Abortion & the limits of personhood

Personhood is an abstract concept. Most people’s concerns are mundane.

© Dave DuBay

The National Review ran a thought provoking article about abortion and the limits of the personhood argument.

In a nutshell, pro-choice advocates typically say a fetus is not a person while pro-life advocates say a fetus is a person.

The assumption is that personhood equals rights, and this is central for the right to choose or the right to life.

Philosophy professor Berny Belvedere summarizes the arguments of Judith Jarvis Thomson and Don Marquis, siding with the latter. Thomson argues that abortion is morally permissible even if a fetus is a person while Marquis argues abortion is immoral even if a fetus is not a person.

Thomson seems to view a fetus as a foreign imposition on a woman’s body, so even if a fetus is a person abortion still could be justified as a type of self-defense.

Marquis argues that killing in general is wrong because it robs someone of their future. This future is actual, not potential, because the future will unfurl unless someone intervenes. Fetuses, even if they’re not persons, also have futures. Therefore, abortion is no different from murder.

Belvedere addresses some objections to Marquis’ argument. Is killing a bug wrong? No, because qualitatively a bug doesn’t have a future in the same sense as a human being. Is euthanasia wrong? Belvedere concedes it is not (within this framework, at least) because the dying person has no future.

This is rather abstract, and I think it helps to bring it down to concrete cases:

  • What about rape or incest? Thomson’s view that a fetus is a foreign imposition seems strong here. Marquis’ position is less tenable. An abortion robs the fetus of its future. But disallowing an abortion robs the rape victim of her future (even though she’s still alive).
  • What about the mother’s life being in danger? Avoiding the truncation of someone’s future is impossible here, so who decides if the fetus’s future takes precedence—the woman or the government
  • What if the mother isn’t financially or emotionally ready for motherhood? The argument that she’ll still have a future—but it will be greatly altered—applies here too (though it’s weaker).
  • What if there are no extenuating circumstances, the mother is entirely capable of motherhood, but just doesn’t feel like having a baby? The fetus as a foreign imposition could still be used, though it may sound callous or selfish. And because an abortion would clearly diminish the fetus’s future more than the woman’s future, Marquis’ argument seems to be stronger.

But the personhood debate is unlikely to settle the abortion debate. What is personhood? How do we define it? Can we achieve consensus on this definition? What about those who fail to meet that definition or lose personhood status?

I’m pro-choice because ultimately I think our most intimate choices belong to us and not to the government.

Rights are things that belong to us—our opinions, speech, religion (or lack thereof), our bodies, our property, etc.—and government serves two primary roles regarding this.

First, our rights limit government. Our rights tell government what it can’t do. For example, the Bill of Rights says things like, “Congress shall make no law…”

Second, government must protect our rights against those who refuse to recognize other people’s equal rights. That’s why the government can lock you up for stealing other people’s stuff.

But what do we do when alleged rights conflict?

Obamacare mandates that insurance cover birth control for women (but not men), and that employers buy insurance for their employees.

Religious business owners, however, say forcing them to provide birth control coverage violates their religious rights.

Many women, on the other hand, say they have a right to birth control.

Women’s right to use birth control is not being attacked, however. The question is who pays for it. But there’s no right to have someone buy something for you.

But if your religion prohibits you from getting mixed up with birth control then you have the right not to be forced into an action you disagree with.

While conservatives will likely agree with me on problems of the birth control mandate—and progressives will likely become irate—the same framework leads me to conclude that abortion is a woman’s choice because the government cannot compel her to act in a way that is not of her choosing.

A final aside. What if scientists invent an artificial womb and can extract a fetus in a manner no more invasive that an abortion? Safe haven laws already allow women (but not men) to walk away from parenthood with no legal or financial repercussions.

In such a case, could a woman end her pregnancy but have no legal right to say whether the fetus will be destroyed or implanted in an artificial womb? My answer is that the woman would have no more right than the doctor to decide the fetus’s fate.

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Author: Dave DuBay

Dave is a social worker from Phoenix, Arizona. He blogs at thepaintedporch.net. He's also at twitter.com/Dave_DuBay.

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