the unborn in another context." I suspect that your philosophy, or theology, is derived from a belief in God, and that God has revealed to you that s/he values all (human) life equally from the moment of conception. Fine. I think most people wouldn't agree with you. We have different sources for valuing life. In the case of a foetus, we allow the mother, primarily, to determine the value of that life, in relation to her own. But as the foetus develops the community places more value on it and intervenes with laws to protect it, depending on circumstances. What value we place on it will depend on various circumstances. Similarly most of us are willing to let an old person who wishes to die to determine the value of their life and make that decision - the community also places a value on life and would want to institute procedures to see that voluntary euthanasia is only allowed in appropriate circumstances. This is very different to a view that God has decreed what the value of a life is and has made invariable rules about it. Your view makes workable laws, in a modern society, very difficult. The present laws - that independent legal status begins at birth - which accords more or less with our views, seem to work quite well, if not perfectly.
Russell | 19 September 2013

Russell, I appreciate your comment. Actually, my philosophy is not based on God's valuing of human life. My view is that the value of human life must be rational and consistent. I desire the good for myself (all people do - at least the perceived good). But I must be moved by my equality with others to desire the good for them also. ie. putting aside purely selfish motives, I can't honestly say that I deserve better treatment than you or vice versa. Briefly then, the desire for the good of others must logically extend to everyone. But who is 'everyone'? What's the difference between a 'someone' and a 'no-one'. I think the answer lies not in limited (historical) categories like my family, my tribe, people like me, smart people, strong people, popular people; nor to limited characteristics like consciousness, self-awareness, etc. I think the most coherent basis is simply in the kind of 'thing' we are - human beings. The danger of the current situation as you describe it is that we are depending on community consensus, which is not fixed but liable to change over time.
Zac | 20 September 2013

I don't use the word 'person' in talking about abortion. It's too susceptible of being defined in an arbitrary way. I prefer 'human being'. And how about this as a simple, unscientific definition: a human being is a living creature whose parents are human. And living means 'able to take in nourishment and use it to produce growth or other activity appropriate for the particular life form.'
Gavan Breen | 20 September 2013

Zac, (and thanks for your reply), does your "desire for the good of others" allow for voluntary euthanasia? Or do you ignore someone else's desire (plus community support) for what they think is best for themselves? "The danger of the current situation as you describe it is that we are depending on community consensus, which is not fixed but liable to change over time". Well, yes, but since the death of God, that's the situation we're in - it's not a perfect world. It's also dangerous to push faith or rationality to extremes. Look how the concept of marriage has changed, now that we've got God out of it - I think for the better, you probably don't.
Russell | 20 September 2013

Under Roman Law for centuries, the father of a family, the paterfamilias, had rights to kill his children. Roman society felt that worked quite well. So that would be OK here too if society came round to the idea, Russell?
HH | 20 September 2013

Russell, My view on euthanasia (in brief!) is: a) quality pain relief (including sedation in extreme cases) and palliative care must be provided as a basic necessity. b) as a philosophical principles it is not good to intentionally end someone's life. c) experience overseas has shown that under a legal euthanasia regime people who have not requested euthanasia will still be killed despite safeguards. I can understand the desire to die, but I don't believe it is practically, philosophically, or legally the right approach to therefore have somebody kill you.
Zac | 20 September 2013

...H.H, it's all in the Book of Job.
Annoying Orange | 20 September 2013

HH - I thought you would have noticed, but we've moved on from there, from slavery, burning witches ... all sorts of things. This progress has, in part, been inspired by Christian principles - still is. Zac, I did say, voluntary euthanasia - being allowed to request the drugs to take to end your life, when your life is nearing a decayed ending. I think your philosophy is leading you to a cruel, anti-democratic place. But I'm feeling quite buoyed by the Pope's recent remarks: seems that unlike HH he isn't going to pride himself on being part of an ever shrinking group of purists, but wants to be part of the broader world! And I'm not sure he wants Zac writing blog pieces about "abortion activists" either. Interesting times.
Russell | 21 September 2013

Russel as a neo ultramontane hanging on every papal utterance,His Holiness is not enamoured with democratic society's attitude to the sick elderly with its “discarding culture” "This culture consists of applying the “death penalty” through abortion, and in “hidden euthanasia” of the elderly through neglect and maltreatment.…“there is hidden euthanasia, the social infrastructure pays up to a certain limit, but discards the elderly when, in fact, they are the seat of the wisdom of the people.”
Father John George | 22 September 2013

You're right, Russell: it's Christianity that's enabled mankind to see that most forms of involuntary servitude that have been practiced (and are practiced today) are immoral, and that the almost universal repugnance of mankind against the practitioners of devil-worship must nevertheless not override the right of all to natural justice. But your argument is incomplete, and thereby supports my point. Why abandon Christianity's teachings in other areas, when it has helped rid the enlightened world of such ingrained mistakes (that persist in many parts of the world today)? Society, pagan and superficially Christian, was once comfortable with all forms of slavery, and witch trials and persecutions, until the real Christianity asserted itself against these errors-as it always will against, say, the Roman-law right of fathers to kill their children because, e.g. they're born deformed. You say we've "moved on" from the Romans. Poppycock! A huge number of babies are aborted only because they have cleft palates, or even because they are girls. And in really "advanced" countries, such as the Netherlands, snuffing out deformed newborns is being practiced, and argued as acceptable by the KNMG, the Royal Dutch Medical Association. Dutch society is not raising an eyebrow, so that's all OK with you?
HH | 22 September 2013

"discards the elderly when, in fact, they are the seat of the wisdom of the people" - not so wise when they are strapped in a chair and fed tranquilisers because they are completely demented - as happened to my father, from age 90 'till his death. Look, please, the pope wants you to stop going on and on about these things .... HH - you left out the bit about the enlightenment. Yes, I think I would be satisfied with the Dutch situation which tries to get the best out of bad situations. I think we've reached our irreconcilable differences about how the value of life is determined.
Russell | 23 September 2013

Russell, I think our more fundamental difference is on the need for one's position to be consistent in a discussion. A couple of posts back you were saying we'd "moved on" from Roman-law baby killing, implying, I thought, some moral progress. Now you're saying (aren't you?) killing newborns is perfectly fine.
HH | 23 September 2013

HH - do you know anyone who thinks that killing newborns is perfectly fine? I don't. Some people can only make black and white distinctions and get lost in more complex issues; you can only have a real discussion with people prepared to understand another point of view.
Russell | 24 September 2013

Russell, How closely did you read the article? "This logic played out in the surprising public outrage against two Melbourne philosophers who argued that 'a foetus and a newborn are equivalent in their lack of a sense of their own life and aspiration [and] this justifies what they call 'after-birth abortion' as long as it is painless, because the baby is not harmed by missing out on a life it cannot conceptualise.'"
Zac | 25 September 2013

Excellent Zac! Indeed since when have prenatal IQ concept tests become the yardstick of life?
Father John George | 25 September 2013

You support my point, Zac. "Public outrage" showed that those people were expressing extreme views that were outside community values. On the other hand, I think most people would support the right of parents, in accordance with the doctors involved, and appropriate protocols, to end the life of a baby born with severe disabilities. It's not that people "are fine" with that: it's very sad, it's a tragedy, but the best that can be made out of an awful situation. I can see that some people want any form of human life to have a non-negotiable status, but I think most people will value life according to circumstances - the widespread support for abortion and euthanasia show that a desire to avoid suffering, and personal autonomy, are a couple of the factors that people take into account. To go back to your point - if I want the right to take my own life if I'm old and facing dementia, I will also want that right for others.
Russell | 26 September 2013

Russell, you confuse the propriety or rectitude of a decision with the attendant consequences that decision will have when implemented. I can be “perfectly fine” with a decision to have root canal work done despite the anticipated discomfort during the procedure and at seeing the dentist’s bill. Likewise one’s insistence that killing/not killing an innocent newborn is never done lightly doesn’t gainsay one’s being “perfectly fine”, from a moral point of view, with the decision to kill/not kill. That distraction out of the way: your fundamental position seemingly trades on an inconsistency. First, you appeal to societal approval or “community values” as the determinant of the morality of a decision. But then you judge our society or community as having “moved on” from that of Roman society – a statement of inter-societal ranking inconsistent with a given society’s approval alone being the determinant of its moral standards, entailing as it does some yardstick of moral evaluation that transcends societal preferences. In short, you’re having your relativist cake and eating it too. But perhaps I'm not understanding your point of view.
HH | 28 September 2013

"But perhaps I'm not understanding your point of view". Well no, HH, I think your rigid belief system won't allow you to understand. My point is clear: people value life depending on circumstances. Of course underlying those judgments are principles, and as I said, some of those are to minimise suffering, and to allow people quite a lot of personal autonomy. I'll leave you with another thought - that your insistence on the sacredness of human life is basically your ego talking. We all have an ego and they're all saying the same thing - personal survival and control. I think it's the ego talking when I hear Catholics going on about the sacredness of life - it's the fear of death that lies behind your belief. Ironic, given the life, and death, of Jesus.
Russell | 30 September 2013

Sorry, Russell, but vague nostrums such as “value life depending on circumstances”, “minimise suffering”, and “allow people ‘quite a lot’ of personal autonomy” doesn’t get anywhere near reconciling your objectivist “we’ve ‘moved on’ from the Romans” with your relativist appeal to “community values” as grounding morality. Don’t try getting away with that in a half-decent undergraduate philosophy degree! Hey, thanks for the free therapy advice, too ... but why do lefties always reach for the white coat and stethoscope when they encounter a bit of hardball conceptual discussion?
HH | 30 September 2013

'Don't like abortion? Don't have one!' I stopped being impressed by this when I realized that in Victoria it absolutely doesn't apply to doctors. 'Don't like abortion? Do it anyway"! is more like it. As Zac Alstin remarks, they're afraid of the slipperly slope towards repeal of the abortion laws. Therefore they are willing to wipe out rights important to all citizens, religious or not.
Joan Seymour | 16 December 2013

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