A month or two ago Ireland made a stride towards legal abortion, and the US made a stride in the opposite direction. Abortion is always on the political table though. I imagine a perfect pregnancy-prevention mechanism would cool the flames quite a bit, but even then, people can change their minds, and the question will emerge of whether that should be allowed. But as usual, this most recent flare-up of abortion debates involved a lot of people talking past each other other. I think, though, there is ultimately one argument for the prohibition of abortion that is good if it works. There are plenty of reasons one might want to prohibit abortion, such as controlling women, liking the appearance of pregnancy, and any other number of bad reasons, but they’re all pretty bad. So, here’s the one possibly good argument:
- Killing people ought to be illegal.
- Unborn humans are people.
- So, killing unborn humans ought to be illegal.
This seems to be the most intuitive and defensible argument for making abortion illegal. A lot of people seem to endorse it, sometimes implicitly. There’s a need in the popular discourse, though, to be more explicit about the two premises in play, because oftentimes people will defend 2 against an attack on 1, or vice-versa.
Getting a little more clear on the premises
Neither premise is super clear, as is the cost of making them short. The first, the killing people ought to be illegal, has plenty of exceptions. Asking why killing people ought to be illegal seems a little strange. Being wrong to kill seems like it might just be a feature of being a person rather than some other kind of thing. So wrong, in fact, that any code of law that doesn’t forbid killing people seems fundamentally broken. So, to spare us a lengthy dive into a theory of moral personhood, I will assume that there’s an agreement that in general people’s lives should be protected by law.
The generality rather than universality of the statement is important, though. There are exceptional cases in which we defend the legal killing of persons. Self-defense is the most obvious. If someone is threatening your life, you’re allowed to kill the person threatening your life. There are perhaps other crimes that might make killing someone defensible. If someone is threatening the lives of others, if someone is severely assaulting you, and so on. War and law enforcement create further situations. Sometimes there is no choice but to kill some set of people, and the choice is merely which set. Accidents that aren’t the result of negligence also usually land on the legal side. My point here is just that we ought to have many legal exceptions for killing people. This is of course an opening that someone defending the legality of abortion against this argument can and often does use.
In the phrasing of the second premise I use “people” in a possibly technical way. While we might have been able to dodge questions of moral personhood for the first premise, they are the heart of the second premise. By “person” (and derivatively, “people”), I just mean a being with moral personhood. That still sounds a bit circular, but getting a technical definition down is a whole subsubfield of philosophy on its own. Examples can give us a good enough idea, though! Normal adult humans are the archetype of people. If a theory of personhood excludes them, it’s probably defective. Inanimate objects are not people. You can violate the autonomy of a rock all you want, and nothing wrong is being done. Then there are edge cases. Is C-3PO from Star Wars a person? Maybe. Are higher apes, or maybe dolphins people? Again, maybe. Within the realm of humanity, we can ask the same of fetuses and maybe infants, too. Once we pin down what gives adult humans their moral worth as people, we can turn to the unborn and ask if they are people.
Arguments pointing to the human DNA and beating heart of the unborn are usually along these lines. They are implicitly placing the bar for personhood at humanity. Nobody defending abortion thinks that the unborn humans are not living beings, and nobody denies that they are human beings. They very obviously are. What one might deny is whether they are persons. Often someone backing this sort of argument against abortion takes for free that all humans are morally relevant persons and then goes in to prove the much easier point that unborn humans are human. But this is just the root of much misunderstanding.
The common arguments against each premise and setting up the right questions
With the first premise, that killing people ought to be illegal, usually the premise is not denied outright so much as the line pushed. Almost nobody thinks every case of killing a person ought to be illegal, so the argument here is on where to draw the line. So, let us take up the case of whether the line ought to be before or after abortion. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that personhood begins at conception. Given this, can someone kill a person inside them?
A well-treaded argument asks us to consider waking up in the hospital attached to a famous violinist. He brings a lot of happiness to the world with his playing, but is sick in such a way that he requires using your body for life support for awhile. Let’s say he’ll be hindering you for about nine months. If you pull the plug, he dies. The defender of abortion here draws on the intuition that you ought to have the legal right to pull the plug anyway.
The argument can be strengthened or weakened. Someone not yet convinced might think that the state should totally use someone as life support if they aren’t doing much with their lives but the person in need of support is. This person might also think mandatory blood donations are a good idea. In that case, we can reduce the status of the violinist until he contributes as much to society as the unborn do: nothing.
On the other hand, someone arguing against abortion might not be satisfied yet. Usually the first next objection is that the aborter usually has something to do with the creation of the unborn person, so while normally you have a right to not let someone use you as life support, you do if you willingly engaged in an act with the potential to create that situation. (We might note that this makes the argument against the legality of abortion no longer work against cases of rape.) So let’s alter the example to fit this. How far we want to push it is another question. Perhaps the right analog is someone who you accidentally hit with your car. You weren’t trying to, but a danger of getting behind the wheel is hitting someone. If they require the surrender of your bodily autonomy, ought the law demand it? (Ideally, this case uses you as life support for nine months. If you don’t have enough imagination, maybe ask what the law should demand if they need blood. Or a kidney.) Alternatively, perhaps the right analog is someone who you aimed your car at and hit. You knew the likely consequences of your actions. But the fun of smashing someone with your car seemed worth it. Are you bound to use your body to aid the person you hit?
I’m not sure yet where to move from there, but those seem to be the two questions at hand, in addition to the question of which one pregnancy is more like. For the argument presented for the prohibition of abortion to work, whichever one abortion turns out to be like has to also be answered that, yes, the government should step in and force you to surrender your bodily autonomy. You cannot pull the plug on/deny an organ donation to someone you hit with your car.
Onto the second premise, then. Are unborn humans people? If they’re not, then the door is open to killing them. They might still have some rights. Dogs aren’t people, but you can’t torture them. Nonetheless, their being people is pretty significant to this argument.
Now, we don’t need perfectly refined necessary and sufficient conditions of personhood to answer this question. All we need is something sufficient that unborn humans have or something necessary that they do not. So, someone making the argument against abortion will try to put forward a condition that anything that fulfills the conditions is a person. And someone defending abortion will put forward a condition that is required to qualify as a person.
On the arguing against the legality of abortion side, being alive tends to come up far more than it should. Lots of things are alive. The fly I just swatted was alive, but it was not a person. Next up is human. From here we see all sorts of conditions thrown around, like a beating heart or looking like a human in ultrasounds, or just being alive while having human DNA. Being alive while having human DNA isn’t enough since removed limbs are not people. Okay, so being alive, having human DNA, and either being able to survive independently or on a path of development toward independent survival. That seems to be the stable position, but then the question emerges: Why is that the line for moral personhood? What about having human DNA and either being biologically independent or on the path to such makes someone morally relevant as a person? This is what the person arguing against abortion needs to be more clear about.
Cue the defender of legal abortion. There are some conditions thrown out that turn out to be rather silly. “It’s just a clump of cells” is common, but it doesn’t work. As noted in the previous paragraph, the clump of cells is special in that it can develop. Given the right resources, it will develop into a human. Now if you want to push for the absurdity of allowing speculation into the future with some resources just assumed, you might argue that an egg or sperm will develop into a person given the right resources. But clearly eggs and sperm are not people, so that line cannot work. There’s room to go back and forth on this, but I think looking for a biological answer to personhood is a mistake.
Remember when giving examples of possible persons, beings like C-3PO came up. When we ask why someone is morally relevant as a person, the features that really matter are not a certain biology, but certain capacities or abilities. The ability to enter into interpersonal relationships, intelligence, language or concept use, moral understanding. These are all possible criteria. Unborn humans seem to fail all of them. Of course, each of these also has some dangers. If an adult human is incapable of being in an interpersonal relationship, is she not a person? Is sufficiently low intelligence grounds for denying personhood? Is someone completely amoral not a person? Perhaps. Is any of these things are the things that really matter to personhood and some humans fail to meet the condition(s), then maybe some exceptional humans are not persons.
The other side to this is the developmental disjunct. Maybe an unborn human is unable to enter a relationship, well below whatever an intelligence criterion might be, and amoral. But, the likelihood of developing into such a being is high, given adequate resources. And we can assume some level of resources because if you starve anyone, they will degrade and likely lose these conditions. There might be something question-begging about saying only the present individual counts, unless some further reason is given. One might look to people who are comatose or asleep. They fail the conditions, except maybe being in relationships. Yet going to sleep doesn’t make you not a person. But the defender of abortion can appeal to someone sleeping having a personal history. Though maybe going into a permanent coma does deprive one of personhood. Or dying. Are dead people still people? If they are, then being alive isn’t even a requirement. It doesn’t seem entirely absurd, though, to say that dead people are people. In which case maybe the personal history requirement is just the crucial requirement for personhood that captures all the cases we would otherwise want but excludes the unborn.
The problem here is just that now we’re stuck asking what a personal history is. My working hypothesis for a condition for personhood is something like personal history, and I take the lines to be drawn not by strict logical requirements, but rather by a general understanding of what a story of someone’s life looks like. Now, maybe “I know it when I see it” isn’t all that helpful in figuring out whether unborn humans are people. It may just leave us right where we started. But, as I said, just finding a necessary condition for personhood is enough, even if it’s not the most restrictive true necessary condition. That is, maybe the real bar is higher, but if we find a bar that’s not too high but the unborn still cannot meet, then the case against the second premise is made. So maybe a condition like this: someone is a person only if she is able to engage in interpersonal relationships or can use language or can use concepts or is intelligent or has moral understanding. Surely that’s too low a bar for personhood, but it doesn’t seem too high in any important regard, and unborn humans don’t clear it.
- The best argument to make abortion illegal has two premises, each of which must be argued separately.
- The first question is whether, even if unborn humans are people, abortion is one of the exceptions in which we think killing people ought to be legal. The argument against the legality of abortion demands that abortion is not justifiable.
- The second question is whether unborn humans are people. While a complete definition of personhood is not needed, the argument against the legality of abortion demands that unborn humans do fall within the boundaries of personhood.