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ABORTION

Contents: 1. 2. 3. 4. The Abortion Debate Judith Jarvis Thomsons Argument Don Marquiss Argument Mary Anne Warrens Argument

1. The Abortion Debate

Is it morally wrong for a woman to have an abortion? Or rather, is it morally permissible for her to do this? In recent decades, these ethical questions have been hotly debated. (Abortion is probably one of the first topics that comes to mind when you try to think of an example of a heated ethical debate.) In spite of the attention that the abortion debate has received nationwide, it doesnt seem like were any closer to a resolution to this debate than we were decades ago. Most pro-life advocates continue to insist that abortion is always morally wrong (and that therefore, it should be illegal); most pro-choice advocates continue to insist that abortion is a morally permissible procedure that a woman may justifiably choose for herself (and that therefore, abortion must not be made illegal).* Its still exceedingly difficult to imagine how pro-lifers and pro-choicers could ever come to some kind of consensus on this topic. (*Were mainly going to focus on whether abortion is morally wrong, a different issue from whether abortion should remain legalyou could, for instance, think both that its wrong for a woman to have an abortion, and that its wrong for the government to interfere with her life by preventing her from having an abortion. But you should notice that moral and legal issues are normally both at stake in discussions of pro-life and pro-choice positions on abortion.) It would be nice if there was a convincing argument for or against the claim that abortion is wrong. What are some of the reasons usually given for thinking that abortion is wrong? Or for thinking that its not wrong? Are any of these reasons ultimately persuasive? Could a more persuasive argument be generated by applying one of our favored moral theories to the topic of abortion? What are some of the utilitarian considerations in play? That is: Does it contribute to or detract from the greatest happiness of the greatest number when a person chooses to have an abortion?

Or when a society condones the practice of abortion? What are some of the nonconsequentialist considerations in play? For instance: Are anyones rights being violated if we as a society do or dont condone the practice of abortion? Traditionally, the abortion debate has revolved around that last question. The standard anti-abortion argument says that abortion is immoral because the aborted fetus has something on the order of a right to life, and therefore, taking its life is morally equivalent to murder. The steps could be laid out like this:

PREMISE 1: Unnecessarily taking a persons life is murder. PREMISE 2: Murder is morally wrong. PREMISE 3: Having an abortion unnecessarily takes the life of a human fetus. PREMISE 4: The human fetus is a person. __________ CONCLUSION: Abortion is morally wrong.

The most controversial premise is probably the fourth one: How do we know that the human fetus is a person in the full-fledged moral sense of the word? That is, how do we know that it is a morally significant being with the same kind of right to life that you and I have? This is a version of the question, When exactly does human life begin? (The theological variant of the question is, When does a human fetus become ensouled?) Its obvious enough that the human fetus is genetically a human being: its composed of living cells that have human DNA in them. But the interesting philosophical question is, When does it become an independent living human entity in its own rightrather than, say, merely a part of a womans body? The most standard, pro-choice defense of abortion denies the fourth premise in the argument above: the fetus is not a person with its own right to life, but rather, merely a part of a womans body. Women do have a right to do what they want to do with their own bodiesthat is, at least so long as it doesnt interfere with anyone elses rightsand therefore, they have a right to choose to have an abortion. (Note: You should see why it seems to be important for pro-choice advocates to deny the fourth premise in the argument above.)

But how do we tell whether or not the fetus is a person with a right to life? Is the fetus a person from the moment of conception? Does it only become a person at some later stage of its development in the womb? Or is there only a full-fledged person in existence sometime after birth? Since these questions arent merely the biological question of whether the fetus is genetically human, its unclear what scientific evidence could help, and the philosophical arguments for their part are vexed. (You could say that you believe in the personhood of the fetus because of your religion. By itself, though, that obviously wont convince someone who doesnt share your religion, and besides, you should probably want to know more yourself about why your religion maintains the personhood of the human fetus. Because the Bible says so? Well, it doesnt really: see Vaughn, p. 166. Because the Pope says so? Well, why does he say so? Maybe he shouldnt. Religious beliefs dont keep you from being drawn into the philosophical arguments here.) Since pro-life and pro-choice advocates just cant seem to see eye-to-eye on this issue, it would be really nice if there were some rational argument for or against the morality of abortion that (unlike standard pro-life and pro-choice arguments) did not depend on any controversial question about the status of the human fetus. Both Judith Jarvis Thomson and Don Marquis are trying to construct such an argument.

2. Judith Jarvis Thomsons Argument

The reading by Judith Jarvis Thomson offers a limited defense of abortion. There are two main ways that a defense of abortion can be limited. First, it can say that abortion is only morally permissible earlier on in a womans pregnancy: for instance, you could say that its permissible in the first and second trimesters, but morally wrong in the third trimester. Second, it can say that abortion is only permissible when the circumstances of the pregnancy are special in some way: you could say abortion is normally wrong, but that its permissible if a womans pregnancy puts her life at risk, or if her pregnancy was a consequence of her being raped. Thomsons own defense seems to be limited in both of these ways. (Similarly, Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the U.S., says that the states may restrict a womans access to abortion in the third trimester, unless her life is in danger.) To bypass the controversy over the status of the fetus, Thomson just assumes for the sake of argument that the fetus is a person, and she then proceeds to produce a defense of abortion that is compatible with that assumption. This way, the argument is potentially convincing to pro-life advocates who insist on the personhood of the fetus.

(If Thomson is right, it means that the standard anti-abortion argument is flawed, because the immorality of abortion doesnt follow from the fetus being a person.) Thomsons main argument is based on an analogy, taking the form of the fictional story that she tells on p. 174:.

You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinists circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, Look, were sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to youwe would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, its only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.

Thomson expects a certain reaction from us: that it is not wrong for you to unplug yourself from the violinist, even though youd thereby be killing a person with a right to life. (She says it would be charitable of you to stay plugged into himyoud be a Very Good Samaritan for doing sobut you dont have a duty to stay plugged into himyou can unplug yourself and still be what she calls a Minimally Decent Samaritan. This distinction should be familiar to you already from Peter Singer.) If thats true, then an important moral principle follows from it: Having a right to life doesnt mean having a right to use whatever you need to stay alive, because you may not have a right to use whatever that is. (The violinist has a right to life, but not a right to the use of your body, even though he needs to use your body to stay alive.) The argument in defense of abortion, then, runs something like this:

PREMISE 1: It would not be morally wrong to unplug yourself from the violinist. PREMISE 2: Having an abortion is sometimes analogous to unplugging yourself from the violinist. __________

CONCLUSION: Sometimes, it is not morally wrong to have an abortion.

(The inference is based on the following important principle: Moral judgments that apply in one kind of situation should also apply in sufficiently similar kinds of situation. Having an abortion is supposed to be analogous to unplugging yourself from the violinist, even if the fetus is a person like the violinist is.) The obvious question is, When is having an abortion sufficiently analogous to unplugging yourself from the violinist? (Even Thomson doesnt think that pregnancy is always analogous to being plugged into the violinist, so when is it and when isnt it?) Maybe its only analogous if a woman has become pregnant from being kidnapped and raped: that is, when the woman isnt in any way responsible for becoming pregnant. (Mary Anne Warren is critical of Thomsons argument for not going far enough, because she thinks that the conclusion falls far short of anything like a pro-choice position.) But if the argument did succeed in showing that abortion is permissible when a woman has been raped, that would at least be some degree of progress. (You should, as always, be wondering whether the argument does succeed.) Moreover, Thomson says that it refocuses the abortion debate on a new question. Now were not asking, When is the human fetus fully a person? Rather, were asking, When is a woman fully responsible for becoming pregnant? It would really be progress it could be shown that the morality of having an abortion depends on the latter question and not the formerthat is, if it could be shown that abortion was only permissible when the woman is not responsible for the pregnancy in any way. Wed at least have new questions to think about, for instance: Does every woman who voluntarily has sex with someone thereby accept responsibility for possibly becoming pregnant? What if the woman was responsibly using birth control, and it failed through no fault of her own? Is that case sufficiently similar to the violinist analogy? (Even if its not, Thomson has other analogies to use: see p. 179.)

3. Don Marquiss Argument

Marquiss argumentative strategy is exactly like Thomsons but in reverse. Marquis wants to argue that abortion is normally immoral. (Normally, because he doesnt

discuss but leaves open the possibility of extenuating circumstances, like when a womans pregnancy threatens her own life.) Moreover, he wants to construct an argument which doesnt rely on any controversial premises about the status of the human fetus: basically, he assumes for the sake of argument that the fetus is not a with a right to life, so terminating a pregnancy is not immediately and obviously equivalent to murdering a person. (The opening pages of his essay try to explain how the more usual argumentative strategies are largely responsible for the impasse which pro-lifers and pro-choicers have reached in the abortion debate.) His main argument against abortion turns on a more general question: What makes it wrong to murder someone? What is it about murder that calls for us to treat it as one of the worst of crimes? Marquiss answer is that taking someones life deprives the victim of all the experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments that would otherwise have constituted ones future, and that these components of ones future life are valuable: When I am killed, I am deprived both of what I now value which would have been a part of my future personal life, but also what I would come to value. Therefore, when I die, I am deprived of all the value of my future (p. 196). Murder is wrong because it deprives someone of the value of her future life. But having an abortion does the same thing (it shares the same wrong-making characteristic). Whether or not the human fetus is a person with rights, it is assuredly a being who will become a person if allowed to be develop, be born, and grow up. Abortion therefore deprives a being of a valuable future like ours, so its wrong for the same reason murder is. The argument is like this:

PREMISE 1: Murdering a person is wrong because it deprives someone of a valuable future. PREMISE 2: Abortions deprive a human fetus of a valuable future like ours. __________ CONCLUSION: Abortion is wrong.

Marquis spends much of the reading defending this argument against objections (that the first premise is false, that the second premise is false, and/or that the conclusion doesnt follow: Marquiss essay is an excellent model for anticipating and responding to possible objections to your own view). Pay close attention to the various criticisms which Marquis describes: Does Marquis successfully defend himself?

One way that Marquis defends his first premise is especially worth pointing out. He says that it is a better explanation of why murder is wrong than sanctity of life theories providewhich say that human life is sacred, or inherently valuable, from which it follows that ending any human life is wrong. His is a better explanation, according to Marquis, because it allows for the possibility that it is sometimesnot immoral to end a human life. He expects the reader to agree with him that euthanasia is not always immoral. (Euthanasia, or mercy killing, is the act of helping someone to end her life when their lives seem to have become valueless: for instance, when they are already suffering from a terminal illness and would have to live out their lives in immense physical and psychological pain, or when they have already become irreparably brain-dead but are still alive thanks to life-support.) On his view, it would not necessarily be wrong to take someones life if they didnt have a valuable future; hence, euthanasia may not always be wrong (contrary to what sanctity of life theories conclude); and thats a point in favor of his first premise, because euthanasia isnt always wrong. What do you think?

4. Mary Anne Warrens Argument

Warrens argument is different from either Thomsons or Marquiss. Warren maintains that the only way to establish the pro-choice position she favors is to engage with the standard abortion arguments and deny that the fetus is a person (in the moral sense of being someone with the same rights that you and I have). Warren claims that if you dont deny this, youll wind up with far too limited a defense of abortion, one which doesnt show that a woman has a right to an abortion even when the circumstances of her pregnancy arent exceptional or unusual in any way. So long as its assumed that the human fetus has the same right to life that you and I have, it will follow that abortion is normally equivalent to murder. (You cant just say that a woman has a right to make decisions about her own body: because you dont have a right to make decisions that infringe on someone elses rights, and if the fetus has a right to life, thats what youd be doing by having an abortion.) Warrens essay thus proposes a theory of personhooda theory of what it takes to be a member of the community of rights-bearers to which you and I belongthe upshot of which is that human fetuses arent persons. What is it to be a person like you and me? In Kants terms: Who counts as someone who should always be treated as an end, never merely as a means? What, for instance, would you look for to determine whether some newly-encountered alien life-form was

or wasnt the sort of creature that it would be permissible to kill and eat for food? Warrens theory consists of five criteria (listed on p. 189):

1. Persons are conscious or sentient. We are aware of ourselves and the world around us, we can experience things, we can feel pleasure and pain, we can be caused to suffer. 2. Persons are rational. We can engage in higher-order thought-processes in order (for instance) to solve new and complex problems. 3. Persons are agents with free will. We dont just passively let the world affect us, but we actively do things to change the world in the way we want it to be changed. 4. Persons have a language. We use written and spoken symbols to communicate with each other, and can communicate an infinite number of new thoughts and ideas to each other. 5. Persons have a concept of self, a sense of their own identity. We think of ourselves, for instance, as occupying certain social roleswe are parents, children, teachers, students, citizens, and so on.

Warren says that you dont need to satisfy all five criteria to be a person like you and me; you just have to satisfy enough of these criteria. Her point, then, is that the human fetus fails to satisfy enough of them. Only one of the criteria is met by the human fetus, the first one: the human fetus can feel things, and even that criterion is probably not met by a fetus in the first trimester. Thus, the human fetus is not a person with the same rights that you and I have. But what follows from that? Here is the argumentative move that Warren clearly wants to make:

PREMISE 1: The human fetus is not a person. (This premise follows from and depends on Warren's theory of personhood.) PREMISE 2: ?????????? __________

CONCLUSION: Abortion is not morally wrong.

But how do you get from that premise to that conclusion? The easiest way of getting the desired conclusion would just be to add the following premise:

PREMISE 2a: It is not morally wrong to take the life of a non-person.

This premise would make for an argument whose premises definitely seem to support the conclusion. Do you see the problem, though? The problem is that this second premise seems to be wildly false, at least if we use Warrens own theory to define the term person. Because if you take Warrens theory seriously, then its not just fetuses that turn out not to meet the criteria for personhood. Neither do new-born human infants. Neither do human beings who are mentally impaired or deficient in some severe way. Probably no non-human animals count as persons either. Its crazy to say that there would never be anything morally wrong with taking the life of any of these non-persons. To the extent that Warrens argument shows that abortion is not wrong, doesnt it also should that infanticide is not wrong? Warren is keenly aware of this objection (as is obvious from other things she has written), and she clearly doesnt want to say that you can kill non-persons with impunity. You should carefully read the language that Warren uses in the reading on pp. 190-192 when she is describing her argument (notice, for instance, how she admits that the human fetus may have some right to life). What I think she wants for her second premise is something more like the following:

PREMISE 2b: When the rights of a person conflict with the rights of a non-person, the former trump the latter; when a woman has an unwanted pregnancy, her right to life (her right to doing what she wants with her life and her body) conflicts with whatever right to life the unwanted fetus can be said to have; and a woman is a person.

(Elsewhere, Warren responds to the infanticide objection by saying that, once a child has been born, its existence can no longer conflict with the mothers rights, because she is free to put the child up for adoption, and therefore, it would be wrong to terminate its life; but that this is not usually the case prior to the childs being born.) This second premiseunlike the first which I suggestedwould make for a more ethically sophisticated argument in support of the pro-choice position that Warren defends. But what do you think of this modified argument? Do you think it works?