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The Abortion Debate


The Abortion Debate Future-like-ours What makes killing wrong is the loss to the victim of the value of the victim s future. Killing deprives its victim of all the ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: The Abortion Debate

The Abortion Debate
In this lecture
  • The debate
  • Roe v. Wade
  • Pro-life v. pro-choice
  • Personhood
  • Interest
  • Potentiality
  • Future-like-ours
  • Bodily autonomy

The Debate
  • The legal status of something refers to how it
    is to be considered or treated from the legal
    point of view.
  • The moral status of something refers to how it
    is to be regarded from the moral point of view.

The Debate
  • A fetus is an unborn child at any stage
    throughout pregnancy.
  • An embryo is a fetus at a very early stage of

The Debate
  • The abortion debate is not about health issues,
    but moral issues.
  • Abortion has been legalized in many western
    countries. (In the United States, for example,
    after the Supreme Courts ruling on Roe v. Wade
    in 1973.) It is one of the safest procedures,
    with little history of complication or side

The Debate
  • The debated is often framed in terms of a clash
    between two basic rights the fetus right to
    life and the mothers bodily autonomy.
  • Arguments on both sides of the debate often look
    at issues from the third-person point of view and
    pay scant attention to matters of personal

The Debate
  • The debate usually surrounds the issues of
    whether a fetus has a right to life, and whether
    the pregnant womans right over her own body
    justifies abortion even if the fetus has a right
    to life.

The Debate
  • Does a fetus have a right to be carried to full
  • Does a pregnant woman have the right to do
    whatever she wants with her body, including the
    right to dispose of a fetus?

Roe v. Wade
  • The United States Supreme Court in the Roe v.
    Wade (1973) decision established that a womans
    constitutional right to privacy included a right
    to abortion.
  • Prospective mothers are free to abort for
    personal reasons up until the third trimester
    (i.e. during the first 6 months of pregnancy).

Roe v. Wade
  • A womans right to abortion was subsumed under
    the right to privacy.
  • Privacy can be understood here as a condition in
    which one is not disturbed by government. In
    relation to abortion, privacy is defined as the
    right of a woman to decide what happens to her
    own body.

Roe v. Wade
  • However, a womans right to terminate her
    pregnancy is not absolute after the fetus
    becomes viable (by the seventh month of
    pregnancy), the state (government) may prohibit
    all abortions except those necessary to preserve
    the health or life of the mother.

Roe v. Wade
  • Viability refers to the stage of fetal
    development where a fetus is capable of surviving
    given suitable intensive care outside the
    mothers womb.
  • The Courts decision came close to espousing
    viability as the cutoff point between not having
    a right to life and having one.

Roe v. Wade
  • The Supreme Court held that the state has a
    legitimate interest in protecting potential life
    and that this interest becomes compelling at
    viability because the fetus then presumably has
    the capability of meaningful life, outside the
    mothers womb.

Roe v. Wade
  • The Courts ruling might have settled the dispute
    over the legal status of abortion, but not its
    moral status.
  • Even if you have a legal right to seek abortion,
    it does not follow that doing so is morally

Pro-life v. pro-choice
  • People who oppose abortion call themselves
    pro-life, while those who support womens right
    to abortion call themselves pro-choice.
  • Let us have a look at some of the arguments on
    both sides of the abortion debate

Pro-life v. pro-choice
  • Pro-life argument Because fetuses are full human
    beings, abortion is never justified, except
    perhaps to save the mothers life.
  • Counterargument The assumption that fetuses are
    persons (full human beings) is questionable.

Pro-life v. pro-choice
  • Pro-life argument There are plenty of readily
    available contraceptives on the market. If a
    woman does not use them, it is her own fault and
    she has to take responsibility for her
  • Counterargument No contraceptive method is 100

Pro-life v. pro-choice
  • Pro-life argument Permitting abortion would lead
    to horrible consequences such as widespread
    infanticide and moral breakdown.
  • Counterargument Abortions have been performed in
    the U.S. and many other countries for quite some
    time without the slightest evidence of harmful
    social consequences.

Pro-life v. pro-choice
  • Other pro-life arguments include, for example,
    1 abortions emotionally harm the mother 2
    abortion denies society the possible benefits
    these children could produce and 3 families
    eager for children are denied the opportunities
    of adopting unwanted children.

Pro-life v. pro-choice
  • Pro-choice argument Abortion is a private,
    personal decision based on the mothers right to
    privacy and autonomy. Freedom of choice is a
    persons fundamental right that must be protected
    from government interference.

Pro-life v. pro-choice
  • Pro-choice argument Women should have the right
    to control their own bodies and reproduction.
    They should be able to decide how many children
    they want to have and when to have them.

Pro-life v. pro-choice
  • Pro-choice argument Unwanted pregnancies carry
    emotional burdens as well as physical ones.
    Pregnancy can be a significant interruption in a
    womans life, and motherhood can bring a serious
    disruption of her hopes and plans. If women are
    denied the right to abortion, they are denied the
    rights and opportunities to participate fully in

Pro-life v. pro-choice
  • Pro-choice argument Someone too immature or
    otherwise not ready for a child could harm the
    child or end up leaving the child as a burden to
    society. These unwanted children are likely to
    end up with problems later in life, so are the
    mothers who were forced to bear them.

Pro-life v. pro-choice
  • Pro-choice argument If women do not have legal
    access to abortion, many of them will have to
    resort to back-street abortions carried out by
    unqualified persons. As a result, the health and
    well-being of these women will be endangered.

Pro-life v. pro-choice
  • Counterargument Enforcement problems might
    provide a reason not to ban abortions, but they
    certainly do not make abortions morally right.
    Legalizing abortion is undesirable because it
    will encourage irresponsible behavior.

  • The debate about the rights of a fetus is often
    framed as one about whether or not the fetus can
    be regarded as a person.
  • If the fetus has the legal or moral status of a
    person, then it has all the rights of a person,
    including a right to life.

  • The term personhood or moral personhood
    implies the full moral status of a person.
  • Does a fetus have the same moral status as a
    fully functioning person?

  • Opponents of abortion argue that to kill a fetus
    is to murder a human being.
  • This claim is supported by the fact that all the
    necessary genetic material that defines the
    zygote (i.e. fertilized egg) as human is already
    present at the very moment of conception.

  • Defenders of abortion argue that fetuses are
    human beings in the biological or genetic sense,
    but they are not persons in the moral sense.
  • The biological or genetic status of the human
    organism does not settle the question of its
    moral status.

  • If an entity has moral status, it has intrinsic
    value. Its needs, interest and well-being have
    importance in their own right.
  • Persons are beings of full moral status and
    therefore are entitled to a full set of rights,
    the most important of which is the right to life.

  • What does it mean to be a person?
  • Where do we draw the line between those who are
    right-holders and those who are not?

  • When does a fetus attain the full legal and moral
    status of a person with a right to life?
  • Different people may have different views because
    there does not seem to be a clear cutoff point
    between conception and infancy.

  • Some argue that the fetus attains personhood at
    around the eighth week when brain activity or
    consciousness generally becomes detectable.
  • However, if brain activity or consciousness is a
    sufficient condition for personhood, many animals
    will have to be treated as persons.

  • Some say that a fetus should be considered a
    person when viable (i.e. can survive outside
    the mothers womb).
  • However, with improved medical support, very
    premature fetuses can be kept alive, challenging
    what counts as viability.

  • Some hold that birth is the decisive cutoff point
    between nonpersonhood and personhood.
  • But this seems an arbitrary distinction. There is
    no reason to suppose that the fetus status one
    second before birth is miraculously transformed
    one second after birth.

  • Mary Anne Warren Birth, rather than some earlier
    point, marks the beginning of true moral status.
  • Warren suggests that if a fetus is to be
    considered a person, then so should sperm. Does
    this mean that we need to protect the rights of
    sperm? Of course not.

  • By virtue of what characteristics does an entity
    have personhood status (i.e. full moral status
    of a person) and thereby possess a right to life?

  • To answer this question, Warren suggests a series
    of traits or characteristics that are central to
    the concept of personhood namely, 1
    consciousness, 2 reasoning, 3 self-motivated
    activity, 4 the capacity to communicate, and
    5 the presence of self-concepts.

  • Warrens list sets a very high threshold for
    personhood. Thus it seems impossible, at least
    according to Warren, for a fetus to be a person.
  • But if fetuses do not have the moral status of
    persons, we do not have a moral duty to treat
    them as persons.

  • Counterargument 1 Although the term person
    is typically defined in terms of mental or
    psychological characteristics, there is no
    agreement concerning which characteristics are
    the most important. And there is often little or
    no explanation as to why mental characteristics
    should make a moral difference.

  • Counterargument 2 If abortion is permissible
    simply because fetuses do not meet the
    requirements of personhood, then infanticide
    should also be permissible because it is
    difficult to show relevant differences between
    the capacities of the late-stage fetus and the

  • Counterargument 3 Not all humans have those
    qualities mentioned on Warrens list, while some
    animals may possess them. Severely retarded
    children, severely senile adults, and people in
    persistent vegetative states do not possess those
    properties, while dolphins, chimpanzees and apes
    may possess them.

  • Counterargument 4 Personhood arguments were
    used in the past as an excuse or justification
    for oppression women, slaves, Jews, certain
    racial groups, the disabled, etc. were once
    believed, for one reason or another, to be

  • Is it morally permissible to kill unconscious and
    severely retarded humans, or very small children,
    simply because they do not exhibit the required
    characteristics for personhood? Should we treat
    them equally as members of the human community?

  • Is the decision about whether to continue or end
    a pregnancy more or less the same as the decision
    about whether to cut ones hair? Is it morally
    right to treat fetuses as mere objects?

  • Another important question to consider is whether
    or not fetuses have interests to be protected.
  • According to the interest theory of rights,
    there is no reason to suppose that only fully
    functioning persons have interests.

  • The interest theory of rights asserts that the
    possession of interest is both necessary and
    sufficient for moral status.
  • To have moral status is to be the sort of being
    whose interests must be considered from the moral
    point of view.

  • To have rights is to have protected moral status.
    Interest, therefore, can be seen as a necessary
    condition for the attribution of rights.
  • If the primary function of rights is to protect
    interests, a being that lacks interests does not
    need rights because it cannot be harmed and
    therefore does not need protection.

  • Having rights seems to presuppose having
    interests, which in turn seems to presuppose
    having wants, hopes, fears, likes and dislikes.
  • Some argue that fetuses cannot have interests
    simply because they cannot think or feel,
    experience anything, or want anything.

  • According to this view, fetuses are incapable of
    being harmed and they do not have any interests
    to be protected.
  • It is therefore mistaken to say that abortion
    violates the fetuses rights because entities
    that do not have interests cannot have rights.

  • Counterargument 1 Fetuses are sentient
    beings in the sense that they, too, have
    sensations. Since fetuses can feel pain, they
    have an interest in not being caused to suffer
    (from pain).

  • Counterargument 2 Although fetuses may not
    have interests now, they will have interests once
    they are born. Their future interests can be
    harmed by events that occur while they are still
    in the womb. For example, smoking, drinking
    alcohol, or taking narcotic drugs during
    pregnancy can cause a child to be born with
    serious impairments.

  • Counterargument 3 A wrongful act done today
    may harm someone in the future who is not yet
    born or not even conceived. For example, putting
    poisonous ingredients into baby formula to be
    sold in the markets 12 months later is obviously
    immoral because of the harm it will cause to
    future newborns.

  • A fetus is a potential person, not an actual
    person. A potential person is surely not an
    object, but it is not a fully functioning person
  • Should we treat a potential person in exactly the
    same way we treat an actual person?

  • Some argue that the fetus is a potential person
    and has the capability of becoming an actual,
    fully functioning person. For this reason, a
    fetus should be valued and respected for that
    potential and be accorded the same moral status
    that we accord each other.

  • It does not necessarily follow that full moral or
    legal status should be awarded on the basis of
  • Having the potential to become an musician is not
    the same as being an musician, and a potential
    person is not the same as an actual person.

  • We feel a sense of loss when a mature apple tree
    is felled or chopped down, but we do not feel the
    same sense of loss at the destruction of an apple
  • But the question is Can we justify the killing
    of a fetus on the basis of an analogy between
    seeds and fetuses?

  • No. Because this involves a false analogy Fruit
    trees are valued by us because of the fruit their
    provide. Their value is instrumental (i.e.
    because they are useful to us). But human beings
    have intrinsic value just because they are human
    (i.e. they are valuable in their own right
    whether or not they are useful to others).

  • Some may argue that a fetus is a potential person
    but not an actual person. Nor should it enjoy the
    same rights as an actual person .
  • For example, teenagers will have a right to vote
    when they reach the age of eligibility, but it
    does not mean that they now have the right to

  • Counterargument This, again, involves a false
    analogy. The right to life (a fundamental right
    that is universal and inalienable) and the right
    to vote (a legal right granted to a specific
    class of citizens through legislation) are rights
    of very different nature.

  • There is also the argument that potential
    persons do not automatically become actual
    persons over time.
  • For a newborn to develop into a person, it must
    be properly raised, fed and educated, and have
    opportunities to establish relationships with

  • Potentiality, therefore, does not imply
    actuality. Becoming a person is not a biological
    given but an interactive process.
  • Some infants abandoned or severely neglected by
    parents fail to learn to speak and take on animal

  • The unfertilized egg and the sperm, like an
    embryo or a fetus, also have the potential to
    become a fully functioning person.
  • Does it imply that we should treat sperm and eggs
    with the same respect as we treat human beings?

  • Few people would regard abortion as the moral
    equivalent of contraception. For most people, it
    takes no reason at all to justify contraception,
    but it takes some reason to justify ending a
    pregnancy. Why?

  • Don Marquis argues that abortion is immoral. Why?
    Because abortion involves killing.
  • But what is wrong with killing? Because killing
    robs its victim of a future of value, according
    to Marquis.

  • What makes killing wrong is the loss to the
    victim of the value of the victims future.
  • Killing deprives its victim of all the goods of
    her future she otherwise would have experienced.

  • Marquis For any killing where the victim did
    have a valuable future like ours, having the
    future by itself is sufficient to create the
    strong presumption that the killing is seriously

  • A future of value or future-like-ours,
    according to Marquis, include all the activities,
    projects, experiences and enjoyments that are
    either valuable intrinsically or are means to
    something else that is valuable intrinsically.

  • We know that fetuses have valuable futures
    because we were all fetuses once.
  • Thus, abortion is wrong simply because fetuses
    have futures like ours. What makes it wrong to
    kill a fetus is exactly what makes it wrong to
    kill you and me.

  • Counterargument There is no guarantee that a
    fetus will have a future of value or
    future-like-ours, especially for cases of
    unwanted pregnancies.

Bodily autonomy
  • Judith Jarvis Thomson defends abortion while
    granting her opponents the concession that the
    fetus is a person from the moment of conception.

Bodily autonomy
  • Imagine that you wake up in bed next to a famous
    violinist. He is unconscious with a fatal kidney
    ailment and because only you happen to have the
    right blood type to help, the Society of Music
    Lovers has kidnapped you and plugged your
    circulatory system into his so that your kidneys
    can filter poisons from his blood as well as your

Bodily autonomy
  • If the violinist is disconnected from you now, he
    will die but in nine months, he will recover and
    can be safely disconnected.
  • Is it morally permissible for you to unplug
    yourself from the violinist even though this will
    cause him to die?

Bodily autonomy
  • Thomsons answer is that demands made upon you to
    remain attached to the violinist exceed those
    required of morally responsible people.
  • Just as you have no moral duty to use your body
    to support the violinist, a pregnant woman is
    under no obligation to use her body to support a
    child she does not want.

Bodily autonomy
  • Staying attached to the violinist may be the kind
    thing to do, but disconnecting oneself does not
    violate the violinists right to life.
  • Why? Because the right to life is a negative
    right which does not include the right to have
    all the assistance needed to maintain that life.

Bodily autonomy
  • A positive right can be seen as a right to be
    provided with some goods or services, whereas a
    negative right is simply a right to be left

Bodily autonomy
  • Thomson does not argue against the right to life,
    but rather against the right to use another
    persons body without the persons consent.
  • In other words, the fetus may have a right to
    life, but a woman is not morally required to
    allow the fetus to use her body.

Bodily autonomy
  • The violinist scenario shows that no one has the
    right to use the body of another person without
    that persons approval.
  • The fetus, therefore, does not have the right to
    use the body of the mother for sustenance or
    survival against her will.

Bodily autonomy
  • The mother who chooses to support her child by
    sustaining the pregnancy is performing a virtuous
    act (as a Good Samaritan would do) but one that
    she has no moral duty to perform. In other words,
    the mother does not have a duty to carry the
    fetus to full term.

Bodily autonomy
  • Counterargument 1 Abortion is an act of
    extracting an unborn child that inevitably leads
    to its death. There is a significant difference
    between choosing not to assist someone
    (unplugging the violinist) and doing something
    that causes someone harm (performing an

Bodily autonomy
  • Counterargument 2 Thomsons view of bodily
    autonomy is premised on the questionable
    assumption that the pregnant woman has the
    absolute right to do whatever she wants with her

Bodily autonomy
  • But most rights are not absolute. Just as the
    right to swing ones fist ends where the other
    mans face begins, a womans right to control her
    own body stops at taking the life of her unborn

Bodily autonomy
  • Counterargument 3 Thomson assumes that the
    fetus is like an uninvited guest who has no right
    to use the mothers body. It can be argued,
    however, that once a woman voluntarily engages in
    sexual intercourse, she has suspended her right
    to bodily autonomy by engaging in an act that
    brought a new life into existence.

Bodily autonomy
  • The violinist scenario, which involves a
    kidnapping, can only be compared to pregnancy
    after rape. If a pregnant woman was not raped but
    had sex voluntarily, she has either tacitly
    consented to allow the fetus to use her body, or
    else has a duty to sustain the fetus because she
    caused it to stand in need of her body.

Bodily autonomy
  • Thomsons expanding child scenario
  • Suppose you find yourself trapped in a tiny house
    with a rapidly growing child. You are already up
    against the wall of the house and in a few
    minutes you will be crushed to death. Is it
    morally permissible for you to attack the child
    to save you own life?

Bodily autonomy
  • For Thomson, if a pregnancy endangers a womans
    life, she is morally justified to seek abortion
    on grounds of self-defense.

Bodily autonomy
  • If a pregnant womans life is at risk, abortion
    could be viewed as the lesser of two evils.
  • For example, chemotherapy for cancer treatment
    may lead to miscarriage in which case the death
    of the fetus is a secondary effect of treating
    the mother.

Bodily autonomy
  • When a mothers life is in danger due to
    pregnancy, we naturally feel more sympathy and
    concern for the woman who has fully developed
    capacities and a network of established
    relationships than we do for a fetus which has

Bodily autonomy
  • Thomsons people-seeds scenario
  • Suppose there are people-seeds drifting about
    in the air like pollen. If you open the windows,
    one may drift in and take root in your carpets.
    You do not want children, so you fix up your
    windows with fine mesh screens.

Bodily autonomy
  • If, however, one of the screens is defective and
    a seed drifts in and takes root, is it
    permissible for you to rid your house of the
    unwelcome intruder?

Bodily autonomy
  • Thomson seems to think that if a woman gets
    pregnant unintentionally despite all the
    necessary precautions she has taken, she may seek
    abortion because she has no duty to bear a child
    she does not want.

Bodily autonomy
  • In the case of an unintended and unwanted
    pregnancy, it seems reasonable to weigh the harm
    of forcing the woman to give birth to a child she
    does not want against the harm of destroying a

  • Do you think that access to abortion should be
    provided to teenage girls who got pregnant
    accidentally? What about those poor families with
    several children that cannot afford another one?

  • Two women were raped. One decide to keep the
    child and raise it as if conceived under normal
    circumstances. The other woman decided to have an
    abortion. Did both women make a good decision?

  • Do you agree with the view that abortion on the
    grounds of fetal abnormality is morally and
    legally objectionable in discriminating against
    disabled people?