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Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Abortion and Brain Death: A Response to Farrar

David Farrar of Kiwiblog weighs in on the abortion debate. I have met David a couple of times and worked with him on several issues. However, on this issue we disagree. Seeing Farrar’s blog is widely read, and seeing the ethics of killing a fetus was my PhD topic. I will endeavour to spell out why I think he is mistaken.

David Farrar writes:

Now my personal position on abortion is it should be legal, safe and preferably
rare. As cessation of brain activity is what effectively marks death, I tend to
regard life as the start of such brain activity (as measured by ECG, not just
electrical activity) which is at around 20 weeks.

Farrar’s argument here appears to consist of two premises (some which are more implicit than explicit). They are [1] If the loss of a property results in something going out of existence then the acquiring of the same property results in it coming into existence [2] the loss of a functioning brain (measured by an EEG) results in living human being to go out of existence and [3] A fetus aquires functioning human brain (measured by a EEG) at 20 weeks. Now [1] and [2] entails that a living human being comes into existence when it receives a functioning brain measured by EEG, and this conjoined with [3] entails that a living human being comes into existence at 20 weeks

I think Farrar’s argument is unsound because [1] is clearly false. Consider a functioning car. A functioning car ceases to exist as a functioning car when it looses a motor. Does it follow that then that all a car needs to become a functioning car is a motor? No, More than just a motor is needed to get a car to function, one needs petrol, a driver, wheels etc. The loss of a motor will stop it functioning but the presence of a motor is not enough to make it function. The point is that often there can be a series of properties each of which is necessary for something to exist but none by themselves enough to make the object exist. Something can be necessary for X but not in and of itself sufficient for X. Farrar’s argument confuses these separate things, it assumes that if something is necessary for X ( its absence causes X to not exist) then its sufficient for X (its presence causes it to exist) and this is simply an error.

There is however an analogue of Farrar’s argument which has more promise and it has been proposed by ethicists such as Goldenring and Hans Martin Sass. This argument suggests that we already have criteria which we use after birth to determine whether a human body on a life support system is a living human being or merely human tissue (a corpse). This is the famous “Brain Death criteria”. According to this criteria if a human body posses a functioning human brain then it is a living human being and killing it (by harvesting its organs for example) constitutes homicide. On the other hand if it does not have a functioning human brain then it is dead, it is not a living human being and one does not commit homicide if one slices it up.

Goldenring, Sass and others suggest we apply this criteria to pre born situations. Early in the pregnancy a rudimentary human body emerges. The uterine environment is moreover analogous to a life support system. We want to know whether this body constitutes a living human being or a mere tissue. They suggest we apply the Brain death criteria. If the fetus posses a functioning human brain then it is a living human being and killing it is homicide. If it does not then abortion only destroys human tissue.

So, suppose I be charitable and reconstruct Farrar’s arguments along these lines. Do we have an argument that a fetus is not human until 20 weeks gestation?

No, the reason is that Farrar appears to not understand the brain death criteria. According to this criteria a human body is dead (as opposed to alive) if it posses a brain that has irreversibly ceased to function. It’s not enough that there be no brain function it must also be the case that such function will not come into being in the future. For reasons like this, many ethicists like Goldenring, Sass and Brody who appeal to the Brain death criteria conclude that a fetus is a human being from very early in the pregnancy around 6-8 weeks gestation. The reason is simple, around this time a fetus has developed a rudimentary brain, it posses some function and full function will come about in the future through natural brain development. Hence the fetus cannot be said to have irreversible lack of brain function.

The application of brain death criteria then in fact brings about precisely the opposite result to what Farrar contends. It leads to the conclusion that at the time most abortions occur a fetus is a living human being and abortion is homicide.

Is Abortion Liberal? Part 1
Is Abortion Liberal? Part 2
Sentience Part 1
Sentience Part 2
Abortion and Child Abuse: Another Response to Farrar
Abortion and Capital Punishment: No Contradiction
Imposing You Beliefs Onto Others: A Defence
Published: Boonin's Defense of the Sentience Criteria - A Critique
Published: Abortion and Capital Punishment - No Contradiction


  1. I suspect that Farrar's choosing of 20 weeks is based more on the need to be safely on the side of most abortions than it is based on his brain activity criteria, meant to give the appearance of objectivity. Especially since it's blatantly inaccurate. I'm suspicious of political moderates like Farrar that they are unlikely to take a politically incorrect position on the defining moral issue of the time, be it abortion or any other. On an important issue like abortion one would take some time to investigate the facts to ensure accuracy of one's position on it, given that an error could mean taking a gravely wrong position. Farrar's obvious failure to do so points him out as more of the socially liberal dead weight which infects the political right.

    I hardly expect people like him to take the issue that seriously. The social winds already point too strongly to which position the likes of him will inevitably take.

  2. One problem with the "abortion is homocide" argument is that the person who arranges the homocide is equally as guilty as the person who commits the homocide. In other words a perso who contracts a hitman to kill someone is equally as guilty of muder as the hitman. Persons opposed to abortion are quite comfortable prosecuting abortionists but they forget that the woman who contracts the abortionist to perfom the abortion must also be prosecuted.

    There realy are no good arguments in favour of abortion or against abortion.

  3. When does a fetus have a separate DNA to it's mother?


  4. Ahh - argument by analogy. It enjoyed its hay day back in ancient Greece, but it's still good for convincing the masses that a false premise is in fact sound and true.

    My objection to your argument is that a car can still be useful without a motor (it can be used for parts, or the motor can be replaced). Neither of these things can be said of a human (other than the use of the body for organ transplants - but then were assuming that the body is dead any how).

    If you believe in the concept of a "soul" i can see why you would be opposed to abortion. Otherwise you're just disposing of a mass of cells.

    The argument that you're stopping a potential life from being borne doesn't work either. That's unless you're against all other forms of birth control as well. At this point I would have to agree to disagree.

  5. Mark V

    1. First I don’t think you are correct that contracts another to kill is always just as guilty the contract killer is. This depends on whether state of mind of the person who contracts another out. If they are in a state of distress or duress, or insanity etc then they are not as guilty as the contractor whose chosen profession is to kill people for cash. Second, even both that abortionists and women who commit abortion are guilty of homicide. I fail to see how these counts against the claim that feticide is homicide. It may be correct that people feel uncomfortable about this conclusion but that hardly shows it’s false or absurd, I am uncomfortable about the thought of embalming a corpse does not mean I think its wrong. I myself also feel uncomfortable about hitting women, or a killing a child; however I grant in principle that you could both hit a women and kill a child in self defence

    2. Even if as a matter of principle a women is guilty of homicide it does not follow that there are not good reasons for focusing public policy on abortionists. Prior to Roe v Wade for example some stands granted women immunity from prosecution in order to ensure her testimony against the abortionist and so maximise the number of homicides prosecuted. It was often extremely difficult to prosecute anyone for abortion without this testimony and so better to allow some to escape prosecution than for everyone too.

    3. Seeing I have produced a thesis defending an argument against abortion I disagree that there are no "good arguments against it” however suppose for the sake of argument that you are correct. It's unclear that this gives us reason for permitting abortion. Consider the following. You are hunting deer in a forest park; you are informed by radio that a troop of boy scouts will be hiking in on a given track at some time between 9am-12pm. At 10 am you see some rustling and movement on the track however you are unable to find out whether what you see is a deer or a scout. Do you fire? I think it would be wrong to fire precisely because in this situation you a) know that at some time a human being will be in this location and c) you do not know whether what you are killing at this time in this location is a human being or not. It seems to me we have a similar situation on your assumption, we know at sometime between birth and conception a human being comes into existence in the womb, we are killing a living being in the womb between conception and birth and we do not know whether or not this being is’s human or not.

  6. Hi Roger welcome to my blog.

    1. Actually the most famous argument from analogy is used to defend abortion rights and was published well after the time of Ancient Greece. ( I refer to Judith Jarvis Thomson,s “A Defense of Abortion”)

    2. I think you misunderstand my argument; I am not drawing an analogy between a human body and a car. I am using an example to illustrate the difference between a property which is necessary for something’s existence and a property which is sufficient for its existence. (a fairly basic metaphysical distinction) my point is its simply erroneous to assume that because a property is necessary for something to exist ( i.e brain function) its presence is also sufficient for it to exist.

    3. Your rebuttal of the “potentiality argument” is unsound. Those who argue it’s wrong to kill potential persons use the word potential in a certain sense, when they say that an embryo is a potential person, they mean that. "If an embryo grows normally there will in the future be a person who once was the embryo." (Jim Stone “Why Potentiality Matters” Canadian Journal of Philosophy Vol. 17. 4 (1987) p 815). In other words, it refers to changes an individual undergoes while remaining the same individual organism. As Stone (and others such as Marquis) have argued neither sperm nor ova are potential persons in this sense of the word. While infants embryos( at least after 14 days post conception) and foetuses are. Hence the argument essentially attacks a straw man.

  7. hey Matt, did you know you left your suit here in a wee room at Otago University? Do you want it back? One of the guys wants to sell it and donate the proceeds to the Labour Party. If you like, we'll get a receipt made out in your name. But I thought we should really ask you first. There's also a shirt and tie in the suit-bag.

    If you do want it, we could arrange for sending it. If not, it'll go on Trade Me. Let me know.

    The Enlightened One

  8. Hi Buddha, I did not realize I had such a famous person as an acquaintance.

    I was unaware I left a suit back down at Otago. Never the less because of my mothers illness I did leave rather quickly and unexpectedly so it’s quite likely. I assume the room you refer to is my former office in the Theology grad building.

    Yes if it’s possible I would like it back. As to having a donation to the Labour party in my name. If it comes to that I’d rather you burnt it. I know Labour supporters like to take other peoples possession and then donate it to causes they believe in without there consent so I appreciate the rare courteously in this instance.

    If you can send it to: private bag 93119, Henderson, Waitakere City, Auckland. That would be appreciated.



  9. Dear Matt,

    I can certainly send you the suit, but not being a believer in doing something for nothing, which smacks of damn commie socialism, I'm asking for $20 to cover postage and handling. So, if you agree to this free market transaction, slip a $20 bill into an envelope, perhaps inside a few sheets of paper just to give it some protection, and post it down to:

    The Enlightened One,
    13 Walton Street,
    Dunedin 9010

    On receipt, I'll post it to you straight away.

    If not, we'll draw lots and choose between the Labour Party, Jim Anderton's Progressive Party, and the Greens. Drawing lots is very biblical, after all.

    The Enlightened One

  10. Buddha

    I have to disagree with your understanding of the free market. I have no problem with a person voluntarily benefiting another and expecting nothing in return. I think in many contexts such actions are commendable. You seem to confuse this however with a different situation. That where one person benefits another by threatening a third party, ,taking what belongs to him by the use of such threats, and giving it to the third party in exchange for their continued political patronage. I tend to think the latter is quite a different moral context.

    One possible solution to the quandary is that declare retroactively that your money is mine and then I will forgo the duty to pay you anything. However, unlike some I have find it hard to take seriously a person who sincerely thinks this is credible.

    My wife who runs a mail order business in her space-time thinks it’s a stretch that it will cost 20$. So I suggest an amicable alternative, I will send you a postage paid return envelope.



  11. Dear Matt,

    In reality, I was just going to put the change into the pocket of your suit. The 'Labour Party' jibe is what we here in Dunedin call 'humour' ... a bit of a 'rark up', so to speak (a challenging concept, for some, I know).

    Alternatively, if you want to send an envelope that's big enough for a suit, shirt and tie, with the right postage, you can try it that way too, if you like. I'm easy. I'm Buddha, after all. How much cooler can you be?

    The Enlightened One

  12. My enlightened fat friend

    Oh that’s right the “you don’t have sense of humor” card.

    Seeing you missed it. Throughout my responses I was being sarcastic. My jibes had a similar function to yours

    Oh and btw April fools day is April 1, not March 28th or 29th the dates you posted.



  13. You're an April FOOL-OOL! You're an April FOOL-OOL! You're an April FOOL-OOL! Nyahhh nyahhh nyahhh nyahhh nyahhh nyahhhh!!!

  14. Hello. This post is likeable, and your blog is very interesting, congratulations :-). I will add in my blogroll =). If possible gives a last there on my blog, it is about the Impressora e Multifuncional, I hope you enjoy. The address is A hug.

  15. Matt,

    I haven't yet received $20 OR a postage-paid package. What are you playing at, eh?


  16. Matt,

    This weekend we may need to borrow your suit. We're filming a Passion Play, and Pilate needs to wear a suit.

    I'm sure you won't mind, but let us know if you have any objections.


  17. Budda

    e-mail me off line and I will You arrange a time for you to drop the suit off at Lex's coffee. in the Union building. I have some friends who will gladly pick it up for me.

    PS. Pilate probably wore a Toga suits did not exist in the first century.

  18. Why EEG instead of a heartbeat ECG?

    Is it because "EEG" sounds more sophisticated than "heartbeat" and because electroencephalography is hard to spell?

    In that case, which particular wave activities of a fetal EEG indicate "personhood" or "potential tax-payer"?
    It isn't just "on" or "off" as suggested by Farrar!
    If the wave signals are 'non-standard' then is the tissue mass still a "person"?

    As an observation, why is it that working as a "policy analyst" for a political party makes one an instant expert on everything including prenatal neurology.

  19. Greg

    I took it that when David said ECG he meant EEG, this is because EEG fits the context better. He is talking about brain waves and particularly brain activity at 20 weeks. Not heart beat (which begins much earlier). I used the abbreviation EEG because that is how I have commonly seen it abbreviated in my readings on the issue.

    I agree also with your point about an EEG. One other line of criticism I did not mention ( for space issues) is the fact that according to the Harvard criteria of Brain death their must be total cessation of brain function. This means the presence of any brain function in the brain to conclusion that the human organism is still a living human being. There is also the problem that in the UK, brain death is measured by brain stem death and so all that is required is brain stem function for the human organism to be declared alive.

    I won’t comment on Farrer’s personal motivations. But I do get your point, I get frustrated how certain people seem to think that because they are a policy analysist (or more commonly a journalist) they suddenly become an expert in ethics or theology generally and show nothing but arrogant contempt for views they disagree with on the basis of this alleged expertise.


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