Nathan Nobis is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA USA, and author of many articles on topics in bioethics, including abortion.
Abortion involves killing a fetus to end a pregnancy. These fetuses are human, biologically, and are beings. So, abortion involves the killing of a human being, which is usually wrong. So is abortion wrong?
Fetuses are more than just biologically alive like cells or organs: they are lives, each is a human life. Some argue that this is because they are organisms: hearts are parts of beings, but the being is the whole organism.
Some thinkers argue that our being human organisms physically continuous with fetuses who were human organisms makes abortion wrong. They seem to argue that since we are wrong to kill now we were wrong to kill at any stage of our development, since we’ve been the same being over time.
This argument is influential in certain circles but dubious. You are likely over three feet tall now, but weren’t always. You can reason morally, but couldn’t always. You have the right to make autonomous decisions about your own life, but didn’t always. Just because we have some property or right now doesn’t entail that we’ve always had it, even as fetuses. This argument’s advocates need to explain why, say, the right to life is an exception to this rule.
We, readers of this essay, are human beings or human life, and we are prima facie wrong to kill (wrong to kill without a very good reason). Are we wrong to kill because we are human beings or human life?
No. We are wrong to kill, arguably, because killing us prevents us from experiencing the goods of our future: accomplishments, relationships, enjoying our lives and so on.
Many philosophers describe these capacities in terms of us being persons. A theory at from least Locke can be expressed roughly that persons are beings with personalities: persons are conscious beings with thoughts, feelings, memories and anticipations and other psychological states. If we die or become permanently comatose, we cease to be persons, since we permanently lose consciousness.
This theory of personhood has explanatory power: it helps us understand why we are persons, and how we (or our bodies) can cease to be persons. It justifies a growing belief that some non-human animals are persons. It explains why rational space aliens, if there are any, would be persons. It explains why divine or spiritual beings are or would be persons.
On this theory of personhood, early fetuses are not persons because their brains and nervous systems aren’t developed enough and connected enough for consciousness and what’s psychologically necessary for personhood. Medical and scientific research reports that this doesn’t happen until after the first trimester or, more likely, mid-pregnancy. Nearly all abortions occur very early in pregnancy, killing fetuses that are not conscious yet, and so are not persons, and cannot feel pain. Any later abortions, affecting conscious and feeling fetuses who are persons or close to it, should be strongly condemned and allowed for only the most serious reasons, I argue.
But just because something (or someone) is not a person, that doesn’t obviously mean that they are not wrong to kill.
If fetuses aren’t persons, they are potential persons. Does that potential give them the right to life or otherwise make them wrong to kill? If it did, then potential adults, spouses, criminals, doctors, and judges would have the rights of actual ones. They don’t, so potential personhood doesn’t yield the rights of actual persons.
Doesn’t abortion prevent a fetus from experiencing its valuable future, just like killing us does, even if it is not a person? Since fetuses are not aware of those futures, their futures are not just like ours. And a sperm-and-the-egg-it-would-fertilize-it arguably has a valuable future also, and contraception (even by abstinence!) keeps it from its future. But that’s not wrong, so it is not wrong to prevent something from experiencing its future if it hasn’t ever been aware of that future yet. That principle seems to apply to fetuses also.
Finally, suppose these arguments are all wrong and all fetuses are persons with the right to life. Does that make abortion wrong? Not necessarily, Judith Thompson famously argued in her 1971 “A Defense of Abortion”: if I must use your kidney to stay alive, do I have a right to your kidney? No, and you don’t violate my rights if you don’t let me use it and I die. That shows that the right to life is not a right to others’ bodies, even if others’ bodies are necessary for our lives to continue. Fetuses then might not have a right to the pregnant woman’s body and so she doesn’t violate their rights by not allowing a fetus to use it.
These are just a few philosophical arguments about the controversial ethical topic, briefly sketched. Each is worthy of further discussion and reasoned debate.