July 7, 2022

Is spontaneous abortion a problem for pro-life advocates?

Two pro-life medical ethicists have answered with a qualified “no”.

New restrictive abortion laws in the United States have reignited debate over the ethics of abortion. Critics argue that an anti-abortion ethic is inconsistent and fails to recognise the full suite of rights that should be accorded to foetuses as human persons.

A legal scholar writing in the Washington Post recently suggested that foetuses should have citizenship rights and be eligible for child support and social security if they are legal persons, as laws like The Alabama Human Life Protection Act suggest. Yet these “unintended and potentially absurd consequences of sweeping abortion bans” will “tie [the US] Constitution into a knot no court can untangle”. The author of the article argues, therefore, that we should not extend legal personhood to foetuses in the womb.

Another criticism often levelled at proponents of a pro-life ethic pertains to phenomenon of spontaneous abortion (or miscarriage, as it is commonly called). Embryologists suggest that in excess of 70% of foetuses miscarry from the time of conception to birth. In fact, the majority of spontaneous abortions take place in the first few weeks after conception.

It would seem from a pro-life position that every spontaneous abortion should be considered a tragedy, for foetuses are essentially the same as post-birth human beings, and their death is presumably just as bad as the death of an infant or child. We should, then, declare spontaneous abortion to be a major public health problem, and should do everything in our power to avoid spontaneous abortions. Critics note that pro-life advocates do not seem to treat spontaneous abortion as a major public health crisis. It is argued, therefore, that pro-lifers do not actually believe full moral status begins at conception.

Yet an article in latest edition of The New Bioethics challenges the spontaneous abortion objection to induced abortion. Bruce Blackshaw (University of Birmingham) and Daniel Roger (London South Bank University) argue that the primary cause of spontaneous abortion is in fact chromosomal defects, which are currently unpreventable. As such, pro-life advocates cannot be criticised for their alleged inaction on the problem of spontaneous abortion. Blackshaw and Roger write:

“How preventable, then, is spontaneous abortion? The primary cause, chromosomal abnormalities, cannot currently be treated, although in the future gene-editing may be possible for affected embryos in known pregnancies. The majority of spontaneous abortions due to chromosomal defects occur before pregnancy is known, and so advances are likely to have a limited effect on spontaneous abortion rates”.

Blackshaw and Roger also note that, plausibly, there is a distinction between killing and letting die. As such, while it may be impermissible to intentionally kill another human being, it may be permissible in some cases to let another human being die.

“…many have strong intuitions that there is a moral difference between doing and allowing in a variety of scenarios, and denying this difference would require a radical revision of our moral beliefs… Let us examine a comparison as analogous as possible (on the pro-life view) to most induced abortions and spontaneous abortions: the deliberate killing of a newborn baby who could be expected to live a normal life, and allowing a newborn with a fatal and incurable chromosomal disorder to die. Our claim is that these two scenarios are clearly not morally equivalent — indeed, letting die in this case may not be morally problematic at all, while killing a newborn baby is never permissible if we grant the child full moral status and the right to life this entails”.

It is consistent, then, to oppose abortion while at the same time maintaining that it would in some cases be permissible to let a chromosomally defective embryo die.

Yet Blackshaw and Roger conclude their article by noting that spontaneous abortion is an “important issue” that should be “widely discussed in pro-life circles”. They write:

“Ethical research into reducing spontaneous abortion rates should therefore be strongly encouraged. These actions need not divert significant resources from opposing induced abortion, and failing to do so may indicate the critics discussed here are correct in their assessment that pro-life advocates do not believe their own claims about the moral status of human embryos”.

Xavier Symons is deputy editor of BioEdge

Is spontaneous abortion a problem for pro-life advocates?
Xavier Symons
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induced abortion
spontaneous abortion