Medical Ethics Abortion Essays Pro-Life

Author: Nathan Nobis
Category: Ethics
Word Count: 1000

Abortion involves the intentional killing of a fetus to end a pregnancy. These fetuses are human, biologically.1 It seems that fetuses are beings, albeit completely dependent beings: what else would they be? So, abortion involves the intentional killing of a human being. Killing human beings is often deeply wrong, so is abortion wrong? If so, when? And why? In this essay, we’ll look at some potential answers to these questions.

1. Human Organisms?

Fetuses are not just biologically alive, like cells or organs. They are lives; each is a human life. Some argue that this is because they are organisms: while hearts are parts of beings, the being is the whole organism.

Fetuses seem to be “beings” on this definition: they are complex and developing. Some thinkers argue that our being human organisms physically continuous with fetuses who were human organisms makes abortion wrong.2 They seem to argue that since it is wrong to kill us now, i.e., we have properties that make it wrong to kill us now (prima facie wrong to kill: wrong unless extreme circumstances justify the killing), it was wrong to kill us at any stage of our development, since we’ve been the same organism, the same being, throughout our existence.

While this argument is influential in some circles, it is nevertheless dubious. You are likely over three feet tall now, but weren’t always. You can reason morally, but couldn’t always. You have the right to make autonomous decisions about your own life, but didn’t always. Many examples show that just because we have some property or right now, that doesn’t entail that we’ve always had that right. This argument’s advocates need to plausibly explain why, say, the right to life is an exception to this rule.3

2. (Human) Persons?

We, readers of this essay, are human beings or lives (unless there are any extraterrestrial readers!), and it is prima facie wrong to kill us. Is the reason why it wrong to kill us because we are human beings or lives?

Perhaps not. It is wrong to kill us, arguably, because killing us prevents us from experiencing the goods of our future: accomplishments, relationships, enjoying our lives and so on. Many philosophers describe these capacities needed for experiencing our lives, present and future, in terms of us being persons.4 A theory present from at least the time of John Locke can be expressed roughly as: persons are beings with personalities: persons are conscious beings with thoughts, feelings, memories and anticipations and other psychological states. (When people insist, mistakenly, that fetuses aren’t human beings, they might be claiming that they are not human persons). If we die or even become permanently comatose, we cease to be persons, since we permanently lose consciousness.

This theory of personhood has explanatory power: it helps us understand why we are persons and how we (or our bodies) can cease to be persons. It justifies a growing belief that some non-human animals are (non-human) persons. It explains why rational space aliens, if there are any, would be (non-human) persons. It explains why divine or spiritual beings are or would be (non-human) persons.

On this theory of personhood, early fetuses are not persons. This is because their brains and nervous systems aren’t sufficiently developed and complexly interconnected enough for consciousness and personhood. The medical and scientific research reports that this developmental stage isn’t reached until after the first trimester, or, more likely, until mid-pregnancy.5 Nearly all abortions occur very early in pregnancy, killing fetuses that are not yet conscious, and so are not yet persons. Any later abortions, affecting conscious fetuses who are persons or close to it, would likely be wrong unless done for a justifying medical reason.

3. Potential Personhood?

But just because something (or someone) is not a person, that doesn’t obviously mean that it is not wrong to kill them.

If fetuses aren’t persons, they are still potential persons. (And merely potential persons are never actual persons).  Does that potential give fetuses, say, the right to life or otherwise make it wrong to kill them?

If potential things have the rights of actual things, then potential adults, spouses, criminals, doctors, and judges would have the rights of actual ones. Since they don’t, it is plausible that potential personhood doesn’t yield the rights of actual personhood. At least, we are due an explanation of why it would, since potentiality never does that for anything else.

4. Valuable Futures?

Doesn’t abortion prevent a fetus from experiencing its valuable future, just like killing us does, even if it is not yet a person?6 But aren’t our futures plausibly valuable because we can, presently, look forward to our futures? Fetuses can’t look forward to their futures, and this is one important difference between their futures and our futures.

Further, a sperm-and-the-egg-it-would-fertilize arguably has a future akin to that of a fetus. Contraception (even by abstinence!) keeps this future from materializing.8 But contraception and abstinence aren’t immoral. Thus, it is not wrong to perform some action that prevents such a future from materializing.

5. The Right to Life?

Finally, suppose these arguments are all wrong and all fetuses are persons with the right to life. Does that make abortion wrong? Not necessarily. Judith Thompson famously argued in her 1971 “A Defense of Abortion”9: If I must use your kidney to stay alive, do I have a right to your kidney? No, and you don’t violate my rights if you don’t let me use it and I die. This shows that the right to life is not a right to bodies of others, even if those bodies are necessary for our lives. Fetuses, then, might not have a right to the pregnant woman’s body and so she doesn’t violate their rights by not allowing a fetus to use it. So until fetuses can be removed from women and placed in new wombs, abortion may not violate the rights of fetuses and may be permissible.

6. Conclusion

The philosophical issue of the moral status of abortion is complex. These are just a few philosophical arguments concerning the moral status of abortion. Each is worthy of further discussion and reasoned debate.

Notes

1 Unless we are doing veterinary ethics and are thinking about aborting feline or canine or other non-human fetuses.

2 This argument is developed in Beckwith (2007), and in George and Tollefsen (2008).

3 This response is developed in Boonin (2003) and in Nobis (2011)

4 This influential theory of personhood is developed in Warren (1973).

5 Lee, Susan J., et al. (2005) and Benatar and Benatar (2001)

6 This argument is developed in Marquis (1989).

7 For development of these arguments, see McMahan (2002).

8 For development of these arguments, see Norcross (1990).

9 Thomson (1971)

References

Beckwith, Francis J. Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case against Abortion Choice. Cambridge University Press, 2007

Benatar, David, and Michael Benatar. “A Pain in the Fetus: Toward Ending Confusion about Fetal Pain.” Bioethics 15 (2001): 57-76

Boonin, David. A Defense of Abortion. Cambridge University Press, 2003

George, Robert P., and Christopher Tollefsen. “Embryo: A Defense of Human Life.” (2008)

Lee, Susan J., et al. “Fetal Pain: A Systematic Multidisciplinary Review of the Evidence.” Jama 294.8 (2005): 947-954

Marquis, Don. “Why Abortion is Immoral.” The Journal of Philosophy 86.4 (1989): 183-202

McMahan, Jeff. The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life. Oxford University Press, 2002

Nobis, Nathan. “Abortion, Metaphysics and Morality: A Review of Francis Beckwith’s Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice.” Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 36.3 (2011): 261-273

Norcross, Alastair. “Killing, Abortion, and Contraception: A Reply to Marquis.”The Journal of Philosophy (1990): 268-277

Thomson, Judith Jarvis. “A Defense of Abortion.” Philosophy & Public Affairs(1971): 47-66

Warren, Mary Anne. “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion.” The Monist(1973): 43-61

About the Author

Nathan Nobis is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA USA, and author of many articles on topics in bioethics, including abortion. He also does a lot of home remodeling projects. Website: http://www.nathannobis.com

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by 1000wordphilosophy

For more than three decades, Americans have been deeply polarized over the issue of abortion. While the debate on abortion involves secularists as well as people of every religious tradition, the issue has become particularly acute among Christians because of strong views on both sides. Generally, the debate has been cast in terms of “pro-life” views and “pro-choice” views, but it is clearly a much more complex issue for Christians.

The legality of abortion was confirmed in 1973 when the United States Supreme Court struck down a Texas statute that prohibited abortion procedures, no matter how medically urgent they might be. This decision, commonly referred to as Roe v. Wade [410 U.S. 113 (1973)], is the most important legal milestone in the debate. In its decision, the Court acknowledged that it cannot rule as to when life begins, since even those in medicine, theology, and philosophy have no consensus on this matter.

Christian pro-life advocates insist that all human life is sacred and that human life begins at the moment of conception. From the point of view of pro-life Christians, America’s aborted fetuses are unborn babies who are killed through the process. As Pope John Paul II put it, “The legalization of the termination of pregnancy is none other than the authorization given to an adult, with the approval of an established law, to take the lives of children yet unborn and thus incapable of defending themselves.” The most vocal opposition to abortion has come from the Roman Catholic Church and from evangelical Christians, including activist groups such as Operation Rescue. The presumption is that there should be no abortion at all, a general principle to which some liberal pro-life advocates might carve out a series of exceptions, such as in the case of rape, incest, known deformity, or grave danger to the life of the mother.

The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights (formerly, the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights) brings together Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Unitarian Universalists, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists who want to make clear that pro-life voices are not the only religious voices in the abortion debate. Describing their position as people of faith, the RCRR seeks to “support individuals in making their own moral decisions and stand with them as they struggle with the very real complexities of life.” The Coalition acknowledges that, “while people of all religions anguish over abortion, most feel this is a moral decision, one a woman must make for herself in keeping with her faith, beliefs, conscience, and her own personal situation.” Another voice in the debate is Catholics for Free Choice, an organization of Catholics who are both pro-choice and involved faithful Christians in the life of their parishes and communities. Catholics for Free Choice, founded in 1973, lobbies for women’s reproductive rights in Congress and legislatures. Results from a 2012 survey conducted on behalf of the organization showed that 60 percent of Catholic voters think abortion should be legal.

At the extreme, pro-life activists have included people who have engaged in a series of violent attacks on abortion clinics and doctors. In 2009, Dr. George Tiller, one of only a few doctors in the United States to perform abortions into the third trimester of pregnancy, was killed inside Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas where he was a member. Tiller had been shot before, in 1993, and his abortion clinic had been bombed in 1986. Another physician, Barnett Slepian, was killed in Buffalo in 1998, preceded by two other doctors in northern Florida and abortion clinic workers in Boston between 1993 and 1995. Despite these incidents, the vast majority of people and organizations within the pro-life movement do not condone the use of violence. Many are vocal, however, about the violence associated with abortion procedures, especially in the case of partial birth abortion.

In a decision that presumably involves a woman and a man, a doctor, and a fetus, the question of whose “voice” counts is highly charged. Pro-life activists often suspect the pro-choice movement of treating abortion lightly in the context of a so-called “sexual revolution” that takes sexual encounters all too lightly and where abortion is considered a method of birth control. According to this view, pro-choice advocates do not to grant any recognition or moral status to fetal life at all, effectively leaving the life of the fetus completely out of the process of ethical decision-making. The pro-choice side, however, often sees pro-life advocates as concerned only with the life of the unborn and callous about the lives and opportunities of those same children from the moment they are born. Pro-life advocates appear to give virtual sovereignty to the fetus, blind to the stark realities of poverty and human hardship, while ruling out abortion regardless of the circumstances of the pregnancy or the well-being of the mother.

Abortion is one of many difficult ethical decisions today involving human judgment on the line between life and death: expensive medical treatments, organ transplants, birth control, and “death with dignity” initiatives. Capital punishment, or the death penalty, is also a topic of great debate in the larger context of what Chicago’s Cardinal Bernardin had framed as “a consistent ethic of life.” A 2005 statement from the U.S.. Conference of Catholic Bishops frames the issue of capital punishment in a way similar to that of the abortion debate: “Ending the death penalty would be one important step away from a culture of death and toward building a culture of life.”

There have been some efforts to find “common ground” between pro-life and pro-choice advocates. In a 1996 Christian Century article titled “Pro-life, Pro-Choice: Can We Talk?,” Frederica Mathewes-Green documents the Common Ground Network which began in Missouri in the late 1980s when Andrew Pudzer, a pro-life lawyer, and B.J. Isaacson-Jones, the head of one of the largest abortion clinics in St. Louis began to have conversations. The two “enemies” met privately face to face for several months before appearing together to discuss the issues on a local television show. While they had diametrically opposed views on abortion, they found that there was indeed much “common ground” between them. For example, they agreed that both sides should seek more aid for women below the poverty line and for their children, both born and unborn.

Those involved in these dialogues say the discovery of some overlapping areas of common commitment is important. Mathewes-Green described one such discovery at a dialogue in Washington D.C. “In one small group, an aggressive pro-choice lawyer was talking passionately about the protection of abused children. She spoke about children’s helplessness before their adult attackers. ‘They’re so small and vulnerable, and they have no one to defend them.’ A pro-lifer in the group said softly, ‘You know, that’s the reason a lot of people give for being pro-life.’” At the same time, those who participate in these efforts are often criticized for talking with the “enemy.” Mathewes-Green wrote about one pro-life leader who characterized the discussions as “seeking common ground with proponents of murder.”

Through the process of face-to face dialogue, each side is challenged in its stereotypes about what the other actually believes. Efforts to find common ground continue, as evidenced in the October 2012 broadcast of “Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, Pro-Dialogue,” a Civil Conversation Project event at the University of Minnesota hosted by Krista Tippett and the American Public Media program On Being. Dr. David Gushee, a Christian ethicist, and Frances Kissling, former president of Catholics for Choice, demonstrated the kind of nuanced conversation not heard in this often deeply polarized public discussion.


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