What philosophy can tell us about the right to abortion

What philosophy can tell us about the right to abortion

Image: James Anderson / Alamy Stock Photo

The apparently imminent overthrow of Roe vs. Wade it has not come out of nowhere. For years, American conservatives have questioned the landmark 1973 ruling that established the federal right of pregnant women to have an abortion. Despite warnings that the changing appearance of the US Supreme Court made its success more likely, many could not believe it would come to this.

Anti-abortionists have deployed an effective strategy, keeping a relentless focus on the ethical question at the heart of the matter: what is the moral status of a fetus? They have spoken powerfully of taking innocent human life, something everyone is against.

Instead of directly refuting these arguments, however, the pro-choice lobby, as its name suggests, has generally ignored them and tried to base its case on a woman’s right to choose. This is a serious philosophical misstep. A woman only has the right to choose if that choice is ethically permissible. Otherwise, a woman has no more right to choose an abortion than to shoot an annoying neighbor. No appeal to freedom of choice can transform an act of murder into a surgical procedure.

Abortion supporters also sidestep the issue when they argue that abortion restrictions are attempts by men to control women’s bodies. There is much truth to this, although it rings hollow in the ears of many women who oppose abortion. But an attack on the supposed and unprovable psychological or political motives of abortion opponents is not an attack on their arguments.

It’s easy to understand why pro-abortionists want to avoid discussing the moral state of a fetus. Winning that argument requires fighting in black and white with shades of gray. “A human life is a human life” is simplistic but powerful; “Life unfolds on a continuum” is more truthful, but its nuance dulls its rhetorical edge. Similarly, “pro-life” is a powerful but misleading campaign badge, as the whole argument is about what kinds of life should be protected.

Ultimately, however, the argument for abortion must be based on the fact that just because something belongs to the human race in biological terms does not necessarily mean that it should be accorded the rights of a full human person, especially if it is in the early stages of development. For many months, the embryonic cells that have the potential to develop into a fully developed human being do not possess any of the characteristics that warrant legal protection. Crucially, there is no good evidence that a fetus is conscious before the third trimester. Even when the threshold of consciousness has been crossed, its first levels of sensitivity are extremely minimal, closer to those of a mouse than a baby.

Of course, the fetus has the potential become a complete human being and thus a legal person. But so does an unfertilized egg and some sperm, and the idea that we are immorally depriving a future child of the life of him every time we refuse to bring these two things together is patently absurd.

The argument for abortion in these terms is quite simple. But the lack of clear boundaries between the zygote, the embryo, the nonviable and viable fetus, and a complete human person means that many find it difficult to accept that there are important moral differences between them. “Where do you draw the line?” anti-abortionists ask. It is impossible to pinpoint a moment in time when a set of cells becomes a human being. Therefore, it is tempting to conclude that there is no such line and that to kill the unborn child at any stage is to kill a human being. After all, life, albeit in its most basic form, begins at conception.

In fact, there is no such line, but there need not be. Children do not become adults when the clock strikes midnight on their 18th birthday, but no one argues that all children should therefore be treated as adults. The legal clarity of the limit is a construction to handle the most complex reality. So are the legal limits on the terms of pregnancy within which an abortion is permitted.

If the argument wins that the “unborn child” is, at least until around 20-24 weeks, still only a potential and not an actual person, abortion can no longer be equated with murder. Only then does it become a question of the woman’s rights to make her own decisions about her body.

Anti-abortionists might still worry that the sanctity of life is eroding and slippery slopes could lead to infanticide, or that routine abortion of the disabled will diminish the status of disabled children and adults. These objections should not be ignored. Everyone should be concerned with ensuring that legal abortion does not have these unintended consequences. But they are not fundamental objections to abortion per se, and each of them can be answered convincingly.

Whatever happens on the US Supreme Court in the coming months, the abortion debate will not go away, because the moral issue at its core is a serious one with no easy, sweet answer. As long as abortion rights advocates avoid responding and simply talk about the right to choose, anti-abortionists will be in the forefront.

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