Commentor RickK questions my assertion that all human beings-- from conception to death-- have the right to life:
If you saw a car stalled on a railroad track with a freight train fast approaching and in the back of the car was a little girl and a fertility clinic cooler with 500 fertilized embryos, which would you rescue first? The one little girl, or the 500 "little girls" by your definition?
I love the "train tracks with two choices" puzzles. They're a favorite of utilitarian ethicists.
Here's my answer:
I'd save the little girl. Not because the little girl has more intrinsic value than the embryos-- they are all human beings, and are of immeasurable value-- but because I'm forced to choose, and choices are complex emotional things. I would choose the little girl for emotional reasons. Little girls are adorable. I have two daughters. I have an emotional bond that would drive my decision.
I cannot save both the embryos and the little girl, and emotionally I would feel compelled to save the little girl. That does not mean that I believe that the embryos have less value than the child, or that they lack a right to life.
My answer to the question has little to do with calculation of comparative human worth. I believe that the embryos and the little girl each have the right to life. My answer to the question-- that I would save the little girl-- has to do with the fact that I am a human being and I couldn't bear to see the little girl perish in front of me. It's not a rational calculus. It's an entirely human calculus.
So I ask RickK what he would do in this situation:
The car contains several children, one of whom is your daughter. A train is coming. You can only save one. Who would you save?
The answer in this nightmare scenario is that most people would save their own daughter. That does not mean that they don't value the lives of the other children. It would be a horrible decision to have to make, and one that would haunt any of us for a lifetime. But the decision to save our own child merely means that we are all human, and that our ethical decisions are governed in substantial part by emotion, as they should be. Our choices aren't cold calculus.
The error in RickK's question is that he presumes the validity of utilitarian ethics-- the notion that right and wrong can be determined by a calculus. But I reject utilitarian ethics. Ten people aren't worth five times as much as two people. Children who are born don't have more right to live than children in the womb. People can't be valued in such a way.
RickK asks another question:
If science invented a drug that could eliminate ALL birth defects, but increased the rate of miscarriages by 1%, would you advocate its use?There's nothing novel about the question. All drugs have positive and negative effects, and sometimes that effects are on other people a well as ourselves. Taking an antibiotic risks emergence of a resistant strain of bacteria that could harm someone else. Taking an aspirin when you're pregnant stands a slight chance of harming your child. Taking a walk when you're pregnant stands a slight chance of harming your child (you could fall and miscarry). The right ethical choice depends on several factors-- how bad is your headache, how much do you need to get out of the house and walk on a nice day, etc.
Taking slight chances doesn't mean that you don't value the life of your child. It means that you are human.
[If terminating a pregnancy is murder, then shouldn't any behavior that increases the rate of miscarriage be punishable to the same degree as, for example, drunk driving? Should women of child-bearing age be fined or imprisoned for drinking alcohol, smoking, being obese or eating unpasteurized cheese?]
Terminating a pregnancy is killing, but in the U.S. it is not murder. Miscarriage is not intentional at all. Behavior that causes harm to another is judged legally according to the extent to which it is reckless and negligent. Heavy cocaine abuse or alcohol abuse during pregnancy could well be the basis for legal intervention. A case can certainly be made for it.
No one would support legal intervention for obesity or eating cheese, although utilitarian ethicists are still poring over the data.