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The Fort Lauderdale Socrates Cafe Meetup Group Message Board Past Message Board › Sallie and Socrates on Abortion - Musings due to current news

Sallie and Socrates on Abortion - Musings due to current news

Dr. Norman R. W.
Group Organizer
Fort Lauderdale, FL

Sallie and Socrates



Sallie:  Good morning Socrates

Socrates:   Good morning Sam, how are you?

Sallie:  I am struggling with a question.  Do you believe that abortion is moral?

Socrates:  That is a very complex question.  But if you are willing we can explore it.

Sallie:  I would be willing.  So where shall we start?

Socrates:  We will begin with the idea of what is moral.  If we do not have a standard by which to judge an action moral or not moral then we will not be able to strive to decide if abortion is moral, morally neutral, or immoral.

Sallie:  What do you mean by “morally neutral?”

Socrates:  Some actions say like tying your shoes or cutting your finger nails neither are normally understood as moral or immoral.  They are actions and decisions but are “morally neutral” or irrelevant to moral issues.

Sallie:  So how will we determine if abortion is moral, immoral, or morally neutral?

Socrates:  If a person acts consistently, reasonably, and logically in a way that expresses love is this action a moral action?

Sallie:    Love consistently and rationally applied would seem to lead to moral actions.  Yes that seems right.

Socrates:  Would it seem to you that when a person does not act consistently, reasonably, and logically in a way that expresses love for others that this is an immoral action?

Sallie:  Yes that also seems right.  To act in love is moral to fail to act in love is immoral.

Socrates:  Now what does love mean in this context?

Sallie:  Love would be to act in the best interest of another and treat them with respect, dignity, and compassion.

Socrates:  That sound like a reasonable working definition.  Our moral duty then is to define what it means to treat people with respect, dignity, and compassion when we deal with abortion.   If abortion or some aspects of abortion fail to show respect, dignity, and compassion then this would make abortion to that degree immoral and if abortion reflects respect, dignity, and compassion then it is moral.   Does this seem reasonable?

Sallie:  Yes, that seems reasonable.

Socrates:  Then based on this standard of what is moral we will proceed.  Now of course not everyone will agree because there are many different moral standards that one can use as the standard of moral conduct.  But since you and I have agreed to this idea of morality for the purpose of this discussion we can move forward with the question about the morality of abortion. [1]

Socrates:  So what is abortion?

Sallie:  An operation or other intervention to end a pregnancy by removing an embryo or fetus from the womb.

Socrates: What is an embryo?

Sallie:  A human offspring in the early stages following conception up to the end of the eighth week.

Socrates:  What is a fetus?

Sallie:  An unborn human offspring at a stage when all the structural features of the adult are recognizable, especially in this case an unborn human after eight weeks of development.

Socrates:  Can these human offspring survive outside the womb?

Sallie:  Normally they can with our modern technology from about 24 to 28 weeks.  Some have survived a few weeks earlier.  Due to advances in knowledge we are able to have many pre-mature babies born that normally would not have survived.  It depends on the development of the individual child and the technology available to assist the child.[2]

Socrates:  So is it considered an abortion when human offspring are removed from the womb and the pregnancy terminated and technology is used to keep the offspring alive?

Sallie:  Not normally no.  Abortion is when the embryo or fetus is removed from the womb without any intention for the embryo or fetus to survive?  No technology is used to keep the embryo or fetus alive in an abortion it is used to end the life of the embryo or fetus.

Socrates:   So in some cases a mother could decide to have the fetus removed and survive, develop outside of her womb, and this would be the means by which she would give birth to her child and in other cases a mother could decide to have the fetus removed with the intention of it not surviving.  Is this true?

Sallie:  Yes, that is true.  In the same hospital some 28 week old fetuses are removed from their mother wombs and technology is used to keep them alive.  While at the same time other 28 week old fetuses are removed with the intention to not keep them alive.  This choice is up to the mother alone and her doctor.

Socrates:  It is moral to take the life of ten year old child who is not endangering the life of any other person through an act of violence?

Sallie:  It would seem that one of the most basic ways we would show love to another person is to not kill them.  Murder would not seem to be an act of love.   So yes it would be immoral to take the life of an innocent ten year old child.

Socrates:  Would you say it is morally wrong to kill innocent babies?

Sallie:  Yes, that would seem to be a consistent, reasonable, and logical application of love.

Socrates:  So the key question is when does an embryo or fetus become an innocent child?  At what point do they stop being a “potential human” and become a child?   It would seem that is a key question to answer if we are to determine if abortion is morally right or wrong.    If the embryo or fetus is just a mass of tissue like a gall bladder then it would seem to be a morally neutral act.

Sallie:  In 1973 the Supreme Court of the United States wrestled with that issue.  They said; “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer ...”[3]

Socrates:  So they said they did not know when human life begins.  They based their ruling on being ignorant of when human life starts.  It could begin at conception or at some other state.  Is this what the court stated?

Sallie:  Yes, that is their point of view.  They felt that as the fetus became more viable then its life should be more protected.  But viability outside the womb was far less likely in 1973 than today.

Socrates:  Let us for the moment accept their agnosticism towards when life begins is the best we can do.  What would the moral person do who in humility simply says that they do not know when human life begins and therefore when it would be wrong to take it?

Sallie:  How can humble agnosticism help us make a moral decision?

Socrates:  Let us imagine another moral dilemma.  Let us say that we were put into a room and there was a red button there.  We are told that there is another room next door to the room we are now sitting in.  We are told that there may or may not be a person in that room.   We are told that if we push the red button then, if there is a person in the next room they will die.  We are told there is a possibility of a person being in the room but we do not know for sure there is a person.  Is it moral to push the red button?

Sallie:  No, it would not be moral to push the red button because there is a possibility that this action will take an innocent person’s life.

Socrates:  The loving thing then to do would be to not push the button?

Sallie:  Yes, that would be the action that would be the reasonable and logical application of love.

Socrates:  What if a person offered us $1,000,000 to push the red button?

Sallie:  That makes the moral decision more difficult.  Our love of self would want the money and all it could buy.  But it is not right to take innocent human life for financial gain.  Therefore, it would still be immoral to not push the red button but more tempting to do so.

Socrates:  What if a person said that they would physically torture us till we push the red button.

Sallie:  Now that is a much harder situation.  The person doing the torture would be guilty of an immoral action.  If the person gave in to such immoral persuasion it would not really be an immoral action but an action done out of self-preservation.  If another person died under such conditions then it would be sad and tragic for both the person tortured in the room and any person who might die from the hitting of the red button.

Socrates:  What if a person was told there was a 25% chance of a person being in the room?

Sallie:  That would reduce the danger but not change the moral issue.  It would still be wrong to push the red button except under the most extreme conditions.

Socrates:  What if a person was told that there was a 95% change a person being in the room?

Sallie:  The more certain that a person was that a person would be in the room the easier their resolve would be to not push the red button.  The greater the certainty is of a person that a person is in the room the more that they would resist pushing the red button.  With such knowledge a person who was rich in love of others would even suffer a great deal of torture.

Socrates:  I think that your thoughts on this are right.   So if we think of the person in the room as the mother and the other room as a womb then it would seem the moral answers would be the same.  The pushing of the red button (abortion) even with a possibility of there being a person in the room would still be an action that failed to be a consistent, logical, and compassionate act of love.  It therefore would be an immoral action.

Also does the fact that the embryo and fetus normally develop into a human person and have their own unique DNA add value to them even if we do not know when they actually become without any question a human person have any significance?  This needs to also be carefully considered.  Gallbladders don’t normally develop normally into new and unique people.

Sallie: So if we are agnostic and ignorant about when a human fetus or embryo becomes a “person” or human then it would be our moral responsibility to be very prudent and careful about causing harm since by doing so we may be killing an innocent human being.   Only if we knew with 100% certainty that the fetus or embryo was not a “person” or human would its destruction then consists of a morally neutral action.   Without such knowledge we risk taking a human beings life.

Socrates:  That seems to be where logic would lead us.  Some will claim to have 100% knowledge that the embryo is a human being in which case they would be morally responsible to not have abortions.  Normally this knowledge comes from a revelation from God but other argue for it on the basis of reason alone.  Others believe with 100% assurance that the embryo and fetus are certainly not human.  But this is not seen as being a “common fact” held by every reasonable person.    Therefore, only if one held to having such knowledge could one with clear rational conscience have an abortion without any fear that one may have done some moral wrong.  [4]

Sallie:  What about when pregnancy is caused by rape.

Socrates:  Rape is a violent and horrible crime and is a clear violation of the moral law of love.  The rapist and the rapist alone is responsible for this crime.  The one who suffers a rape is a victim of a horrible crime of violence.  The victims deserve our prayers, support, care, comfort, and help.  We must have zero tolerance for rape and never blame the victim for the crime.

When a man rapes a woman sometimes pregnancy takes place.  It is estimated that rape results in a pregnancy about 5% of the time which means that on average there are 32,000 conceptions a year due to rape.[5]  This also means that 95% of the time no pregnancy follows rape.  Only about 1% of abortions are chosen because of rape.[6]

Now is abortion morally justified because the pregnancy is caused by rape?  What is clear here is that the rapist should be punished for this crime of horrible violent violation.  It is also clear that the victim should be provided every resource a compassionate society can provide in love and care.  No condemnation must be placed on the victim at all.  Every effort must be given her to heal.

But does rape change the moral equation that protects the possible human life conceived in the mother’s womb?

Sallie:  Well if we were 100% sure the embryo and fetus were not human the answer would be easily yes.  If we were 100% sure that the embryo and fetus were human this would be a difficult moral responsibility that the mother would have to struggle with due to the cost of doing what would be morally obligated.  If were not sure then to the degree we felt the embryo or fetus was potentially a human being would be the degree of moral conflict we would have in making this decision.  Yet, again agnosticism is not a good foundation for justifying abortion morally.   So the way a woman became pregnant while being horrible and immoral does not change the need of avoiding the innocent killing of a human being.  The one wrong does not immediately justify abortion.

Socrates:  No, and such a moral choice is very hard.  To do the right thing when there is injustice involved and a great cost to pay for doing what is morally right is never easy.  Seldom is obedience to morals easy.

In this case the cost is very high physically and emotionally if one determines that rape does not justify abortion.  It is understandable that a woman raped who becomes pregnant is going to have great inner confliction, sadness, anger, confusion, and struggle.  Our hearts need to go out to her and support her.  The real question is what would be a consistent loving solution for the mother and the potential child within her?  That is the hard moral question that has to be faced and determined by each victim/mother who finds herself in this situation.  Nothing about this situation is fair for the woman.  It was not fair she was raped.  It was not fair she became pregnant.  It is all unfair.  But the unfairness of our situation does not reduce our need to act in love.  Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl deals with this issue from the standpoint of one who was held a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp and tortured.

Sallie:  But even if rape did justify abortion then this would be a very small percentage of abortions justified.

Socrates:  That is true.  Even if we think that rape in some way does justify abortion this could not be used to justify all abortions.   In our parable we talk of a person being tortured in the other room with the red button.  This can be seen as our rape victim.   We have great empathy for such a person and can understand them feeling they have to hit the button.   All of us are glad that we don’t have to struggle with such a hard and painful choice.

Sallie:  What about in the case of the life of the mother being in danger?

Socrates:  Here we have an even more difficult situation.  In our parable a person is told that if they don’t hit the red button there is a chance that their room will be filled with poisonous gas.   All human life is precious and so with so many uncertainties a person would have to make what they believe would be the best choice given all the information.  Most of the time making this decision is in the hands of the doctor and not the mother.  So the doctor has to be guided by what would be the best road to preserve life.  It is normally easier for the doctor to save the life of the mother than the life of the potential child.  These are very hard circumstances.  So we have to try to make the best choices we can in such emergency situations.  Better technology may make such choices occur less often.

Sallie:  However such hard circumstances do not change the fundamental moral argument.   If we do not know when human life begins then it is normally the right and loving thing to provide a save birth to the developing embryo and fetus since we otherwise could be killing an innocent human being.

Socrates:  So it would seem that the agnosticism claimed by the United States Supreme Court would be a good basis to protect the life of unborn embryos and fetuses.

Sallie:  What about laws about abortion

Socrates:  We have only talked about the morality of abortion.  Now you are dealing with a more complex issue of how we apply this teaching to the social ethics and laws of a nation.

Sallie:  Yes, that is needed since this is such a huge issue.

Socrates:  We must expect that there will be deep division on this subject.  Those that are 100% sure that embryos and fetuses are equal to toe nails and gallbladders will think any prohibition on having abortion except as it relates to the health of the mother is ridiculous and strongly oppose it.  They will be pro-choice.

Sallie:  That makes since no human life is in danger from their perspective.

Socrates:  Those who are agnostic about when human beings begin will be divided based on the depth of their doubt about when human beings begin to exist.  The greater the doubt the more they will want the life of the embryo and fetus defended.  This is why there is strong opposition to partial birth abortions because there is little doubt in anyone’s mind that a baby is being killed.  Only if we are open to infanticide being moral can such practices not disturb us.  While not wanting any restrictions on hard moral cases like rape and the life of the mother, they would want restrictions on abortion for other reasons.   This actually seems to be the thinking of many American with 52% feeling that only under limited circumstances should abortions be legal.  [7]

Sallie:  This desire to not over burden women who have been victimized or whose lives are in danger is reasonable from this perspective and some type of balanced laws avoiding the extreme cases would seem to best serve this segment of the population.

Socrates:  Those who are 100% sure that embryos and fetuses are human beings and that abortion is the killing of innocent people will have great moral outrage, concern, and tension over legal abortion for any reason.  The legalizing of killing innocent people is something that no one can take lightly.  Therefore, it would be expected that people with this conviction will strive to stop all abortions or make sure that any loopholes in morally hard cases will not easily be misused to allow more abortions than they should.

Now for those who feel infanticide is justified morally they will be for abortion because they accept the fact that children are being killed for the good of the mother and society at large.  They don’t feel any moral obligation to protect the life of innocent children.

Sallie:  What should be done?

Socrates:  Well allowing an open national debate and election by the people on the issue might help solve the problem.  In this case perhaps some direct democracy might help ease the social tension around the issues.  Three laws, one 100% pro-choice; another limiting legal abortion to only “hard cases”, and the third 100% pro-life might then give the population the feeling that at least the current law represented the ethics of the majority of the people and therefore was to that degree fair.  This would eliminate the “state by state” problems before “Roe vs. Wade” and allow there to be one law for all.  Part of the resistance at this stage is the law has been simply decreed by the Supreme Court without any consideration of these complex and emotional issues that divide the population.

Now the election ideally would allow true debates by leading intellectuals supporting all three opinions.  This election would be an opportunity for everyone to get fully educated on the issues involved.  The hope would be to have an educated electorate making the decision.

Sallie:  So whatever would be passed would be moral?

Socrates:  No, laws can be immoral.  Right thinking about morality should then lead us to right thinking about how to make just laws.   But we can err in either our moral thinking or in our application.  So  while such a system could help us towards a better understanding of the issue and a feeling that the law governing us was fairly decided, it would not provide us security that the law will be moral.

Sallie:  What can help us to have moral laws?

Socrates:  Only when those who make the laws are wise and moral themselves.  There must be a desire to understand what is right and also do what is right.  Where there is no vision to understand morals or live by morals then a society will eventually no longer have justice since moral anarchy has a hard time handling the many struggles and storms of history.




[1] http://plato.stanford...­



[2] http://www.sciencedai...­



[3] http://civilliberty.a...­




Three Approaches to Abortion: A Thoughtful and Compassionate Guide to Today's Most Controversial Issue Peter Kreeft (Author)


[5] http://www.ncbi.nlm.n...­





Dr. Norman R. W.
Group Organizer
Fort Lauderdale, FL
Post #: 82
The question is does the embryo or fetus have any more value than a hang nail or a gall bladder. The is embryo is inside the body of a woman and is connected to the body of a woman but is not the woman's body. The DNA of the embryo is different. It also has a natural ability to develop into another unique individual. So we can decide to say that the embryo is just like a gall bladder but we need then to make a logical argument for this evaluation of value. Also is the fetus one day before birth only like a gall bladder or has it grown in value as it has matured? At what point if any does one unborn have any value? These are hard questions but not simple. They must first be asked at a personal level and then meditated upon at a social level.
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