Gestation as Good Samaritanism
In the previous chapter, I introduced and defended the case for thinking that the question about the moral status, or ‘personhood’, of the fetus is central for moral and legal argument about abortion. As I pointed out, there are markedly different ways of trying to bypass the personhood inquiry in abortion argument. I have not yet said anything about women’s rights and, in particular, the interest that many women undoubtedly have in exercising bodily autonomy through abortion. In light of the importance of women’s rights and their potential interests in ending unwanted pregnancy, perhaps it can still be shown that the moral status of the fetus is either irrelevant or secondary in the rights and wrongs of abortion. A claim of this kind might run as follows:
Abortion is clearly permissible in almost all cases whether or not the fetus is a person, because a pregnant woman’s right to bodily autonomy supersedes or excludes a fetus’s right to life.
Let us refer to this as the Liberal Principle. The crux of the Liberal Principle is the triumph of a pregnant woman’s right to bodily autonomy, including the right to terminate her pregnancy, over any competing rights of the fetus, including the right to life. More than one form of argument might be brought under the banner of this principle. What unites arguments falling under the Liberal Principle is just their common conclusion that in the case of a maternal-fetal conflict, a woman’s right to decide what happens to her own body ought always (or almost always) to prevail.
Most importantly, the Liberal Principle, if correct, would obviate the need to consider the moral status of the fetus when addressing the morality of abortion. According to it, there is no reason to inquire into what a fetus is, morally speaking, since its situation of bodily dependence upon a pregnant woman wholly determines the permissibility of abortion without recourse to that question.