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The Argument to Come

Does the morality of abortion depend on the moral status of the human fetus? Must the law of abortion presume an answer to the question of when personhood begins? Can a law which permits late abortion but not infanticide be morally justified? These are just some of the questions this book sets out to address.

The book is divided into three parts. Part I is solely concerned with the relevance of prenatal personhood for the moral and legal evaluation of abortion. Contrary to some accounts of the abortion problem, it defends the basic proposition that the argument for abortion rights does indeed critically depend upon whether the human fetus is rightly regarded as a ‘person’ in the philosophical sense. I examine a few long-standing philosophical accounts of abortion that are alike in concluding that we do not need to decide whether or not the fetus has full personhood status in order to draw the correct conclusion about the morality or legality of abortion.

Those accounts include, most notably, Ronald Dworkins view that abortion argument is, at root, not about whether the fetus is a person in the philosophical sense, but rather about different interpretations of the intrinsic value of human life, and Judith Jarvis Thomson’s argument that even if the fetus is a person, abortion can be considered as the mere failure by a pregnant woman to proffer it non-obligatory life-sustaining assistance. Chapter 3 considers the somewhat different claim that even if the fetus is a person, abortion could be subsumed under moral and legal categories of justified homicide, and chapter 4 examines the view that considerations of sex equality relegate the personhood question to irrelevancy in the abortion debate. Against all such propositions, I argue that deciding what the human fetus is, morally speaking, is of pre-eminent importance in legal and ethical reasoning about abortion.

In Part II, I turn to the substantive debate about the nature of personhood. Disappointingly, no doubt, I do not advance any novel theory about the conditions for personhood or about when persons begin. Instead, I trace the key features of the conventional debate about when persons begin to exist and ask what further beliefs and commitments are seemingly implied by certain familiar strains of argument. In particular, I suggest that arguments in favour of the conception threshold of personhood which point to the putative ‘arbitrariness’ of all post-conception thresholds (viability, consciousness, birth, and so on) seem to presuppose a view about how persons begin, which I term ‘punctualism’. Punctualism is the belief that personhood status is acquired completely and instantaneously, and that there can be no vague period in which human beings gradually become persons. In chapter 5, I claim that there is good reason to reject the punctualist thesis and to accept the antithetical ‘gradualist’ view, which holds that, whatever its constitutive features, the advent of personhood is a process which admits of no non-arbitrarily distinguishable points. In chapter 6, I consider and reject some further arguments for embracing the punctualist thesis and for the view that complete persons must have come into being by the completion of conception. These include arguments which seek to move from claims about the conditions of continuing personal identity to the conclusion that all zygotes are persons.

Chapter 7 is something of a fresh start. I restate the compelling arguments for believing that our concept of a person has chiefly to do with a cluster of sophisticated cognitive and emotional capacities, as well as the perennial problem that not all human beings post-birth possess all of those capacities. I argue that some rejections of the so-called ‘developmental’ (capacities-based) view of personhood’s conditions use the wrong test for conceptual salience—that is, they wrongly hold that every constitutive feature of personhood must also be an essential feature of all persons. Still, the ostensible absence of any sophisticated cognitive or emotional capacities in human beings before birth is also a challenge for so-called ‘graduated’ accounts of pre-birth moral status, which hold that fetuses become more morally considerable as gestation progresses. Drawing on recent work about the moral status of animals, I suggest instead that the basic (and popular) intuition that later abortion is more morally serious than early abortion can be vindicated by thinking about the moral respect we have reason to demonstrate for human embodiment.

Chapter 8 turns to address two of the most prominent issues in the abortion ethics literature: the human equality problem and the moral difference between abortion and infanticide. The problem from human equality asserts that any account which takes personhood status to supervene on developmentally acquired attributes, such as self-consciousness or rationality, is inconsistent with a commitment to basic human equality, since those attributes can be possessed in greater and lesser degrees by human beings post-birth. The implication, it is argued, is that only a conception of personhood as being constituted by human genetic completeness (a test met by zygotes) can account for human equality. I try to adduce reasons of a moral nature for treating personhood status as a ‘range property’, meaning that it is fully and equally borne out by all human beings past a minimum threshold. I go on to suggest that there are good reasons for the law in particular to set that minimum threshold at live birth, notwithstanding the close resemblances of late fetuses and neonates. I do, however, partly call into question the popular philosophical view that there are no ‘intrinsic’ differences between human beings immediately prior to and subsequent to birth.

Finally, Part III turns to some specific issues of abortion law and regulation. Chapter 9 considers what implications my conclusions in Parts I and II have when it comes to framing a good law of abortion, as well as the question of what the serious commitment to a ‘right’ to abortion (even if only up to a certain gestational point) would require. I also examine some problems arising out of gaps between the morality of reproductive decision-making and the justifications for legal interference, including the well-rehearsed ‘back-street abortion argument’ based on counterproductiveness of regulation. Chapter 10 considers the special case of selective abortion on the ground of fetal sex or disability of the future child, focussing on the ways in which attitudes towards these special kinds of abortion have been harnessed in the wider moral debate. The final chapter offers some comments on the current controversy surrounding the scope of the right to conscientiously object to participation in abortion provision.

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