A Philosophical Justification of Abortion Rights
Abortion is a topic that has brought about moral acrimony like few others in recent times. Many Conservatives have compared abortion to mass genocide, bellowing that abortion constitutes murder, while liberals have countered how its prohibition violates a women's right to bodily autonomy. In this essay, I aim to consider these views and illustrate how abortion, in most cases, fails to constitute any moral crime. I then highlight how the prohibition of abortion undermines the right to bodily autonomy of women, thus morally justifying the legalisation of abortion in all cases.
Before moving onto the substantive points of this essay, it is worth considering that many believe that I should not even discuss abortion rights. As I am not a woman, I am not the person who should even be commenting upon the justness of abortion. I broadly agree with this sentiment, however, for this to be the case two things must be proved. Firstly, it must be proved that abortion does actually deal with matters of bodily autonomy for women, and secondly, it must be proved that this bodily autonomy is so important that it outweighs concerns from many about abortion representing the killing of innocent human life. In this essay, I aim to prove both these considerations, thus transferring the discussion into a place where the opinion of the woman involved is the only important consideration.
The Fetus’s Right to Life
Nearly all arguments claiming that abortion is intrinsically morally wrong revolve around the following concept: a foetus is a human, or a potential human, and therefore is wrong to kill it. Opponents of abortion typically base their views on the following argument:
Premise 1: It is wrong to kill an innocent human being
Premise 2: A fetus is an innocent human being
Conclusion: It is wrong to kill a fetus
The argument described above has several limitations. The most obvious weakness is contained within the second premise. It is far from certain that a foetus is a human. The only human traits which we can concretely say that a foetus does have are 46 chromosomes and the potential to develop into a human.
Neither of these traits alone or even combined, justify the treatment of the fetus as a human being.
Nearly every cell in the human body has 46 chromosomes. It would be bizarre to suggest that 46 chromosomes alone justify personhood. If this were the case, every time I lose any living diploid cells, I would be committing murder.
Equally, potential alone does not justify personhood. Having the potential to develop into X does not entitle one to the rights held by X. Singer draws the analogy that while we would lament the cutting down of a grand one-hundred-year-old oak tree, it is morally unproblematic to pick up an acorn which, if left alone, would have the potential to grow into a grand redwood. To suggest that potential justifies personhood implicitly suggests that both the use of contraception and abstinence are immoral, as they eliminate the potential for a human being to be created. Under a hard-line argument against potentiality, we would have a moral duty to spend all available time procreating. This is quite clearly absurd, and should not be taken too seriously.
Modern anti-abortion theorists would suggest that it is the marrying of potential and human genetic material which together make abortion immoral. However, I fail to see how the combination of the two traits spontaneously warrants an inviolable right to life. Nothing intrinsic to their combination suggests that an entity possessing both suddenly deserves a radical, new moral status
Many advances in medicine highlight that a range of cells, both from adults and embryos, can develop into humans if transferred to an enucleated egg. If we were to accept that potential and human genetic material together warrant the moral status of a fully developed human, we would in turn have to grant the rights of personhood to nearly all stem cells within the human body. This would quite clearly be absurd and highlights the limitations of the claim that potential and forty-six chromosomes alone grant the moral status of a human being.
An Alternate Definition of Personhood
I would suggest a different definition of personhood that far more suitably defines which beings deserve personhood. The 20th-century philosopher Mary Anne Warren defined personhood as consisting of several key traits, which individually or together grant rights. To her, personhood involves:
Consciousness and the ability to feel pain/pleasure
Ability to reason
A self-motivated activity
Ability to communicate
The existence of a self-concept
These traits represent the underlying human characteristics at the core of which together help to explain why humans generally deserve rights. Traits such as the capacity to feel pain or the ability to see oneself through a biographical self-concept provide moral underpinnings for the 'sanctity' of life. Aborting a fetus with the capacity for pain would be potentially problematic, as such an abortion would cause the fetus pain. Equally, the ability to have a self-concept would mean that abortion eliminates future preferences, which is particularly problematic under a preference-utilitarian calculus.
Throughout a pregnancy, the foetus has at most two of the aforementioned traits: consciousness and capacity for self-motivated activity. While we cannot quantify pleasure and pain with certainty, there is little evidence of brain activity until 30 weeks, thus suggesting the foetus would not be awake and be able to be awake or experience pain. It is certain that before 24 weeks the foetus definitely has neither of these traits, as the spinal cortex is not sufficiently developed to allow sensations of pain or consciousness.
Thus, the issues with the view that personhood begins at conception coupled with the strength of the alternate definition which I propose overall, suggests that before 24 weeks, aborting a foetus does not constitute the killing of a person, and is thus not problematic in any respect.
Even past the threshold of 24 weeks, I believe the right to life held by a foetus is significantly weaker than that of an adult human. The traits described above are not discrete. One typically has them to a varying extent, thus giving the foetus a weaker right to life. However, this right to life does likely still exist.
The Bodily Autonomy of the Mother
Thus far, I have quite singularly focused upon the right to life (or lack of it) held by a foetus. However, this is not the only consideration at stake. If the morality of killing a foetus were the only consideration, there would likely be some marginal harm to killing a foetus at any stage which, taken alone, would make abortion immoral.
Since technology has not progressed so far as to create artificial wombs which can carry out a pregnancy throughout its term, any foetus to be born has to reside inside a pregnant woman. This substantially affects and changes a woman, both physiologically and mentally, in a manner that is often irreversible. Even if the effects do not last forever, a pregnant woman has to deal with a significantly impaired bodily state for 9 months, thus violating her autonomy.
Even if you were to take pro-life advocates at their best and suggest that a foetus is a human, this would not justify the violation of bodily autonomy which occurs through legally forcing a woman to carry through an abortion. This is quite aptly illustrated by the analogy of the violinist proposed by the philosopher Judith Jarvis Thompson in her landmark 1971 article ‘A defence of abortion’. In this article, Thompson called on us to consider the following scenario:
You discover one day that you have been captured by several music lovers to help a violinist who is unable to live on his own due to poor health. For him to survive, he has to use your kidneys, as you have a unique blood type that can keep him alive. You are faced with a moral dilemma, as you would be unable to unplug from him without killing him, by staying attached to him, you would not be able to move for months – in this case, coincidentally, 9 months.
Jarvis uses this example to highlight how the right to life should not be considered absolute if it violates somebody else’s autonomy. While one might debate whether the kidnapped person whose kidneys are being used should unplug themselves or not, most would agree that the kidnapped person should be able to move around if they wish to. They never consented to be plugged into the violinist, and it represents a grave violation to suggest they cannot continue with all their life plans and would be forced to stay.
Jarvis’s case is broadly analogous to pregnancy. Pregnancy perhaps provides an even stronger case for termination of life than Jarvis’s case, as the foetus has less of the characteristics justifying a right to life.
Critics of Jarvis’s thought experiment typically contend that, except in cases of rape, a woman has typically consented to the risk of being pregnant by having sex in the first place. However, I fail to see how sex constitutes consent to motherhood. It is practically impossible to discern between planned and unplanned pregnancies,
In Practical Ethics, Peter Singer posits that a more equivalent analogy than the violinist analogy would be somebody who accidentally pressed the wrong button on an elevator and are now heading to a floor specifically for people who want to be plugged into a violinist. It would be absurd to suggest that the person who pressed this button consented to be plugged into a violinist, in much the same way it is bizarre who decided to have sex, and then was a victim of a freak accident (e.g. a condom breaking) has consented to motherhood.
Thus, I believe we have established quite conclusively how a woman has a right to bodily autonomy. While late in a pregnancy, a foetus may also have a limited right to life, the mother’s right to bodily autonomy supersedes the foetus’s right to life. This autonomy would justify termination throughout pregnancy (or at least the state not legally mandating when a woman can get an abortion). The violation of bodily autonomy can and should be treated as a near-absolute.
There is a broad range of reasons to justify abortion upon request beyond the ones stated in this essay. The prohibition of abortion typically leads to backstreet abortions which are far more unsafe than those carried out by a medical practitioner, in turn leading to unnecessary injuries and deaths.
Additionally, not allowing abortions leads to many unwanted children living horrible lives. While the moral roots of this question are far too complex to discuss within this essay, I posit that it is better for a child to never exist at all than to exist and live an overwhelmingly unhappy life.
However, simply through the right to bodily autonomy, I believe that we can quite conclusively illustrate how a woman should be able to access an abortion whenever she desires one. The idea that foetuses have a sacred and inviolable right to life, while existent late in pregnancy, is generally weak, at best, and the concept of a universal inviolable right to life is based upon anachronistic Judeo-Christian values.