All Things Being Equal


From top: Yes and NO voters at a Love Both rally in Merrion Square, Dublin last Saturday; Donnchadh Ó Conaill

Further to theologian Thomas Finegan’s post ‘First Among Equals‘ last Monday arguing that unborn children are our fundamental moral equals…

Donnchadh Ó Conaill writes:

Moral philosophy can appear hopelessly detached when it comes to issues such as abortion. Abstract speculations about general principles and imagined scenarios often fail to engage with the messy specific details and emotional trauma which for many people on both sides of the argument lie at the heart of the issue.

While I see merit in this view, it is important to not overstate it. In thinking about abortion, we should not pursue abstract moral theorising at the expense of, e.g., compassion for women who have undergone traumatic experiences brought about by Ireland’s restrictive abortion regime.

But moral theorising can complement our emotional reactions and what we think about specific cases. It can help us to think consistently and to examine assumptions which may be crucial in how we react to moral issues.

Dr Thomas Finegan’s article defending the right to life of the foetus (or “unborn child”, in his preferred terminology) is very much pitched at an abstract level. He does not consider any difficult cases which might result from a rigorous application of his ethical view.

For this reason alone, some people might be inclined to disregard what he says. But his view, and the arguments he offers in its defence, are worth considering on their own terms. Apart from anything else, to disregard what he says might imply that his argument cannot be answered, which is not in fact the case.

Dr Finegan’s overall argument is as follows: if foetuses are of equal moral worth as individuals who are already born, then they have a right to life and so there is no right to abortion. I shall consider the moral status of the foetus presently, but it is worth noting that this argument may be questioned even if it is agreed that a foetus has a right to life equal to that of any other human.

One way to understand the right to abortion is as a woman’s right to end her pregnancy when she sees fit. In many cases, exercising this right this will lead to the death of the foetus; but later on in the pregnancy, it may lead to a very early birth.

It is not always clear when actions which lead to the deaths of others count as infringing a right to life. A crucial distinction which is often drawn is that between killing someone as opposed to letting them die. The former will typically infringe a right to life; the latter typically will not, at least as far as legally protected rights go.

The moral difference between killing and letting someone die is sometimes explained as the difference between being responsible for someone`s death in the sense of bringing it about, as opposed to being responsible in the sense of not intervening to prevent it.

This distinction explains why we can legally prevent someone from killing, but we cannot legally coerce someone into donating, say, their organs or their blood, even if to do so would save lives.

But abortion is importantly different to the usual cases where this distinction applies. The foetus is only alive insofar as it is already using the bodily resources of the pregnant woman. To legally compel her to carry the pregnancy to term would be to compel her to continue donating her bodily resources to keep the foetus alive.

If bodily autonomy forbids us from compelling others to provide their body parts or blood to save innocent lives, why does it not forbid us from compelling a pregnant woman to provide her bodily resources to sustain the life of the foetus? In this way, it can be argued that the pregnant woman has a right to abortion, even if the foetus also has a right to life.

Turning to the issue of moral status, Dr Finegan asks which standard of moral worth a foetus fails to satisfy which the rest of us do satisfy. He considers various suggestions, finding each of them wanting.

This kind of argument requires that one consider all the plausible candidates for a relevant moral standard, and it is not clear that Dr Finegan has done so.

One option he does not discuss is that there may be no single moral standard, but a gradual development in a number of different faculties which together change the moral status of the foetus.

This fits with an intuition which, while it is certainly controversial, is widespread: that a zygote or blastocyst does not have the same moral status as the woman carrying it, but that a newborn infant or a very late-term foetus has a moral status equal to (or much closer to) that of the woman.

We are familiar with similar thinking in other areas, e.g., sexual consent. There is no single criterion which determines when a person changes from being a child unable to give consent into an adult. Rather, there is a complex development of emotions, social interactions, self-awareness and awareness of the needs of others.

Different people undergo this development in different ways, and there are no neatly defined stages through which everyone passes. But we all recognise that there are clear cases of children who are unable to consent and adults who are. We can say that something happens in the typical development of a child to explain this, even if there is no single change which by itself explains the difference. The suggestion is that we can say something similar regarding the development of the foetus.

A second option would be to appeal to sentience, the ability to have conscious experiences, to feel pleasure or pain or to consciously perceive (this is a far more basic capacity than the “ability to experience self-consciousness or to exercise rationality”, one of the standards which Dr Finegan considers).

It is notoriously difficult to determine at which stage in its development a foetus becomes sentient, but almost everyone agrees that it is long after twelve weeks, the suggested cut-off point for abortion on request in the proposed legislation.

Sentience makes a difference in the kind of life something can live; things can matter to a conscious being, in a way that they cannot matter to a wallflower or an amoeba.

Dismembering, say, a cat is cruel precisely because it can suffer; in contrast, tearing the branches off a tree is simply stupid. Each way of behaving may be wrong, but unlike the tree the cat can be wronged, and so what happens to it has a moral significance beyond what happens to the tree.

More generally, each conscious subject has a different moral status to anything which is not conscious. It has value in and of itself, rather than simply being valuable for someone else. If rights reflect the intrinsic moral status of something, the status it has in and of itself, then there is a case that only sentient beings can have rights.

Appealing to sentience fits with intuitions in certain other cases. It explains why most of us regard cruelty to animals as wrong (and why there are laws in place to punish it). It fits the idea that the moral status of the foetus changes as it develops.

It also provides an answer to Dr Finegan’s worry that the only way to justify the view that we are of fundamentally equal moral worth is to appeal to our common human nature.

Sentience provides an alternative basis for the idea that each of us is of equal moral worth; each of us is a subject who can have experiences. This capacity is shared by infants, those with advanced dementia or intellectual disabilities, and at least some persons in persistent vegetative states.

Lastly, Dr Finegan denies that opposing abortion entails condemning women who have had abortions, regarding this as “a clear non-sequitur”. But this denial is at best misleading, and at worst disingenuous.

If the foetus has a right to life equal to that of any other human, than morally speaking abortion is equivalent to murder, at least in terms of the rights which are violated.

Given this, it would be very odd for someone who holds Dr Finegan’s views to not condemn women who have had abortions, assuming that they would not hesitate to condemn persons who have seriously violated the rights of others in committing different crimes.

Furthermore, if one believes that abortion is such a grave violation of rights that it should be forbidden by law, one should surely demand that this law be implemented.

In other words, one should surely want both those who carry out abortions and those who commission them to be punished. This takes us back from abstract theorising to considering how an ethical view should be applied in specific cases.

Regardless of the arguments for or against such a view, it must be one which a society can live with. Whether or not the Irish people can live with this view of abortion is part of what will be decided on May 25.

Donnchadh Ó Conaill is a postdoctoral researcher in philosophy at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. He is writing here in a personal capacity.

Previously: Dr Thomas Finegan: First Among Equals

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64 thoughts on “All Things Being Equal

  1. Paul

    “If …..then why does it not forbid us to compel a pregnant woman from donating her bodily resources to sustain the life of the foetus? ” – is the answer to this because each one of us has already enjoyed the right to use someone else’s bodily resources for a certain period of our existence? Surely this is one of the most universal rights as literally every person on the planet has enjoyed it?

    1. Nigel

      To put it another way, every single person on the planet is here because a woman chose to allow us to be here, except in cases where that choice was removed or denied.

    2. Cian

      To put it another way, every single person on the planet is here because each and every one of there direct-line ancestors going back billions of years procreated. So it behoves every person to have children.

      1. Inquistor

        plus their ancestors were good at bashing in the heads of their genetic competitors with a rock. So does it also behoove everyone to commit violence and murder to further their genetic legacy? Obviously not, so the idea that everyone should have children is a pretty antiquated idea and smacks of entitlement.

          1. Inquistor

            just some. go back far enough though and it was all of them. So your very existence is guaranteed to have included some metaphorical headbashing in your ancestral lineage.

    3. Owen C

      I just think this is a terrible argument to make. There are lots of other arguments around abortion that are both more logical and far less selfish sounding.

      Make the abortion debate around medical care for women, a choice for women as regards how their lives evolve, and a choice for women around how ‘bad’ pregnancies (rape, FFA) evolve. Make it around providing practical and implementable solutions for women that allow them to deal with a society and a world which is not always supportive or ideal for their situations. But seriously, leave out the weird philosophical arguments about the rights of foetuses to use your bodily resources.

      1. Paul

        What’s weird about viewing a foetus as human in it’s earliest stage and so wishing to ascribe it the same human rights that every other human enjoys?

        It’s weirder the way you are completely discounting it’s humanity and attempting to frame the discussion purely in terms of the rights of women imo.

        1. Tony O'Leary

          Hi Paul, you’ve made this argument / opinion a number of times – ‘the foetus as a human in it’s earliest stage’. What, to you, is the ‘earleist stage’? Is it conception, sentience (as described above), ensoulment (???) or some other measure.
          My reason for asking is where do you stand on IVF – which is a growing path to pregnancy and child birth for an increasing number of Irish people. Is the foetus a human from the moment a medical professional mixes the egg and sperm in a petri-dish? Does humanity in this case begin with implantation in the womb – which in some cases may be years after the original fertilisation.
          Under the 8th amendment and Irish law, frozen embryos from IVF procedures / cycles cannot be destroyed or allowed to perish, or used for medical / research purposes.
          This might seem a bit theoretical for some but it is a very real situation, in which very real Irish families find themselves, due to the 8th.
          Interested in your opinion.

          1. Listrade

            Not through lack of trying. The RvR case wasn’t exactly welcomed by the prolife side. We were warned this would lead to “mass destruction of frozen embryos”. To quote the Life Institute:

            “The High Court judgment in the RvR case was a travesty. The case involved a separated woman who wished to have her frozen embryos released to her following the breakdown of her marriage. In the High Court Justice McGovern ruled that Article 40.3.3 did not protect embryonic unborn children outside the womb, since, he decided, it was not the intention of the electorate in 1983 to extend protection to such embryos.

            The decision was preposterous. ”

            Anyway, they got over it eventually.

            Maybe there’s a lesson there.

        2. mildred st. meadowlark

          It’s not weird, no. And you’re certainly not alone in thinking that.

          But you’re wishing to ascribe equal value to an entity that – within the gestational limits of the proposed legislation – does not have the same capacity for life that the woman carrying it does. She has a history, she has a family, she has friends, she has a life. Think of the women you know. Do they deserve to have their life so devalued? That their value equates to that of an entity which is unable to support its own life at that time?

          I am not trying to dismiss the foetus. The unborn do deserve rights. But their rights to life should not impact on the well-being of the mother, should not be equal to an independent, living human. It is just as unfair and wrong to force a woman to carry a pregnancy against her will, as you feel it is to abort a pregnancy. It is using her body and her gender to trap her, in a way that men cannot be so trapped. How is that fair?

          1. Paul

            It has a history, it has family and will also likely have friends although not in the sense that we understand for the person bearing it.

            The independent being argument has been refuted already afaik – there are plenty of being dependent on some sort of support or another and we are not allowed terminate them.

            If the options are take another’s life Vs force someone to carry a pregnancy to term I feel like the former is the graver wrong?

            Finally, perhaps in a way she is being trapped by her gender but the alternative is to allow her to un-trap herself by killing another. I personally would prefer to see her trapped for 9 months rather than to see her killing a totally innocent entity.

          2. mildred st. meadowlark

            Well you personally will never have to be in that situation. You will never have to make that call about your body, by virtue of your gender. How lucky for you.

            And instead of forcing a woman into a situation like that, why not trust her to make that decision for herself. Because at the end of the day, the woman’s decision -unless she’s your wife or partner- has absolutely no bearing on your life.

            Can you not see that by granting equal rights to an embryo or foetus, you strip women of the same rights that you enjoy? The right to healthcare, the right to bodily autonomy, the right to privacy, the right to choose.

          3. realPolithicks

            ” I personally would prefer to see her trapped for 9 months rather than to see her killing a totally innocent entity.”

            This sums the No side up in a nutshell and it certainly puts a lie to the “loveboth” nonsense. As Mildred has already stated you won’t ever have to personally deal with this kind of situation but how would you feel if it was your sister or daughter?

    4. Starina

      Your denial of the Holocaust elsewhere has made me question your judgement.

      Also, is it just me or is “the right to use someone else’s bodily resources” a particularly, shall we shay, rape-evoking phrase?

  2. Daisy Chainsaw

    When there’s been no demand to repeal the right to travel for abortion, then the argument is moot. You’re not against abortion, you’re just against abortion in Ireland. Taking the boat or the plane is hypocritically acceptable.

        1. Paul

          Ok maybe we can set such a rule.

          Wait, is this a trap, seems like a trap. Of course I am for preventing convicted paedos from travelling to places where they can more easily abuse others.

          1. Cian

            So if we can prevent one type of person[1] travelling to commit what would be a crime in Ireland, why not another[2]?

            REPEAL THE 13th

            This subsection shall not limit freedom to travel between the State and another state.

        2. Bob

          I don’t think anyone is seriously proposing we repeal the 13th amendment and restore the travel restrictions brought in by the 8th amendment. (Although if anyone willing to play devil’s advocate and say that go for it, I’d be willing to listen to another silly argument for a while we’ve been getting lots of practice recently.)

          However there are already examples of laws that try to deal with people travelling to commit crimes, for example laws against crimes such as FGM, which can be prosecuted on return to Ireland

          The goals of the proposed bill are noble and commendable, helping the judiciary and probation services to best manage and try to rehabilitate sex offenders or prevent reoffending will be difficult to balance against the right to travel and will need to be carefully thought out in detail.

          I think in most discussions people can agree on principles but still disagree on details, and what the best approach will be, and what is the best way to balance the ideals we profess against the laws that can be realistically enforced.

  3. Paul

    Yes correct, every one of us living humans has enjoyed this right as possibly the first right we’ve experienced along our timeline. Why would we seek to remove this right for those following us, wouldn’t it be hypocritical in a sense?

    1. TheRealJane

      I sense that because you’ve made this argument repeatedly over several days, it makes sense to you. But the fact that we are all born of women doesn’t actually mean that therefore anyone who could be born should be born regardless of the wishes of the mother. I don’t know why you think it should, although the only answer I’ll expect is a repeat of what you’ve already said.

      Has you never questioned why you’re insisting that people have rights based on other people – but not you – making really serious sacrifices? Have you ever considered that?

      1. Brother Barnabas

        devil’s advocate, if i may, jane –

        doesn’t every fundamental right enjoyed by any of us – education, shelter, healthcare etc – entail a sacrifice on the part of someone else (usually in the form of taxation)?

        [i’m not agreeing with paul – his comment is ridiculous – but i think you’re wrong too. everyone’s wrong except me, actually]

        1. Cian

          @BroBar: in fairness Jane wrote “really serious sacrifices” – talking about pregnancy and parenthood; rather than taxation.
          There is a difference.

          1. Andyourpointiswhatexactly?

            I like a person who can dance their emotions. I see you like Billy Elliot, angry dancing through the mean back streets Oop North.
            I am an atrocious dancer. To the left, clap, to the right, clap. Thassit. And even doing that I manage to stumble.

          2. Brother Barnabas


            mine resembles a slightly-animated stroll, jerking arm movement, interspersed with some unexpected (even to me) spasms of all-body movement. if i’m at least halfway drunk, i can incorporate a not-bad moonwalk into it (usually i keep the moonwalk for entertaining children). i like to think i dance a bit like jarvis cocker.

            i’m not really professional a dancer / choreographer

          3. Andyourpointiswhatexactly?

            After reading the preamble, I don’t think there was much need for the last sentence.
            I knew a girl who was friendly with Jarvis Cocker back before he was famous. He was odd, she said. But then, so was she.

        2. TheRealJane

          Yes, human rights are often provided by a collective effort to resource the greater good such as providing education through taxation. However, I respectfully submit the proposition that women’s bodies are not collectively owned resources for the promotion of the collective good, regardless of how that is defined in any society or time.

          1. Paul

            Seems like a reasonable proposition until you realise it impinges on the right to life of some humans which is possibly of more import?

        3. Paul

          I’m lost as to what’s ridiculous about extending the same fundamental rights to everyone equally but open to you being the only correct person subject to your ability to prove it.

          1. TheRealJane

            You can’t extend those rights, Paul, because you don’t have the equipment. I don’t see why that’s so hard for you to understand. You might see being born as an automatic right since you were born yourself, but since you haven’t the means to make that happen, you should not seek to use other people’s bodies to grant rights that you have made up.

          2. Bob

            @TheRealJane It’s the internet, for all we know Paul could be a transgender man with all the necessary equipment to become pregnant. Gender is a social construct so I’m told.

      2. Paul

        All of us were born irrespective of our Mothers wishes. I couldn’t advocate a law that would change that without being hypocritical.

        Yeah I have. I’ve come to the conclusion that one person’s human rights should not be dependent on another’s sex.

        1. TheRealJane

          I knew you were just going to repeat that nonsensical statement.

          It makes no sense for you to offer women’s bodies and lives in this way on the basis that to do otherwise would be hypocritical.

          1. Paul

            It’s not a statement it’s an argument and I don’t think it’s nonsensical.

            To me it makes perfect sense that every being following me in my species should enjoy the same rights as I have. For you to say that this sort of logic makes no sense is really quite a stretch tbh and is perhaps the actual thing that makes no sense.

          2. Listrade

            Good argument. I have the same rights. No matter what I’ll always get the medical care I need/can afford. No questions. We’re men. We only have to think of ourselves.

            But then what about the rights of a 12 year old who was raped and became pregnant? You can chose you to undergo any recommended treatment, but she can’t. The act was criminal. There was no consent to either the act or the conception. The pregnancy was forced on her.

            If you are to really talk about rights and logic, then why do you avoid talking about the mother and only the child?

          3. Orla

            A 12 year old doesn’t have the legal capacity to consent to or refuse medical treatment. It will never be her choice!

          4. mildred st. meadowlark

            Do you really think that’s the most pertinent point here? Because the 8th amendment deprives her and her guardians a choice regardless of whether the has a legal say so or nit.

          5. Orla

            Apologies I’ll take back where I said “this is the most pertinent issue”…oh wait, I didn’t say that at all! Additionally and to clarify, because you seem quite tetchy about this subject, I did not say it was a reason not to repeal. It’s just an additional consideration even after any new law is brought in, which some people don’t seem to know about, ie children cannot consent or refuse treatment. The more you know etc …

          6. Listrade


            That isn’t exactly true. The issue of consent is only explicitly given to those of majority (18+) and separately to 16-17. There is no explicit denial of under 16s with the right to determine their own medical treatment. It isn’t mentioned and that isn’t the same as being not allowed.

            It is portrayed as an “age of consent” but it isn’t like purchasing alcohol or cigarettes. They prohibit the sale of those items to those under 18, the issue of medical consent fails to mention or recognise children, it doesn’t prohibit them from consent, it fails to legislate for them.

            A minor has rights under Article 40.3.1 of The Constitution. The only potential block to this (or yet another contradictory part of The Constitution) is Article 42.1. But that only covers the parents, not guardians and only covers “education” not control of their health.

            It’s a very grey area and is largely down to a doctor’s interpretation. The Medical Council has its own advice for Doctors. It will come down to the child and the circumstances. A 12 year old would be treated differently to a 5 year old in terms of competence to make decisions. There is UK precedent which has been built into Irish guidance and medical advice of the “mature minor”.

            Most of the cases we’ve had through the courts haven’t been to where the child has sought treatment, but where the parents have withheld treatment and in most cases it was an infant, not a child. Naturally and infant doesn’t have competency.

            We had this debate with the morning after pill. It is a grey area, but if a 12 year old went to a doctor for the morning after pill based on sexual abuse by her father, it is unlikely that the Doctor would seek parental consent.

            Section 18.3 of the Medical Council allows for special circumstances with children. If a doctor feels the child is capable of understanding the proposed medical treatment they must explain it to them and if it is an area where parental consent would be normal, they must give due regard to the wishes of the child.

            the more you know etc,

        2. Starina

          “All of us were born irrespective of our Mothers wishes.”

          What a ridiculous statement. My ma had me in a country where she could have had an abortion, but she wanted me. It’s really nice to KNOW she wanted me, as well.

          Women here can travel to England, so the commenters here also (to a lesser extent) were not necessarily born irrespective of their mother’s wishes.

          1. Paul

            Nothing ridiculous about it all.
            While I appreciate that your mammy wanted you there are those among us who’s mammies didn’t want us yet we enjoyed being born anyway.
            That’s why I said all of us were born irrespective of our Mother’s wishes and it holds true so for you to say it’s a ridiculous statement actually reflects more on you and your modes of thinking rather than on it’s veracity/ ridiculousness.

  4. catsiglierie

    Just to say that this is a patient and well-reasoned response to Thomas Finegan’s original article. Personally, I wanted to dissect Finegan’s piece as a really poorly-written example of an Undergraduate essay, with a generalising thesis, little evidence, argument that relies on inference, the omission of details at prescient moments, and no linearity of logic.

    Whether you agree with the argument or not, Donnchadh Ó Conaill’s response is quite clearly a finer piece of intelligent writing, and as such merits much more serious consideration.

    1. Paul

      Why did you not do what you wanted ?

      Not being smart but a number of posters have called out the theology dude’s article and said it had errors in logic etc but none of them actually specified what those errors were and you seem to have done the same thing here.

      1. Barry the Hatchet

        If you look back to the original comments, Paul, you will see a number of posts dissecting the logic of Tom Finnegan’s argument. But you already know that. You just want to whinge.

  5. Orla

    While not the best writing on this subject,I appreciate the inclusion of more critical thinking on this nuanced area rather than the puerile, gut-instinct clamoring of “abortion bad” or “choice good”. The whole debate has led me to conclude that we would all benefit from an education that includes philosophy and sharpens the framing of arguments.

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