Abortion – the current state of the debate

Those who believe that abortion is at least sometimes morally acceptable have developed two general lines of argument. First, some argue that not all human beings are persons. While it is scientifically uncontroversial that what is present from the moment of conception is a human being,[1] it is argued famously by Peter Singer, Michael Tooley, Mary Ann Warren and Jeffery Reiman that until certain characteristics are present for personhood, we do not have a person and hence anything with a moral status. Second, others argue that even if all human beings are persons the rights of the mother outweigh those of the unborn, hence abortion is morally permissible. This was the famous contention of Judith Jarvis Thomson in her 1971 article titled “A Defense of Abortion.”[2]

The central philosophical challenge for those who claim that not all human beings are persons is to identify non-arbitrary criteria for personhood: criteria that includes all those human beings that are undoubtedly persons and excludes only those that might plausibly fail to be persons. Differences of size, location, dependency, and development between a feotus and newborn are morally irrelevant,[3] for Singer himself acknowledges that “The liberal search for a morally crucial dividing line between the newborn baby and the feotus has failed to yield any event or stage of development that can bear the weight of separating those with a right to life from those who lack such a right.”[4]

The danger of arbitrariness forces a move toward criteria chosen because of their obvious connection to the powers and abilities of mature human persons, namely a move to functionalism. The most plausible characteristic here is “consciousness” and in Singer’s words “Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons”; therefore, “the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.”[5]

The criteria as it stands, that one must be conscious to qualify as a person, excludes sedated human beings, those knocked out in a boxing match, rendered unconscious by a car accident or sleeping adults, a reduction to absurdity. And if we instead claim that you are a person only if you have an immediately exercisable capacity for self-awareness, we will include sleeping adults, but exclude those in temporary comas. Nicole Hassoun and Uriah Kriegel attempt to remedy this dilemma by speaking of being capable of consciousness rather than being actually conscious. One ought to be actually conscious to be a person. To exclude the possibility of potentiality, that is the potential of a feotus developing consciousness, they appeal to the following analogy:

  • Suppose oysters could be made conscious upon being transported to Mars.[6]
  • A space elevator is installed between Earth and Mars and an oyster finds its way to the elevator.
  • At this point, the normal course of events should lead to that oyster’s becoming conscious in the absence of intervention.[7]

Hassoun and Kriegel conclude that the oyster on the elevator is thus potentially conscious in the sense in which foetuses and neonates are—the oyster is, so to speak, en route to consciousness—yet it still seems intuitively permissible to kill the oyster. Abortion is therefore morally permissible.

If per impossible oysters were indeed rational creatures simply in need of the right developmental conditions in order to flourish, then they would have rights to live.[8] The fact of the matter is however that on this planet oysters do not have the capacity to develop rationality, but embryos, feotuses and newborn infants do and can.

Christopher Kaczor instead defends an endowment account of human personhood against the performance accounts defended by Singer, Tooley, and others. A performance account of human personhood holds that a being is to be accorded respect if and only if the being functions in a given way, whereas an endowment account holds that each human being has inherent moral worth simply by virtue of the kind of being it is. And by “endowment” Kaczor means “an intrinsic, dynamic orientation towards self-expressive activity [such as] . . . rationality, autonomy, and respect.”[9] Are you a person because you are something that actually engages in rational and free conscious activity, or are you a person because you are the kind of thing that engages in rational and free conscious activity?[10]

Any plausible performance criterion (rationality, self-awareness, sentience, and so on) implies qualitative measurements by which all of us can and do differ dramatically; if the criteria for personhood come in degrees, then some of us would be more personal than others hence destroying any foundation for equal human dignity and rights.

If, on the other hand, we accept that all human beings are persons, there are still those who argue that abortion is nevertheless acceptable because the rights of the mother outweigh the rights of the unborn person. It was Thomson’s claim that women who do not wish to be pregnant have no duty to maintain the life of the unborn person within them. She appeals to the following analogy to illustrate her argument:

  • Having been abducted against your will, you wake up in the morning and find yourself attached back to back to an unconscious but famous violinist. He has a fatal kidney ailment and needs your kidneys to remove the poisons from his blood. It is only for nine months that the violinist needs to be plugged to you, but to unplug him at anytime before that would kill him. [11]

Thomson argues that to unplug one’s self from the violinist would not be morally impermissible. And so too a pregnant woman can justifiably “unplug” herself from the human feotus, even if the human being in utero is, like the violinist, fully a person. In other words, the human feotus may have a right to life, but this right to life does not include the right to make use of a woman’s body. A woman has the right to disconnect herself from the human feotus, and this does not violate the feotus’ right to life, even if such disconnection ends the feotus’ life.

John Finnis, Professor of Law and Legal Philosophy at Oxford University, responds to Thompson by asking whether or not the chosen action, i.e. reaching around your back and unplugging the violinist to save your life, would have been chosen if the victim had not been present?[12] The obvious answer is no! The subtle philosophical point that follows is that if you would choose the action regardless whether the violinist was present or not, then this is ground for saying that the bad aspects of the action, viz. its death dealing-effects on the victim (child or violinist), are not being intended or chosen as an end or means, but are genuinely incidental side effects that do not necessarily determine the character of one’s actions. It is worth asking the same question with respect to the moral permissibility of removing the cancerous womb of a pregnant woman. The question here is whether the hysterectomy would be chosen if the woman was pregnant or not. The answer here is yes: yes, the life saving operation would be undertaken if the woman was pregnant or not. Since this chosen action, removal of the cancerous womb, would be the same with the controlling consideration present or absent, it ought to be deemed morally permissible.

Finnis then considers whether the chosen action, unplugging yourself from the violinist, involves not merely a denial of aid to him but an actual intervention that amounts to an assault on his body: is abortion a choice not to provide assistance or facilities or a choice to “commit murder”?[13] The traditional rule about abortion is that if the mother needs medical treatment to save her life, she gets it, subject to one proviso, even if the treatment is certain to kill the child – for the woman’s body is her body. And the proviso? The medical treatment not be via a straightforward assault against the child’s body, for after all the child’s body is the child’s body not the woman’s.[14] The claim that “this body is my body” is binding even when made on behalf of another person. The argument that we have a right unto our body should cut both ways impartially. The unborn, like her mother, has a “just prior claim to her own body”, and abortion involves laying hands on and manipulating that body.[15]

To deny the unborn the status of personhood is to destroy any foundation for equal human dignity and rights. Yet to concede the unborn is a person will undermine the claims of Thompson and others who argue that the right of a woman to her own body ought to entitle her the choice to terminate the life growing within her: for rights and claims to one’s body can only co-exist with the status of personhood. A mother’s just claim to her own body cannot surpass the just claim of the unborn to her own body (albeit if defended by a bystander), for they exist on the same moral plane.  Abortion is philosophically and morally indefensible; yet to concede this fact would mean governments have to invest in pregnancy centers that support unwanted pregnancies financially, emotionally and psychologically, and in education programs that teach on the value and dignity of all human life – amenities we all ought to demand.


[1] Princeton University cites 15 university embryology textbooks that unanimously attest to the fact that a new human organism is created at the moment of fertilization. The list can be found here: http://www.princeton.edu/~ prolife/articles/embryoquotes2.html. An additional list of textbooks and expert testimony (including Professor Micheline Matthews-Roth from Harvard University Medical School) can be found here: http://www.abort73.com/abortion/medical_testimony/.

[2] Professor Christopher Kaczor’s “The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice” is now the most current and comprehensive philosophical defense available of the claim that both these strategies fail.

[3] These criteria fail because they are arbitrary: birth (the location of a being cannot determine whether or not she or he is a person), viability (why should dependence on another human being make one a non-person; after all, we do not think this is true of severely conjoined twins), human appearance (looks can be deceiving; a burn victim charred beyond recognition is nevertheless a person), implantation (were we to develop artificial wombs, the absence of implantation would certainly not result in the absence of personhood).

[4] Singer, Peter, Practical Ethics, 2d ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 142.

[5] Singer, Peter, Practical Ethics, 1st ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 122–23.

[6] A human infant develops toward consciousness without special intervention, which the oysters require, hence the modifications to the analogy that follow.

[7] Hassoun, Nicole., & Kriegel, Uriah., ‘Consciousness and the Moral Permissibility of Infanticide’, Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol. 25, No. 1, 2008, 45-55

[8] Kaczor, Christopher., ‘Philosophy and Theology: Notes on Infanticide’, The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 4,  2008, 773-779

[9] Kaczor, Christopher, The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice (New York: Routledge, 2010), 93

[10] Hain, R. , “Where the Abortion Debate Stands”, Public Discourse (Spring 2011) <http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2011/03/2920/>

[11] Thomson, Judith Jarvis., ‘A Defense of Abortion’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1971, 47-66

[12] Finnis, John., ‘The Rights and Wrongs of Abortion: A Reply to Judith Jarvis Thompson’, Philosiphy and Public Affairs, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1973, 117-145

[13] Thomson, Judith Jarvis., ‘A Defense of Abortion’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1971, 47-66

[14] Finnis, John., ‘The Rights and Wrongs of Abortion: A Reply to Judith Jarvis Thompson’, Philosiphy and Public Affairs, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1973, 117-145

[15] ibid., 141

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