What is Wrong With Abortion? A Philosophical Case
[Today’s post by guest author Prayson Daniel is part of our paid blogging program.]
Is it possible to make a case for the prima facie wrongness of killing a human foetus that does not depend on theological premises? In 1989 atheist philosopher Donald Marquis introduced a philosophical case for immorality of abortion that neither depended on the personhood nor consciousness of the foetus.
Consider these five cases, borrowed from Pedro Galvão (2007):
(A) The typical human foetus;
(A1) The typical preconscious fetus;
(A2) The typical conscious fetus;
(B) The typical human infant;
(C) The temporarily depressed suicidal;
(D) The temporarily comatose adult;
(E) The typical human adult.
Could what makes the killing of (B-E) prima facie so wrong be relevantly similar to the killing of (A)? This post offers a philosophical case for why abortion, killing of (A1) and (A2), is prima facie wrong, as it revisits Robert Young’s thesis (1979) on what makes killing people, in some occasions, so wrong, and Marquis’ articulations of future of value arguments (1989, 2001).
Barack Obama’s lamenting speech addressed to the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, in Newtown, correctly captured the prima facie wrongness of killing people. Obama understood the gravity of the killer’s unjust prevention of the little kids, and adults’ future of value. He said,
The majority of those who died today were children — beautiful, little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old. They had their entire lives ahead of them — birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own. Among the fallen were also teachers, men and women who devoted their lives to helping our children fulfill their dreams. (Obama 2012: n.p)
It is prima facie wrong to kill human being, according to David Boonin’s modified future-like-ours argument, because it “is in general prima facie wrong to act in ways that frustrate the desires of others, and in general more seriously prima facie wrong to act in ways that frustrate their stronger desires.”(Boonin 2003, 67)
Boonin’s view would explain why it is wrong to kill (A2)*, (B) and (E), but not (C) and (D) because (C) and (D) lack strong desire to enjoy their personal future. Assuming we agree that killing (C) and (D) is prima facie wrong, Boonin’s view is, thus, inadequate to explain why it is generally prima facie so wrong to kill people.
Unlike Boonin, Young provided a richer explanation. He argued,
[W]hat makes killing another human being wrong on occasions is its character as an irrevocable, maximally unjust prevention of the realization either of the victims’ life-purposes or of such life-purposes as the victim may reasonably have been expected to resume or to come have.(Young 1979, 516)
Persuaded by Young’s account, Marquis argued that ‘‘for any killing where the victim did have a valuable future like ours, having that future by itself is sufficient to create the strong presumption that the killing is seriously wrong.” (Marquis 1989, 195)
Young’s account is richer because it includes (C) and (D). In both cases, viz., a depressed suicidal teenager and a comatose patient are reasonably expected to resume such life-purpose. In this account, if correct, it would be equally wrong to kill (A1) and (A2) because they also are reasonably expected to come to have such life-purposes. (A1) and (A2) have, borrowing Obama’s words, “their entire lives ahead of them — birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.” Thus,
P1: What makes killing another human being prima facie wrong is “an irrevocable, maximally unjust prevention of the realization either of the victims’ life-purposes or of such life-purposes as the victim may reasonably have been expected to resume or to come have.”
P2: Abortion is an irrevocable, maximally unjust prevention of the realization either of foetus’ life-purposes or of such life-purposes as the foetus may reasonably have been expected to come have.
C: Abortion is prima facie wrong.
Boonin, David (2003). A Defense of Abortion. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
Galvão, Pedro (2007):“Boonin On The Future-Like-Ours Argument Against Abortion “ Bioethics Vol. 21 No. 6: 324-328
Marquis Donald(1989). “Why abortion is immoral.” Journal of Philosophy Vol. 86:183–202.
_________________ (2001) “Deprivations, futures and the wrongness of killing.” Journal of Medical Ethics 2001;27:363–9.
Obama, Barack (2012). Obama’s speech on December 14th 2012. Transcript: President Obama’s Remarks On Conn. School Shootings. White House
Young, Robert (1979) “What Is So Wrong with Killing People?” Philosophy, Vol. 54, No. 210: 515-528
*(A2) and (B) have relatively similar actual desires.
You could add at least one other category. How about an unborn baby who has anencephaly? Or a born person who because of an accident has a major injury that puts him in a similar situation to the anencephalic baby.
Even though such a person has no possible "realization of life-purpose to resume or to come to have", it still seems prima facie wrong to kill (as opposed to let die) such a person.
I think the claim that "only persons can be killed" is ridiculous and would show that pro-choice person not to be an honest seeker of truth.
If you squash an ant, haven't you killed it? Everyone should admit that abortion kills something. It doesn't have to be a person in order for it to be a killing. What the question of personhood tries to answer is whether it's something we should support the right to kill or something that we should not have the right to kill?
I know that is what most of those who are for abortion would appeal to. But personhood is irrelevant in this case because, the notion is not whether a foetus is a person or not, but whether a foetus is a being with such life-purposes that may reasonably have been expected to come have.
We know that a foetus is such a being because we were once a foetus.
Think of a future valuable experience V:
P1: A being Y has a future-like-ours iff Y future contains an adequate balance of valuable experiences V and Y now desires or will resume to desire or come to desire to have such experiences.
P2: (A-E) are Y beings
Thanks. I think anencephalic foetus and infants do have a life-purpose and could be in a group close to A1.
It seems to me that it's not necessary to use the word person in the argument.
But if one insists, you could say that a person is "an entity who has a life-purpose to resume or to come to have"
Could you elaborate on that? I'd really like to know what you have in mind?
It is impossible to argue that anencephalic foetus and infants have a future-like-ours, because they, according to our modern technology, do not, sadly. Thus the case I presented would fail to include them.
I deferent case is needed, that would would show that they also have life-purpose. Here, I believe, it would be difficult to have a objective understanding of what that life-purpose is.
I am pro-choice. I have a question: Don't your arguments assume that a pre-conscious fetus somehow desired or made the choice to be conceived? If you are really making an argument from a secular point of view, how can you presuppose that the pre-conscious fetus has desires or wishes? It implies some kind of supernatural plan that is in place for this fertilized egg which has no and has never had any agency whatsoever. This is qualitatively different from a suicidal or comatose individual. This person has/had agency and there is at least a possibility to regain it. Not to mention, suffering can occur in anyone who has any kind of relationship with either of these adults. Also, no one wants to live in a world where it is possible we will be legally killed for any reason. This is not a concern for a pre-conscious fetus, as it has no concerns, by definition.