Sunday, March 24, 2013
First Aired: 
Sunday, January 9, 2011

What Is It

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 own bodies.  Despite the polarizing nature of the debate, it covers broad philosophical ground, and touches on religious, political, social and moral considerations.  Ken and John seek a dispassionate and rational discussion of abortion with UC Berkeley Journalism professor Cynthia Gorney, author of Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars.

Listening Notes

As our show begins, John and Ken survey the landscape of the abortion debate. John posits that there are two acts whose morality is debated: the act of aborting the fetus, and the act of restraining women who want to get an abortion. He also notes that the relation between the morally objectionable nature of an act and the government’s right to interfere with it is not always clear. Ken, meanwhile, identifies two main strategies that have been used to defend abortion. The first is to argue that while fetuses are human beings, they are not persons. Persons have consciousness, the ability to feel pain, emotions, etc., and it is these properties that qualify persons for rights that human beings do not have, including the right to life. The second strategy is to maintain that even if a fetus is a person, killing it might be something that a woman has a right to do, since it is inside her or a part of her body.

John and Ken are then joined by guest Cynthia Gorney, who sets them straight on some of the facts around gestation and when we might consider a fetus a person, although she notes that scientists are far from consensus on many of the questions. She also emphasizes that while the legal debate dichotomizes between a non-being and a person with rights, most people think that there are many steps between these two states of being.

With some of the facts straight, the discussion turns to moral questions. Ken wants to know what kind of rights something on its way to being a person has. Gorney notes that in moral philosophy, philosophers often rely on analogies, and she cautions our philosophers against analogizing with respect to birth control, because it is unlike any other moral dilemma. So, of course, John offers a strange analogy, meant to show that because human development up to birth is gradual, the morality of abortion is also gradated. An audience member wants to know how laws could reflect a question of gradual morality. Ken considers the second pro-life strategy he had identified and finds it rather unpromising.

Finally, John and Cynthia agree that it is not consistent with the pro-life position to make exceptions for rape and incest. This is because, at its heart, the pro-life position is not about whether or not a woman is responsible for being pregnant, but rather about the right of a fetus to life. A fetus conceived via rape or incest should logically have the same right to life as one conceived consensually. Gorney wryly notes that while philosophers are free to make this point, most pro-life politicians will not, for fear of appearing heartless.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 7:10): Angela Kilduff interviews Aspen Baker, founder and executive director of Exhale, an organization dedicated to supporting women who have had abortions. Baker thinks we need a new language for talking about abortion that differs from the political, moral or religious language in which the debate is often couched—namely, the language of personal experience.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (seek to 48:51): Even the incorrigible Ian Schoales steers clear of making light of abortion. Instead he discusses movies about children, from light-hearted family comedies that celebrate procreation to the “evil-child” genre of films.


Comments (1)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, February 15, 2022 -- 2:42 PM

Insofar as the High Court is

Insofar as the High Court is drifting towards conservative utopia and further away from the rule of law---most conspicuously, well-settled case law, I herewith re-assert my notions about contextual reality, sketched in comments on the Perry post from 2011, concerning levels of reality. I will not repeat specifics here. Too much work, on a project as yet unfinished...
Some of my thoughts, sent to a local newspaper, I herein revisit. There is wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth over the Biden Promise. He will nominate a black female for the chair to be vacated. This, to counter challenges to women's rights (& Roe v Wade) mounted by conservatism.
He is counting on a trifecta bet: 1. A liberal, black female jurist. 2. Her confirmation. 3. Her appointment. Betting is only a gamble: winning, a short-lived victory.
In that letter mentioned, I pointed out the results of an earlier nomination, confirmation and appointment, claiming it was the right thing for a sitting president to do, if not the best choice that might have been made: not only did we get an associate justice for whom the process was blind, it was also mostly silent. Said jurist does not say much;is apparently comfortable in his own wisdom.
I also remarked concerning people who are silent and what that might indicate about their judgment. I received a predictable response from the newspaper. So far. Silence.
If you are alive, you know whom/when I am talking about. You may even know why it is important.

I've read and agree to abide by the Community Guidelines