The Fetus Is Not a Parasite: Debunking an Ethical Fallacy

A fetus in uteroThere is a pro-choice argument that attempts to use ethics to prove that the mother has a right to kill the fetus, even though it is a living person, because it is a parasite that steals nutrients from the mother. Because of this parasitic relationship, the argument goes, killing the fetus is self-defense rather than murder.1

The first problem with this argument is that it is biologically inaccurate on many different levels.2 Parasites are labelled parasitic animals whether they are in a parasitic stage of their life cycle or not. If the fetus is a parasite, then every adult mammal, whether it be a human or an elephant, is also a parasite. If this is so, then the term has been so stripped of meaning as to be useless.

Obviously then, the fetus is not a parasite by any truly scientific definition. Instead, when people call the fetus a parasite they are using the popular layman’s definition of the word. This article is a response to the ethical arguments that have been developed using this definition. The author assumes in this article that the fetus is a human being and a person. Doing so is appropriate in this instance as the argument being rebutted claims to provide justification for abortion despite the personhood of the fetus.

The fetus has no moral guilt.

The fetus did not intentionally enter a woman’s womb, and in most cases its presence there is actually a result of the woman’s decisions. The pro-choice person will say that this does not matter, as bodily violation is not necessarily intentional.

This is true, but it does not mean that the intentions of the violating party are irrelevant. There is an undeniable difference in the moral guilt of someone who has accidentally brushed their hand against another person and someone who has purposefully groped another person. In both cases the person violated has a right to put a stop to the action. He or she may resort to force, even lethal force, to prevent someone from groping them. However, it would be wholly inappropriate to use the same force against a person who has accidentally brushed up against them. That person has not intentionally done any harm and does not deserve such treatment.

Similarly, the fetus has not intentionally invaded the body of a woman. Using lethal action against it, therefore, is an immoral act and the taking of an innocent life.

There is a moral obligation to sacrifice to preserve innocent life.

There are a host of analogies used to argue that humans do not have an obligation to preserve innocent life at the expense of their quality of life. Perhaps the most well-known is the “famous violinist” analogy created by Judith Jarvis Thompson:

You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. [If he is unplugged now he will die, but he can be safely unplugged in nine months.] Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it?3

The first major problem with this analogy is that it implies rape. The fetal parasite argument seeks to prove that abortion is permissible in all situations, so creating a situation that resembles rape in a supporting analogy is intellectually dishonest. This alone is reason enough for us to discard the analogy, as the scenario is a slanted representation of the moral dynamic. For the sake of discussion, however, we shall further dissect Thompson’s analogy.

We must first establish the crux of this contention, that life is valuable. We can do this using assumptions made by the pro-choice side to avoid a debate on the point. If abortion is necessary, as they claim, to ensure quality of life for women, we may infer that life has some value. Because they claim that government has no right to interfere with their reproductive decisions (and, thus, their quality of life), we may also infer that they believe their quality of life to have value that exceeds governmental law. God, divine law, higher law, natural law, morality, ethics—whatever one chooses to call it, the pro-choice community indirectly references it when placing value upon life.

There are very few situations that mentally healthy people regard as being worse than death, and some hold that no such situations exist. Quality of life is clearly secondary to life itself, and to say that one’s right to a certain quality of life trumps another person’s right to life itself is fallacious. If such ethics were to be implemented into law it would be legal to murder someone for their possessions.

Some would reply that although keeping the unborn child alive may be the moral thing to do, compelling someone to do the right thing is illegal. This is untrue in many cases, but proving it to be untrue falls outside the scope of this post. Instead, I shall simply explain why statements like the one below are irrelevant.

We are never legally required to sacrifice our bodies to save other people’s lives in any other circumstances. We aren’t even required to do so for our own children after they are born. I would be legally within my rights to deny a kidney, or even my blood, to my child, even immediately after birth. But for some reason people still insist that I should be required to carry the thing around for nine months inside my body. The inconsistency here is unfathomable. My right to bodily autonomy is not changed by the fact that I happen to be pregnant.4

Using governmental law as a framework for the debate is pointless. Regardless of whether the government has a right to compel a person to preserve child’s life, that person has a moral obligation to do so. Add to this that we have already established that life has value that is of a higher origin than human law and this argument becomes laughable.

Morality may not be disregarded in this debate.

There are several analogies that are used to argue that morality may be ignored. An example of one of these reads, “It would be nice for me to donate half of my money to charity, but most people understand that that would leave me financially crippled and and would understand if I did not. Similarly, it would be nice for me to keep the fetus alive but people should understand if I choose not to.” This analogy is highly flawed. While it is acceptable to use a loose analogy to illustrate a point, a hypothetical should resemble its real-life counterpart as closely as possible when it is being used as an ethical argument.

A better analogy for the situation would read something like this: You live in a prison cell by yourself with enough food supplied to you daily to keep you alive and healthy. One day, a young child is placed in your cell with you. The amount of food you receive is increased from that point forward so that you have enough for yourself and the child. In this situation, would it be morally right to kill the child for eating  superfluous food and being your unwilling roommate? This analogy is better for the following reasons:

  1. It involves a specific human child rather than an ambiguous people group (those benefiting from the charity).
  2. The child will either live or die depending on your choice. The beneficiaries of a charity will most likely not die because one person did not give a contribution, and this lack of seriousness is implicit in the illustration.
  3. The child in this example is unwillingly placed in a situation of dependence. The beneficiaries of charity in the other example are not.

When presented with this analogy, which is far more precise, most would say that it is immoral to kill the child. Also, using the term nice is a red herring fallacy. What is at question here is not what is nice but what is moral. While it may be “nice” of you to donate half of your money to charity, it would not be immoral for you to save your money.

Trying to create a workaround of morality in this debate is intellectually dishonest, as the entire purpose of the argument is to prove that it is not immoral to kill the fetus.

Conclusion

We may perhaps debate the ethics of forcing someone to do the right thing, but what is evident is that abortion is not moral, regardless of its legal status. Members of society must hold themselves accountable to the higher law of morality, even when human law would indicate that doing otherwise is permissible.


1. “Pregnant people are people, too.” Valprehension. 2013. 26 Feb. 2013. <http://valprehension.wordpress.com/2013/02/20/pregnant-people-are-people-too/>

2. Johnson, Thomas L. “Why the Embryo or Fetus Is Not a Parasite.” Libertarians for Life. 1974. 26 Feb. 2013. <http://www.l4l.org/library/notparas.html>

3. Thomson, Judith Jarvis. “Judith Jarvis Thomson: A Defense of Abortion.” 1996. 26 Feb. 2013. <http://spot.colorado.edu/~heathwoo/Phil160,Fall02/thomson.htm>

4. Ibid., Valprehension.

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16 thoughts on “The Fetus Is Not a Parasite: Debunking an Ethical Fallacy

  1. free February 27, 2013 at 10:43 pm Reply

    What a pile of s***… you totally ignored that simple fact that abortions are LEGAL and supported by the US’ CONSTITUTION, so you can continue on this pointless rant against abortion rights that is based upon nothing more than your non-legal opinion.

    “Regardless of whether the government has a right to compel a person to preserve child’s life, that person has a moral obligation to do so.”

    your morality is not the law, so please stop pretending it has legal authority over people.

    the fact that a fetus is not a child, and no living entity has a right to life at the expense of another… deal with it.

    the human fetus is a parasite:

    HUMAN FETUS IS NOT A BABY (HUMAN DEVELOPMENT CHART), but a parasite because of the biological relationship that’s based on the behavior of one organism (fetus) & how it relates to the woman’s body:
    As a zygote, it invaded the woman’s uterus using its TROPHOBLAST cells, hijacked her immune system by using NEUROKININ B, HCG and ‘INDOLEAMINE 2, 3-DIOXYGENASE’ – so her body doesn’t kill it, continue stealing her nutrients to survive & causing her harm or potential death.

    • Jordan February 27, 2013 at 11:49 pm Reply

      The legality and constitutionality of abortion are irrelevant to this discussion. This post is not about the legality of abortion, but the morality. The sad truth is that America, like all nations, has sometimes passed immoral laws, and it is our duty as citizens to point out moral flaws in our government.

      I did not make my case against abortion using my own ideas of morality. Instead, I used basic logic and ethics. Also, I did not say that morality has legal authority over people, but that it has moral authority.

      You cannot simply make a statement such as “The fact [is] that a fetus is not a child” with no proofs or arguments and expect any rational person to take you seriously. If, as you say, no living entity has the right to life at the expense of another, then it would follow that the mother does not have a right to abort her child. Moral principles work both ways, my friend.

      Since you maintain that the fetus is a parasite by the biological definition, do you also maintain that all adult human beings are parasites? And how do you respond to these objections to the fetal parasite theory raised by Thomas Johnson? (http://www.l4l.org/library/notparas.html) And why do you think that no credible scientific definition of a parasite applies to mammalian young? (http://shardoins.blogspot.com/2009/06/is-fetus-parasite.html)

      Thank you for sharing your opinion. I ask that in the future you be more respectful in your comments, as is befitting the spirit of this blog.

  2. bronzebrunette20 February 28, 2013 at 8:38 pm Reply

    This is hilarious.

    • Jordan February 28, 2013 at 8:46 pm Reply

      Bioethics Today is a blog created with the purpose of fostering rational discussion, and commenters are expected to behave like intelligent and respectful adults rather than insulting children. Would you mind explaining what you found “hilarious” and why you disagree with it?

      • Eirina Gkini November 21, 2013 at 4:31 pm Reply

        Jordan, can’t you see that those brainwashed idiots will never accept any other view than their own?! No matter what scientific evidence they are given that show that it is NOT a parasite, they will never accept it. Interesting article. I’m glad I found it.

      • Eirina Gkini November 21, 2013 at 4:33 pm Reply

        I correct myself, not brainwashed, just plain selfish!

        • Jordan November 21, 2013 at 8:10 pm Reply

          Thank you for the kind words about the article and for chiming in, Eirina.

          As I asked “free,” please try to be more respectful of other viewpoints in your future comments.

    • Marty February 28, 2013 at 8:52 pm Reply

      What’s hilarious is saying something like “This is hilarious” and then running away from the conversation.

  3. Use Reason April 14, 2013 at 6:02 pm Reply

    I love this site!! Thank you

  4. sydnemckinney April 28, 2013 at 6:20 am Reply

    I read somewhere (wish I could cite, but I don’t remember the source), that a fetus actually sends stem cells to it’s mother when she is hurt. Parasites don’t help their hosts…

  5. thelostgenerations June 6, 2013 at 8:18 pm Reply

    Hi, I’m an assistant editor for Live Action News & Opinion (www.liveactionnews.org). Could we get permission to reprint this article on our site? If so, what name would you like us to use for the author? We will give your site proper credit and link back.

    • Jordan June 7, 2013 at 1:16 pm Reply

      Yes, you absolutely may. Please credit Jordan Olinski as the author.

  6. Fetus/Female Relationship. August 21, 2013 at 12:45 am Reply

    […] a human being in the womb (while in the fetal stage of their life, growth and development) a parasite? Answer: "No" Thank you. Last edited by Chuz Life; Today at 04:29 PM. "If […]

  7. Little Mickey April 17, 2014 at 9:35 pm Reply

    Loved your article John. And it is sad that commenters such as “free” feel the need to blast your argument with profanity rather than simply trying to rebut you. How “free” feels that an argument can be effective using that tactic is beyond me.

  8. wkb2texans April 17, 2014 at 9:54 pm Reply

    Wonderful analysis. Frankly, I am puzzled (and a little frightened) as to how so many Americans have arrived at the point where human life is considered parasitical and otherwise unworthy of life. I have studied world history for years and note the similarities between how Americans view unborn/newborn life and the way the Nazis and German people viewed the lives of the Jews. Both parties were convinced that life of a certain segment of society has little to no value, thus any and all actions to limit or end that life were morally and legally justified.
    t

  9. Black Metal Valkyrie July 4, 2015 at 7:46 pm Reply

    The women’s decisions? It has nothing to do with the man who came inside her?

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