I started the semester off in my applied ethics class with a unit on abortion, so I've been thinking a lot about arguments in the abortion literature that you don't often see at the popular level. I haven't taught this subject since fall 2004, so I'm sort of coming at a lot of this from a fresh perspective and rethinking a lot of the arguments I've been familiar with. Several things have occurred to me that seemed worth blogging about, so you can look for several posts on abortion in the next week or so as I write up my thoughts on some of these things.
One highly-anthologized article on abortion is Don Marquis' "Why Abortion Is Immoral". Marquis sets out to explain why abortion is immoral without assuming the personhood of the fetus. He instead develops an account of why killing in general is wrong. Killing is wrong, says Marquis, not because of some intrinsic property of the thing being killed (e.g. its capacity to feel pain, its consciousness, its ability to plan for the future, its self-concept, and so on), but because of the future it would otherwise have or be likely to have if you don't kill it. The reason it would be wrong to kill me is because of what you're taking away from me if you do so -- my future. The reason it's wrong to kill anything is because of the future you're robbing it of.
Now it follows that you're robbing a fetus of a future, and the future you're robbing it of is one like the future you and I have. You're even robbing it of more of a future, since it won't even get what you and I have already had that's now in our past. So abortion is wrong because it robs a fetus of a future like ours. This is so even if a fetus isn't a person. It has moral status not because of its current properties but because of what you would be taking away from it if you do certain things to it. In other words, its future (or what would otherwise be its future) is what guarantees the wrongness of killing it (and what you might derivatively call its right to life, but this is now being framed in very different terms.
That's the primary argument of Marquis' article. He doesn't spend much time developing it. Most of his effort goes toward motivating his theory of why killing is wrong and explaining why it's superior to person-based accounts. In this post, I'm not going to focus in on whether his theory of killing is correct, but I do want to flag a part of his support for it that strikes me as question-begging or at least as only appealing to a relatively small subset of potential readers.
One of the features he presents for his view on why killing is wrong is that it gives the right results about a number of other issues. Philosophers often give such arguments. They present a theory about something, and then they point out that their theory fits nicely with people's intuitions about other matters, and the alternative theories they're considering conflict with those same intuitions. The problem in Marquis' use of this strategy is that he chooses some controversial intuitions, indeed a pretty strange combination of them.
He says that his view gives the right results on other moral questions involving death or prevention of a future. The cases he discusses are euthanasia, infanticide, contraception, and treatment of non-humans. The contrasting views are mainly the pro-choice argument based on the non-personhood of the fetus (particularly the argument of Mary Anne Warren in "On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion"), pro-life arguments based on the personhood of the fetus (especially the Roman Catholic version that opposes contraception), and the "consistent life ethic" or "sanctity of human life" position common among pro-lifers.
His account allows for euthanasia in cases when there is little prospect for a good future. Killing in such circumstances isn't robbing the person of much. Euthanasia is wrong only when it robs the person of a future like ours. Infanticide is wrong for the same reasons abortion is wrong, unless you've got a case where there's little hope for a future like ours (or one sufficiently like ours to be worth living). Humans aren't the only beings (at the very least theoretically) who might have a future like ours, and killing animals is wrong to the extent that the future you rob them would have features like the features in our lives, and if we were to encounter beings like us it would be just like killing us. Finally, contraception doesn't come out as wrong on his view, because there is nothing yet to have a future like ours until conception. A sperm or egg isn't yet the organism that would have a future like ours, and there isn't one such organism before contraception given the thousands or perhaps millions of possible organisms that could be created in any sexual act.
What's funny about this argument is that Marquis just assumes most people would agree with him about all these cases. He says his view is better than the "sanctity of life" view because it allows for cases of euthanasia. Those who hold the "sanctity of life" view, which is most people who are pro-life, aren't going to be all that moved by an argument that says their moral convictions are wrong. Those who are Catholic will be particularly unmoved by this, because he's also challenging their view on contraception. His animal rights position is moderate, but those who see animals as fully in the moral community will think his account doesn't fully explain why (and a lot of pro-choice people are in this category. The particular combination of views he holds is confirmed by his account of killing's wrongness, but it's an unusual combination that a lot of people who might be inclined to consider his argument would not intuitively hold.
The one place where I think this argument makes sense is in its challenge to the non-personhood account of why abortion is perfectly ok, at least the particular version of it offered by Mary Anne Warren. Warren holds that personhood is a set of properties that gradually develop in a human organism that aren't really present in enough form to count as personhood until well after birth. Thus, on her view, abortion is perfectly ok for any reason whatsoever, since the thing you're killing has absolutely zero moral status, even less than many animals that she holds to have some (but less than adult human) moral status. The implication of her argument is that infanticide should also be ok, and some philosophers who hold this view (e.g. Peter Singer, Michael Tooley) simply accept that conclusion.
Warren's problem is that she doesn't. She thinks infanticide is wrong. The problem is that she can't say it's wrong for any reasons remotely like why most people think it's wrong. We usually think it's wrong to kill a newborn or infant because of what's true about a newborn or infant. It's a human being, and killing a human being is evil. Warren has to restrict herself to the following consderations. 1. Many people want to adopt a child, so infanticide robs them of that. (This ignores that this is only true mainly of white children who are uninjured, not deformed, and not infected with serious diseases like HIV.) Infants are thus like works of art. Killing them is like destroying someone's property or preventing someone from getting a nice piece of property. 2. People want infants preserved, and killing infants in such a climate is wrong because it goes against the predominant (but false) moral view (and people are willing and able to give humane enough care for infants in orphanages). [Warren then says these considerations aren't going to make the difference with abortion, because they're not strong enough to overcome the argument from the bodily rights of a pregnant woman, which don't arise with infanticide.]
As Marquis points out, such reasons for opposing infanticide are seriously inadequate to match most people's intuitions about why infanticide is wrong. But of course that doesn't mean Marquis has given the right account of why killing is wrong. It just means Warren's view doesn't match up with our intuitions about killing. Marquis offers one alternative, one that relies on a whole bunch of assumptions that many will find controversial. Other views on the wrongness of killing will also explain why infanticide is wrong, and those views will involve different views on those controversial issues. So I don't think this is a very strong argument for Marquis' view. This isn't to say that his account of why killing is wrong is wrong. I think it's at least one of the reasons why killing is wrong (but I don't think it conflicts with a "sanctity of human life" account; someone could hold both). I just think it's a very funny way to try to argue for a view. Assuming a set of controversial views and then expecting people to accept your account because it happens to agree with your take on those controversial issues isn't exactly a strong argument.