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The Ethics of Abortion

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Tyler Zimmer

on 18 November 2015

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Transcript of The Ethics of Abortion

The Ethics of Abortion
Two Arguments
"Why Abortion is Immoral" (1989)
How to Evaluate These Arguments
Don Marquis, "Why Abortion is Immoral"
Judith Jarvis Thomson
"A Defense of Abortion"

Learning Objectives
Understand several contrasting, competing ways of thinking about the ethics of abortion.
Understand how the four theories we've examined apply to the case.
Critically evaluate the arguments for and against abortion.
"A Defense of Abortion" (1971)
Don Marquis
Judith Jarvis Thomson
We've spent the whole class so far examining, in detail, four different competing theories.
So, we have
at least four
different vocabularies, four different frameworks for reasoning about the ethics of the cases we examine.
As we've done all semester, the goal is to examine the
arguments for and against
It isn't enough to simply say "I think X is right/wrong"... we are interested mainly in what the
best reasons
suggest that we do.
How does
come into play?
Religion plays an important role in shaping the ethical thinking of many people.
However, as we saw with the Euthyphro Dilemma... religious folks must clarify which of the following positions they wish to hold:
Certain actions are right
because God commands them
Certain actions are commanded by God
because they're the right things to do.
How does
come into play?
In particular, we need to be clear whether we think
(1) it is wrong/right because God commands it
, or whether we think
(2) God commands it because it is wrong/right
It's not sufficient to say that religion influences our views about the ethics of abortion. We need to clarify
it influences our views.

If we go with (1), that is, Divine Command Theory...
If we go with (2)...
We must keep in mind the challenges that DCT faces.
We must also be mindful of the fact that we raise difficult, controversial problems of interpretation when we attempt to demonstrate that "God commands X."
Most importantly, we should try (as much as is possible) to
others in the debate and attempt to explain and give them
why abortion is right/wrong.
In this case, God either permits or prohibits abortion
it is right or wrong.
We must keep our focus not on God's will,
per se
, but on the reasons for or against abortion.
That God permits/prohibits it is difficult to discern, requires interpretation. Moreover, it isn't what
it right/wrong... it is merely
The importance of respectful moral dialogue
If you aren't religious, needless to say much of what we just discussed won't apply to you.
Our goal, however, is respectful moral dialogue based on
exchanging reasons
for/against that our peers could (in principle) find acceptable.
We all have a shared ethical vocabulary since we examined, in detail, four very different ethical theories.
A religious believer could very well adopt any of these four theories... none of them is
at odds
with belief in God.
Likewise, an atheist could very well adopt any of these as well. None of them
belief in God.
Thus, we are well-positioned to have a reasoned, rigorous, free, open, respectful discussion of the ethics of problems that are difficult to know how to solve.
The Argument Summarized
Marquis's conclusion is that abortion is, in most circumstances, a form of murder.
Marquis begins by explaining why it is immoral to murder adults.
After canvassing popular but mistaken options,
he argues that it is immoral because murder deprives us of future value.

Marquis thinks that human fetuses are no different: to terminate them is, too, to deprive the person they can become of future value.
Hence, abortion is wrong for the same reasons that killing adult human beings is wrong.
Why is murdering adults wrong?
Because it brutalizes the one who does the killing.
Because of the great loss others would suffer by losing someone they care about.
Murder is wrong because of its effect on the victim.
In particular, the loss of one's life deprives one of all the experiences, activities, projects and enjoyments that would otherwise have constituted one's future.
Some parts of our future aren't valued by us now, but will be in the future, as we grow older and our capacities change.
When I die,
I am deprived of the value of my future.
Marquis on Divine Command Theory
"What makes killing wrong is what it does to the person who is killed... Some would deny this. For instance, a divine-command theorist in ethics would deny it. But surely this denial is, however, one of those features of divine-command theory that renders it so implausible."
What is his argument? Is this fair? Is he correct?
Advantages of this Analysis of Killing?
It explains why killing is one of the worst crimes.
It doesn't imply that only human life matters... if certain non-human animals can be deprived of future value than so too is it
prima facie
wrong to kill them as well.
This analysis of killing does not imply that euthanasia is wrong. Persons who are severely and incurably ill, who face a future of pain and despair... will not have suffered a loss if they are killed.
We think it is
wrong to kill children and infants because it deprives them of a very large future of experiences, value, etc.
The future of human fetuses is
no different
from that of adults, children or infants. In all cases, the future includes experiences, projects, activities and value.
It is
prima facie
wrong to kill adults because it deprives them of a future full of experiences, value, etc.
Thus, if it is wrong to kill adults and infants, it is wrong to kill fetuses for the very same reasons. Hence, abortion is
prima facie
"The value of a future-like-ours argument shows only that abortion is
prima facie
wrong, not that it is wrong in any and all circumstances."
The only way to justify abortion would be if not aborting would result in the
loss of something at least as great as the loss of future life suffered by the fetus.

"Morally permissible abortions will be rare indeed unless, perhaps, they occur so early in pregnancy that a fetus is not yet definitely an individual."
Is this consistent with Marquis's argument so far?
A being's future can only be of value if that being can value it. Value implies a valuer.
But fetuses do not have the cognitive capacity to value anything.
Therefore, the future of a fetus is not valuable -- because a fetus cannot value it.
Hence, it does not deprive any being of a future to terminate the fetus.
Thus, abortion is not prima facie wrong.
Thoughts? Does the objection succeed? Why or why not?
If Marquis's argument were sound, it would entail that
contraception were seriously immoral,
since contraception prevents the egg and sperm from leading to a future life full of value for a potential human being.
"Of course, contraception prevents the actualization of a possible future of value... but we are under no obligation to maximize futures of value... The ethics of killing in this essay would entail that contraception is wrong only if something were denied a human future of value by contraception. Nothing at all is denied such a future by contraception, however."
"Candidates for a subject of harm include... (1) some sperm or other, (2) some ovum or other, (3) a sperm and an ovum separately, or (4) a sperm and ovum together... Assigning harm to sperm is utterly arbitrary... the same is true for the ovum..."
Responses? Does the reply succeed? Why or why not?
Objection #3
Marquis argued that a person can fail to value her own future at a certain point in time, but her future might still have value for her (since it is possible that either she or someone else might value it in the future).
A fetus does not value it's own future because it is incapable of valuing anything. Yet it is
still wrong
to abort it (according to Marquis) because the person that might develop from the fetus could eventually find value in that future.
More Questions...
Does Marquis's argument entail that suicide is morally wrong? If so, is that a problem for his analysis of the wrongness of killing?
What is Marquis's best reply here?
Suppose that two persons are capable of reproducing but decide not to. They are thereby depriving the world of a being that could experience future value. Does Marquis's argument entail that this is wrong (tantamount to murder)?
What is Marquis's best reply here?
Do "population paradoxes" arise at this point?
What is Marquis's best reply here?
An Overview of the Argument
Although she disagrees, Thomson grants for the sake of argument that the fetus is a person with a right to life.
A right to life does not entail a right to use someone else's body, however, even if their body is needed to preserve your life.
Thus, even if we grant that a fetus is a person, this is not enough to show that the fetus has a right to the continued use of the mother's body.
A pregnant woman has a right to control her body, and this moral right (in many cases) prevails over the right to life of the fetus. Hence abortion can be morally permissible.
Thomson on whether the fetus is a person
"We are asked to notice that the development of a human being from conception through birth is continuous... it is then concluded that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception. But this conclusion does not follow. Similar things might be said about the development of an acorn into an oak tree but it does not follow that acorns are oak trees or that we had better say that they are. Arguments of this form are sometimes called "slippery slope" arguments and it is dismaying that opponents of abortion rely on them so heavily and uncritically."
Responses? Criticisms? Is this convincing? Why or why not?
Thomson's strategy, however, is to avoid this question.
She grants, for the sake of argument, that the fetus is a person with a right to life.
She argues that even if we grant this premise, it still doesn't follow that abortion is morally wrong.
In a nutshell... JJT's argument is that:
A right to life does not entail a right to the use of someone else's body against their will.
Hence, even if the fetus has a right to life, it does not follow that it has a moral right to use the mother's body against her will.
Suppose we grant that the fetus is a person... how should the anti-abortion argument proceed?
(1) Every person has a right to life.
(2) The fetus is a person, so it has a right to life.
(3) The mother has a right to decide what shall happen to her own body.
(4) But surely a person's right to life is stronger than the mother's right.
(5) Thus, the fetus should not be aborted.
"You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious, famous violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was hooked up to yours... if you unplug him he will die. But it's only for nine months. By then he will have recovered and can be safely unplugged from you."
JJT's Response:
"No doubt if you did this it would be a great kindness. But do you
to do it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the doctor says "Tough luck, but now you've got to stay in bed plugged in for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens to your body but a person's right to life outweighs that. So you cannot be unplugged."
JJT thinks that this shows that a right to life does not always trump a person's right to control their own body.
The violinist clearly has a right to life, like anybody else, but this right alone doesn't entail a right to use your body against your will.
But in this case you were
. You didn't volunteer to have the violinist hooked up to you.
JJT argues that this proves that it is morally wrong to prohibit women from obtaining abortions in cases of rape.
"Can those who oppose abortion on the ground that the fetus has a right to life make an exception in cases where pregnancy is due to rape? Certainly. They can say that persons have a right to life only if they didn't come into existence because of rape; or they can say that all persons have a right to life, but that some have less of a right to life than others, in particular, that those who came into existence because of rape have less. But these statements have a rather unpleasant sound."
What about if the pregnancy would confine the mother to nine months in bed?
What if the pregnancy would shorten the mother's life?
In all of these cases, if we concede that the fetuses right to life always trumps the mother's right to control her own body... we have to say that abortion would be morally wrong.
What does it mean to have a right to life?
Does it entail that someone be given the right to the bare minimum they need to continue living?
But what about cases where the bare minimum someone needs is something they have no right at all to be given?
The violinist needs to use
kidneys to survive... but he has no right against you that you should give him continued use of your kidneys. Nobody has such a right unless you give it to them.
What is the right to life?
What if we take it to mean: "A right not to be killed by anyone else"?
JJT thinks this is no better. After all, unplugging the violinist will kill him. Yet he has no right against you that you shall refrain from doing that.
You are within your rights to pull the plug since you have control over your own body and he does not have a right to the use of your body against your will.
Thus, a right not to be killed does not entail a right to control the bodies of others against their will.
"Suppose a woman knowingly engages in intercourse, knowing of the chance it will issue in pregnancy, and then she does become pregnant; is she not in part responsible for the presence, in fact the very existence, of the unborn person inside of her? No doubt she did not invite the unborn person in. But doesn't her partial responsibility for its being there itself give it a right to the use of her body? If so, then doing so would be depriving it of what it does have a right to, and thus would be doing it an injustice."
"If the room is stuffy, and I therefore open a window to air it, and a burglar climes in, it would be absurd to say "Ah, but now he can stay, she's given him the right to use her house, for she is partially responsible for his being there, having voluntarily done what enabled him to get in, in full knowledge that there are such things as burglars, and that burglars burgle. It would be still more absurd to say this if I had had bars installed outside my windows, precisely to prevent burglars from getting in, and a burglar only got in because of a defect in the bars."
"Suppose it were like this: people-seeds drift about in the air like pollen, and if you open your windows, one may drift in and take root in your carpets or upholstery. You don't want children, so you fix up your windows with fine mesh screens, the very best you can buy. As can happen, however, and on very, very rare occasions does happen, one of the screens is defective; and a seed drifts in and takes root. Does the person-plant who now develops have a right to the use of your house? Surely not. Despite the fact that you voluntarily opened your windows, you knowingly kept carpets and upholstered furniture, and you knew that screens were sometimes defective. Someone may argue that you are responsible for its rooting, that it does have a right to your house, because after all you could have lived your life with bare floors, sealed windows, etc. But this won't do... for by the same token anyone can avoid pregnancy due to rape by having a hysterectomy or anyway by never leaving home without a (reliable!) army."
Even if we grant that the fetus is a person, abortion is not always wrong.
Abortion is sometimes permissible, but it is not
However, we don't have to grant that the fetus is a person. If turns out that the fetus is not a person, especially moments after conception, then there is nothing wrong with aborting it at all.
Is it true that we have
obligation to allow people to use our body if they are in great need? Is JJT correct about the Henry Fonda example?
JJT's view concludes that abortion in the case of rape or accidental pregnancy are morally permissible... even if we grant that the fetus is a person.
But the view is less clear about where the line should be drawn between permissible and wrong... is this a problem?
What if one were to argue that a right to life always trumps a right to control one's body, even in the violinist and people seeds case?
What if one were to argue that abortion is always wrong, even in cases of rape or incest?
What is JJT's response? What can she say to move someone with the diametrically opposed position?
What if someone were to argue that women give
tacit consent
to allowing the fetus to use their body when they willingly engage in sexual intercourse?
JJT thinks this is false, but suppose we were to challenge this point and argue that tacit consent is given since women know that pregnancy is a risk.
Objection: Personal Responsibility
If a woman consensually engages in sexual intercourse, and a pregnancy results... then her voluntary actions cause the fetus to exist.
Therefore, she would be
personally responsible
for the fetus's existence and would thereby incur an obligation to honor its right to life.
Where do we go from here?
In the decades following
Roe v. Wade
, its ruling has been weakened, most notably by requirements of spousal and parental notification and consent, the enactment of “waiting periods” and restrictions on the use of public funds. In the wake of continued social controversy as well as violence and harassment directed at abortion service providers, the number of doctors who are willing and able to provide such services is declining.
By the mid 1990s, 85% of America's counties had no facility offering abortions; 2 states had only 1 provider.
Many states have moved to criminalize late term abortions.
Are things improving? Getting worse? What would be an ethically optimal solution to this situation?
Anti-abortion laws are wrong because they
express disrespect for the agency of women
. They regard women as passive objects, as mere machines for producing children (even if they don't want to have any).
Anti-abortion laws are similar to social norms that stigmatize women for wanting to have a career or otherwise avoid traditional roles associated with femininity (e.g. caretaker of children, staying in the home, taking care of domestic labor, staying out of public political and economic spheres, etc.)
is why these prohibitions are wrong, but JJT does not give these reasons their due.
So her account is flawed and misses the forest for the trees
What is the point of JJT's "people seeds" example? What ethical principle is it attempting to argue against? How does this apply to abortion?
Are you convinced by JJT's argument? If so, why? What would you say to critics? If not, why not? What would you say to refute JJT's argument?
What exactly is a "person"? How would you define it?
Why do persons have a
moral status
according to consequentialism? According to Kantianism?
Should we consider the fetus to be a person? Why or why not? What is your reasoning for your position?
How does gender fit into the abortion debate? Is there anything wrong with men telling women that they are forbidden to have abortions?
To what extent is it important that women have control over their own reproductive powers?
Do men have as much of a right as women to decide what laws governing abortion should be like?
Why or why not?
Marquis's Reply to Objection #2
"This move fails because... the fact that something cannot be of value unless it is valued by someone... does not entail that my life is of no value unless it is valued by me. I may think that my future is of no worth... but I may be wrong because others see value in it... My future can be of value even if I don't value it. This is the case when a young person attempts suicide but is rescued and goes on to significant human achievements... Accordingly this attempt to criticize the argument fails."
Is this objection fair/unfair?
How should Marquis reply?
...But does this apply also to sperm and eggs?
Don Marquis
The Burglar Case
Full transcript