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What Should Abortion Argument Be About?

When we argue about abortion, what should we argue about? When a topic is so mired in moral complexity, it can be difficult to gain clarity on just where one’s starting point ought to be. Nevertheless, precisely where the locus of debate should reside is not just an interesting question in its own right, but an essential first piece of the puzzle when it comes to thinking through the rights and wrongs of abortion. For many discussants, the argumentative priority of establishing what we are dealing with ontologically or morally in a human fetus—that is to say, whether a fetus is what we understand to be a ‘person’ or not—is self-evident. Conversely, some serious and influential contributions to the abortion debate have sought to establish that the moral status of the fetus is not decisive either for the morality or legality of abortion, or is even rendered redundant by other philosophical considerations.

Speaking plainly, there is more than one way of telling someone that she is asking the wrong question about a contentious subject matter. On the one hand, one could say that her question misfires because the answer to that question will not, in the end, determine anything critical in the discussion, and then go on to illustrate why this is so. Alternatively, one might claim that there is something inherently defective about the question itself—that it asks something that cannot be answered; that it is irrational or unintelligible; that it is not pertinent to the topic under consideration, or that it is not what disputants are truly arguing about. Challenges of both kinds are captured by certain arguments in academic discussion about abortion. Such arguments seek, in one way or another, to bypass the ‘personhood’ question in moral and legal reasoning about abortion.

As an example of challenges of the first kind, take the following claim, which we will call the ‘Good Samaritan Thesis’ (GST):

The Good Samaritan Thesis: Abortion is morally permissible in all (or almost all) cases, whether or not the fetus is a person, because gestation is a form of Good Samaritanism— that is, it is a form of supererogatory assistance that no one person could be morally obligated to perform in order to preserve the life of another. Consequently, abortion only discontinues non-obligatory, life-preserving assistance.

The GST claims that abortion is always or almost always permissible, whether the human fetus is a person or not. In effect, it sidelines the personhood question by stating that it is never, or hardly ever, morally obligatory for a woman to carry a pregnancy to term, even to save the life of another person. The most well-known iteration of the GST comes in the way of an analogy drawn by Judith Thomson

Arguments about Abortion: Personhood, Morality, and Law. First Edition. Kate Greasley. © K. Greasley 2017. Published 2017 by Oxford University Press.

between pregnancy and a hypothetical situation in which a person is kidnapped and forcibly connected to a famous, ailing violinist, whose unique kidney condition means that he needs to be connected to the other person’s body for the next nine months in order to survive.1 Thomson’s argument is that just as the unfortunate person is surely permitted to unplug the violinist and terminate the bodily support, even with the result that the violinist will die, so a woman is permitted to discontinue her bodily support of a fetus by having it removed from her body.

Another personhood-bypassing challenge of the first kind is what we might call the Justified Homicide Thesis (JHT), which claims the following:

The Justified Homicide Thesis: Abortion is morally permissible in all (or almost all) cases, whether or not the fetus is a person, because it is a recognizable instance of justifiably killing another person.

The JHT begins by pointing out that our moral and legal principles make exceptions to the general prohibition on killing other persons. This includes, for instance, situations of self-defence, or just war, or in situations of what criminal lawyers have called ‘necessity’, where by killing one person is the only way of avoiding an even greater loss of life.[1] [2] It then claims that if the fetus were a person, abortion would often or always fit those exceptions. JHT differs substantially from GST by analysing abortion as an act of killing, not just the refusal to save. Hence, the two theses construct abortion’s permissibility in different ways. On JHT, abortion is an example of justified killing, and on GST, of a justified refusal to save life.

Let me put the merits of the GST and JHT to one side for now. My concern here is instead with personhood-bypassing challenges of the second kind. As I said, challenges of that kind do not proceed by claiming that, in the final analysis, the permissibility of abortion does not depend upon whether the fetus is a person or not. They have an altogether different character, asserting that the personhood question is a misguided starting point for philosophical discussion and/or legal reasoning about abortion. In what follows I want to examine some such challenges and ask whether they are at all convincing. In short, is there reason to throw out the personhood question in the very early stages of our thinking about abortion?

  • [1] See Judith Jarvis Thomson, A Defense ofAbortion’ (1971) Philosophy and Public Affairs 1,47—66.
  • [2] Both exceptions are, naturally, subject to proportionality requirements. Actions taken in selfdefence must be not only necessary to resist the harm threatened by another person but also proportionate to that harm (e.g. one may not kill in self-defence to avoid sustaining only a minor injury).Homicides performed out of necessity are also subject to the proportionality requirement that more ofvalue—namely, human life—is preserved by the killing than is lost by it (and even then, philosophersheavily dispute which side-constraints on necessity killing still apply). These issues are the subject matter of chapter 3.
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