The seemingly imminent overthrow of Roe vs. Wade didn’t come out of nowhere. For years, American conservatives have challenged the historic 1973 decision that established a pregnant woman’s federal right to an abortion. Despite warnings that the changing complexion of the United States Supreme Court made their success more likely, many could not believe it would come to this.
The anti-abortionists have deployed an effective strategy, keeping an implacable focus on the ethical question at the heart of the problem: what is the moral status of a fetus? They spoke forcefully about the taking of innocent human lives, which everyone is opposed to.
Instead of directly refuting these arguments, however, the pro-choice lobby – as its name suggests – has generally ignored them and instead tried to base its argument on a woman’s right to choose. This is a serious philosophical misstep. A woman has the right to choose only if that choice is ethically acceptable. Otherwise, a woman has no more right to choose an abortion than she has to shoot an irritating neighbor. No call for freedom of choice can turn an act of murder into surgery.
Pro-choicers also sidestep the central issue when they argue that abortion restrictions are men’s attempts to control women’s bodies. There is a lot of truth in this, even if it rings hollow to the ears of many women who oppose abortion. But an attack on the supposed and undemonstrable psychological or political motivations of opponents of abortion is not an attack on their arguments.
It’s easy to see why pro-abortionists want to avoid discussing the moral status of a fetus. Winning this argument requires fighting black and white with shades of gray. “A human life is a human life” is simplistic but powerful; “Life grows on a continuum” is more truthful, but its nuance dulls its rhetorical edge. Similarly, “pro-life” is a powerful but misleading campaign badge since the whole argument is about the kinds of life that need to be protected.
Ultimately, however, the argument for abortion must rest on the fact that just because something belongs to the human race in biological terms does not necessarily mean that it should be granted the rights to a fully-fledged human person, especially not if it’s in the early stages of development. For many months, the embryonic cells capable of becoming a fully developed human being have none of the characteristics justifying legal protection. Basically, there is no good evidence that a fetus is conscious until the third trimester. Even when the threshold of consciousness has been crossed, its first levels of sensitivity are extremely minimal, closer to that of a mouse than an infant.
Of course, the fetus has the potential become a full human being and therefore a legal person. But the same goes for an unfertilized egg and sperm, and the idea that we are immorally depriving a future child of its life every time we refuse to put those two things together is patently absurd.
The argument for abortion in these terms is quite simple. But the lack of clear boundaries between the zygote, the embryo, the nonviable and viable fetus and a full human person means that many find it difficult to accept that there are significant moral differences between them. “Where do you draw the line? ask the anti-abortionists. It is impossible to determine a precise moment when a bundle of cells becomes a human being. It is therefore tempting to conclude that such a line does not exist and that killing the unborn child at any stage is tantamount to killing a human being. After all, life, although in its most basic form, begins at conception.
There is indeed no such line, but there need not be one. Children don’t turn into adults when the clock strikes midnight on their 18th birthday, but no one is arguing that all children should therefore be treated as adults. The legal clarity of the border is a construction to manage the more complex reality. The same applies to the legal limits of the conditions of pregnancy under which an abortion is permitted.
If you win the argument that the “unborn child” is – until about 20-24 weeks at least – still only a potential and not a real person, abortion can no longer be equated with a murder. Only then does it become a question of a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body.
Anti-abortionists might still worry about the erosion of the sanctity of life and slippery slopes that could lead to infanticide, or that 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 these are not fundamental objections to abortion itself, and each of them can be answered convincingly.
Whatever happens to the United States Supreme Court in the coming months, the abortion debate will not go away, because the moral question at its heart is serious and has no pleasantly simple answer. As long as abortion rights advocates avoid answering it and simply talk about the right to choose, anti-abortionists will be at the forefront.
Write to Julien
Julian Baggini will offer a monthly philosophical view of current events.
Email [email protected] with your topic suggestions, including “Philosopher-at-large” in the subject line