Category Archives: Abortion

Brief Reply to a Pro-Lifer

While writing my last post on abortion I came across an anti-abortion piece written a few years ago by a Harvard undergraduate, Ms. Aurora Griffin. Having taught philosophical ethics to undergraduates for 30 years, I’m always happy to see an undergrad bold enough to wade into the philosophical waters. However, it is easy to see where Ms. Griffin’s argument goes awry.

Ms. Griffin argues that there are arguments from both philosophy and science that support her pro-life position. She says the philosophical argument “is that all human beings have the right to life because they are human,” and the scientific argument is “[human] life … begins at conception” because then “it has human DNA …”

Ms. Griffin does seems to recognize that these arguments don’t work because there is a difference between being biologically human, or having human DNA, and being a person who is a member of the moral community. Perhaps she has read Mary Anne Warren’s devastating critique of John Noonan’s notoriously weak argument, where Warren points out that being biologically human doesn’t mean you are a person, nor does the lack of a human DNA mean that you aren’t a person. There may be things that are biologically human but not persons—like zygotes, the recently deceased, and people in persistent vegetative states—and there may be things that aren’t biologically human but are persons—like intelligent aliens, cyborgs or robots. So having human DNA doesn’t mean that you are a person or a member of the moral community. After all, a swab of human saliva has human DNA but it not a person.

Sensing that personhood rather than biologically humanity is the key point, Griffin offers this argument. “If the human is a person only when neurologically functioning as a human, then by that same argument it would be permissible to kill people while they are in deep sleep, in comas, or mentally handicapped.” This argument is especially fatuous.

First, neurological functioning may be one of the necessary conditions for personhood, and one which the zygote without a brain clearly does not satisfy. It is hard to see how any entity that completely lacks consciousness is a person in any usual sense of the word. And, as is well-known in the literature, fetuses satisfy none of the criteria for personhood till well along in their development.

Second, the argument is a disguised version of a well-known informal logical fallacy known as the slippery slope. Ms. Griffin appears to believe that if we allow abortion in the early stages then sleeping and mentally handicapped people will be killed. Of course this doesn’t follow, since the sleeping and mentally challenged clearly have neurological activity—it is not as if they completely lack consciousness like early trimester fetuses.

All of this leads to Ms. Griffin’s conclusion that only “if the fetus is not a person and we know it definitively, is abortion morally permissible.” Of course we do know that the early fetus does not satisfy any of the criteria of personhood by any reasonable philosophical definition of the word, and we also know this beyond any reasonable doubt based on the science of embryological development.

Finally we might note that the majority view among ethicists by a large margin is that the pro-life arguments fail, primarily because the fetus satisfies few if any of the necessary and sufficient conditions for personhood. The impartial view, backed by contemporary biology and philosophical argumentation, is that a zygote is a potential person. That doesn’t mean it has no moral significance, but it does mean that it has less significance than an actual person. An acorn may become an oak tree, but an oak tree it is not. You may believe that your God puts souls into newly fertilized eggs, thereby granting them full personhood, but that is a religious belief not grounded in science or philosophical ethics.

Ethicists Generally Agree: The Pro-Life Arguments Are Worthless

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, May 17, 2016.)

Abortion continues to make political news, but a question rarely asked by politicians or other interlocutors is: what do professional ethicists think about abortion? If ethicists have reached a consensus about the morality or immorality of abortion, surely their conclusions should be important. And, as a professional ethicist myself, I can tell you that among ethicists it is exceedingly rare to find defenders of the view that abortion is murder. In fact, support for this anti-abortion position, to the extent it exists at all, comes almost exclusively from the small percentage of philosophers who are theists.  And even among theists opposition to abortion is far from unanimous. Yet few seem to take notice of these facts.

To support the claim that the vast majority of ethicists reject the pro-life position, consider the disclaimer that appears in the most celebrated anti-abortion piece in the philosophical ethics literature, Don Marquis’ “Why Abortion Is Immoral.” Marquis begins:

The view that abortion is, with rare exceptions, seriously immoral has received
little support in the recent philosophical literature. No doubt most philosophers
affiliated with secular institutions of higher education believe that the anti-abortion position is either a symptom of irrational religious dogma or a conclusion generated by seriously confused philosophical argument.

Marquis concedes that abortion isn’t considered immoral according to most ethicists, but why is this the case? Perhaps professional ethicists, who are typically non-religious philosophers, find nothing morally objectionable about abortion because they aren’t religious. In other words, if they were devout they would recognize abortion as a moral abomination. But we could easily turn this around. Perhaps religiously oriented ethicists oppose abortion because they are religious. In other words, if there were not devout, they would see that abortion isn’t morally problematic. So both religious and secular ethicists could claim that the other side prejudges the case.

However, it is definitely not the case that secular ethicists care less about life or morality than religious ethicists. Consider that virtually all moral philosophers believe that murder, theft, torture, and lying are immoral because cogent arguments underlie such prohibitions. Oftentimes there is little difference between the views of religious and secular ethicists regarding moral issues. Moreover, when there is disagreement among the two groups, perhaps the secular philosophers are ahead of the ethical curve with their general acceptance of abortion, homosexuality, and certain forms of euthanasia.

How then do we adjudicate disputes in the moral realm when ethicists, like ordinary people, start with different assumptions? The key to answering this question is to emphasize reason and argument, the hallmarks of doing philosophical ethics. Both secular and religious individuals can participate in rational discourse to resolve their disputes. In fact, natural law moral theory—the dominant ethical theory throughout the history of Christianity—claims that moral laws are reasonable, which means that what is right is supported by the best rational arguments. Natural law theorists argue that by exercising the human reason their God has given them, they can understand what is right and wrong. Thus secular and religious philosophers work in the same arena, one where moral truths are those supported by the best reasons.

That ethicists emphasize rational discourse may be counter-intuitive in a society dominated by appeals to emotion, prejudice, faith, and group loyalty. But ethicists, secular and religious alike, try to impartially examine the arguments for and against moral propositions in order to determine where the weight of reason lies in the matter. Ethicists may not be perfect umpires, and the truth about moral matters is often difficult to tease out, but ethicists are trained to be impartial and thorough when analyzing arguments. Some are better at this than others, but when a significant majority agrees, it is probably because some arguments really are stronger than others.

Now you might wonder what make ethicists better able to adjudicate between good and bad arguments than ordinary people. The answer is that professional ethicists are schooled in logic and the critical thinking skills demanded by those who carefully and conscientiously examine arguments. They are also trained in the more abstract fields of meta-ethics, which considers the meaning of moral terms and concepts, as well as in ethical theory, which considers norms, standards, or criteria for moral conduct. Moreover, they are familiar with the best philosophical arguments that have been advanced for and against moral propositions. So they are in a good position to reject arguments that influence those unfamiliar with positions that oppose their favored ones.

All this education doesn’t mean that the majority of ethicists are right, so individuals who disagree with them may choose to follow their own conscience. But if the vast majority of ethicists agree about an ethics issue, we should take notice. It might be that the reasons you give for your fervently held moral beliefs don’t stand up to critical scrutiny. Perhaps they can’t be rationally defended as well as those reached after conscientious, informed, and impartial analysis. This doesn’t mean that you should ignore your conscience and accept expert opinion, but if you are serious about a moral problem you should want to know the views of those who have thoroughly studied the issue.

At this point you might object that there are no moral experts because ethics is relative to an individual’s opinions or emotions. You might say that the experts have their opinion and you have yours, and that’s the end of it. Perhaps our view of behaviors in the moral realm are similar to how we view carrots—some people like them and some don’t. This theory is called personal moral relativism. However, not only do most ethicists reject moral relativism, so must pro-lifers. After all, pro-lifers don’t think that the moral prohibition against abortion is relative;  they thinks it’s absolute. They believe that there are good reasons why abortion is immoral that any rational person should accept. However these reasons must be evaluated to see if they are really good ones; to see if they convince other knowledgeable persons. Yet so far, the pro-life arguments haven’t persuaded many ethicists.

Lacking good reasons or armed with weak ones, many will object that their moral beliefs derive from their God. To base your ethical views on Gods you would need to know: 1) if Gods exists; 2) if they are good; 3) if they issue good commands; 4) how to find the commands; and 5) the proper version and translation of the holy books issuing commands, or the right interpretation of a revelation of the commands, or the legitimacy of a church authority issuing commands, and more. Needless to say it is hard, if not impossible, to know any of this.

Consider just the interpretation problem. When does a seemingly straightforward command from a holy book like, “thou shalt not kill,” apply? In self defense? In war? Always? And to whom does it apply? To non-human animals? Intelligent aliens? Serial killers? All living things? The unborn? The brain dead? Religious commands such as “don’t kill,” “honor thy parents,” and “don’t commit adultery” are ambiguous. Difficulties also arise if we hear voices commanding us, or if we accept an institution’s authority. Why trust the voices in our heads, or institutional authorities?

For the sake of argument though, let’s assume: that there are Gods; that you know the true one; that your God issues good commands; that you have access to those commands because you have found the right book or church, or had the right vision, or heard the right voices; and that you interpret and understand the command correctly—even if they came from a book that has been translated from one language to another over thousands of years, or from a long ago revelation. It is almost impossible that you are correct about all this, but for the sake of the argument let’s say that you are. However, even in this case most philosophers would argue that you can’t base ethics on your God.

To understand why you can’t base ethics on Gods consider the question: what is the relationship between the Gods and their commands? A classic formulation of this relationship is called the divine-command theory. According to divine command theory, things are right or wrong simply because the Gods command or forbid them. There is nothing more to morality than this. It’s like a parent who says to a child: it’s right because I say so. To see how this formulation of the relationship fails, consider a famous philosophical conundrum: “Are things right because the Gods command them, or do the Gods command them because they are right?”

If things are right simply because the Gods command them, then their commands are arbitrary. In that case the Gods could have made their commandments backwards! If divine fiat is enough to make something right, then the Gods could have commanded us to kill, lie, cheat, steal and commit adultery, and those behaviors would then be moral. But the Gods can’t make something right, if it’s wrong. The Gods can’t make torturing children morally acceptable simply by divine decree, and that is the main reason why most Christian theologians reject divine command theory.

On the other hand, if the Gods command things because they are right, then there are reasons for the God’s commands. On this view the Gods, in their infinite wisdom and benevolence, command things because they see certain commands as good for us. But if this is the case, then there is some standard, norm or criteria by which good or bad are measured which is independent of the Gods. Thus all us, religious and secular alike, should be looking for the reasons that certain behaviors should be condemned or praised. Even the thoughtful believer should engage in philosophical ethics.

So either the Gods commands are without reason and therefore arbitrary, or they are rational according to some standard. This standard—say that we would all be better off—is thus the reason we should be moral and that reason, not the Gods’ authority, is what makes something right or wrong. The same is true for a supposedly authoritative book. Something isn’t wrong simply because a book says so. There must be a reason that something is right or wrong, and if there isn’t, then the book has no moral authority on the matter.

At this point the believer might object that the Gods have reasons for their commands, but we can’t know them. Yet if the ways of the Gods are really mysterious to us, what’s the point of religion? If you can’t know anything about the Gods or their commands, then why follow those commands, why have religion at all, why listen to the priest or preacher? If it’s all a mystery, we should remain silent or become mystics.

In response the religious may say that, even though they don’t know the reason for their God’s commands, they must oppose abortion because of the inerrancy of their sacred scriptures or church tradition. They might say that since the Bible and their church oppose abortion, that’s good enough for them, despite what moral philosophers say. But in fact neither church authority nor Christian scripture unequivocally oppose abortion.

As for scriptures, they don’t generally offer specific moral guidance. Moreover, most ancient scriptures survived as oral traditions before being written down; they have been translated multiple times; they are open to multiple interpretations; and they don’t discuss many contemporary moral issues. Furthermore, the issue of abortion doesn’t arise in the Christian scriptures except tangentially. There are a few Biblical passages quoted by conservatives to support the anti-abortion position, the most well-known is in Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” But, as anyone who has examined this passage knows, the sanctity of fetal life isn’t being discussed here. Rather, Jeremiah is asserting his authority as a prophet. This is a classic example of seeking support in holy books for a position you already hold.

Many other Biblical passages point to the more liberal view of abortion. Three times in the Bible (Genesis 38:24; Leviticus 21:9; Deuteronomy 22:20–21) the death penalty is recommended for women who have sex out-of-wedlock, even though killing the women would kill their fetuses. In Exodus 21 God prescribes death as the penalty for murder, whereas the penalty for causing a woman to miscarry is a fine. In the Old Testament the fetus doesn’t seem to have personhood status, and the New Testament says nothing about abortion at all. There simply isn’t a strong scriptural tradition in Christianity against abortion.

There also is no strong church tradition against abortion. It is true that the Catholic Church has held for centuries that activities like contraception and abortion which interrupt natural processes are immoral. Yet, while most pro-lifers don’t consider those distributing birth control to be murderers, the Catholic Church and others do take the extreme view that abortion is murder. Where does such a strong condemnation come from? The history of the Catholic view isn’t clear on the issue, but in the 13th century the philosopher Thomas Aquinas argued that the soul enters the body when the zygote has a human shape. Gradually, other Christian theologians came to believe that the soul enters the body a few days after conception, although we don’t exactly know why they believed this. But, given what we now know about fetal development today, if the Catholic Church’s position remained consistent with the views of Aquinas, they should say that the soul doesn’t enter the zygote for at least a month or two after conception. (Note also that there is no moment of conception, despite popular belief to the contrary.)

Thus the anti-abortion position doesn’t clearly follow from either scripture or church tradition. Instead what happens is that people already have moral views, and they then look to their religion for support. In other words, moral convictions aren’t usually derived from scripture or church tradition so much as superimposed on them. (For example, American Christians used the Bible to both support and oppose slavery.) But even if the pro-life position did follow from a religious tradition, that would only be relevant for religious believers. For the rest of us, and for many religious believers too, the best way to adjudicate our disputes without resorting to violence is to conscientiously examine the arguments for and against moral propositions by shining the light of reason upon them.

It also clearly follows that religious believers have no right to impose their views upon the rest of us. We live in a morally pluralistic society where, informed by the ethos of the Enlightenment, we should reject attempts to impose theocracy. We should allow people to follow their conscience in moral matters—you can drink alcohol—as long as others aren’t harmed—you shouldn’t drink and drive. In philosophy of law, this is known as the harm principle. If rational argumentation supported the view that the zygote is a full person, then we might have reason to outlaw abortion, inasmuch as abortion would harm another person. (I say might because the fact that something is a person doesn’t necessarily imply that’s it wrong to kill it, as defenders of war, self-defense and capital punishment claim.)

But for now the received view among ethicists is that the pro-life arguments fail, primarily because the fetus satisfies few if any of the necessary and sufficient conditions for personhood. The impartial view, backed by contemporary biology and philosophical argumentation, is that a zygote is a potential person. That doesn’t mean it has no moral significance, but it does mean that it has less significance than an actual person. An acorn may become an oak tree, but an oak tree it is not. You may believe that your God puts souls into newly fertilized eggs, thereby granting them full personhood, but that is a religious belief not grounded in science or philosophical ethics.

As for American politics and abortion, no doubt much of the anti-abortion rhetoric in American society comes from a punitive, puritanical desire to punish people for having sex. Moreover, many are hypocritical on the issue, simultaneously opposing abortion as well as the only proven ways of reducing it—good sex education and readily available birth control. As for many (if not most) politicians, their public opposition is hypocritical and self-interested. Generally they don’t care about the issue—they care about the power and wealth derived from politics—but they feign concern by throwing red meat to their constituencies. They use the issue as a ploy to garner support from the unsuspecting. These politicians may be pro-birth, but they aren’t generally pro-life, as evidenced by their opposition to policies that would support the things that children need most after birth like education, health-care, and economic opportunities. But what politicians and many ordinary people clearly don’t care about is whether their fanatical anti-abortion position is based in rational argumentation. And, according to most ethicists who have carefully examined the problem, it does not.

“On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion”

What follows is an outline of  Mary Anne Warren’s 1973 piece, “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion.” It is considered a classic of the literature and still reprinted in college textbooks.

Will show that the fetus is not a person, and hence not  worthy of full moral rights. Most anti-abortion arguments don’t do this but instead defend abortion by 1) pointing out the negative consequences of restricting access; or 2) claim the woman controls her body.

Both arguments are problematic.

The key question is whether the fetus is a person.

Thomson had a key insight – even if a fetus has rights, that doesn’t mean they supersede a woman’s.

Section 1 – She argues that we can’t conclusively demonstrate that abortion is permissible if the fetus has a right to life. T’s argument fails in that the AA may argue that one is responsible for the child except in rape cases. If we change the violinist story, it appears we may still be obligated to save the violinist. Thus we must deal with the ontological status of the fetus.

Section 2 – The question is: “How are we to define the moral community, the set of beings with full and equal moral rights, such that we can decide whether a human fetus is a member of this community or not?”  Two questions arise: 1) what is a human (genetic sense of human) and 2) what is a person (moral sense of human)?

To be a person you must satisfy at least 2 or 3 of her criteria—but fetuses satisfy none of these. A fetus is not a person by any objective measure and thus not a member of the moral community.

This raises 2 other questions: 1) how like a human does something have to be to have a right to life and 2) do potential people have a right to life? Regarding 1, a fetus is not very personlike, in fact less so than a mature fish (according to her criteria). Regarding 2, the rights of potential people, even millions of them, cannot outweigh the rights of actual people.  Even if they could kill you and make millions of people out of you you still have the right to escape (self-defense). Or even if you only had to be captured for nine months or a day (pregnancy) or even if you had been captured because of carelessness (you were partly responsible, never completely responsible as the man has some responsibility) you still have a right to escape no matter how many potential people might be born because the rights of an actual person always outweigh the rights of potential persons.

The argument does not apply to infanticide primarily because while in her body the woman has the primary say as to what happens to the fetus whereas after something is born, she no longer does.

“A Defense of Abortion”

A Defense of Abortion” – JUDITH JARVIS THOMSON

Thomson’s (T) imaginative examples and controversial conclusions have made A Defense of Abortion perhaps “the most widely reprinted essay in all of contemporary philosophy“.

T does not think the conceptus is a person from the moment of conception, anymore than an acorn is an oak tree.  But, for the sake of argument, she will grant this claim and ask if the impermissibility of abortion follows.

Assuming the personhood of the fetus, the anti-abortionist argument proceeds thus:

Every person has a right to life. So the fetus has a right to life. No doubt the mother has a right to decide what shall happens in and to her body; everyone would grant that. But surely a person’s right to life is stronger and more stringent than the mother’s right to decide what happens in and to her body, and so outweighs it. So the fetus may not be killed; an abortion may not be performed.

T responds with a thought experiment:

You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed 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 violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own … [If he is unplugged from you now, he will die; but] in nine months he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.

While it would be kind of you to let the violinist stay attached to your body, almost no one would think you are morally obligated to do so. This suggests that abortion is morally permissible in cases of rape.  Of course strong opponents of abortion may still say that one has a right to life even if one is conceived as a result of rape or the mother’s life is in danger.  (T calls the latter “the extreme view.”)

Section 1 – How are we to defend the anti-abortion position in cases where the mother will die if she brings the child to full term? We could say that abortion kills the innocent child, whereas the mother will merely be allowed to die. But T argues that cases of self-defense are clearly not murder.

The abortion debate often focuses on what a 3rd party (a dr. for example) may do when a woman asks for an abortion (since it is very difficult to do this herself.) Now a 3rd party may say they don’t want to kill a growing child trapped with you in a tiny house. But surely you have the right of self-defense in that situation. This shows the extreme view of abortion is false.

Section 2 – The anti-abortionist (AA) could change their argument and say abortion is ok in cases of self-defense but 3rd parties can’t perform them, only pregnant women can.  But this is false. If you own the house that the growing child is expanding in you have more right to it than he/she does.  Thus, 3rd parties should recognize this just as they would recognize the one who owns the coat has a right to it. One can say that they don’t want to get the coat back or perform the abortion, but they shouldn’t say that someone else shouldn’t do this—kill a person who is threatening another’s life.  Since abortion in cases of self-defense has been defended, T turns to other possibilities.

Section 3 – Does having the right to life mean I have a right to the bare minimum that it takes to keep me alive? Suppose that the only thing that will keep me alive is if Angela Jolie flies from CA and kisses me or gives me one of her kidneys.  Does this mean she has to share her kidney with me? No. Nobody has a right to her kidneys unless she give them that right. It might be nice of her to do this, but I don’t have the right to demand she do it. Now suppose that the right to life means I have the right not to be killed. Even so, my right to life doesn’t give me the right to use your body (unless you give me permission.) So even if my life is not threatened by your using my kidneys for 9 months, I don’t have to give you permission to do so, [even if I know that my refusal will result in your death.]

Section 4 – “In the most ordinary sort of case, to deprive someone of what he has a right to is to treat him unjustly … [but] The right to life consists not in the right not to be killed, but rather in the right not to be killed unjustly.”  You do not kill something unjustly if you kill it so you don’t have to share your kidneys with it. So the argument against abortion must show it is unjust killing. In the case of rape, no permission is granted and thus the killing of the fetus is justified.

But what about the cases of voluntary sexual activity? In those cases, did the woman invite the fetus in and does the fetus now have a right to the woman’s body? And how do we determine the extent of this responsibility? If a woman opens her window or leaves her house knowing there are rapists in the world (or just charming men) is she then responsible if she gets pregnant? Or suppose she installs bars on her windows (contraception) and burglars (or charming men) get in anyway even though she took precautions. Is she responsible and does the fetus now have a right to her body?

Or suppose:

Peopleseeds drift about in the air like pollen, and if you open your windows, one may drift in and take root in your carpets or upholstery. You don’t want children, so you fix up your windows with fine mesh screens, the very best you can buy. As can happen, however, and on very, very rare occasions does happen, one of the screens is defective; and a seed drifts in and takes root. Does the personplant who now develops have a right to the use of your house?

We can hardly expect you never go outside or have a hysterectomy or only travel with an army.  We would have to figure out all these cases but in some cases abortion would be unjust killing and some not. [We could have a continuum from you never leave home to you sell yourself on the street to get pregnant so you can have an abortion. The point is that every case is different. So as your responsibility for becoming pregnant increases, so to do your obligation to carry to full term. But your responsibility is not the only factor to consider. We must also consider how much you are inconvenienced.]

Section 5 – You were kidnapped by the violinist (raped) but he only needed one hour at no risk to your health.  In such cases you ought not abort. But this does not mean the violinist has a right to use your kidney.  [Of course if you became pregnant in the usual way, this would be even more clear.] It may be nice to share my chocolates, but you don’t have a right to them if they’re mine. Even if Angela Jolie is right across the room and only needs to kiss me to save my life, I have no right to her kiss, even though it would not be nice of her to refuse. So even if only an hour of the mother’s body is needed to save a life—the mother is not morally required to do so. [Does it follow that if I invited the fetus in and then want to kick them out and it won’t go, that I have a right to kill it?]

Section 6 – “We have in fact to distinguish between the two kinds of Samaritan: the Good Samaritan and what we might call the Minimally Decent Samaritan.” The law does not require we be even MDC but “in most states in this country women are compelled by law to be not merely Minimally Decent Samaritans, but Good Samaritans to unborn persons inside them.” To be consistent, anti-abortionists should work for GS laws.

And if you ask us to keep you from being a GS or a very GS, (not remain pregnant) we should probably help you if you don’t want to be in bed with the violinist for 9 months or years.

Section 7 – Even if the fetus is a person the impermissibility of abortion does not follow.  But maybe it is that the fetus “is a person for whom the woman has a special kind of responsibility issuing from the fact that she is its mother” that makes abortion immoral. Here we must distinguish between cases in which parents did not try to avoid pregnancy, take children home with them, etc. and thus are responsible from cases in which they tried not to conceive, etc. In some cases abortion would be justified. [Again, each case is different.]

Section 8 – However if pregnancy only requires being a MDS, then one should not abort. In other cases one should abort. [Who should decide this, mother, parents, churches, states, etc.?]But the mother has no right to insist on the death of the fetus, if it somehow can survive.

T concludes by noting she has assumed the fetus is a person, but early abortions clearly do not kill persons. [Her acorn, oak tree argument.]

Summary and Critique of Don Marquis’ “Why Abortion is Immoral”

Why Abortion Is Immoral” is the most celebrated pro-life piece in the literature. Marquis (M) begins by noting that few philosophers think abortion is immoral, in fact, the pro-life position has almost no contemporary philosophical support:

The view that abortion is, with rare exceptions, seriously immoral has received little support in the recent philosophical literature. No doubt most philosophers affiliated with secular institutions of higher education believe that the anti-abortion position is either a symptom of irrational religious dogma or a conclusion generated by seriously confused philosophical argument. The purpose of this essay is to undermine this general belief.

He assumes, but doesn’t try to prove, “that whether or not abortion is morally permissible stands or falls on whether or not a fetus is the sort of being whose life it is seriously wrong to end.”

M asks: “why is killing an adult wrong.”

Killing is wrong because of its effect on the victim—specifically because it takes away a person’s future.

This explains why: 1) killing is so bad; and 2) why premature death is particularly bad.

This view gains additional support because: 1) it shows why it would be wrong to kill other intelligent extraterrestrials; 2) it shows why it would be wrong to kill some non-human animals; 3) it does not rule out active euthanasia; and 4) it easily accounts for the wrongfulness of young children (something personhood theories have trouble with).

Since eliminating an adult’s future is what makes killing it wrong, abortion is wrong prima facie (at first glance.) And this does not rely on the fetus being a person. [According to this view, it would seem that killing a fetus is more wrong than killing a child, which is more wrong than killing an adult, etc.]

To better explain the structure of his argument he draws an analogy with an argument against animal cruelty. In both cases the wrongness is explained by the appeal to a natural property—pain and suffering or denial of a future—without resorting to personhood.

None of this shows that abortion is always wrong, just that it usually is.

And contraception is not immoral on this view. Neither sperm nor ovum can possibly be considered a person and contraception can’t be considered to deny all possible sperm and egg combinations which are possible since there are so many possible futures at the time contraception is used. (This might imply that contraception is worse, since it denies millions of possible futures. Also, at what point are we denying this future then? After the 24-48 hours of conception I would assume.)

Conclusion – Since a fetus has a future, which is what makes killing wrong, killing a fetus is wrong. This resolves the standard problem of abortion which is to determine some property that makes a fetus more like a person than a group of cells—brain waves, viability, etc. That property is its possible future.

Reflections – First of all, remember—even if you think abortion is morally wrong that does not imply that you have a right to use the coercive power of the law to prevent others ending their pregnancies. To endorse that would entail a justification of the use of legal coercion on the ground that you are preventing harm to others (fetuses). The problem is that not all share the view that fetuses are persons. (In fact granting fetuses full moral rights is a radical view that virtually no moral philosophers endorse—as Marquis admitted at the beginning of his essay.) If people disagree about whether something is a person, then what do you do if you can’t convince them of your view? Kill them? Petition the government to coerce them? Try to convince them rationally but if unsuccessful let them alone?

It is just hard to believe that this weak argument is consider the best anti-abortion argument in the literature. For a more complete account of my view on abortion, and the standard one according to most moral philosophers, see my posts here and here.