Sam Harris on Abortion

Sam Harris has frequently opined on Abortion and, his book “The Moral Landscape”, gives one a pretty good idea of where he would stand on this and related matters. Fitting with his general interpretation of consequentialism, Harris has bookend qualifiers to his position that satisfy most people on either side of the spectrum. However the controversial nature of Abortion is admitted by Sam multiple times in his own work. 

**Update. In his recent episode with Caitlin Flanagan, Sam spoke with the conservative commentator in depth about the issue. We’ll leave the original post below but note Sam’s position on the issue which was stated more in depth. Harris tried to frame the issue (which is something we love to do) that there must be some middle ground that is the correct answer. Note this takes place around 38 minutes but also appears in his book Letter to a Christian Nation: 

“Everytime you scratch your nose you are engaged in a holocaust of potential human beings given the right manipulations…but then on the other side you have very, very late term abortions which is similar to infanticide.” 

Sam keeps to his old premise but adds this: 

“There’s not a very clear line between an easy decision and a hard one. I’m tempted to look  for this line in terms of the possible expereince and suffering of the fetus.” Harris goes on to make a case for structures in the brain being responsible for experiences (with some caveats) of pain and happiness. Sam ultimately puts the line at about 15 weeks and after where the structures in the brain that mediate pain and pain behavior are present. 

In regard to early stage abortion, Harris levels the following devastating attack on “Life Begins at conception.” 

“A three-day-old human embryo is a collection of 150 cells called a blastocyst. There are, for the sake of comparison, more than 100,000 cells in the brain of a fly. The human embryos that are destroyed in stem-cell research do not have brains, or even neurons. Consequently, there is no reason to believe they can suffer their destruction in any way at all. It is worth remembered, in this context, that when a person’s brain has died, we currently deem it acceptable to harvest his organs (provided he has donated them for this purpose) and bury him in the ground. If it is acceptable to treat a person whose brain has died as something less than a human being, it should be acceptable to treat a blastocyst as such. If you are concerned about suffering in this universe, killing a fly should present you with greater moral difficulties than killing a human blastocyst.

Perhaps you think that the crucial difference between a fly and a human blastocyst is to be found in the latter’s potential to become a fully developed human being. But almost every cell in your body is a potential human being, given our recent advances in genetic engineering. Every time you scratch your nose, you have committed a Holocaust of potential human beings.” – Letter to a Christian Nation

However, Harris is not entirely pro-choice in his counter argument which seems to be critical (perhaps rightly) of late stage abortion given his general views of consequentialist ethics. 

It’s not difficult to dismiss the idea that a two day old zygote has no phenomenological experience (first person, conscious experience–thus they cannot feel pain) however that’s not true all the way up to delivery. In fact, it’s reasonable to think that the pain a third trimester baby can feel is very much analogous to the pain that we, fully grown adults can feel. 

That said, we have little in our searchable database of Sam Harris transcripts that cleanly details his specific policy recommendations as it pertains to Abortion or his feelings regarding the Judith Jarvis Thompson’s Bodily Rights  argument. 

However given his work in the moral landscape, and his comments on the Joe Rogan podcast about the importance of a central nervous system to establish phenomenological experience, the Scholar Fact Check has little issue saying that Sam Harris is, in general, pro-choice in regards to first term abortions and generally against late term abortions. However we remain agnostic about his specific policy recommendation. 

We would be remiss if we did not mention the times Sam Harris has formerly discussed abortion in print including in the Moral Landscape (pages 5, 35, and 146) and in his Podcast Episode #92 – The Limits of Persuasion. However, as the title of the podcast episode points out, most of his discussion on abortion has dealt more with the sticky nature of the subject rather than prescriptive policy solutions or recommendations. 

Public Opinion on Abortion In America Remains Divided

Abortion has remained controversial in America for the last century. The Pew graph below shows just how polarizing the issue has become dividing religious vs the non-religious and democrats vs republicans. However despite large scale changes in public opinion on Abortion in the 60s and 70s, views have moderately stable since 1995. 

Views on Abortion since 1995 to 2019 have mostly stabilized in the three decades since the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade. 

Should we become aware that Sam has changed his opinion or should new evidence be submitted that we have either misconstrued his opinion or failed to include important statements from him, we will 1) make the correction, 2) note the correction here, 3) issue a mea culpa that attempts to explain and improve on how we missed this. 


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