The debate on abortion Pro-life: focuses on the rights of the foetus. An extreme view is that abortion is wrong, without any exceptions. The foetus is a human being from the moment of conception. Pro-choice: focuses on the rights of the woman. An extreme view is that the woman must have a virtually unlimited legal right to an abortion. Be careful with the language: ‘pro-life implies the other side is against life’, and ‘pro-choice’ implies the other side is against choice.
Terminology and timeline Fertilisation and conception: The male gamete (sperm) and female gamete (unfertilised egg) fuse to create the zygote (fertilised egg) Germinal stage: Lasts up to 1 week The zygote attaches to the wall of the uterus (implantation) The mass of cells is called an embryo Embryonic stage: Lasts up to 8 weeks The cells begin to differentiate into various body systems (fingers, eyes, ears, mouth become visible) The embryo develops into a foetus Foetus stage: Lasts from week 9 until birth
Limit of viability This is the name given to the point at which the foetus has a 50% chance of long-term survival outside of the uterus. The current limit of viability is around 24 weeks UK abortion law Abortion has been legal in the UK since It can take place under certain conditions: It has to happen within the first 24 weeks of pregnancy It has to be approved by two doctors (in emergency cases, this could be made by one doctor). It is possible to have an abortion legally after the 24-week period (e.g. to save the mother’s life, to prevent long-lasting injury to the mother, or if there’s a risk that the child, if born, would be seriously handicapped).
Abortion is morally wrong
Standard pro-life argument P1: The foetus is an innocent human being P2: It is morally wrong to end the life of an innocent human being _________________ C: It is morally wrong to end the life of a foetus
Standard pro-life argument P1: The foetus is a potential human being P2: It is morally wrong to end the life of a potential human being _________________ C: It is morally wrong to end the life of a foetus
Standard pro-life argument P1: The foetus is an innocent person P2: It is morally wrong to end the life of an innocent person _________________ C: It is morally wrong to end the life of a foetus
Personal identity What is it for you to be the same person now as you were in the past? To establish personal identity is to relate two individuals (A) and (B) so that they are the same person This means establishing numerical identity We establish numerical identity despite qualitative differences
Personal identity E.g. John Locke: Locke gives us a memory-based account of psychological continuity. What makes you the same individual as last week is this consciousness of yours extending backwards to take in the experiences and activities of that earlier entity. It is not clear at what point consciousness emerges in the foetus, and the foetus may develop the capacity to generate consciousness before there is actual consciousness. E.g. bodily continuity accounts Our bodies are constantly changing over time, but maybe the only thing that establishes a connection between you now and the foetus or the baby moments after birth is a bodily presence.
Right to life Broad criterion Opponents of abortion tend to look for a broad criterion so that it will be inclusive of foetuses. E.g. all humans, regardless of race, gender, or (importantly) their age, have the right to life. Narrow criterion Those who defend the right to abortion tend to seek a narrow, but plausible, criterion for having the right to life, so that it is not inclusive of foetuses. A problem for those who hold this position is establishing at what point an organism becomes a human being.
Marquis’ ‘future like ours’ argument “abortion is, except possibly in rare cases, seriously immoral, that it is in the same moral category as killing an innocent adult human being.” (Marquis 1989: 183) He starts by asking: why is it wrong to kill a normal innocent adult human being (except in rare circumstances)? He then gives an explanation for why it is wrong, and argues that it is the best explanation And he then argues that this explanation implies that it is also wrong to kill a foetus (except in rare circumstances)
Marquis’ ‘future like ours’ argument The reason it is wrong to kill a normal innocent adult human being is because it deprives the victim of a valuable future, it deprives me of the experiences, activities, projects and enjoyments that would otherwise have constituted my future. These things are valuable for their own sake or as a means to something else that is valuable for its own sake. What’s at stake is all the value of a person’s future.
Arguments in favour of FLO (I) The considered judgement argument Marquis believes that we would reach the ‘future like ours’ position if we reflect on the nature of the misfortune of death. If you ask terminally ill individuals about the nature of their misfortune, they would most likely say that what makes their premature death a misfortune is the impending loss of a future like ours.
Arguments in favour of FLO (II) the worst of crimes argument My being killed deprives me of more than my being robbed or harmed in some other way. And it’s for that reason that the penalty for murder is greater than the penalty for other crimes. The future like ours account explains both why killing is one of the worst of crimes and, as a corollary, why the exceptions to the wrongness of killing are very rare.
Arguments in favour of FLO (III) the appeal to cases argument In life-and-death cases, FLO applies. (e.g.) if someone is in a permanently unconscious state, most people would argue that it is not wrong to cut off the life support, knowing that doing so will cause their death. Compare that to a patient who is temporarily unconscious (in this case we would think it wrong to remove medical treatment).
Arguments in favour of FLO (IV) the ‘analogy with animals’ argument It’s arbitrary to say that the suffering of adults or children is wrong, but the suffering of animals isn’t wrong. It is suffering that is a misfortune and any arbitrary restrictions placed on the wrongness of suffering count as racism or speciesism.
Marquis: analysis and objections What is a valuable future? For Marquis, it is a future like ours. This is arbitrary: we could imagine the future of persons from other planets being very different, but still morally important. First argument: no distinction Because he assumes that we begin to exist at conception, he fails to distinguish between early and late abortions. If we do not begin to exist until about 20 weeks after conception, then his argument doesn’t apply to abortions carried out before that point.
Marquis: analysis and objections Second argument: personhood Marquis argues that an abortion deprives a foetus of a valuable future only if: The foetus isn’t aborted There will exist at some time after birth a person who has a valuable life or a valuable future, and who is identical with the foetus. We cannot establish this identity in terms of psychological continuity, only in terms of physical continuity However, most of us think of our personal identity in terms of psychological continuity, not bodily continuity.
Abortion is morally permissible
Standard argument: the foetus is not a human being/person Those who argue for the entitlement to abortion seek to find a narrow, but plausible, criterion for having the right to life, so that it is not inclusive of foetuses. They argue that only persons have a right to life, and a foetus is not a person. Personhood argument: personal identity established on the basis of psychological continuity. Implications of constructing personal identity in terms of psychological continuity (e.g. dementia).
Marquis: moral status of the foetus “whether or not abortion is morally permissible stands or falls on whether or not a foetus is the sort of being whose life it is seriously wrong to end” (Marquis 1989: 183) There are two issues that arise out of this claim: 1.Is the foetus the sort of thing that could have any rights or towards which we could have any obligations? 2.Are these rights or obligations prima facie or absolute? (are they rights or obligations at first sight, or absolute?)
Judith Jarvis Thomson Unlike many defenders of abortion, Thomson doesn’t deny that the foetus is an innocent human being. She argues that the mother has a right to self- defence. The mother is entitled to view the foetus as a wrongful trespasser; in virtue of either her right of self-ownership or her right of self-defence, she could legitimately be ejected from her body.
Thomson: the unconscious violinist You wake up connected to an unconscious violinist He has kidney disease and needs the use of your kidneys You could choose to ask a doctor to disconnect you from the violinist, but he will certainly die If you remain connected to the violinist for nine months, the violinist will have recovered and you can be unplugged without endangering him Thomson: you would not be morally required to allow the violinist to use your kidneys for nine months.
Thomson: the extreme view What if a mother finds out she has a cardiac condition, and if the foetus isn’t aborted then the mother will die? Even in this scenario there are those who oppose abortion. Thomson calls this ‘the extreme view’. Why, in this scenario, is abortion morally wrong? 1)Directly killing an innocent person is always and absolutely impermissible 2)Directly killing an innocent person is murder, and murder is always and absolutely impermissible 3)We have a duty to refrain from killing an innocent person, and this is more stringent than one’s duty to keep a person from dying 4)If one’s only options are directly killing an innocent person or letting a person die, one must prefer letting the person die
Thomson: third-party logic “to treat the matter in this way is to refuse to grant to the mother that very status of person which is so firmly insisted on for the foetus.” (Thomson 1971: 52) We shouldn’t deduce the mother’s right from the right of a third party, almost like an afterthought The fact that the mother cannot perform the abortion safely herself shouldn’t affect how we think of the mother’s rights and the mother’s personhood. Those who claim third party impartiality might claim ‘no one may choose’. Thomson disagrees: all anyone can really say is “I cannot choose”.
Thomson: killing doesn’t violate a right to life “nobody has any right to use your kidneys unless you give him such a right; and nobody has the right against you that you shall give him this right” (Thomson 1971: 55) “the right to life consists not in the right not to be killed, but rather in the right not to be killed unjustly” (Thomson 1971: 57)
Non-rape cases Claim: if a woman willingly has sex, she knows there’s a risk she might get pregnant. She is therefore at least partly responsible for knowingly putting herself in a situation where she might get pregnant? Thomson: even though the mother was doing something voluntarily while knowing that it might result in pregnancy, it doesn’t follow that the mother thereby gives the foetus a right to use her body. Analogies: Burglar climbing in through an open window Burglar climbing in through an open windows with bars, but one of the bars is defective People-seeds drifting in through the window
Thomson: summary 1.The mother’s life is at risk (the extreme case – the extreme version of the violinist case) 2.In cases of rape (the standard violinist case) 3.And in cases where the mother took precautions against pregnancy (such as the case of the burglar who gets in because of a defective bar on the window, or the people seeds case)
Thomson: two Samaritans 1.Good Samaritan: this is someone who goes out of their way to help others, even at significant cost to herself 2.Minimally decent Samaritan: this is someone who takes on some costs to help others – someone who does the minimum that any decent human being would do
Singer: utilitarian response Thomson: example of film star Utilitarian response: Would reject Thomson’s argument for abortion No matter how angry you understandably are at being connected to the violinist, you should remain connected (even if it was for longer than 9 months). (Peter Singer – Practical Ethics)
Other responses Intentional killing It is far from clear that a right to defend oneself from temporary trespassers extends to killing them. Separating questions? Thomson’s article focuses on the right to eject the foetus from one’s body, and this means the mother has a right to kill the foetus (in most cases, this happens around 23 or 24 weeks). As technology advances, we might see more cases of foetuses surviving outside the body. Does the right to abortion extend to a right to pursue the foetus into the world and ensure that it does not survive?
Other responses Limitations The violinist is not someone to whom we are related, even potentially. The violinist is a complete stranger to us, and not someone we might form an attachment to for the rest of our lives.
Take-home questions 1.Is a foetus a person? Is an embryo a person? At what point does an organism become a person? 2.Is Marquis right to claim that what is wrong with abortion is that it deprives the foetus of a future like ours? 3.What would Marquis say about cases of rape or where the mother’s life/health is at risk 4.What would Thomson’s argument be regarding women who willingly have sex without taking precaution and who get pregnant and want to abort the foetus?