Abortion is one of the most divisive moral issues of our time. Since the mid-20th century, when surgical abortion became more common in Western countries, there has been an intense philosophical debate about its ethics.
Abortion demands that we explore some of the most fundamental debates in philosophical ethics, such as whether it is ever acceptable to kill another person; whether the rights of one person (such as the mother) can prevail over the rights of another (such as the fetus); and whether human life has intrinsic value.
Dobbsv. Jackson has brought the abortion issue back to legislatures. There, defenders of life will work to ensure that unborn children in all jurisdictions are protected by law. Although individual states can (and already have) seek to protect the most vulnerable human beings through ordinary legislation, the constitutional protection of unborn children as equal “persons” before the law remains the ultimate goal, albeit elusive, of movement.
Making this constitutional case will require rejecting the concept that a rights holder is fundamentally autonomous and autonomous. In fact, it is precisely the unborn child’s state of existential dependence on her mother, not her autonomy, that gives him a special right to care, nurturing, and legal protection as well. Excluding some human beings from the protection of the law because of their size, location, and dependency status (and after Roe, whatever jurisdiction their mother is in) strikes defenders of life as a violation egregious human rights violation, just the kind we believe the 14th Amendment was meant to prevent.
My goal is to provide an overview of only one subset of arguments: the personality of the fetus. The strengths and weaknesses of two well-known arguments about personality will be considered. My central argument is that both “pro-life” and “pro-choice” concepts of the personality of a fetus lead us to conclusions that are difficult to accept.
A view that attributes personality to a fetus implies that all forms of abortion, including embryonic deaths caused by contraception, are morally wrong. An opinion that denies the fetus the rights of a person can be invoked to justify more than abortion. On several occasions it has been used as a justification for infanticide.
Considering how radical the implications of these two positions are, most people adopt a hybrid version of a fetus’s personality: an embryo is considered a non-person, while a late fetus is developed enough to be considered a non-person.
A particular human life begins at conception, when sperm and egg meet to form a zygote. It’s worth noting here that both the sperm and the egg are also alive and “human” in a very similar sense (ie they have human DNA).
It is true that a zygote is unique in that it is a germ cell that will begin to grow into a separate human being. But the point is that, in terms of its complexity and essence, at the moment of conception, a zygote is in the same dimension of complexity as the sperm and the egg (i.e. they all exist, like the cells in my arm, in the biological dimension of complexity). The bottom line here is that just because something is alive and human, it doesn’t follow that the entity is a fully functioning human being.
In the way Americans have discussed abortion over the decades, there is a standoff between the autonomous rights-holder—who, as Dobbs’s dissent argues, “owns” her own pregnant body—versus the fetus that she could consider impinging on that autonomy. Philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson’s argument that a woman has the “right to decide what will happen in and with her body,” more concisely translated, “my body, my choice,” is, at bottom, a claim of “my body as property”.
Americans understand property rights, derived from the philosophy of John Locke, as absolute and unlimited. Today, leftists reject this view of property rights as applied to the economy but, paradoxically, embrace them as applied to a pregnant woman and her unborn child. Indeed, using the terms of American property law explicitly, abortion rights advocates often equate the unwanted fetus with an intruder or invader, and the welcome fetus with an invited guest. The right to keep another off one’s property, employing the use of force as necessary, is basic to the Lockean-inspired paradigm of property rights in the United States.
And this is how I see my friends’ differing viewpoints helping me understand the abortion debate: From a non-religious point of view, there is no way to settle the question of the moral value of a fetus. So the government, in Roe vs Wade came to a Solomonic ruling that abortion is permissible to the extent that the government has an interest in the outcome, that is, there is a real potential new citizen once the fetus becomes viable.
This sounds like a compromise: not every abortion is prohibited, but not every abortion is allowed either, but in reality it is more than that. The decision about the moral value of the fertilized ovum is left to the moral compass of the individual woman, because only she can apply religious or moral values to her circumstances; but the whole of society has an interest in the fetus once it has achieved the possibility of living among us.
Roe vs Wade allowed all women to practice their religions equally; it prevented the government from meddling in private moral matters; and respected a woman’s individual ability to make important decisions for herself and her fetus. The reversal of Roe v. Wade opens the door for government to go far beyond its own limits and, in states with evangelical Christian majorities, start picking winners and losers among religions. No religion, including evangelical Christianity, should want that to start.
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