Is abortion a morally just practice?

 

The last of the possible liberal points of moral relevance is consciousness. The capacity to feel pain and pleasure are certainly morally significant particularly to a preference utilitarian like Singer. However consciousness is a rarely mooted point in the discussion of abortion. Whilst life itself is of importance to the Conservative, the Liberal is on uncertain ground as medical studies have fund that neural activity of consciousness occurs as early as six weeks. It is therefore not useful to either side to mention this.

The liberal can only morally justify if he does not accept the two premises, as location and mobility are of no moral significance. Therefore killing the foetus is the same as murdering an innocent person. The only circumstance is when the presence of the foetus directly threatens both the life of foetus and mother; even then this is open to debate (Tooley, 1972). The Conservatives success in arguing against a critical line drawn between the status of foetus and human being has certain repercussions, one being that we should afford the foetus certain rights, the rights that we would claim as a person.

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However, a group of philosophers sympathetic to feminism advanced the discussion of abortion to consider both the rights of the unborn child and the mother. The central feminist argument was that a woman has a right to choose what to do with her own body. Judith Jarvis Thomson’s article ‘A defence of Abortion’ contained what is now a famous analogy; the famous violinist. Thomson’s example featured a women waking up one morning in a hospital bed. She had been kidnapped by music lovers and had had her circulatory system plugged into a famous violinist.

If she removed herself from him he would die from a kidney disease. however if she remained connected for only nine months he would make a full recovery. Thomson describes the woman as having the right to choose whether to disconnect herself as she is in a ‘reputable hospital’. The basic similarities to unwanted pregnancy through rape and to a lesser extent to all unwanted pregnancy are reasonably clear. The question that Thomson asks is whether the woman is morally required to give up nine months of her life to the famous violinist.

Whilst accepting that the violinist (or foetus) has a right to life, she questions whether it entails the right to the use of another’s body. If we accept that it is acceptable for the women to unplug herself we accept that abortion as the consequence of rape is morally just, however whether it justifies other unwanted pregnancies is a different matter. Thomson provides another example of conflicting rights to further illustrate her point. Suppose we are critically ill and the touch of our favourite film star will cure us of our ailment.

Thomson argues that although it would be a nice thing to do, the movie star is not morally obliged to do it. Thomson’s theory is basically Kantian and rights based, where a utilitarian would say that the best cause of action must be taken, Thomson appeals to specific rights. Thomson’s analogy is certainly more open to argument and criticism than the familiar conservative and liberal arguments. One of the main distinctions between unplugging the violinist and the act of abortion centres on dependency and responsibility.

The mother is completely responsible for the dependency of the foetus on her. However if the women unplugs the violinist she is not completely responsible for the violinists dependency on her. A third perspective on abortion considers the morally relevant characteristics of the foetus. Both of the former approaches to abortion both concluded that the there is no ontological difference between new born and foetus. The conservative argument simply stating that because of this abortion was morally equivalent to killing an innocent human being.

The feminist argument accepts the lack of moral dividing point, but portrays the foetus as a parasite or intruder that has no right to make use of the mother’s body for the term of pregnancy. This investigation in to the characteristics that living beings own was first made by Michael Tooley. Tooley is a utilitarian philosopher and was the first to question whether the actual characteristics of a foetus gave it a right to life. In doing this he linked interests, preferences and rights. Tooley asserted that it was not intrinsically wrong to kill something that had no experience of living through time.

He made what is now a well known distinction in the debate on abortion, between human being and person. The term human being is any being with a scientific claim to being so. A being is either human or non human. However a person is a being that has certain qualities, namely ‘the concept of a self as a continuing subject of experiences’. This is the self consciousness argument. In short it is not immoral to kill something that has no interest in its future desires. Obligations should only exist alongside those beings desires.

‘To ascribe a right to an individual is to assert something about the prima facie obligations of other persons to act, or to refrain from acting in certain ways. However the obligations are dependant upon certain desires of the individual to have the right ascribes. ‘ Tooley uses the example of a kitten to support his claim that it has no intrinsic claim to life. Given the option between seeing a kitten tortured or killed Tooley argues that one would wish it to die. Why is this? Pain, which a utilitarian will always seek to minimise.

Although the kitten is a sentient being, it is not aware of itself existing in time. Of course the human foetus is also lacks self- consciousness and therefore has no right to live. It is problematic to state when exactly it forms this characteristic but safe to say that it does not whilst in the womb. Singer shares this point of view with Tooley. It is the characteristics that a being has that give its life an ‘intrinsic value’. Singer practices preference utilitarianism, whereby the best action is the one which maximises the preferences of those involved.

He compares the foetus at less than 3 months to have the rationality and self consciousness of a fish. If a being does not have the preference of continued existence it is in no way immoral to kill it, as long as there is no pain involved. Obviously Singer and Tooley’s arguments beg the question: when does a being become a person? Certainly a one month old baby still lacks the morally relevant characteristics that make its death immoral. Does the separation of being and person justify infanticide? Singer and Tooley would argue that in some cases it does.

If, for example a woman gives birth to a severely crippled baby with spina bifida, it is ethical to kill it as it will make way for a healthy baby. The birth of a healthy baby will then increase the preferences of the parents. Until something is conscious, the only controlling reason not to kill it is to serve the preferences of the parents. This means that these preferences become all important in the discussion of abortion and infanticide. It is the effect that the abortion or act of infanticide has on the parents that decide whether or not it is immoral.

Obviously the act of infanticide will often have a much greater effect on the parents’ happiness. One of the strengths of preference utilitarianism is that it takes into account the emotions involved in killing the newborn or foetus. If the act is considered so awful by the parents that it will not maximise their preferences abortion is immoral. The view that Marquis takes in ‘why abortion is immoral’ differs somewhat from the liberal and conservative arguments that I have already outlined.

Although sharing the conclusion of the conservative that ‘abortion is, except possibly in some cases, seriously immoral’, he arrives at it from a different angle. He avoids moralising over the rare cases, which some anti-abortionists find permissible, those of a woman’s life being threatened by a pregnancy or abortion after rape. Marquis argues that his stance is neither ‘irrational religious dogma’ nor a conclusion generated by ‘confused philosophical argument’ and that it can provide a solid argument for the immorality of abortion.

Marquis asserts that if either of the moral stances towards abortion is good it must appeal to some general moral principle. However he starts his argument by describing both the liberal and conservative arguments as sound, the pro-choice argument being ‘not obviously wrong’. This is the standoff that Marquis tries to resolve. It is Marquis’ opinion that the moral principle that the conservative appeals to is too broad, it ’embraces too much’. Accordingly the liberal argument which only deems certain Homo sapiens morally relevant is considered by Marquis as too narrow.

Marquis sees problems concerning reconciling these positions by reformulating the philosophical premises they are based on for both sides of the argument. It his opinion that by altering these premises both arguments concedes too much to the other side, a fact that illustrates the arbitrary nature of both sides’ arguments. Where the liberal appeals to ‘psychological differences’ the conservative appeals to ‘biological differences’ – it is not clear what if either of these are morally relevant. Marquis attempts to show that the majority of abortion is immoral by getting to the ‘essence’ of the matter, the essence of the wrongness of killing.

We must understand why killing is wrong to make a moral statement concerning abortion. Marquis believes that killing is not wrong in that it effects the murderer, or the victims friends or relatives, but its effect on the victim. This does not mean however that the feelings of the murderer or family should be discounted but that they do not apply in a universal way. Killing the victim robs them of a future. The effect of the loss of life is the loss of activities and experiences that are ‘either valuable for their own sakes or are means to something that is valuable for its own sake’.

Marquis supports his argument by stating that it explains why killing is deemed to be one of the worst crimes, and that Aids or cancer patients know that dying is ‘a very bad thing’. He also accepts that this means that beings that are biologically human are of moral worth and so are other species. It also means that it questions the sanctity of life doctrine, as it allows euthanasia. This is because it is only the value of a creature’s future that is relevant. Because we cannot discern the future of a foetus from adults, it is morally impermissible to abort it and deprive it of that future.

This means that abortion can only be justified in ‘compelling circumstances’. The argument over the morality of abortion has gone on for many years now and will probably never come to any form of resolution. There is a shared common ground between both sides, which is the sanctity of human life. However it is the implications of this statement that separate the two. The case of the mother’s life being threatened is the only case of abortion that is considered ethical by all perspectives, past this point the various stances and approaches all differ.

Theological beliefs and the presence of tradition and the emotional bond between mother and child make this conflict even harder to resolve outside of the sphere of academic philosophy.

Bibliography: Hursthouse, R. ‘Virtue Theory and Abortion’ Philosophy and Public Affairs Marquis, D. ‘Why Abortion is Immoral’ The Journal of Philosophy Singer, P. ‘Practical Ethics’ Tooley, M. ‘Abortion and Infanticide’ Philosophy and Public Affairs Thomson, J. ‘A defence of Abortion’ Philosophy and Public Affairs.

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