This book is about abortion, but it is about a good deal more besides. Part of what makes abortion such a rich and rewarding topic of study is its entwinement with a plethora of other absorbing legal and philosophical problems. Among other things, thinking through the abortion problem forces us to confront questions such as: When is an early human being worthy of strong moral protection? When, if ever, is it justifiable to end the life of another human being? And do we possess the fundamental right to life merely in virtue of being members of the human species, or in virtue of something else?
Given its entanglement with problems such as these, it is hardly surprising that moral disagreement about abortion has been so protracted. Abortion is a hard topic, not just, or even primarily, because it is taboo, emotive, and political. Abortion is hard, first and foremost, because it invites questions that are genuinely complex. The philosopher Margaret Little puts it well when she says that the abortion problem is ‘plain old hard’.1 As she writes:
It touches on an enormous number of complex and recondite subjects, requiring us to juggle bundles of distinctions which are themselves points of contention in morality and law.2
As Little incisively notes, the problems of abortion are not just hard the same way that a ‘complex math or public policy question is hard’.3 They are hard in part because when reflecting on the nature of pregnancy and the fetus, the general principles and distinctions of moral and legal analysis with which we are most familiar often seem to come up short. There is, Little sees, ‘something about abortion that is not captured however carefully we parse counterexamples or track down the implications of traditional classifications’.4 Thus, she writes, the ‘clear-headed’ application of the ‘usual tools’ of morality and law often fails to construct a wholly satisfactory account of what happens in abortion.
This troubling doubt that abortion could ever be properly analysed using our conventional principles and categories (the ‘usual tools’) is a worry that pervades the topic, rearing its head at a number of sticking points. At its most sceptical,
- 1 Margaret Olivia Little, ‘Abortion, Intimacy and the Duty to Gestate’ (1999) 2 Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 295, 295.
- 2 ibid. 3 ibid. 4 ibid.
Arguments about Abortion: Personhood, Morality, and Law. First Edition. Kate Greasley. © K. Greasley 2017. Published 2017 by Oxford University Press.
the challenge to which Little refers simply denies that we can argue about abortion at all the way we argue about other issues in morality and law—although, when it gets this far, the threat can begin to look a little too ominous. Pregnancy may be like nothing else, but then again, no subject of philosophical study is exactly like anything else. The distinctness of a practice or of a situation does not preclude it from also being an instance of a more general kind of phenomenon. Indeed, the entire usefulness of arguing from principles is their ability to capture what is salient and universal about a discrete problem, and thereby gain some insight into how it ought to be appraised, given the more general commitments that we have.
Even with relevant principles to hand, though, navigating a way through all of the pertinent considerations in abortion and assigning them logical order is a significant challenge in its own right, and one with which the first part of this book is exclusively concerned. As will become apparent, deciding what is really at the heart of the abortion controversy is one preliminary inquiry that in fact constitutes a significant proportion of all argument about abortion.
There is a lot that abortion is concerned with which this book is not. Abortion is very often about religious affiliations and beliefs. It is about attitudes to sex—who should be having it, with whom, and how. It is tied up with women’s interests in sexual liberation, and men’s interests in women’s sexual availability. Abortion is often about control: control of a medical procedure, of reproduction, of women as a class, and, from some perspectives, population control. In politics, abortion is about winning elections and judicial appointments, and, in the United States, about the autonomy of states to set their own policies on reproductive choice. Whilst being about all these things sociologically and politically, a main thesis of this book is that at its philosophical heart, abortion is about whether the human fetus is rightly considered a person, in the moral, rights-holding sense. It goes without saying that the answer to this question will probably have implications for a number of problems outside of the abortion dispute, most notably, embryo experimentation and assisted reproduction techniques that typically involve embryo wastage, such as in vitro fertilization. I will not be making specific claims about these related topics, but will leave it to the reader to infer what bearing my arguments might have on them, if any.
Abortion is hardly in need of a definition, but in the interests of complete clarity, let me define it as the deliberate ending of a pregnancy with the known or desired result that the embryo or fetus will die. This book is predominantly concerned with how claims about the moral and legal permissibility of abortion intersect with claims about fetal, or ‘prenatal’, personhood—in other words, claims about whether the fetus is a person in the philosophical sense. In different places, I refer to this issue interchangeably as the question about what constitutes ‘personhood’, or ‘moral status’ or ‘full moral standing’ or full ‘moral considerability’. Exactly what is meant by that question, and how the designation ‘person’ differs from that of ‘human being’, will be clarified in chapter 1.