Category Archives: Abortion – Classics

Summary of Mary Anne Warren’s “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 a classic of the literature and is still reprinted in college textbooks.

I 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.

Summary of Judith Jarvis Thomson’s, “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 (a neutral way of referring to the fetus) 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 gives them that right. It might be nice of her to do this, but I don’t have the right to demand she does 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 to 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.” (MDS) The law does not require we be even MDS 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?] 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 a fetus is a person, even though this is conceptually problematic, but even granting this assumption early abortions clearly do not kill persons. [Acorns aren’t oak trees.]

(For a bit more on the abortion issue see: “Ethicists Generally Agree: The Pro-Life Arguments Are Worthless)

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 considered 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.

Summary of John T. Noonan’s, “An Almost Absolute Value in History”

Over the next few days, I will outline two famous pro-life and two famous pro-choice articles. For the record, a strong majority of professional philosophers support the pro-choice view. My own views can be found here and here. Also, one issue to get out-of-the-way before we start, as it is so commonly misunderstood:

“…research on human reproduction shows that the ‘moment of conception’ is not a moment at all. Sometimes several sperm penetrate the outer membrane of the egg and it takes time for the egg to eject the extra chromosomes … but even when a single sperm enters, its genes remain separate from those of the egg for a day or more, and it takes yet another day or so for the newly merged genome to control the cell. So the ‘moment of conception’ is in fact a span of twenty-four to forty-eight hours.” – from Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

“An Almost Absolute Value in History” – John T. Noonan

A fundamental question: How do you determine humanity? In Christian theology, this is the question of “ensoulment,” but Noonan (N) does not defend this idea arguing instead that: “If you are conceived by human parents you are human.” He also quickly attacks other criteria of humanity like:

  1. Viability – the idea that one becomes human when one can live without, and is not absolutely dependent upon, the mother. N counters: 1) viability depends on the current state of technology hence is not a good guide; and 2) even when viable, fetuses and young children are dependent suggesting that the lessening of dependence does not confer humanity.
  2. Experience – humanity depends on the formation of experience and memories. N counters: 1) fetuses have experiences from about 8 weeks; 2) even if all memories and experience is lost, say in total amnesia, humanity is not lost; and 3) it is not clear why experiences make one human since many humans fail to have important experiences.
  3. Less sentiment – We suffer more grief at the loss of a child compared to a fetus. N counters: 1) feelings toward others is not a good guide to their humanity; and ) the ability to sense a thing is not a good guide to its humanity.
  4. Social visibility – fetuses do not communicate with other persons so they are not members of society. N counters: 1) humanity does not depend on social recognition and when it does grave consequences follow for human beings.

N acknowledges that many philosophers may hold that humanity is not an objective concept that can be discovered. N argues briefly that morality demands we assume an objective sense of humanity in order to answer moral questions. [This is hugely debatable; moreover, objective conceptions of humanity have led to monstrous results.]

Now N considers the following. The chance of a sperm becoming a person is about 1 in 200,000,000; the chance of eggs becoming human nearly 1,000,000 to 1. But the chance of a fertile egg becoming human is about 80%. (The actual probability is much less— “between 2/3 & 3/4 of the fertilized eggs never attach to the uterine wall.” Steven Pinker The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. So it seems that nature, or god if you will, is a great abortionist.) This dramatic change in probabilities does not definitively establish humanity but does suggest a non-arbitrary point at which we might assume it. We would hold you responsible for shooting something that was probably a human, but not for shooting something that was almost certainly not human. What this argument shows is that conception is the most plausible marker of humanity. Destroying a sperm is a lot different from destroying a fetus. In addition, after conception, there is a human genetic code.

Still, none of this means that abortion is never justified, only that the rights of the fetus are important and need to be balanced with other’s rights. So abortion is justified to save the life of the mother since this is a case of self-defense.