Ihad my very first discussion of abortion in fourth grade. My friend, the youngest in a family of six, stumped me as follows: “Do you really think that abortion is wrong all the way through pregnancy? Are you trying to tell me that one tiny cell – the fertilized egg – is a person with the right to live?” “Well, I guess not.” A smile grew on his face, “Well then, why should two cells be so important, or three cells, or four?”
I didn’t have an answer; his clever fifth-grade mind had outsmarted me. I began to think about the issue – in fits and starts – into adulthood. And I hope that my book The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice now answers my friend’s question, and many other questions raised by abortion defenders.
In any controversy, it is best to begin with what we already know. Let’s start with the obvious. You and I have basic rights and deserve to be respected. When did we gain this moral status as persons? As we move back in time, it is clear that we had basic rights and merited respect as young children. But if we move back just a bit further, we get into disputed territory.
A number of philosophers – including Peter Singer and Michael Tooley – argue that newborn babies, including healthy newborns, do not have a right to live and may be killed if the parents choose. They draw the line between infants it is permissible to kill, and not, at one week and one month respectively. I argue that there is no morally significant difference between infants eight days old and seven days old, or between babies thirty-two days old and one month old. The arguments for infanticide by the likes of Singer and Tooley fail.
If the right to live does not begin after birth does it begin at the moment of birth? This is the conventional pro-choice position defended by politicians. One difficulty with this view is that there is no “moment” of birth, but rather a process in which more and more of the baby is outside the mother.
When exactly does the right to live kick in? When the first part of the baby is outside? When half is ex utero? When most of the baby is out? Some abortion advocates claim that clamping the umbilical cord is the magic moment. But what if it is unclamped? Does our right to live depend on the whim of the doctor?
Another difficulty with this view is that it turns out that nearly all arguments used against infanticide apply equally well to late-term abortion; and nearly all the arguments used in favor of late-term abortion apply equally well to infanticide. Location with respect to another person, either entirely or partially within someone else’s body, is not relevant to a person’s rights.
Does the right to live of unborn human beings begin sometime during pregnancy? Many characteristics have been brought forward to make the case: conscious desires, the ability to feel pleasure and pain, and brain development. But none of these characteristics in fact justifies the denial of basic rights to human beings in utero. Such characteristics are over-inclusive (they give the right to live to beings like insects that clearly do not have a right to life), under-inclusive (denying the basic rights to mentally handicapped human beings), and because they are measured by degrees cannot secure the equal basic moral worth of all human persons.
Does the right to live begin, then, when we begin? In my book, I develop a rational justification for the view that all human beings, including the unborn, should be respected and accorded equal basic rights by virtue of sharing in flourishing-like-ours with other normal adult human beings, because of our genetic orientation to rational agency, and in light of the kind of being that we are rather than simply the sort of activity we are capable of at this time or that.
Finally, some people say that even if every human being has a right to live, including those in utero, abortion is still morally permissible. If we are permitted to decline to offer our kidney to someone in need, the right to bodily integrity likewise grants a woman the ethical permission to end her pregnancy.
This argument also fails. If the human being in utero has basic rights, then he or she also has a right to bodily integrity. And the right to bodily integrity minimally means that a person’s body should not be dismembered, poisoned, or otherwise injured for the sake of another person. But this is precisely what happens in abortion, so the kidney analogy, properly understood, is an argument against rather than in favor of abortion. Indeed, surveying the arguments defending abortion, I found that, despite my fourth-grade failures, the case against abortion is stronger than ever.