I have been reading psychologist Steven Pinker’s latest book The Better Angels of our Natures, (Allen lane 2011) in which he argues from hundreds of studies that violence between humans has lessened massively. He addresses the issue of abortion in the quote below. It seemed to me to accurately describe the thinking (with added science) of most people who support legal access to abortion. It also illustrates, to me, who so much pro-life argument fails to make progress: it is addressed to ideas that people do not have, such as that ‘it’s ok to kill children’.
Opponents of abortion may see the decline of every form of violence but the killing of fetuses as a stunning case of moral hypocrisy. But there is another explanation for the discrepancy. Modern sensibilities have increasingly conceived moral worth in terms of *consciousness, *particularly the ability to suffer and flourish, and have identified consciousness with the activity of the brain. The change is part of the turning away from religion and custom and towards science and secular philosophy as a source of moral illumination. Just as the legally recognized end of life is now defined by the cessation of brain activity rather than the cessation of a heartbeat, the beginning of life is sensed to depend on the first stirrings of consciousness in the fetus. The current understanding of the neural basis of consciousness ties it to reverberating neural activity between the thalamus and cerebral cortex, which begins at around twenty-six weeks of gestational age. More to the point, people *conceive *of fetuses as less than fully conscious: the psychologists Heather Gray, Kurt Gray, and Daniel Wegner have shown that people think of fetuses as more capable of experience than robots or corpses, but less capable than animals, babies, children and adults. The vast majority of abortions are carried out well before the milestone of having a functioning brain, and thus are safely conceptualized, according to this understanding of the worth of human life, as fundamentally different from infanticide and other forms of violence.