Nothing stirs up controversy like abortion. To some, it carries the steep moral cost of destroying human life, while to others, it represents an inviolable bastion of women’s rights over their ow
We need to distinguish two questions in considering abortion:
- Why is abortion morally objectionable, if it is? Is it because we violate the rights of the fetus? Or is it some other reason, like that it expresses a cavalier attitude towards human life?
- if we interfere with a woman’s choice to have an abortion, have we wronged the woman? Do we, or does government, have the right to interfere with the exercise of that choice?
The answer to the first question only partly determines the answer to the second. If there’s nothing morally objectionable about abortion, there’s no legitimate reason to interfere with a woman's choice. But just because there might be something objectionable, it doesn't follow that we have the right to interfere.
Here’s an analogy. I think its wrong to drink yourself silly in your own home, in a way that undermines your potential as a human being and your ability to have relationships with other people. But I don’t think the government or society has the right to prevent a person from doing these things, at least not in the privacy of his own home when he’s alone.
Still, if abortion is wrong because a fetus has a right to life, and in fact is the murder of a human being, it’s a much more serious wrong than drinking oneself into oblivion. If that’s the answer to the first question, then doesn’t it determine the answer to the second --- that government and society have a right to prevent abortions?
Well, maybe not. There’s a famous article by Judith Thomson. She imagines a situation in which a gifted violinist, for reasons that are left obscure, has taken up residence in your abdomen, and needs to remain there for nine months before he can be safely extracted. Wouldn’t you have the right to insist that he be removed forthwith, even if it meant his death?
This leads to a second distinction. I think there are two basic strategies for defending a woman’s right to choose an abortion.
The more straightforward strategy I’ll call the ``Tooley” strategy, after one of its clearest exponents, Michael Tooley. It says basically that the right to life pertains to persons, and not every live human being is a person. So, even if we grant --- which I must say seems to me undeniable --- that a human fetus is a live human being, it doesn’t follow that it’s a person, and it doesn’t follow that it has a right to life, and that killing it is a case of murder.
People who advocate this line argue that being a person involves various things that fetuses don't have --- at least in the early stages, perhaps self-consciousness and certain emotions. And of course plenty of people think this strategy is wrongheaded --- perhaps because the issue is really when the fetus gets a soul, not when it acquires some intellectual capacities.
The other strategy is the Thomson strategy. Even if a fetus is a person, even if killing it is homicide, it may be something a woman has right to do. Homicide may be justified in self-defense, or in war, and perhaps it’s justified when a person has taken up residence inside you.
Well, now that we’ve clarified things, it should be a simple matter to figure out where the truth lies, and solve this issue once and for all. [joke]