Abortion and Personhood
Someone asked me to blog about abortion, thinking that I've never said anything about it. I have, but I haven't really given a solid defense of why I think abortion is wrong, though. I've more explored issues around the sidelines that I think have some bearing on the general area of topics. I do think there are excellent arguments for being solidly pro-life in the way that John Ashcroft is. He's seen as a Nazi on this issue who just wants to control women because he has such strong opposition to abortion. I'm sure that this was the major reason so many Democratic senators opposed his nomination for Attorney General. They simply thought he was a bigot because they were too ignorant to appreciate the position he has and the reasons for it. I think the majority of philosophers are in the same position, and I think it's merely ignorance in many cases. That's not to say that the liberal position on abortion doesn't bring something to the table that conservatives need to hear. I see a number of crucial points in Judith Jarvis Thomson's fundamental paper on the topic that conservatives would do well to acknowledge, though I think in the end her paper supports nothing like the abortion-on-demand that has been allowed in this country despite the false claims that liberals really want to make abortion rare. If they really wanted it rare, they'd be happy to restrict it rather than fighting tooth-and-nail against a law that forbids delivering a child halfway and then killing it before it's born on the grounds that somehow it's safer to kill a kid in mid-childbirth than it is to go through with the birth and just not have the kid raised by the woman who wanted to kill her child after halfway giving birth.
I've taught on abortion enough times and read enough different papers on it during the different times I've taught it that I think I have a better understanding of the liberal position on abortion than most liberals do. I know I have a better understanding of it than most students I've had who are inclined to that view. I say I understand it, but I don't think I really understand it. Peter van Inwagen is fond of saying things like that about metaphysical pictures that don't agree with his own, and one philosopher I know calls it Petering out when he has no real objection. Another philosopher I know refers to it as finding something unInwagenable. I think I really am in that position with the philosophical orthodoxy about abortion.
The assumption is that moral status has something to do with developed intelligence, ability to think and plan, and moral reasonsing. I've never seen a decent argument for that sort of concept of personhood and the resultant claim that a fetus is not a person. In most ordinary speech, 'person' and 'human being' have always seemed to me to be synonymous, and even an embryo is clearly a human organism at least. I've been around enough pregnant women who talk about the little person inside them that I can't believe this use of 'person' matches up with the ordinary one, and I think the burden of proof lies with those who think they differ. The only reasons I've seen for the view that personhood involves extra traits not possessed by a fetus are question-begging, such as the claim that a brain-dead person (though no one will put it that way) is not really a person, something I would never grant. The pro-life person doesn't need to assume that an embryo has moral status to make her claim. She merely has to assert neutrality on that issue. If you're neutral on the issue, you won't assume that an embryo has no moral status, and you'll tread lightly when you might be doing something immoral by destroying an embryo, in case it turns out that a fetus is a person.
That's especially important when roughly half the country takes an attitude at least as conservative as this neutrality view. Yet the pro-choice view, which says it takes a neutral stance, doesn't take neutrality on the issue as favoring caution and therefore isn't really neutral in that sense. A pro-choice position really requires that a fetus is not a person and that abortion involves nothing wrong. Unless you hold such a strong view, I can't see how you can take a pro-choice position, and I just don't see any arguments for that strong view. That's why I think the pro-life view should be the default position.
The pro-choice side tries to further its cause with the story that pro-life Christians who hold their views entirely on authority. This is not so. Many people in the pro-life movement are not religious at all but are pro-life on feminist grounds, thinking that a genuine feminist ethic requires emphasizing the most important biological relationship a woman can have over those outside forces who try to coerce her into having an abortion because of their hopes for her life. Others may or may not be Christians but simply believe a fetus to be a person (or at least aren't willing to deny it for the reasons I've been giving). Some may not even want to go that far but just think abortion is wrong in most cases because it kills something that is clearly human and clearly innocent with respect to the action, even in cases of conception due to rape, and they don't think the convenience of the life of the mother in most cases could possibly give any reason to end such a life, as is the case with a great many abortions. So there are plenty of non-religious motivations to oppose abortion.
Notice that I haven't really argued for the position that a fetus is a person, but don't object that I've left out such a crucial step, because I don't need it. My argument is simply that such a view deserves the benefit of the doubt given the high stakes involved and the lack of argument that a fetus isn't a person.
I also realize that there are more complicated issues, such as Thomson's arguments that abortion might be ok even if a fetus is a person, but those arguments assume things that I think are false. One argument only attempts to show that in a case of rape a woman has no obligation to keep a child she didn't invite into her body, but I think if someone left a kid on my doorstep I'd have an obligation to take care of the kid until I could find someone else to do so. In this case, that involves waiting until delivery is safe. If the assumption is personhood, the cause of the person's existence is irrelevant, and the hardship on the person who finds the child is also of much lower moral importance. I'm not being insensitive to rape here. I'm just being more sensitive to killing of persons.
The other argument Thomson gives is that the right to life isn't necessarily a right to protection from whatever harm might befall someone. I think this is irrelevant also, even though it's correct. It's not like when some harm might befall someone, and the cops can't get there in time. It's more like when someone is trying to kill someone and the cops can't get there in time (or are prevented from doing anything because it's a legal killing and thus not murder). But how is saying that the government doesn't have an obligation to protect every person from harm allow the further claim that abortion isn't always wrong and can't therefore being punished by law? The murders that the government has no absolute obligation to prevent are still punishable by law.
There may be one other argument Thomson gives, but I can't think of it at the moment, and I haven't heard any other sophisticated objections to the inference from personhood of a fetus to wrongness of abortion. So I think there's a very strong argument, with no religious assumptions whatsoever, against pretty much all abortion. The one exception I'm not sure I have arguments about would be when the mother's life is threatened. If it's one or the other, I suppose some might think the mother is the more important life to save, particularly if she's not being selfish in wanting to be saved but desires to be around to raise her other four children, say. On the other hand, I can see good arguments for saying that it would be selfish to make such an argument if there aren't other people dependent on her. If I didn't have anyone dependent on me, I couldn't think of it as anything but selfish to preserve my own life over that of a very young child. Given my children's dependence on me, that's at least less clear. So I'm not sure what I think there, but in all these other areas my study of the classic and best articles defending a pro-choice view have done nothing but confirm the views I had before I started, even though at times during my looking at and teaching these issues have moved me around a few times on more minor issues.
[The discussion thread on the original post also does a lot of interesting philosophical work. You can see that at the Wayback Machine archive of it.]
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Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.