Before we begin the arguments for and against the moral permissibility of abortion, I’d like to talk a little bit about why it’s important to discuss this philosophically. At the social level, when we have arguments about things as controversial as abortion, we rely on intuitions. Some things just feel intuitively wrong, and to let others do those things, feel just as wrong. It feels wrong to murder, and it feels wrong that other people commit murder. These intuitive mores stem from our traditional values taught to us by our guardians and communities. Allowing room for abortion in our society has opened a can of worms for a few decades, and I’d like to peer a little further into what we call intuitions so that we can actually defend our arguments beyond, “It’s just wrong!” or “Well, why not?” Recently, the political debate has shifted back to the culture wars of years past. Legislative action has been taken fore and against rights to birth control access, gay marriage, and abortion. In some states now, it is mandatory for a woman to see a sonogram before they choose abortion. This is purposefully done to elicit an emotional response. What we are going to talk about is the nature of that emotional response and whether or not it’s founded in reason; whether or not it’s rational for this deliberately provocative law to be enforced. However, this debate will take place pre-politics. In other words, things are not morally right or wrong based on what the law says, or what politicians or theologians say. For example, it is morally wrong to cheat on your spouse, but not illegal. It is also considered amoral to take drugs recreationally, but it is highly illegal. Legislation is based on the communal knowledge of moral topics, not the other way around, and so the more we understand about what it is we feel is right and wrong, the more accurate the legislation will be to our liking (let’s hope). The point is to motivate a deeper understanding of why we hold our own beliefs and moral standards. Why is abortion morally wrong? Why is murder wrong? Are they the same thing? What about in the cases of rape, incest, or mother’s at risk of dying due to the pregnancy?
We will also be holding this discussion outside the realm of religion. While the anti-abortion position is most commonly held by religious conservatives, the actual religions themselves offer little insight into the arguments. At their core, what ever reasoning can be interpreted from the religious texts can be contained within the philosophical arguments anyway. Besides, pointing to a centuries old book which condones many things we now consider immoral (i.e. slavery, rape, polygamy, betrothal, torture. Just to name a few), and saying that it is an authority on abortion is a little asinine. It is clear to anyone who takes a moment to look that our morals do not arise from theodicy. Philosophically speaking, if there was a god that pronounced, “Abortion is immoral,” it doesn’t necessarily follow that we must agree with that particular god either. As many people in the world know, justice does not always come from the powerful. Souls too, are a dubious thing. There are too many questions we’d first have to answer about souls, which we are helpless to answer no matter what religious or new age book we’ve read (and no, they do not weigh 21 grams). Where beliefs are subject to questioning in terms of morality, religion often claims to hold the ultimate position, though its reasoning is as intellectually unsatisfactory as, “It just is,” or “Because I said so.”
There is one last thing before we get into the first of two (or more) opposing arguments I’ll present here. Most, if not all, the material presented here is as accurate as I can portray it from a textbook and class lessons in Bioethics. Many of these explanations are direct from a professor who deserves most of the credit for being informative and artfully nonpartisan. On top of sharing this topic with everyone, it will serve to be my own study guide and I only make this point to express that there are other versions of these arguments out there, and perhaps better ones to be made. These are not necessarily my own philosophical views on the moral permissibility of abortion. Again this is only an exercise in learning about how to analyze our own beliefs.
Tooley’s Argument for the Permissibility of Abortion
Most social conservatives would say that killing a human fetus (for the time being we will use the term fetus to umbrella all stages of the unborn, never mind zygote or embryo) is morally comparable to killing an adult person. It is murder. It might be possible that someone, out there in the conservative world, believes that aborting a fetus would be the same as killing a lizard and that it is still morally wrong, but I have yet to hear any one propose that argument. So for now we will assume that all anti-abortionists hold that killing a fetus is the moral equivalent to killing an adult person. Again, it is murder.
Michael Tooley, a philosopher, would describe this using the term Moral Status (or Moral Standing). Essentially anti-abortionists imbue a human fetus with the same moral status as a standard adult human being. Already some of you might be trying to figure out whether you feel this is true. Well, let us consider this: What moral status does a rock have? Presumably, none. Why not? For something to have moral status, it needs to be the type of thing toward which moral agents (you and I) have moral obligations. If we break a rock, or drop it into a lake, we do not hold a funeral or a candle light vigil for its loss. It’s just a rock, right? A rock is not something to which we have moral obligations. Well, what about a chicken? What about a chimpanzee or a dolphin? Somewhere in your mind there is a scale of things to which are ascribed with different levels of moral standing. An animal generally tends to have a higher moral status than a desk or chair, or even plants and insects. We tend to grant the highest level of moral status to standard adult human beings. When I say standard adult human beings I mean the kinds of beings that can think in terms of moral principles and regulate behavior accordingly. You may not be a standard adult human being if you are in a persistent vegetative state, like what people refer to as being brain dead or in a coma. This is not to say that a person in a persistent vegetative state has the moral status of a rock, but it does imply that generally speaking, and all other things being equal, that person does not have the same moral standing as a standard adult human being. To reinforce this concept: If you were in a burning building with the opportunity to save one person, a) someone who is in a state of brain death or b) the attractive model down the hall, you’d probably choose the latter.
What gives a standard adult human being moral status? Is it fingers and toes? or hair? and two eyes, a spine? Not really. These are mere physical attributes. Remember, when I said, “standard adult human beings [are] the kinds of beings that can think in terms of moral principles and regulate behavior accordingly.” This means that we must have a few mental properties in order to do these things. Properties of standard adult human beings insofar that they are moral agents are things like sentience, self awareness, the ability to suffer, etc. It also follows that because we are self aware; we understand what the self is. Some animals show signs of being able to understand themselves. Certain types of monkeys can recognize themselves in a mirror, and not try to grab the monkey behind it or throw shit at the copy-cat reflection. This is a sign of self awareness. Other animals express the desire to not die. This is crucial. While we do not think a lizard has a concept of self, we do notice when we threaten its life, it will resist death. This means it has some kind of concept of self, to which it wishes (to some degree) to continue being in existence. This grants it, at least a smidgen of moral status, beyond something like a blade of grass, which we mercilessly mow down and slice at.
Ok, so now that we have a cursory understanding about what moral status means, we can move onto what Tooley means when beings have a serious right to life. A human being can be many things. In a genetic sense, it is anything with the code we classify as Homo sapien. If we remove the brain from a person, but keep the body alive with machines, is it still living? Well, yes, perhaps in the same way a car with the engine on would be. Is it a human being? Only genetically. Is it a person? Tooley would say no. He would explain that if X is a person, then X has a serious moral right to life. A serious moral right to life is equivalent to having full moral standing. A serious right to life takes full moral standing a little further by saying, “if X is a subject of experiences and other mental states and X is capable of desiring continued existence, and if X desires to continue to exist as such an entity, then others (us) are under a prima facie obligation not to prevent it from doing so.” Sounds complicated, I know. Essentially what it means is that if something doesn’t want to die, and it is fully aware of itself and that it wants to keep it that way, we are generally obligated to not fuck with them. All else being equal, we are in a sort of moral contract to not kill X. In order to want to continue to exist, a being must have a sense of self, the capability to desire, and the understanding to some degree of existence and non-existence.
Tooley argues that a human fetus is not yet a person, though it is a human and a member of the Homo Sapien race. It does not have a serious moral right to life in the same way adults do because it is not self aware amongst other traits that determine high moral standing. One might think that this is up for debate, but it is generally accepted that humans do no attain self awareness even after birth. Fetuses are also incapable of desire in the way a standard adult human being is capable of desire. So to desire to continue to exist is completely out of the realm of what a fetus can do. This ultimately means that a fetus does not have full moral standing. Aborting a fetus, to Tooley in this way, is not the same as killing an adult human being.
Anyone well versed in the arts of argumentation will also be able anticipate the counter arguments used against them. Michael Tooley defends against 6 alternative points and we will do it in the form I copied from the blackboard.
“It is seriously wrong to kill and organism…”
1) …that belongs to the species Homo sapiens.
- Tooley already defended this point regarding special cases in which certain Homo sapiens are not granted full moral status. But, what if being a member of the classification Homo sapiens means something special? Tooley would call this speciesism. In the same way that saying to be White is more virtuous than being Chinese is racist; to say that being human is more virtuous than being a whale is arbitrary and unfounded.
2) …that belongs to the species Homo sapiens and has achieved human form.
- Again, permanently comatose humans or humans where the brain is removed completely, still is a human but does not have a serious right to live in the same way a standard adult person would.
3) …that belongs to the species Homo sapiens and is capable of spontaneous movement.
- Well what about sufferers from ALS (Lou Gherig’s disease), or other forms of paralyzation? Their mental faculties are unperturbed. They are still capable of full moral status.
4) …that belongs to the species Homo sapiens and is capable of existence outside the womb.
- What about conjoined twins, where one is completely dependent on the other to live? Or in more extreme cases, where one is parasitic to the other, and one life must be sacrificed to save the other. Gruesome perhaps, though still a necessary side of the argument.
5) …that belongs to the species Homo sapiens and is no longer in the womb.
- Uh, we’re talking about abortion still right?
6) …that has the potential to become one of us.
- This is the most potent counter argument to Tooley. It is the argument from potentiality, of which we will discuss when we move onto the next philosopher. A common argument used by anti-abortionists is that you’re robbing the potential life of something that will eventually become a person. That is not to say that you’re killing the next Leonardo Da Vinci or as some anti-abortion bill boards claimed over a year ago, the next President, because it could also be said that you’re killing the next Adolf Hitler or Pol Pot or Charles Manson. This is called conjecture, and using slippery slope arguments are not permitted. Never the less, to deprive a potential person of personhood strikes many people as intuitively wrong. I think this lies at the core of many mainstream beliefs for anti-abortion position holders. Tooley responds to the people who argue for potentiality, which I’m going to hold off for now.
Up to this point we have read about a seemingly reasonable argument for the moral permissibility of abortion as supported by a one Michael Tooley. The response comes from another philosopher whose entire argument addresses the 6th objection listed above. Before I continue onward with the second part of this topic, I’d like to hear from you readers. Abortion is a polarizing topic. If you’re against the argument, sound off! If you think this sounds reasonable, explain why. Are fetuses people? If you think they are and have something not addressed by the above argument, then please contribute! If this philosopher changed the way you thought about abortion, be sure to include everything you can about that. If I get enough comments I’ll continue with this topic.