Philosophy, not religion, is at the heart of the abortion debate

The ethical issues at stake in abortion debates are not specifically religious.

The political experts of New York Times and other leading media have issued dire warnings of the disappearance of the division between church and state. They argue that abortion stems from the worst form of indiscriminate religious extremism, an irrational insistence that the many be guided by the antiquated and patriarchal beliefs of the few. And following the leak of the Supreme Court’s draft decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, worshipers across the country found “My Body My Choice” spray-painted on the doors of their places of worship. worship. Protesters outside the Supreme Court hold signs that read “Keep your prayer beads out of my ovaries!” But these expressions are cathartic and self-righteous reactions that run counter to understanding and resolution.

It is of course true that a large number of religions, Christian and non-Christian, prohibit the killing of the unborn child, if not at conception, at least soon after. But that alone does not make abortion a religious issue. Many religions also prohibit stealing and lying, but no one blames religious fanaticism for the illegality of fraud. Abortion raises deep and difficult philosophical questions, questions that – no matter what fervent experts would have you believe – have barely been settled.

An important philosophical issue at stake here is the moral status of the developing child. Is the fetus already a person and therefore deserves the same rights and protections as others? If not a person at conception but becomes one later, what is that point and why?

Many philosophers have argued that personality depends on rational ability: that a being cannot be said to owe the rights and protections promised in the Declaration of Independence unless he is capable of rational reasoning. higher level or unless he has, among other things, a sense of self and may desire not to be killed. The personality thus understood legitimizes abortion at any stage, since what is killed has no rights from this point of view. But it also legitimizes the killing of infants and young children, people with severe mental disabilities, and some people with dementia.

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If one rejects this restrictive and ableist understanding of the person, what are the other options? Some philosophers point out that we tend to make assessments of moral worth on ability, but that we tend to make these assessments not on individual ability, but on the characteristic abilities of the species to which the individual belongs in question. We believe it is worse to kill a dolphin than an ant because dolphins as a species have more sophisticated rational abilities than ants. If we understand the person in this way, then all members of our species – the elderly, the mentally challenged, infants and fetuses – are persons.

Other philosophers, rejecting both accounts, have attempted to find common ground. But I don’t know of any serious philosopher who thinks that the de facto position of American law for nearly half a century – that an infant does not become a person until the precise moment it comes out of the womb – is consistent. . The United States has long lacked a rationally coherent approach to the issue of abortion. We should not pretend otherwise.

It is of course possible to recognize the personality of the fetus while defending abortion. Half a century ago, the philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson, conceding that the fetus becomes a person long before birth, said that the personality of the fetus does not make the mother’s decision to kill it unjust. Killing the fetus is only unfair, Thomson argued, if the mother first agrees to carry it. But again, this is a philosophical question. Do we only owe others what we accept of their duty?

Some philosophers, like Thomson, think so, but very many philosophers disagree. If I live alone in the woods and I wake up one day to find a baby on my doorstep, do I have to take care of it? Or can I just step over it and go on with my day, until it dies of exposure and neglect? To think that I am legally obliged to help him, as many people do (philosophers and non-philosophers alike), is to think that we owe things to others simply because they are people. And if we can owe other people things just because they are people, then Thomson’s argument falls apart. If the fetus becomes a person long before birth – as even Thomson concedes – and if we can owe people things just because they are people, then we can owe the fetus things too, long before birth.

For decades, many people on both sides of the abortion debate have tried to portray the ethical issues surrounding abortion as non-existent or obvious. In doing so, they gave themselves an excuse to treat their opponents with disdain and derision, but they came no closer to a solution. There are hard and difficult philosophical questions at play in abortion debates, questions that go to the heart of who we are as a nation and what we want our nation to be. We should treat these issues with the seriousness they deserve.

Angela Knobel is a professor of philosophy at the University of Dallas. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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