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Home arrow Health arrow Arguments about abortion : personhood, morality, and law


Before we get properly into the discussion, a small handful of issues need to be addressed. Terminology is a common cause of friction in the abortion debate, often for good reason. When still in the midst of argument, it is imperative to avoid stating things in ways that are tendentious. Therefore, I will be using the term ‘pregnant woman’ rather than the more prejudicial ‘mother’ to refer to bearers of pregnancies, and ‘fetus’, not ‘baby’ or ‘unborn child’, to refer to all forms of unborn human life, including embryos. (There are notable exceptions when dealing with arguments that explicitly assume, as part of their premises, that the fetus is a person.) My terms are meant not to convey any commitments about the nature of unborn human life but to convey only neutrality about that nature before the relevant arguments have been made.

The designations ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ are widely disliked for the reason that they imply false leanings on behalf of the opposing camp: opponents of abortion do not view their cause as one that abjures choice for women, and defenders of abortion rights do not see themselves as set against life. I will therefore mostly be employing the less provocative (if slightly more cumbersome) propositions of being in opposition to or in defence of abortion rights. I make an exception in chapter 1, where I refer to the ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ political movements as they are colloquially labelled.

The extent to which discussants in the abortion debate are entitled to rely on their own, or on common, settled judgements in constructing their arguments is another persistent issue in this topic. I will be following the approach of most discussants by according some presumptive epistemic force to moral judgements that are firmly held by most of us—for instance, the judgement that it is seriously wrong to terminate the lives of healthy human infants. It is not my view that an entrenched judgement such as this should never be reconsidered; to some extent, all relevant moral judgements are held in abeyance at the outset of my inquiry. However, reflecting on what does seem inescapably clear to us, including which practices are plainly morally impermissible, can be an essential step towards gaining understanding about what is less clear. In this discussion, the nature of abortion and the human fetus are the contentious matters. If every other commitment surrounding them were treated as equally contentious, we might struggle to make progress with the subject matter at all. Quite apart from holding the moral prohibition on infanticide very loosely, then, one could instead think that the consensus of judgement there is capable of giving some direction to our deliberations about abortion, and of helping us to see what, in particular, needs to be explained.

Some thinkers will no doubt be suspicious of this methodological inclination, and will view any degree of closed-mindedness about ancillary questions (such as the moral permissibility of infanticide) as an impediment to truth-finding, not a partial map. But no theorist can entirely avoid relying at points on propositions that seem to her, and to most people, to be obviously correct. The judgements that human sex cells are not morally considerable beings, and that contraception cannot possibly be murder, are also grounding premises in the abortion debate which, rather than being equally open to dispute, are used by proponents on both sides to shape their arguments about the nature of abortion. This is not to say that our starting presumptions about the moral status of sex cells, or infants, ought to remain immovable in our thinking about abortion, no matter what. But holding everything as equally up for debate at the outset of discussion might only steer us away from the most useful questions there are for understanding the special case of the fetus.

Next, it is important to keep in mind throughout that the questions concerning the moral character of abortion and the appropriate legal response to the practice are distinct. There may well be much that separates the reproductive choices people ought to make and those which the law is justified in enforcing. In regulating abortion, lawmakers must attend to considerations that the moralist need not—considerations like administrability, compliance, the aptness of legal coercion, and its collateral harms. All of these things should alert us to a possible, or even probable, gap between our moral conclusions about abortion practice and the best system of regulation. At the same time, one should expect the two matters—abortion morality and abortion law—to intersect in at least some meaningful ways, even if it is only that our conclusions about the moral nature of abortion practice form the starting point for ascertaining the optimal regulatory regime. The overlap between the correct moral and legal responses to abortion will be greater or lesser depending on what is believed about the nature of the human fetus. What follows about the proper legal status of abortion if it is the unjustified killing of a person is different from what might follow if abortion is morally unacceptable but does not equal the killing of a person. In particular, the law may have the elbow-room to frame its permissions more loosely than those of morality if the moral cost of abortion does not entail murder, but involves some less grave kind of wrong.

Still, in parts of the book the questions about abortion’s moral and legal permissibility will track one another quite closely. This is especially true of chapters 2 and 3, where I consider whether much abortion could be understood as justified homicide or the justified refusal to sustain the life of another person. With regard to the conditions for justified homicide in particular, there is no generally recognized gap between what morality requires and what the law can justifiably enforce. Consequently, much of that discussion will consider the moral and legal landscape in tandem.

It is worth saying one or two more words about the kind of discussion I will be conducting. This book is a work in normative legal and moral philosophy. As such, its primary focus is on the argumentative sustainability of broad propositions about the nature of abortion, about morally and legally permissible conduct, and about the logical consistency of certain sets of claims. It is not primarily concerned with sociological or doctrinal legal questions about abortion, such as how women respond to having abortions and why they have them, or how the law of abortion is and can be applied and interpreted. Though questions of these kinds may prove relevant to the main inquiry at points, they are not approached as independent subjects of investigation. This is not because I regard them as unimportant, but only because their answers do not bear on the particular puzzles central to my discussion.

Like other books about abortion ethics and moral status, I employ the argumentative device of thought-experiments at points. I do this with some awareness of the scepticism harboured by some about the usefulness of abstract hypotheticals for enhancing moral understanding of problems like this. The source of that scepticism is well expressed by Stephen Mulhall when he writes:

... thought experiments in ethics presuppose that we can get clearer about what we think concerning a single, specific moral issue by abstracting it from the complex web of interrelated matters of fact and of valuation within which we usually encounter and respond to it. But what if the issue means what it does to us, has the moral significance it has for us, precisely because of its place in that complex web? If so, to abstract it from that context is to ask us to think about something else altogether — something other than the issue that interested us in the first place; it is, in effect, to change the subject.[1]

With respect to abortion, the concern might be that the use of thought-experiments which are far removed from pregnancy will, in all likelihood, fail to account for many of the morally salient aspects of pregnancy and abortion which are bound up with the real-life context in which it is embedded. Perhaps not everything that is important about pregnancy and abortion can be captured by hypotheticals about violinists with kidney ailments or conjoined twins or intelligent Martians. This issue will be explored in greater detail in chapter 4. As a brief opening apologetic, I will say only that it is extremely difficult to bring more general moral and legal principles to bear on the abortion question without looking at how those principles operate outside of the abortion context, and that it is not entirely clear to me how argument about abortion is meant to proceed without marshalling and applying any of our more general moral commitments. I will not, therefore, avoid the thought-experiment method in my discussion. However, mindful of Mulhall’s caution, I will try to use them judiciously and to remain alert to important aspects of pregnancy and abortion which they might obscure.

The main stakeholders in abortion rights are of course women. Some readers might therefore be dismayed by the relative sparseness of discussion here about women’s interests in accessing abortion and the realities of unwanted pregnancy and abortion prohibitions on women’s lives. Philosophical accounts of abortion in which the fetus appears to be central and the pregnant woman somewhat marginalized can be antagonizing to some, and for understandable reasons. The only reason why women’s interests in abortion access do not occupy more space in my own analysis is because I take it completely as granted that a considerable amount is on the line for women in securing reproductive control, and that denying them that control is inexorably damaging—damaging to their health, life, happiness, and equality. This much is, in my view, beyond serious contention, and it is for this reason that I do not devote more space to expounding the profound negative implications of abortion prohibitions for women.

Neither do I apportion any space to examining the contrary claim that safe abortion provision actually harms women, for the simple reason that I do not think it can be taken seriously. This is not to say that no woman could be or has ever been harmed by an abortion, emotionally or physically. That is surely untrue. But almost any medical procedure is potentially harmful to anyone—physically or emotionally—in the right conditions. The prevalent claim by philosophical opponents of abortion that “abortion harms women” can therefore only be understood as the more particular claim that abortion has such a propensity to harm those choosing it, and inflicts a degree of harm which, overall, so far outweighs its benefits, that it is best understood as a bad thing for womankind. This is the claim which I regard as so palpably false as to not warrant any engagement.

  • [1] Stephen Mulhall, The Wounded Animal: J M Coetzee & the Difficulty of Reality in Literature andPhilosophy (Princeton University Press 2009) 27.
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