A Critique of Mary Anne Warren’s On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion, Part I

Cross-posted from Secular Pro-Life

I recently gave an in-depth critique of one of the most important articles ever written on the abortion issue. I would like to turn my attention now to another popular essay written by Mary Anne Warren called On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion. Whereas Thomson argued that pro-choice people can assume the unborn are full human persons and still justify abortion, Warren argued that the unborn certainly are not persons because they don’t fulfill the qualifications of personhood.
I think Thomson is a genuine philosopher. Warren, despite her essay being popular, does not seem to have been trained very well as a philosopher. Her essay is filled with logical problems, despite her attempt to show that it is actually the pro-life position that is fallacious. She spends much of her essay responding to John T. Noonan’s essay “Deciding Who is Human.” I have not read it. I tried to search the internet to see if there was a site that had it with no luck. I do have another Noonan essay, “Abortion is Morally Wrong,” which I did re-read to prepare myself for writing this article. So I’m going to assume that Warren is accurately representing Noonan’s words. But it’s very puzzling why she didn’t respond to another pro-life philosopher, Stephen Schwartz, who wrote a book (now out-of-print) six years before Warren wrote her essay calledThe Moral Question of Abortion. This book contains a foreword praising the book by Dr. Bernard Nathanson, and contains a very compelling argument for embryonic/fetal personhood. Since she responded to Noonan and not Schwartz, her essay did not comprehensively respond to all pro-life arguments for the personhood of the unborn available to her at the time.

Warren begins in her introduction with a brief word about Jefferson and how it may be fair to suggest he only meant to attribute those words to men when he wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” I find this incredibly dubious. The moral position of the Founders when they wrote the Declaration of Independence was that there was a natural law, and that government’s job was not to create rights, but to protect those that all human beings have by virtue of being created, that is, conceived. For a more fuller treatment on this issue, see the wonderful book Natural Rights and the Right to Choose by Hadley Arkes.

From here Warren springboards into a discussion of what makes us human.

1. On the definition of “human.”

Warren begins this section by looking at a common pro-life argument: P1: It is wrong to kill innocent human beings. P2: Fetuses are innocent human beings. C: Therefore, it is wrong to kill fetuses.

This is a perfectly valid deductive argument. However, Warren tries to invalidate it by claiming there’s a logical fallacy. She argues, correctly it would seem, that there are two different senses of the word “human”: the genetic sense, in which a human being belongs to the biological species Homo sapiens. Then there’s the moral sense, in which an individual is human enough to where human rights and value can be established. It would be wrong to kill you if you are human in the moral sense, but not if you’re not human in the moral sense.

She argues that one of these premises is question-begging because premise one is only self-evident if you mean “human” in the moral sense, and that premise two is not question-begging only if you mean “human” in the genetic sense. So the word “human” is being used in two different senses. So first, a premise can’t beg the question, only a person can. You beg the question if you are assuming the conclusion in one of your premises; in other words, you only accept the premise because you already accept the conclusion. So what Warren actually means is that pro-life people are equivocating on the term human. But are they really?

The whole purpose of deductive arguments is to reason from a large group to a specific case. Any deductive argument could be dismissed as question-begging for this reason. It’s mind-boggling how a philosopher could completely misunderstand the purpose of deductive arguments. It doesn’t matter whether a premise is “self-evident” or not. What matters is, can you support the premises? Of course we can. There’s no reason to suppose that the moral sense is not meant in the second premise of the argument. Human fetuses are genetically human, but we can also argue that they are morally human, as well.

Warren finishes up the section by chiding Noonan for arguing that because the unborn have the full genetic code, they are full human persons. He also argues that they have the potential for rationality, but Warren responds to that later. However, it seems to me that whoever wants to take human life has the burden of proof. It seems much more reasonable to assume that the unborn, because they belong to our species, are persons. If someone wants to argue that they are not a person, it seems to me that they actually have the burden of proof. For as long as there is any possibility that they might be full human persons, we ought not be taking their lives.

So far Warren is off to a less-than-stellar start. And to be honest, it’s pretty much all downhill from here. In the next part, we’ll examine her criteria for personhood and show how the unborn qualify.

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