Thursday, May 5, 2011

New Abortion

A thought experiment about creating and valuing lives

Roe v. Wade does not say what you may think it says. Yes, it creates a right to abortion that cannot be unduly interfered with by the states. But it explicitly states that there are two interests that must be balanced: the woman's privacy interest, and the state's interest in protecting the "potentiality of human life." If this "potentiality" for life could somehow be protected without unduly interfering with the woman's right to end her time as involuntary host organism, it would seem that this would be completely constitutional (not to mention wildly politically popular).

How would that work?

Step 1. Technology is developed such that an implanted embryo may be removed and transplanted to a different woman's uterus.

Step 2. Such technology becomes cheaply available.

Step 3. Lots of wombs in poverty-stricken slums are available for rent. (Check.)

Step 4. New Abortion: for the same price and the same intrusiveness of a standard termination, your uterus is scraped and the embryo harvested, shipped to Nairobi, and implanted in a starving woman's uterus, and after gestation, the child is raised until age 6, when he or she is sold to a factory or a brothel.

This procedure could give the precious gift of life to over a million babies a year from the United States alone.

To those who object on sentimental grounds, I direct them to Robin Hanson: do not slum children sold into prostitution also smile? Isn't the only relevant ethical question whether those children would themselves find their lives to be worthwhile?


  1. Great piece, Sister Y. I wonder if Hanson will move to one of those countries and join those people he seems so happy to patronise. Or maybe he's too fond of his big house, running water, security and food? Hmmmm....

  2. "do not slum children sold into prostitution also smile?"

    Some of them do. I saw a documentary about child prostitutes once, and what struck me as surprising was how happy some of them were.

    Sure, it's better to have a wealthy sheltered life as a child than to be a child prostitute or factory worker. But the latter could still be better than being dead.

    The real problem is that life and suffering aren't voluntary. If child prostitutes could just die painlessly at any time, their existence would be stictly better than their nonexistence. In such a world, "new abortion" would be a purely good thing.

    1. My problem with the "strictly" there is that people are born engaged in relationships - no choice in the matter. You have relatives, friends, siblings who would miss you if you disappeared painlesslly - hence it can never really be painless until we have p-zombie technology. ;)

    2. The lives and therefore pain of those people could also be voluntary. Furthermore, it is not clear that they would prefer not having those relationships at all.

      How many people who miss someone who died would rather

      a) that the deceased friend/relative had never existed
      b) that they themselves had never existed

      simply because they now miss them?

      I was just in a discussion about the possibility of sex robots. Everyone seemed to think it is good to replace live prostitutes with robots which use up the same energy, space and matter.

      In my view, it would be strictly better to use live prostitutes - no matter how poor - who live and sell sex voluntarily. The robots presumably feel no joy of life (though maybe they could be designed to, in which case the argument falls flat). Prostutites who live voluntarily presumably do so because they feel more joy than misery.


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