Medical Ethics PHIL 148 @ Binghamton University, Sum 11


Lecture 06/27>Abortion

There are two central moral concerns in abortion: the moral status of the fetus and the rights of the mother. The moral status of the fetus can best be understood in terms of personhood. For some reason, Marquis seems to think he is not talking about personhood when he is talking about “the category of having a valuable future like ours” . Yet, it is difficult to see why he thinks this. In philosophy, person is a term that signifies an individual that satisfies certain criteria that allow them to be categorized as morally relevant. For Kant, a person is a rational being. For Peter Singer, a person is a being that is able to feel pain. For Warren, a person is a being that is part of the proper moral community. Likewise, for Marquis, it would make sense to say that a person is a being that has “a valuable future like ours.” [This definition has a bunch of other problems (like how similar does the valuable future have to be and how does the degree of similarity affect our obligations to these beings?), but that is something that we can get into in discussion, if anyone is interested.] Given that Marquis’ distinction between the category of personhood and his category of a valuable future seems to be meaningless, I think it makes sense to talk about personhood as one of the central moral concerns in abortion.

As you can see above, personhood can be satisfied by many different criteria. What is important, however, is that personhood bears with it the stamp of moral status. If someone is a person, then they have moral relevance. This is most easily understood in terms of obligation, but it also applies to consequentialist theories. As is pointed out in several of the essays for this week, the most common form of argument for and against abortion relies on the question of whether an embryo/fetus is a person. If a fetus is a person, then they have moral status and abortion is immoral. As Thomson points out, this is not as steadfast a conclusion as it is usually taken to be, as even in everyday life we recognize that there are situations where killing a person is not only not immoral, but right. Further, Thomson points out, one of the central tenets of western thought is the right to bodily integrity. Even if a fetus is a person, it does not follow that the rights of a fetus trump the mother’s right to bodily integrity.

The debate on abortion then is a debate about the balance of the rights of a person (where the fetus satisfies the criteria of personhood—it may satisfy it as a fetus, but not as an embryo—or where there is a sufficient argument from potential personhood) and the rights of bodily integrity. Notice that most debates about abortion that we are familiar with (from taking place very publically and vocally) are predicated on one of these sides in absolute terms: either the fetus’ personhood trumps the mother’s bodily integrity or the mother’s bodily integrity trumps the fetus’ personhood. It is likely that the moral situation is nowhere near as clear cut as this, as can be seen by the various arguments put forward by the writers in your text. The mere possibility of rape and the death of the mother speak to these complications, and it is only the most extreme supporters of abortion that allow that the death of the mother is preferable to the death of the fetus (after all, that situation makes the debate about identical situations: dying person versus dying person). The abortion debate becomes about the point where the mere rights of personhood do or do not trump the rights of bodily integrity.

This debate is impacted by many different details. As I pointed out above, an embryo may not count as a person, while a fetus might. Likewise, the mother’s involvement in the creation of the embryo might impact the strength of her right to bodily integrity (the status of a child resulting from failed birth control might be morally different than a child resulting from rape). For instance, while bodily integrity may be a prima facie right, that right might be overcome if the woman’s own actions led to the creation of the fetus—in other words, the woman may end up with a positive duty to support the child that overcomes the woman’s other right to bodily integrity.

An additional detail that strongly influences the position of those who support the legalization of abortion is the fundamental vulnerability of a woman’s position in reproduction. After all, if a woman has a positive duty to support even an unwanted child, then it follows naturally that so does the father of the child. Practically, however, forcing a father to provide for a child is much more difficult than preventing a woman from obtaining an abortion. A system that makes abortion illegal contributes to this the naturally more difficult position of the woman in such a situation. In talking about the balance of the rights of the fetus as a person and the rights of the mother to bodily integrity, we have been talking about the balance between duties of beneficence and duties of autonomy. Vulnerability, however, introduces an additional duty of justice. If the natural vulnerability of pregnancy (based solely on biological factors) is compounded by social circumstances (both systemic and non-systemic), does this bolster the woman’s right to bodily integrity or does it have no impact? What kind of system would have to be in place to make abortion morally unacceptable? Or does justice play no role in abortion?

Some Questions to Consider:

  • Do the rights of personhood trump rights of bodily integrity? Or vice versa?
  • What makes a being a person? What details make a being morally relevant?
  • What role should justice play in the abortion debate?
  • What relevance do biological differences make to how abortion should be treated?

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