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.


Why have we been so slow to develop birth control for men?

The birth control pill just celebrated its 50th anniversary. The pill’s impact on women’s health, reproductive choices, and thus society in general has been enormous. And under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) insurers must cover the pill as well as other forms of contraception such as diaphrams, sponges, IUDs, Plan B, and sterilization (having her “tubes tied”).

Insurance doesn’t typically cover men’s reproductive health, however, and vasectomies are unaffordable for low income men (though Vermont just added vasectomies to the list of contraption that insurers must cover). The only other male contraception – condoms – can be bought over the counter and are relatively affordable. But condoms are also a real bummer.

Why do men have so few birth control options? A huge part of the reason is the cultural attitude that birth control is a woman’s responsibility. Obamacare, by covering female but not male contraception, seems to reflect this attitude.

Related to that is a greater focus overall on women’s health. Though the federal government has had an Office of Women’s Health since 1991, there is no government program for men’s health despite the fact that men (on average) die years sooner than women. For instance, about 12% of women will develop breast cancer at some point while 14% of men will develop prostate cancer, but prostate cancer receives the least amount of funding of any other cancer while breast cancer gets the most funding. The men who run Congress could increase prostate cancer funding, but men are not taught to focus on their health (a social norm that is slowly beginning to change).

But there’s hope on the horizon. Earlier this year the WebMD men’s health newsletter ran an article about male contraception. They identified additional reasons why men don’t have more birth control options. Scientifically it’s a tougher nut to crack (sorry, couldn’t resist a bad joke). Early hormonal treatments failed miserably. And pharmaceuticals, despite making money hand over fist, are reticent to push products not knowing if men will go for it.

But the company developing Vasalgel says it has 31,000 men on their waitlist. Vasalgel is sometimes referred to as a temporary vasectomy. A gel is injected into the vas deferens, blocking sperm’s pathway to the outside world. A later injection can dissolve the gel.


Other forms of male contraception being studied are retinoic Acid pill, H2-Gamendazole, nestorone gel, and testosterone gel, each of which in different ways decrease sperm production, possibly enough to prevent pregnancy. And EP007, which is non-hormonal and stops sperm from swimming.

Will greater reproductive choices for men transform society the way the pill did for women? I doubt it. Only women can get pregnant, so the female pill had a much bigger impact on women’s lives than a male pill will have on men’s lives. But it will change the conversation. Men’s lack of options will no longer be an excuse. And many women don’t like the pill’s side effects, so male birth control will provide other options, thus increasing women’s choices as well as men’s.

Moreover, I hope that the conversation about male contraception isn’t narrowly focused on men’s responsibilities to women. Instead, I want to see a larger discussion about men’s health, including the establishment of a government Office of Men’s Health and equal funding for male specific cancers.