Abortion Thought Experiment #1

abortionWhether you are pro-life, pro-choice, or not sure what to think on abortion, here is a thought experiment for pondering the issue.

Imagine it is 100 years from now. By then it will surely be possible for babies to go from conception to birth without being inside of a woman. Imagine a high-tech, well-lit tank where every day you and your spouse can go to a hospital to look at your developing baby in his or her artificial womb. You can watch your developing off-spring go through stages of development and then one day, after about 9 months, he or she is removed from the tank and your baby is declared born.

Now say that you started the process of a having a baby, via this reproduction tank, and after two months you see that all is well – your developing baby is normal and healthy. The developing human now has a heartbeat, hands, feet, a head, a brain and spinal cord, and no signs of health issues. But of course it still has a long way to go before being born.

That evening when you go home your spouse tells you that he or she really, really doesn’t want a baby after all. Bills are stacking up and job security is lousy since all of a sudden an economic downturn has occurred. Besides, after reading up on it, babies are a lot of work and very expensive to raise. Your spouse says he or she wants to pull the plug on your developing baby.

So there are two questions rasied by this thought experiment:

1) Should it be legal to pull the plug on the tank because you don’t want the baby?

2) If you say that it should be illegal to pull the plug, then why is abortion legal today?

I think that most people would answer question #1 as: It should be illegal to pull the plug. Let it live and then let someone adopt the baby when it is born. If necessary, the state can pick up the tab.

So this leaves only one answer to question #2: Abortion is legal today because the baby resides inside of the mother. By residing in the mother, this burden on the mother enables the granting of a right to her to abort the developing human in her for a long period after conception. In other words, if the mother doesn’t want the developing human inside of her for whatever personal reasons, she is granted the right to have it removed – which also happens to kill it.

The point of this thought experiment is to show the thin thread that the moral thinking regarding legalized abortion hangs. If you are pro-life, you will see this thread as supporting no weight at all. And if you are pro-choice, you must recognize your position is, well, hanging by a thread.

18 Responses to “Abortion Thought Experiment #1”

  1. Brendan Wright Says:

    Very interesting indeed. I must agree, legalized abortion exists purely because of the burden placed on the mother, and its also why some people who support early term abortions, don’t for later terms. It also shows how little the father has in the whole abortion debate, one way or the other.

  2. Brendan Wright Says:

    Second thought, say someone (a religionist, who thinks test tube woom babies are souless devils) and smashes all the artificial wombs. Should they be charged with murder?

  3. Loki on the run Says:

    In this hypothetical future, after a number of generations most women would no longer be able to have babies themselves.

    Sure route to extinction. Just smash the technology or kill the few people who know how it works and keep it working.

  4. Brendan Wright Says:


    I’m not sure I see your point, the capacity for women to give birth evolved over a long period of time – I’m not sure that such technology would be used universally enough to cause your end, or that the effect would happen quick enough. Furthermore, current medical technology is having a similar effect here: there is no downward pressure on baby size. :et me explain:

    1. Small babies have a higher chance of dying before they have children.
    2. Big babies often caused complication that prevented the mother from having more children (like she died)

    #2 has been essentially eliminated through the use of C sections. #1 is still a problem. There is no evolutionary benifit to being small, but there is to being big. Additionally nutritional factors are increasing birth rate as well. We could theoretically reach a time when mothers are unable to give birth naturally, which would have all sorts of ununderstood effects.

    But yet we go on performing C sections that don’t kill the mother.

    Anyways, this whole post, and yours, are really quite off topic.

  5. Boonton Says:

    I’m surprised you call this a thin moral thread. Is it moral for the gov’t to draft a person’s body in this most intimate way even if it is for the purpose of helping another person? It hardly seems trivial that the baby resides in an ‘artificial womb’ or a real one.

    Let me ask you a question, just about everyone can live with one kidney yet there are many who need but a single kidney to save their life. So let’s say the gov’t institutes a lottery among healthy people (men, women and even children). The ‘winners’ will be required to report to a hospital where one of their kidneys will be removed. The operation has a tiny risk of death or injury but for the most part is quite safe (safer than, say being drafted into the army to fight in Iraq). Anyone who resists or refuses will be charged with attempted murder since they would be denying life to someone who needs a kidney.

  6. Dan Morgan Says:


    Of course the counter argument to this is that if a woman willingly has sex, knowing that there is a chance of pregnancy, then she has taken on this risk with her own free will. It is a real stretch to say that her body is being drafted by the government. The same goes for the kidney argument.

  7. Boonton Says:


    Then forced pregnancy is a legal punishment of sorts for consensual sex? Or is it a bit like entering a contract?

    But this leads to some other implications that are probably unsettling for the pro-lifer. First under this reasoning pregnancy that results from non-consensual sex such as rape or cases of child abuse (where the female cannot consent legally to sex) would give the woman a right to an abortion without gov’t meddling (unless you are willing to accept the kidney draft policy).

    Second, teens exist in a legal middle ground between children and adults. In general they are not legally able to consent or accept responsibility for many things such as contracts. Exceptions do exist, a teen can apply to be treated as an emancipated adult or in criminal law a prosecutor can request a teen be tried as an adult but these exist as exceptions…not the rule. This would imply an odd policy where abortion was legal for teens but not adults. (Also this might apply to adults who are deemed mentally unable to truelly accept responsibility for sex)

    Some conservatives may like such a policy. They would figure it would be better for unwed, young mothers to abort but would ‘force’ older women to be more responsible.

    Another problem with the ‘responsibility’ analysis is that it is quite one-sided. Presumably males are equally irresponsible for unwanted pregnancies but the responsibility based justification for pro-life laws seems to pin all the burden on women (true men can be made to pay child support after the fact but lets face it the burden of carrying a child falls on women, not men).

    I suppose you could use biology as an out to justify the responsibility argument. If, for example, some herb was shown to cause ovarian cancer then its just a fact of life that eating this herb is a problem for women but not men because men don’t have ovaries. But is the purpose of law to solidify natures decisions? You wouldn’t argue for a law to induce cancer in women who don’t have ovaries but eat the herb.

  8. Dan Morgan Says:


    I think that you are overlooking the central point of the abortion thought experiment. The point is when seeing the developing human as separate from a woman, it clearly should have significant status as a protected entity. Few observers would think that it should be legal to kill developing humans when you can stand there and look at them in a tank.

    Your comments are completely avoiding the matter of the developing humans in pregnant women of having any significant moral status worth protecting. A developing human is different from a kidney.

    So the central question of legalized abortion is one of weighing the status of a living developing humans against demanding that a woman, once pregnant, carry through with having a baby.

    To relegate the developing human to the moral status of a kidney or something is simply avoiding the central debate.

    Also, you write “forced pregnancy is a legal punishment of sorts for consensual sex”. My post was entirely framed around consensual sex. It is silly to redefine all pregnancies as being forced.

  9. Boonton Says:


    Actually I never equated the unborn baby to a kidney. Quite the contrary, the kidney in the hypothetical is needed to save the life of someone else.

    Take it to the extreme….what if you woke up and saw that tank and then realized there’s a hose connected from that tank to you. You realize that while the tank is very good it cannot do the job that your liver and kidneys do hence in order for the baby to live the tank is connected to your body.

    As I said this does impose a risk on you but it is relatively small….but real. Do you have a right to pull the hose out and walk away even though doing so would cause the baby to die? How is that different than saying the gov’t cannot make you give your kidney over even though you don’t need it and it will mean someone else’s life?

  10. KWS Says:


    I believe your argument has a few holes. Here’s my rebuttal.

    1) Parents have a moral obligation to provide for the natural, ordinary needs of their children.
    2) Nourishment is a natural and ordinary need of a child.
    3) A child in the womb requires the continued nourishment that the mother’s body provides.
    4) Therefore, the mother is morally obligated to provide for the nourishment of her child in the womb, hence, she is morally obligated to not “pull the plug” via abortion.

    You’re claiming that 1) is false, i.e. that a mother does not have a moral obligation to provide for a need of her child when she is the only one capable of giving it. But we prosecute cases of child neglect and abandonment all the time, so long as the child has the fortune of being born. Are you claiming that we shouldn’t?

    The reason your argument with regards to the kidney thing doesn’t work is twofold: 1) if someone (even a child) needs a kidney, it is an extraordinary need that the person has, and there is not a corresponding moral obligation to provide for it. It is certainly laudable if someone does step forward to donate, but it is, again, extraordinary and not compulsory. 2) The relationship between parent and child (esp. mother and child) is priviledged, no matter who you talk to (religion, social pressure, society, etc) A mother providing for the ordinary needs of her child is *not* the same thing as any old schmo being “forced” to be hooked up to someone via hoses. To deny the special character (and special obligation) of the mother-child link is to deny one of the bedrock principles of every society ever known.



  11. Boonton Says:


    Prosecution for neglect or abandonment can be done against anyone, not just a mother. In fact mothers are given the opportunity to shed their obligation to care for their children by giving them up for adoption. Many locals have ‘no questions asked’ policies where women who have given birth can drop off their babies at a police station or hospital without giving their names (this was done to cut back on babies being abandoned).

    Likewise if you happen to come into charge of a baby or child you are under a legal obligation to care for it. For example, imagine a mother asks you to hold her baby for a moment while she picks something up but then is struck by lightening and killed. If you shrug and drop the baby on the ground and go your way you’ll be prosecuted for neglect and abandonment. That doesn’t mean, though, you are suddenly the baby’s adopted parent! The obligation the state puts on you is minimal…you just have to call the police or some other responsible party. Since the obligation is trivial it cannot really be compared to being required to carry a baby in your womb.

    You’re basically saying that there exists a unique relationship between mother and unborn child since the unborn child needs to depend upon the mother in a way that is like no other dependence relationship. I don’t disagree with you there, the relationship is extraordinary but when we are talking about the power of the state that is all the more reason to be skeptical. The extraordinary burden cannot be compared to, say, the state forcing you to pay taxes to support a sick person or even the state drafting you to fight in a war.

    In this respect I think you have it backwards. The guy who needs a kidney transplant is ‘ordinary’ not extraordinary. It’s a relatively simple procedure…expensive yes but managable by society as a whole and even for the person who is donating the infringement is brief. Bearing a child, though, is extraordinary. It alters the person dramatically which is why for many women it is one of the most defining moments of their lives.

    True it is often positive and even sought after by most women at some point in their lives but that doesn’t change the fact that it is a massive infringement for the state to announce it has the right to impose it upon a person’s body. I think if you look carefully at your post you’ll pick up on a bit of trivialization when you try to depict it as simply requiring a woman to eat what she’d normally eat for herself anyway…but just a little bit more.

    I’m not going to say you haven’t got the moral argument down. Perhaps women are morally obligated to accept the burden whether it finds them through their own fault or through circumstances beyond their control. I’m not sure I see the legal argument, though. The state is not the end all of morality here.

  12. KWS Says:


    I realize that your primary concern in this debate is the *legal* aspect — in what manner will we allow the state to coerce others to do something? I agree that “the state is not the end all of morality here,” as you say — otherwise whatever is litigated (or in the case of abortion, ajudicated) is moral, and I’m clearly not a proponent of abortion, even though it is legal in the US. My point in bringing up the moral aspect of a mother’s obligation to provide for the ordinary needs of her child was to ground the legal thinking in something more basic, the moral thinking. You may object to such reasoning, but we do it all the time in other, less controversial situations. For example, we have laws against murder because it is *morally* wrong to murder. The moral prohibition is primary, and the legislation tries to reflect that. Does this mean that we legislate every single moral principle from every constituent group that finds itself within the state? No. There is a “core” morality that forms the basis for the laws of a functioning state, and these are the principles that you legislate. We can debate what these principles are, but I’d hope we can agree that the proscription against murder is one of them.

    If you disagree, then I’d need to know how you define law, and what it is supposed to do.

    With regards to your other points: (I’ll be brief)

    A mother giving her child up for adoption is still obligated to provide for her child, in this case via other parents. The manner by which she does this is by taking reasonable steps to ensure that the parents are good and will provide for the child what she cannot. THis can be done through an adoption agency, but the mother is still obligated to make sure the agency is reputable, etc. She would be morally remiss in giving her child to known sexual predators, for example. The moral obligation is still there, and the mother is, in fact, upholding the principle when she realizes that she cannot provide for the child of her own ability.

    To say that a mother has a special obligation to her child does not, in any way, imply that someone else who is put in charge of a child does *not* have an obligation to care for that child.

    You’ve got the implication backwards. It goes: “If someone is the parent of a child, then that someone is obligated to care for that child.” You made the mistake of claiming: “If someone is obligated to care for a child, then that someone is the parent of the child.” This is patently absurd, and I never made any statement to indicate that this is the case.

    I’d rather not get into the nitty gritty of what was only a side example, but I’ll just say this: believe me, the guy who needs a kidney transplant is extraordinary as compared with a mother giving birth. It is only within the past few decades that transplant procedures became “low risk,” and the recipient has to take medicine for the rest of his life to prevent rejection, all the while leaving himself open to a greater risk of infection since his immune system is suppressed. The donor’s risk is small, but she also has to live with just one kidney, and all the lifelong risks that entails. A mother bearing a child and bringing it to term, while also associated with risks, is still provided by nature itself. The mother’s body is equipped to adapt to the developing child, and changes in order to facilitate birth. Yes, it is “extraordinary” in one sense, but not in the sense that it isn’t “provided for by nature.” A kidney transplant is anything *but* “provided for by nature.”

    I meant no “trivialization” since nourishment is just *one* absolute need that the developing child has. No where did I claim that there aren’t myriad other needs, and many others are possibly more significant.



  13. Abby Says:

    All I know that abortion and any other type of MURDER should be illegal. I don’t care if you are 15 and can’t support you chose to have sex you can have the baby and put it up for adoption. Then again what if you get raped? your rape is NO reason to MURDER an innocent child. God blessed you with a child for some reason not for you to kill it. If you think abortion is right that is like saying some old man who never did anything wrong getting shot is right. I am 13 years old and I understand this why can’t 50 year olds who have been through school and learned about the human life.

  14. Alex Says:

    Check out this blip on why abortion is legal. It seems to be from someone who is against abortion but it has a very reasoned and thoughtful ideas.


  15. Mike Says:


    The woman is at least 50% responsible in any ordinary case. Though, the parental obligation may be imputed since the needy child would almost certainly not exist had she not consented to sex. The fact that the moral prenatal obligation falls more on the woman may be unfortunate, but does not negate her obligation.
    Child support is quite a relevant issue here. Some may want to argue that since a woman had no option of inducing the existence of a non-needy child, she is not responsible for its neediness-given-existence.
    However, it would follow from that reasoning that the father is not responsible for the financial neediness-given-existence. Therefore, child support laws would be unethical.
    Saying that the child is no worse off dead than never having existed is no excuse either, as the child support illustration shows. Net human neediness is still increased upon the creation of a needy child.
    The sex act is ordered towards the creation of children needing to live in the womb for nine months and who need sustenance after birth. The act functions maximally well, in the objective sense, when it results in procreation. That is why it is irrelevant how much contraception the parents used, even if it matters how many precautions were taken in other situations, such as drivers hitting children accidentally.
    Now, need for an organ transplant is a gross pathological aberration. Therefore, as long as parents took reasonable precautions (caring for the child properly, getting check-ups, etc.), the parents cannot normally be held responsible for inducing that need. The same reasoning applies to parental liability limitations, since any condition causing such extreme damage is a gross pathological aberration the parents did not directly induce.
    While whoever is in custody of the child must seek medical for the child, the parents are not obligated to provide a kidney themselves; they did not directly induce the need.
    To illustrate the difference further, one must remember that before the 2nd half of the 19th century, only breastfeeding existed. That involves direct use of the mother’s body. Her body is significantly altered during the lactation period (hormone production, organ function, etc.). It certainly involves a fairly intimate sacrifice that does not seem right to impose on women on the behalf of strangers she did not cause the existence/neediness of.
    I think most would agree that a woman is morally obliged to breastfeed her child if no one else can.
    I think I have shown that the organ donation argument is fallacious.

  16. Anonymous Says:

    abortion is legal because their is no inalienable right to be inside someone else’s body. that is why rape is illegal. if this scenario became reality, the woman would have no right to pull the plug because the fetus is of no practical concern to her. it is not infringing upon her personal liberty or autonomy in any way. the fetus is a seperate entity in this scenario. it would be no differant than killing a newborn because both the fetus and the newborn are autonomous selves. now back to reality. at the current time, a fetus IS the concern of the woman because it is inside her body which it doesnt have an inalienable right to be. pregnancy is not a condition that can be humanely mandated. forced pregnancy is a form of rape. you may say “oh if the woman lies down she has consented to pregnancy or the possibility of pregnancy.” perhaps and i am willing to give that serious thought. on the other hand not all conceptions are voluntary. rape victims can and do get pregnant. to force a second rape upon these women so a birth can result is unacceptable. pregnant women are not incubators nor are they persons without rights to their own bodies. a woman has a right to not be pregnant just as she has a right to not be forced to carry an object inside of her body against her will. pregnancy and birth carry risks and these risks are risks only the woman has a right to decide if she is willing to take. i would akin a rape victim getting an abortion to her defending her bodily integrity against an invader. if women are to be free, a condition as personal and life changing as pregnancy cannot be legislated on an unwilling woman. the most precious and sacred belonging a person has is themselves, their bodies. if one does not own absolute rights to their own body, then one cannot live in freedom.

  17. Leia Says:

    Mike: you state that in the 19th century only breastfeeding existed and that since that is such an intimate experience that was mandatory back then that we can mandate that women be pregnant now. first off, let me state that there is a differance between breastfeeding an infant and being pregnant. breastfeeding does not endanger ones life. breastfeeding lasts an hour at most not 9 months. breastfeeding does not cause excruciating physical pain to a woman. breastfeeding is not traumatic. giving birth is. also, just because women had no other “choice” than to breastfeed back then doesnt mean that breastfeeding should be compulsory now. it wasnt really that much of a choice to be pregnant or not back then because contraceptives were faulty and limited in supply. but society has progressed beyond that point. being pregnant today is indeed a choice as is breastfeeding and that is progress on both accounts. the reason a caregiver can be legally obligated to acquire medical care for an infant is because the infant is not an aggressor against her or anyone else. there is no reason for her NOT to get the baby help. a fetus is an aggressor by its very nature. you state that the sex act is designed to produce children. yes it is and if a person engages in such activity, i could see the legitimacy of making them see the consequences through. but if someone is FORCED into such activity as in the case of rape, no one should be then forced to reap the repercussions that activity entails. you state that someones parents are not obligated to donate their kidney to their child as they did not cause the need. you are right. and neither is a rape victim obligated to donate her uterus to “her” child since she did not cause the need. i also would like to point out that even if a person is forced to breastfeed a child, the violation of such an action doesn’t even come CLOSE to being equal to the violation of having your entire physical being being dominated by something living inside your body without your consent. there is not a more dehumanzing experience that a person can endure than to be denied control over the most sacred thing a person owns, themselves.

  18. anonymous Says:

    abby: you are only thirteen years old and you still have alot to experience in this world. god has nothing to do with rape or anything it entails. to say to a rape victim that she should feel “lucky” for receiving such a blessing is ignorant at best and vindictive at worst. your comment shows that you have little to no understanding of just what goes into pregnancy and childbirth let alone one that is the result of violence. birth is traumatic and life threatening and cannot be forced on a woman without it being akin to rape. and a fetus does not have the same moral status as the 50 year old man in your analogy. that fifty year old man in your analogy is an autonomous self whose life does not infringe upon anyone else’s life or self determination. a fetus by definition does if it is inside someone without their consent. no one is obligated to let someone be inside them against their will. the most priceless possession a person owns is themselves. if this precious commodity isnt free from the threat of violation, then a person is reduced to a slave and is NOT free nor can they ever be.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.