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What philosophy can tell us about the right to abortion

Pro-choicers must defeat the conservative argument on its own terms, or they will keep facing setbacks like the repeal of Roe v Wade
June 16, 2022

The apparently imminent overturning of Roe v Wade has not come out of the blue. For years now, American conservatives have been challenging the landmark 1973 ruling that established a pregnant woman’s federal right to an abortion. Despite warnings that the changing complexion of the US Supreme Court was making their success more likely, many couldn’t believe it would come to this.

The anti-abortionists have deployed an effective strategy, keeping a relentless focus on the ethical question at the core of issue: what is the moral status of a foetus? They have talked powerfully of the taking of innocent human life, something everyone is against.

Instead of directly rebutting these arguments, however, the pro-choice lobby—as its name suggests—has generally ignored them and tried instead to base its case on the woman’s right to choose. This is a serious philosophical misstep. A woman only has a right to choose if that choice is ethically permissible. Otherwise, a woman has no more right to choose an abortion than she does to shoot an irritating neighbour. No appeal to freedom of choice can transform an act of murder into a surgical procedure.

Pro-choicers also dodge the core issue when they argue that restrictions on abortion are attempts by men to control the bodies of women. There is a lot of truth in this—although it rings hollow in the ears of the many women who oppose abortion. But an attack on the assumed, unprovable psychological or political motives of opponents of abortion is not an attack on their arguments.

It’s easy to understand why pro-abortionists want to avoid discussing the moral status of a foetus. Winning that argument requires fighting black and white with shades of grey. “A human life is a human life” is simplistic but powerful; “life develops on a continuum” is more truthful, but its nuance blunts its rhetorical edge. Similarly, “pro-life” is a powerful but misleading campaign badge since the whole argument is about what kinds of life should be protected.

Ultimately, however, the argument for abortion has to rest on the fact that just because something belongs to the human race in biological terms, that does not necessarily mean it should be granted the rights of a full human person—especially not if it is at the earliest stages of development. For many months, the embryonic cells that have the potential to become a fully-developed human do not possess any of the characteristics that warrant legal protection. Crucially, there is no good evidence that a foetus is conscious before the third trimester. Even when the threshold of awareness has been crossed, its early levels of sentience are extremely minimal, closer to that of a mouse than an infant.

Of course, the foetus has the potential to become a full human being and so a legal person. But so does an unfertilised egg and some sperm, and the idea that we are immorally depriving a future child of its life every time we refuse to bring these two things together is patently absurd.

The argument for abortion in these terms is simple enough. But the lack of clear boundaries between zygote, embryo, unviable and viable foetus and a full human person means that many find it hard to accept that there are important moral differences between them. “Where do you draw the line?” anti-abortionists ask. It is impossible to pinpoint a moment in time when a bundle of cells becomes a human being. It is therefore tempting to conclude that there is no such line and that to kill the unborn child at any stage is to kill a human being. After all, life—albeit in its most basic form—does begin at conception.

There is indeed no such line, but there doesn’t need to be one. Children do not transform into adults when the clock strikes midnight for their 18th birthday, but no one argues that therefore all children should be treated as adults. The legal sharpness of the boundary is a construct for managing the more complex reality. So are the legal limits on the terms of pregnancy within which an abortion is permitted.

If you win the argument that the “unborn child” is—up to around 20-24 weeks at least—still only a potential person and not an actual one, abortion can no longer be equated with murder. Only then does it become a question of the rights of the woman to make her own choices about her body.

Anti-abortionists might still worry about the erosion of the sanctity of life and the slippery slopes that could lead to infanticide, or that the routine abortion of the disabled will diminish the status of disabled children and adults. These objections should not be ignored. Everyone should be concerned to ensure that legal abortion does not have these unintended consequences. But they are not fundamental objections to abortion itself and each of them can be met with a convincing response.

Whatever happens in the US Supreme Court in the coming months, the abortion debate will not go away—because the moral question at its core is serious and does not have a pleasingly simple answer. For as long as defenders of the right to abortion avoid answering it and simply talk of the right to choose, the anti-abortionists will be on the front foot.

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