Defenders of the right to abortion often criticize pro-lifers for trying to impose their religious beliefs on others. While religion does provide cogent arguments in this debate it's far from the whole story, as a recent book establishes.
Christopher Kaczor, in "The Ethics of Abortion: Women's Rights, Human Life and the Question of Justice," (Routledge), takes a philosophical look at abortion and explains why it is not ethically justifiable.
One of the key points Kaczor addresses is when personhood begins. Some advocates of abortion argue that you can distinguish humans from persons. An example he gives is that of Mary Anne Warren, who offers a number of criteria needed before we can say someone is a person.
She proposes that persons have consciousness of objects and events and the capacity to feel pain. They also have the power of reason and the capacity for self-motivated activity, along with the capacity to communicate.
In replying to such an argument Kaczor pointed out that, using such criteria, it would be hard to argue against infanticide, as a newborn baby doesn't fulfill these criteria any more than an unborn fetus.
Moreover, we do not cease to be persons when we are asleep or under sedation for surgery, even though at that time we are not conscious or in movement. As well, those with dementia or the disabled don't satisfy Warren's criteria for personhood.
Another approach to justifying abortion it that based on location, that is, whether you are within or outside the uterus. Kaczor contended that personhood is more than a matter of location. If we were to admit this argument then it follows that when there is artificial fertilization outside the womb, the new being has the status of personhood, but then loses it when implanted in the womb, only to regain it again when it has left the womb.
Then there are also instances of open fetal surgery, during which the human fetus is sometimes brought outside the uterus. If we determine personhood by existence outside the womb then it commits us to the implausible view that in such cases the fetus is a non-person who then becomes a person, and then becomes a non-person again when returned to the uterus, only to become a person again at birth.
Excluding location as a criteria for being considered a person, Kaczor then debated the question of whether personhood is established at some point between conception and birth. Viability, that is if the fetus in utero is potentially capable of living outside the mother's womb, was referred to by the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade as one way to determine if human fetuses deserve some legal protection, he noted.
Yet, there are problems with such a position, according to Kaczor. For example, conjoined twins sometimes depend on each other for life and nevertheless both are considered to be persons.
Viability also poses a problem because fetuses in wealthy countries with advanced health care become viable before fetuses in poor countries. And female fetuses become viable before male fetuses. Should differences of sex and affluence have a bearing on personhood?
Another approach is to consider that the capacity to suffer pain or enjoy pleasure is when we could mark the beginning of a right to life, Kaczor continued. This isn't sufficient either, he responded. It excludes those who are under anesthesia or in coma. Moreover, he said, some animals have this capacity but we do not consider that they have a right to life.
A possible fallback position in this argument is saying that not all beings have the capacity to feel pleasure or pain, so that only those with a higher degree of sentience and a more developed capacity to pursue interests are to be considered persons, Kaczor explained.
The problem with this, he pointed out, is that persons differ greatly in their capacity for pain or pleasure and we can hardly conclude that this provides a ground to consider that they differ radically in terms of personhood or rights.
A pro-choice response to the above critiques takes the form of the gradualist view. Kaczor said that this consists in arguing that the right to life gradually increases in strength as the pregnancy develops, and the more similar a fetus is to persons like ourselves the greater protection it should have.
Nevertheless, Kaczor noted that there is a difference in the right to life and other rights. There are age restrictions on voting, driving, or being elected to public office. This happens because the right involved implicates an ability to discharge the responsibilities that comes with it.
The right to life, however, does not implicitly contain any corresponding responsibilities and so can be enjoyed regardless of age or mental capacities.
Another problem with the gradualist approach is that human development hardly ends with birth. If moral status were linked to physiological development then killing a 14-year-old requires a greater justification than killing a 6-year-old.
The failure of such arguments, Kaczor affirmed, leads us to the conclusion that, if there are no ethically relevant differences between human beings of various stages of development that render some as non-persons, then the dignity and value of the human person does not begin after birth, nor at some point during gestation. Thus, all human beings are also human persons.
History provides us the many examples of the need to respect all human beings as persons having dignity. Virtually no one today, at least in the West, Kaczor argued, would defend slavery, misogyny, or anti-Semitism. Are we really justified in treating some human beings as less than persons, or will we be judged by history as just one more episode in the long line of exploitation of the powerful over the weak?
This gives rise to the question of whether human beings begin to exist at conception. This is not primarily a moral question, but a scientific one, according to Kaczor.
He went on to quote from a number of scientific and medical texts, all of which affirm that with conception there is the start of a new human life and that there is a fundamental change with the creation of a being with 46 chromosomes.
After fertilization no outside agency is present that changes the newly conceived organism into something else. Rather, the human embryo is self-developing towards its future state.
"Speaking analogously, the human embryo is therefore not merely a detailed blueprint of the house that will be built but a tiny house that constructs itself larger and more complex through its active self-development towards maturity," Kaczor elucidated.
After this the later chapters of the book look at a number of arguments used by defenders of abortion. One by one he examines them and points out their weaknesses.
For example, it has been argued that because in the early stages it is possible for twinning to occur, the embryo is not an individual human being. Kaczor replied to this by arguing that even if one being can be divided into two beings this does not mean that it was never an individual being.
After all, he added, most plants can give rise to further individual plants, but this does not mean a plant cannot be an individual, distinct plant.
He also examined the hard cases, such as pregnancy as a result of rape or incest. The personhood of the fetus, Kaxcor insisted, does not depend on the way in which it was conceived. "You are who you are regardless of the circumstances of your conception and birth," he said.
Kazcor's densely-reasoned book contains many more carefully thought-out arguments, making it a valuable resource for all those concerned about protecting human life.