Abortion and Personhood

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Someone asked me to blog about abortion, thinking that I've never said anything about it. I have, but I haven't really given a solid defense of why I think abortion is wrong, though. I've more explored issues around the sidelines that I think have some bearing on the general area of topics. I do think there are excellent arguments for being solidly pro-life in the way that John Ashcroft is. He's seen as a Nazi on this issue who just wants to control women because he has such strong opposition to abortion. I'm sure that this was the major reason so many Democratic senators opposed his nomination for Attorney General. They simply thought he was a bigot because they were too ignorant to appreciate the position he has and the reasons for it. I think the majority of philosophers are in the same position, and I think it's merely ignorance in many cases. That's not to say that the liberal position on abortion doesn't bring something to the table that conservatives need to hear. I see a number of crucial points in Judith Jarvis Thomson's fundamental paper on the topic that conservatives would do well to acknowledge, though I think in the end her paper supports nothing like the abortion-on-demand that has been allowed in this country despite the false claims that liberals really want to make abortion rare. If they really wanted it rare, they'd be happy to restrict it rather than fighting tooth-and-nail against a law that forbids delivering a child halfway and then killing it before it's born on the grounds that somehow it's safer to kill a kid in mid-childbirth than it is to go through with the birth and just not have the kid raised by the woman who wanted to kill her child after halfway giving birth.

I've taught on abortion enough times and read enough different papers on it during the different times I've taught it that I think I have a better understanding of the liberal position on abortion than most liberals do. I know I have a better understanding of it than most students I've had who are inclined to that view. I say I understand it, but I don't think I really understand it. Peter van Inwagen is fond of saying things like that about metaphysical pictures that don't agree with his own, and one philosopher I know calls it Petering out when he has no real objection. Another philosopher I know refers to it as finding something unInwagenable. I think I really am in that position with the philosophical orthodoxy about abortion.

The assumption is that moral status has something to do with developed intelligence, ability to think and plan, and moral reasonsing. I've never seen a decent argument for that sort of concept of personhood and the resultant claim that a fetus is not a person. In most ordinary speech, 'person' and 'human being' have always seemed to me to be synonymous, and even an embryo is clearly a human organism at least. I've been around enough pregnant women who talk about the little person inside them that I can't believe this use of 'person' matches up with the ordinary one, and I think the burden of proof lies with those who think they differ. The only reasons I've seen for the view that personhood involves extra traits not possessed by a fetus are question-begging, such as the claim that a brain-dead person (though no one will put it that way) is not really a person, something I would never grant. The pro-life person doesn't need to assume that an embryo has moral status to make her claim. She merely has to assert neutrality on that issue. If you're neutral on the issue, you won't assume that an embryo has no moral status, and you'll tread lightly when you might be doing something immoral by destroying an embryo, in case it turns out that a fetus is a person.

That's especially important when roughly half the country takes an attitude at least as conservative as this neutrality view. Yet the pro-choice view, which says it takes a neutral stance, doesn't take neutrality on the issue as favoring caution and therefore isn't really neutral in that sense. A pro-choice position really requires that a fetus is not a person and that abortion involves nothing wrong. Unless you hold such a strong view, I can't see how you can take a pro-choice position, and I just don't see any arguments for that strong view. That's why I think the pro-life view should be the default position.

The pro-choice side tries to further its cause with the story that pro-life Christians who hold their views entirely on authority. This is not so. Many people in the pro-life movement are not religious at all but are pro-life on feminist grounds, thinking that a genuine feminist ethic requires emphasizing the most important biological relationship a woman can have over those outside forces who try to coerce her into having an abortion because of their hopes for her life. Others may or may not be Christians but simply believe a fetus to be a person (or at least aren't willing to deny it for the reasons I've been giving). Some may not even want to go that far but just think abortion is wrong in most cases because it kills something that is clearly human and clearly innocent with respect to the action, even in cases of conception due to rape, and they don't think the convenience of the life of the mother in most cases could possibly give any reason to end such a life, as is the case with a great many abortions. So there are plenty of non-religious motivations to oppose abortion.

Notice that I haven't really argued for the position that a fetus is a person, but don't object that I've left out such a crucial step, because I don't need it. My argument is simply that such a view deserves the benefit of the doubt given the high stakes involved and the lack of argument that a fetus isn't a person.

I also realize that there are more complicated issues, such as Thomson's arguments that abortion might be ok even if a fetus is a person, but those arguments assume things that I think are false. One argument only attempts to show that in a case of rape a woman has no obligation to keep a child she didn't invite into her body, but I think if someone left a kid on my doorstep I'd have an obligation to take care of the kid until I could find someone else to do so. In this case, that involves waiting until delivery is safe. If the assumption is personhood, the cause of the person's existence is irrelevant, and the harship on the person who finds the child is also of much lower moral importance. I'm not being insensitive to rape here. I'm just being more sensitive to killing of persons.

The other argument Thomson gives is that the right to life isn't necessarily a right to protection from whatever harm might befall someone. I think this is irrelevant also, even though it's correct. It's not like when some harm might befall someone, and the cops can't get there in time. It's more like when someone is trying to kill someone and the cops can't get there in time (or are prevented from doing anything because it's a legal killing and thus not murder). But how is saying that the government doesn't have an obligation to protect every person from harm allow the further claim that abortion isn't always wrong and can't therefore being punished by law? The murders that the government has no absolute obligation to prevent are still punishable by law.

There may be one other argument Thomson gives, but I can't think of it at the moment, and I haven't heard any other sophisticated objections to the inference from personhood of a fetus to wrongness of abortion. So I think there's a very strong argument, with no religious assumptions whatsoever, against pretty much all abortion. The one exception I'm not sure I have arguments about would be when the mother's life is threatened. If it's one or the other, I suppose some might think the mother is the more important life to save, particularly if she's not being selfish in wanting to be saved but desires to be around to raise her other four children, say. On the other hand, I can see good arguments for saying that it would be selfish to make such an argument if there aren't other people dependent on her. If I didn't have anyone dependent on me, I couldn't think of it as anything but selfish to preserve my own life over that of a very young child. Given my children's dependence on me, that's at least less clear. So I'm not sure what I think there, but in all these other areas my study of the classic and best articles defending a pro-choice view have done nothing but confirm the views I had before I started, even though at times during my looking at and teaching these issues have moved me around a few times on more minor issues.

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Jeremy at Parableman talks up a philosopher's view of Abortion and Personhood... Reminds me of the papers i'd read for the ethics course Ed Beiser taught at Brown, what was it... University Course 71 or something like that...... Read More

For this Philosophers' Carnival we received a number of great submissions, as well as a number of great nominations. Where possible, I have trackbacked both submissions and nominations to signal their presence in the Carnival. Read More

...hope to make abortion �safe, legal, and rare�. Parableman�s archived ruminations on this subject also point out the disingenuous nature of leftist claims supposedly aspiring to make abortion �rare"... Read More


I actually agree with quite a lot of this. It's not nearly so easy an issue as a lot of liberals think. I'm a pro-choice liberal, but I get there via some moral beliefs that most liberals have no interest being anywhere near (such as, for instance, that an infant's life is worth very little compared to an adult's).

I wonder whether *Republicans* want it rare. Republicans put up a good show of being pro-life, anti gay marriage, etc, but after 30 years of peddling this to socially conservative voters, what did those voters get? Not much.

Republicans promise socially conservative policies to voters when they're campaigning, but once in office, deliver tax breaks to the rich and corporations.

Social conservatives are simply being had by the Republican Party.

No, Republicans passed a major restriction on abortion this last session. The courts haven't been allowing it, on really strange grounds, but it went through. Given how hard that was, it would be really stupid for any Republican to try to do anything much more than that right now. That's why it's just simply wise that this was all they tried. Contrast it with their foolish move this year to try for an amendment that they knew full well they didn't have enough votes for. I do think some major Republican leaders lead evangelicals around on a leash and merely act as if they care about issues evangelicals care about, just as major Democratic leaders do the same with black voters. I don't think that's the case with most of the Republicans in Congress right now, though. They've made great efforts to do something that there was incredible resistance to, and they pulled it off. Now it will remain done as long as doctors will stop lying to judges by pretending that it's ever healthier for a mother to deliver halfway, kill the kid, then finish the delivery than it is simply to do a normal delivery. No decently-trained doctor could seriously think such a thing.

I enjoyed this. I think most of your criticisms of Thomson are on target. But at the end of your paper you bring up the issue of whether it is selfish (and morally wrong, you imply) to refuse to sacrifice oneself to save the life of one's fetus. Perhaps, but if this is true, then people must also accept that they are under a duty to sacrifice their own lives in any other analogous situation where someone's survival demands it them. Suppose, for example, that someone has for months depended on your feeding them, and that they suddenly suffer heart failure and face death unless you (the only match) give them your heart, would we call it selfish (and morally wrong) for you to refuse? Most people, I imagine, would say that it wouldn't. But then they shouldn't say that it is selfish for the mother to have an abortion to save her life. Perhaps someone can find a disanalogy between these two cases, but it shouldn't just be that one case involves a mother since the duties of a mother are precisely what's at issue here. -Thanks again for the very interesting discussion.

Chris, I don't accept your terms. I think it's true, and epistemologically prior, that you have greater obligations to those who are in existing relationships with than you to do those who are not. Then the strongest such relationships, the closest, are the ones you have the greatest obligation to. That includes children, especially those most dependent on you. For those reasons, I don't think the case you give is analogous. As I said before, this might be counterbalanced by other children if saving the life of the fetus will mean not being around for the other kids. I'm not sure what I think about that. That's not the case I had in mind, though.

Hi Jeremy. A couple of thoughts on Thomson's position. Assume that the fetus is a person. Her claim is that the fetus does not have the positive right to be sustained by the mother (just as the violinist has no positive right that you sustain him). That being the case, it is permissible for the mother to disconnect herself.

This is usually objected to along the following line. While it's true that the fetus does not have this positive right, it does have the negative right not to be killed. Since the abortion does not *merely* remove the lines of sustenance but also kills the fetus, it is a violation of his negative right not to be killed.

I'm not sure about this response. The issue hangs on whether it's ever acceptable to kill an innocent aggressor (think of the fat man stuck in the cave with a crowd behind him with the dynamite--I don't recall whose example this is). It does seem that in some drastic cases--perhaps where my life is at stake--it might be permissible to kill an innocent aggressor. To be fair, there are many other cases where this seems wrong (Schwarz and Brody have counterexamples as I recall).

So, first what's your position on innocent aggressor issues?

Second, if it's established that the mother can proceed with the abortion without violating the fetus' negative right, pro-lifers move to establish the fetus' positive right to be sustained. This is typically done by appealing to the special obligations that hold between parents and their children. Since the fetus is a person (ex hypothesi), it must be the mother's child, right?

Again, here I'm not so sure. Thomson openly rejects the claim that biological relation is sufficient for the type of moral parent/child relationship from which these special duties arise. (the biology is obviously not a necessary condition, e.g. adoption, etc.). At first blush, this looks right. After all, it seems odd to think that a sperm donor has special obligations to whatever children are formed as a result of his "deposit." But, we routinely hold fathers accountable for child support, etc. even after a one-night stand with a stranger. So this seems to suggest that the biological connection is sufficient.

Any thoughts on either concern? References would be helpful too, if you know of any (I'm teaching abortion right now in my bioethics class).

I don't know what I think about innocent aggressor cases with large numbers of people at stake. Shelly Kagan's Normative Ethics mentions the view that it's ok to blow up a tank that's going to run over your family, and it's ok to do this even if there's a baby strapped to the front of it. The minute I read that I wondered how many people he'd actually talked to before saying that most people think that would be ok. Most people I know would probably think it's thoroughly immoral, even if the people driving the tank are deliberately trying to kill your family.

But those cases aren't even parallel to abortion. That's one person killing one person. I don't think one person has the right to kill one other innocent person (innocent with respect to all relevant issues, anyway; I don't think anyone is absolutely innocent) simply out of self-defense. Even if I did grant that, it would only work in cases of self-defense, not in cases of convenience. Thomson acknowledges this, but I get the feeling that she's sort of downplaying just how rare the cases of self-defense are (and they're even more rare thirty years later).

I don't think you even have to be a parent to have the obligation to sustain the child's life. If I came home and found a baby on my porch, I can't see how I wouldn't have an obligation to take care of it, at least until I could find the proper authorities to provide for it. This is without myself having done anything to bring the child into existence or to lead to its being left on my porch. If I did have something to do with causing its existence, wouldn't that be an even stronger obligation? This has nothing to do with genetic connection. It's causal responsibility leading to moral responsibility.

OK, as to the innocent aggressor stuff, it seems that unless one is a total pacifist, then it will be morally permissible (in at least some cases) to kill innocent aggressors. Imagine for a moment that the Iraq war was a just war waged out of national self-defense, etc. It's just a matter of fact that innocents are killed in the course of waging war. Maybe they wouldn't qualify as "agressors" here. And, you're right, this is a case of sacrificing one innocent life to save many, so it wouldn't apply in the abortion case. Still, it can't be ruled out a priori merely because the act would kill an innocent aggressor.

I think you're right about the baby on the porch issue, but I'm not sure that this helps. Thought-experiment: what if I were cloned by an evil-scientist so that there were 10,000 little Justins running around. Surely I don't have duties to sustain all of them even though I am "causally" related to each of them. So it isn't obvious that causal connection is sufficient to establish a positive duty to sustain.

I'm fairly sure I hold something like Aquinas' law of double effect: Intending harm is defined as either of the following:

(a) doing as action with the goal of harming someone
(b) doing an action with the resulting harm as a means to your goal

The law of double effect says that it's wrong to do any action that intends harm in either way. It further says that it's ok to do an action that you know full well will lead to harm as long as both of the following hold:

(1) you don't intend harm in either sense (a) or sense (b)
(2) the goal you have in mind is good enough that (in effect) a consequentialist would consider it ok to do the action

The second condition is a little oversimplifying, but it's a nice shorthand for the general idea. If your goal is evil, the law of double effect doesn't justify it. Even if it's good, it might be morally horrendous to try to achieve it if more people will die than you're trying to save, for instance. So you need some kind of qualification there. The first requirement is what makes it not merely consequentialist.

Now if you take a view like that, you can explain the prohibition against a goal of killing innocents and against using the death of innocents as a means to an end. If you know innocents will die, and the goal is worth it, you can still justify the action this way. That's why a just war theory can even get off the ground.

What this means for abortion is that you have to work really hard to try to show that the death of the fetus is not a means to the primary goal. I don't think you can do it.

Ah, but you're not causally responsible for creating the 10,000 little Justins. The evil scientist is. That's the difference between biological source and the cause. You were the material cause and perhaps the formal cause, but you weren't the efficient cause, which is what we who use English call a cause in normal use of the language. When a man has sex with a woman, leading to conception, he's the efficient cause of that conception and not just the material cause.

There are two other factors about this case that make me think it doesn't help the pro-choice argument. One is that the reason you don't think you have the responsibility is probably because you think ought implies can. So a normal moral principle might apply in most cases but not when it's impossible to fulfill one's responsibilities. Maybe you have a responsibility toward a smaller number of them that you can do something about, though. In abortion cases, it's hardly ever like that. One reason is no one is aborting 10,000 fetuses at once.

The other reason is that I can think of a reason why the moral principle might be genuine but simply not apply in the case 10,000 Justins case. Even in the most serious cases of hardship, I can't see why it wouldn't be possible to put up with the pregnancy until birth and then adoption, and that's what would be required for the "ought implies can" argument to work. (I don't agree with that principle myself, but almost everyone does, so I don't mind using it to explain most people's moral judgments.)

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