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Personhood v the Intrinsic Value of Human Life

‘Signal inconsistencies’

As we have seen, a key aspect of Dworkin’s account was the descriptive claim that prenatal personhood is not, in actual fact, at the root of public controversy over abortion—that it is not what people are arguing about—and that the features of

  • 18 ibid 90. -I ibid 20.
  • 19 ibid. See Dworkin chapter 3 generally, especially 91.
  • 20 ibid 101.

that controversy can be better explained when adopting the detached account of abortion’s contestedness, revolving around the intrinsic value of human life. The ‘signal inconsistencies’ were presented as valuable evidence that the crux of abortion disagreement must be something other than prenatal personhood. On Dworkin’s view, those inconsistencies, found on both sides of the abortion divide, are simply a bad fit with the derivative account.

Dworkin did not reach far, however, for alternative explanations of those putative inconsistencies which are more in keeping with a personhood-centred view of abortion conflict, despite the fact that many are available. We should probably not be at all surprised to find that many people hold ambivalent and even somewhat contradictory views on such a philosophically complex, politicized, and emotively charged subject as abortion. Such inconsistencies, which are not unique to abortion argument, could owe to any number of things. In the first place, the holders of those views may simply have not thought through their position with much analytical rigour, sheer lack of reflectiveness being, presumably, the most common source of argumentative incoherence. Alternatively, disputants may be led to embrace inconsistent concessions because of emotional or psychological biases, fear of social reproach, or even the need to disingenuously advocate compromise positions for politically strategic reasons.

Strategic necessity in particular strikes me as a very plausible reason why some political opponents and supporters of abortion rights might make concessions which look like inconsistencies. Ideological opponents of abortion may support exceptions in cases of rape, incest, or grave risk to the pregnant woman’s life for a number of pragmatic reasons: to avoid ostracizing moderates, to focus firepower on the more winnable battles, and so on. If this explanation were correct, we might well expect to see those opponents withdrawing the traditional concessions as and when political climates change and platforms can be radicalized without risking too much of the overall objective: to preserve as much fetal life as possible.

Certain ‘inconsistencies’ embraced by defenders of abortion rights could equally be driven by a political need to make concessions. Abortion rights campaigners often admit that abortion is always sad or a shame, even when justified. Although this admission does not chime well with the extremely low moral status they accord to the fetus, it can placate moderate sensibilities. As well as being tenable, mundane explanations like these are perfectly consistent with the pre-eminence of prenatal personhood in abortion disagreement.

Thus, there may be little about the public abortion conflict that is left inexplicable on the derivative account. But for what it is worth, the personhood-centred account of abortion disagreement also commands its own fair share of explanatory power, and in some respects outperforms the account based on the intrinsic value of human life. Dworkin noted, we saw, that the abortion conflict is uniquely ferocious as compared with practically all other public disagreements. But this feature accords far better with the derivative than with the detached version of the controversy. This is particularly true of the escalation to violence which has punctuated abortion conflict at times. As a response to the belief that abortion murders children, the shooting of abortionists is at least intelligible, if not justified. This is somewhat less the case when the protest is understood as the expression of just one interpretation of the intrinsic value of human life.

Without doubt, the nature of anti-abortion rhetoric has always lent a good deal of support to the personhood-centred view of abortion opposition. Verbal and pictorial protest messages invoke the language and imagery of murder, and assert or imply the moral equivalence of fetuses and babies. Anticipating this evidence in favour of the derivative view, Dworkin countered that opponents of abortion in fact only employ the rhetoric of murder in order to emphasize their objection based on the sanctity of human life.22 In short, talk of murdering babies simply packs more punch than spiritualistic rhetoric about life’s sacred value, although the real basis for opposition was always the latter.

Dworkin’s retort has some initial plausibility. But the idea that the anti-abortion movement’s assimilation of abortion with murder is empty rhetoric is increasingly difficult to accept, especially in light of the numerous recent attempts by pro-life politicians in the United States to enact state-level ‘personhood amendments’ which would redefine constitutional personhood as beginning from conception.23 If successful, such amendments would have the effect of outlawing most, if not all, abortion in the given state, in direct contravention of Roe v Wade. Less obviously, they would also have the effect of prohibiting embryo research and fertility treatments such as IVF which involve embryo wastage, an implication that has not deterred their proponents.

The ‘personhood movement’ is the most unequivocal demonstration yet of many abortion opponents’ depth of commitment to the belief that personhood begins at conception, and renders the derivative account of abortion opposition difficult to resist. To be sure, Dworkin may well have responded by insisting that this is yet another red herring, indicating at most that opponents of abortion are rhetorically committed to the notion of prenatal personhood, not that they are truly, deeply committed to it. But the wisdom of Occam’s Razor should prompt us to reject his alternative explanations in the absence of a clear need for them. Dworkin believed that the rhetoric and ferociousness of the abortion conflict are explained by the fact that disputants are conflicted over an essentially spiritual issue, whilst being mistaken about the true grounds of their disagreement. The far simpler and more obvious explanation is that one side in the conflict really does believe that murder is at stake, while the other side believes the idea so preposterous that bigotry and oppression is all that they can see as left to be marshalled against them. [1] [2]

  • [1] ibid 20—1. On page 21, he said: ‘They declare that abortion is murder, or just as bad as murder,and they insist that human life begins at conception, or that a fetus is a person from the beginning, notbecause they think a fetus has rights and interests but just to emphasise the depth of their feeling thatabortion is wrong because it is the deliberate destruction of the life of a human organism . . . We mustbe careful not to be led by emotionally charged descriptions about human life and persons and murderthat reveal strong emotions but are not a clear guide to the beliefs that people are emotional about.’
  • [2] In 2011 alone, fourteen state legislatures introduced twenty-six ‘personhood’ measures. Therehave been failed attempts to pass such legislation by voter ballot in Colorado, Iowa, Mississippi, andNorth Dakota. See, accessed 10 September 2015).
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