A thoughtful reader asked me if there were any economic tools that could be brought to bear in valuing a fetus. Of course there are! And in fewer than a 1000 words, no less!
First, let’s clean the docket a little as to what we want. We would like to know how much a spirit values the fetus that will, barring tragedy, become its home. We aren’t going to look at the cost side (today, anyway), nor are we evaluating how much God might value the life. Not that these aren’t important, but rather, one blog post can only aspire so far.
Suppose B represents the value of a newborn baby to the spirit inhabiting it. If we were to convert B into dollars it might be around 2-6 million dollars for babies born in the U.S, based on the numbers used by policy-makers for a statistical life in other contexts.
Now, as best I can tell, the crucial question for the spirit becomes, “When am I irrevocably attached to that body?”. In most discourse, this is something like “When does humanity begin”. If the spirit can switch to another body, should something happen to the first, well the value of the fetus plummets, because it is no longer the unique gateway into mortality; much like missing the train is not as big a deal if there will be another one in ten minutes. On the other hand, if that fetus is uniquely attached to that spirit, then, once we’ve reached that point of irrevocable attachment, the value of the fetus is going to be very close to B (though perhaps slightly less owing to the possibility of mishap).
And so we are left in a difficult spot. We, or at least most of us, recognize that there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty about when the fetus and the spirit are uniquely connected. We can readily limit ourselves to say it is somewhere between fertilization of the egg and birth, but beyond that it can get pretty dicey.
I wrote a little about uncertainty in the context of global warming and California’s Prop 8; we’ll use similar tools here. Instead of asserting beyond our knowledge that humanity begins at some discrete point, a better approach, from a policy perspective, is to define a set of possibilities and work from that. Assign the probability, for every week from 1 to 40, with birth as a special end case, that the fetus has gained humanity by that point. Then the “expected value” of the fetus is B times that probability. It is not, by the way, the actual value of the fetus, which is unknown and, for us, unknowable. It is our best guess of that value.
Example 1: We assign a steady, uniformly increasing probability to the fetus being human (meaning beyond then it is in some sense irrevocably attached to a given spirit). Thus the chance that a 10 week old fetus is, in this sense, human is 10/40, or 25%. A 22 week old would be 22/40. In that case, the expected value of a 10 week old is about one quarter that of a newborn. If the value of a newborn is around 3 million, for example, then the value of a 10 week old fetus, in expectation, would be about $750,000. Remember that we don’t know the actual value, this is just our best guess.
Example 2: I assign a small probability in the early months, that rises rapidly as I hit viability. Thus I might think the chance of a newly fertilized egg being human are one in 100 (or one in a million), but by the time I get to week 25 the probability is close to 1. Depending on how I assign the intermediate probabilities, a 10 week old might be worth anywhere from B/1000000 to close to B. By somewhere around week 25, the baby is worth about B until brought to term.
So where in the world could we get such probabilities? Shy of God revealing them, we have to be somewhat fanciful. We could perhaps conduct a vote based on a “wisdom of the masses” sort of argument. Not, by the way, a vote of “when do you think humanity begins”, but rather “how likely is it that humanity begins by week X”. Or we could use a uniform distribution like that in the first example as an expression of our ignorance – until we know more.
Current policy, and this is crucial to understand, does not avoid this problem. It currently acts, as best I can tell, as if the probability was almost completely stacked up around birth. This is probably not what you would get from a poll. In other words, you cannot get away from this problem by ignoring it. We can infer back from current policy what we are implicitly assuming about when humanity begins. Given then, that we have to make some choice, we might be better off thinking about it up front, rather than hiding from what we are assuming.
This post is long enough, so I won’t go into a lot of detail on this, but suppose we knew, hypothetically, that a ten week old baby’s value was around B/20 or approximately $150,000 (i’m making this up, but you can infer back from the above examples what assumptions would give you that number). Then we might begin thinking seriously about whether or not prospective aborters internalized the full weight of that cost. If, for example, what pregnancy delivered were not a baby, but rather $150,000 in cash, I’m guessing the number of abortions in the U.S. would drop like a rock.
So if whoever is making the abortion choice, whether it be parents, grandparents, or a single mother, are not internalizing that cost, we’d want to think about how to get them to face the full weight of it, so that they can make a socially optimal decision. Much like we often wish to tax polluters to make them internalize the full social cost of their pollution.