Discussion on why Abortion is Immoral

WHY ABORTION IS IMMORAL T n HE view that abortion is, with rare exceptions, seriously im- moral 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 posi- tion is either a symptom of irrational religious dogma or a conclusion generated by seriously confused philosophical argument. The pur- pose of this essay is to undermine this general belief. This essay sets out an argument that purports to show, as well as any argument in ethics can show, that abortion is, except possibly in rare cases, seri- ously immoral, that it is in the same moral category as killing an innocent adult human being. The argument is based on a major assumption. Many of the most insightful and careful writers on the ethics of abortion-such as Joel Feinberg, Michael Tooley, Mary Anne Warren, H. Tristram Engel- hardt, Jr., L. W. Sumner, John T. Noonan, Jr., and Philip Devine’- believe 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. The argument of this essay will assume, but not argue, that they are correct. Also, this essay will neglect issues of great importance to a complete ethics of abortion. Some anti-abortionists will allow that certain abortions, such as abortion before implantation or abortion when the life of a woman is threatened by a pregnancy or abortion after rape, may be morally permissible. This essay will not explore the casuistry of these hard cases. The purpose of this essay is to develop a general argument for the claim that the overwhelming majority of deliberate abortions are seriously immoral. I. A sketch of standard anti-abortion and pro-choice arguments ex- hibits how those arguments possess certain symmetries that explain why partisans of those positions are so convinced of the correctness of their own positions, why they are not successful in convincing ‘ Feinberg, “Abortion,” in Matters of Life and Death: New Introductory Essays in Moral Philosophy, Tom Regan, ed. (New York: Random House, 1986), pp. 256-293; Tooley, “Abortion and Infanticide,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, ii, (1972):37-65, Tooley, Abortion and Infanticide (New York: Oxford, 1984); War- ren, “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion,” The Monist, I.vii, 1 (1973):43- 61; Engelhardt, “The Ontology of Abortion,” Ethics, lxxxiv, 3 (1974):217-234; Sumner, Abortion and Moral Theory (Princeton: University Press, 1981); Noonan, “An Almost Absolute Value in History,” in The Morality of Abortion: Legal and Historical Perspectives, Noonan, ed. (Cambridge: Harvard, 1970); and Devine, The Ethics of Homicide (Ithaca: Cornell, 1978). 0022-362X /89/8604/183-22 (? 1989 The Journal of Philosophy, Inc.
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184 THE JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY their opponents, and why, to others, this issue seems to be unresolv- able. An analysis of the nature of this standoff suggests a strategy for surmounting it. Consider the way a typical anti-abortionist argues. She will argue or assert that life is present from the moment of conception or that fetuses look like babies or that fetuses possess a characteristic such as a genetic code that is both necessary and sufficient for being human. Anti-abortionists seem to believe that (1) the truth of all of these claims is quite obvious, and (2) establishing any of these claims is sufficient to show that abortion is morally akin to murder. A standard pro-choice strategy exhibits similarities. The pro- choicer will argue or assert that fetuses are not persons or that fetuses are not rational agents or that fetuses are not social beings. Pro-choicers seem to believe that (1) the truth of any of these claims is quite obvious, and (2) establishing any of these claims is sufficient to show that an abortion is not a wrongful killing. In fact, both the pro-choice and the anti-abortion claims do seem to be true, although the “it looks like a baby” claim is more difficult to establish the earlier the pregnancy. We seem to have a standoff. How can it be resolved? As everyone who has taken a bit of logic knows, if any of these arguments concerning abortion is a good argument, it requires not only some claim characterizing fetuses, but also some general moral principle that ties a characteristic of fetuses to having or not having the right to life or to some other moral characteristic that will gener- ate the obligation or the lack of obligation not to end the life of a fetus. Accordingly, the arguments of the anti-abortionist and the pro-choicer need a bit of filling in to be regarded as adequate. Note what each partisan will say. The anti-abortionist will claim that her position is supported by such generally accepted moral principles as “It is always prima facie seriously wrong to take a human life” or “It is always prima facie seriously wrong to end the life of a baby.” Since these are generally accepted moral principles, her position is certainly not obviously wrong. The pro-choicer will claim that her position is supported by such plausible moral princi- ples as “Being a person is what gives an individual intrinsic moral worth” or “It is only seriously prima facie wrong to take the life of a member of the human community.” Since these are generally ac- cepted moral principles, the pro-choice position is certainly not ob- viously wrong. Unfortunately, we have again arrived at a standoff. Now, how might one deal with this standoff? The standard ap- proach is to try to show how the moral principles of one’s opponent lose their plausibility under analysis. It is easy to see how this is
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WHY ABORTION IS IMMORAI, 185 possible. On the one hand, the anti-abortionist will defend a moral principle concerning the wrongness of killing which tends to be broad in scope in order that even fetuses at an early stage of preg- nancy will fall under it. The problem with broad principles is that they often embrace too much. In this particular instance, the princi- ple “It is always prima facie wrong to take a human life” seems to entail that it is wrong to end the existence of a living human cancer- cell culture, on the grounds that the culture is both living and human. Therefore, it seems that the anti-abortionist’s favored princi- ple is too broad. On the other hand, the pro-choicer wants to find a moral principle concerning the wrongness of killing which tends to be narrow in scope in order that fetuses will not fall under it. The problem with narrow principles is that they often do not embrace enough. Hence, the needed principles such as “It is prima facie seriously wrong to kill only persons” or “It is prima facie wrong to kill only rational agents” do not explain why it is wrong to kill infants or young children or the severely retarded or even perhaps the severely mentally ill. There- fore, we seem again to have a standoff. The anti-abortionist charges, not unreasonably, that pro-choice principles concerning killing are too narrow to be acceptable; the pro-choicer charges, not unreason- ably, that anti-abortionist principles concerning killing are too broad to be acceptable. Attempts by both sides to patch up the difficulties in their posi- tions run into further difficulties. The anti-abortionist will try to remove the problem in her position by reformulating her principle concerning killing in terms of human beings. Now we end up with: “It is always prima facie seriously wrong to end the life of a human being.” This principle has the advantage of avoiding the problem of the human cancer-cell culture counterexample. But this advantage is purchased at a high price. For although it is clear that a fetus is both human and alive, it is not at all clear that a fetus is a human being. There is at least something to be said for the view that something becomes a human being only after a process of development, and that therefore first trimester fetuses and perhaps all fetuses are not yet human beings. Hence, the anti-abortionist, by this move, has merely exchanged one problem for another.2 The pro-choicer fares no better. She may attempt to find reasons why killing infants, young children, and the severely retarded is 2 For interesting discussions of this issue, see Warren Quinn, “Abortion: Identity and Loss,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, xiii, 1 (1984):24-54; and Lawrence C. Becker, “Human Being: The Boundaries of the Concept,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, iv, 4 (1975):334-359.
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