Nathan Nobis is an associate professor of philosophy at Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA. He published an article on 1000 Word Philosophy summarizing the arguments in support of abortion. His article is called “The Ethics of Abortion.” Nobis clearly has a good grasp on the philosophical literature by pro-choice thinkers. While his summary of pro-choice arguments is admirable, he makes some basic mistakes that cause him not to correctly represent the debate on abortion (and granted, as he only had 1,000 words, it’s not like he could present a very complex overview, anyway). I was going to comment on his article but comments are closed, so I decided to write a response article here in case anyone comes across Nobis’ article.
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He begins by agreeing with pro-life people that the unborn are human beings. So we’re off to a good start. Then he presents five arguments that despite the unborn being human beings, abortion is still permissible.
Argument #1: Human Organisms?
Nobis briefly expounds the argument that since adults are biologically continuous with the fetuses and embryos they were in the womb, abortion is wrong. He then calls the argument dubious because you obviously have properties now, like being over three feet tall, being able to reason morally, and having the right to make autonomous decisions about your own life, that you obviously didn’t have when you were too young. This shows that just because we have some property or some right now, we didn’t always have that right. Then he states, “[t]his argument’s advocates need to plausibly explain why, say, the right to life is an exception to this rule.”
This is a very bizarre way to end his point. Defenders of this argument have plausibly explained that. In fact, in Nobis’ own second footnote, he explains that this argument can be interpreted in just such a way that plausibly explains why the right to life is an exception to this rule.
At any rate, Nobis is simply ignoring the difference between an essential property and an accidental property. My being 5’11” tall is accidental to who I am as a person. I could have been 5’6″ or 6’3″ and I’d still remain the same person. My growing taller, gaining the ability to reason, or gaining the right to have autonomy over my own body are accidental to me as a person. They didn’t change my nature, or make me a fundamentally different person than I was before. However, my right to life is an essential property of me. I could not lose my right to life and still be the same person. But having a right to life is grounded in my rational nature, which all humans possess. So that’s the plausible difference — the right to life is essential to who I am, and the other properties Nobis lists are accidental to who I am.
Argument #2: (Human) Persons?
He begins this section by describing John Locke’s view of personhood, that a person is a being with personality (e.g. having thoughts, feelings, memories, anticipations, etc.). This argument is to be preferred, Nobis says, because it has explanatory power: It helps us understand how we are persons and cease to be persons, and it justifies a belief that some non-human animals, extraterrestrials, and/or divine beings (if they exist) are persons. Early fetuses would not be persons on this view, but late fetuses would be, since they are “sufficiently developed” enough for consciousness and personhood. They don’t become that developed until, at least, midway through pregnancy.
However, I would contend that his view of personhood should be abandoned for at least two reasons: The pro-life view, that all human beings are persons because one’s personhood depends on what that thing is, has greater explanatory power than Nobis’ personhood view. Additionally, Nobis’ view is too ambiguous to be useful.
2a. The pro-life view has better explanatory power
Nobis gives four reasons for believing his view has explanatory power (although his last three points are basically the same point). But the pro-life view doesn’t lack in explanatory power in these areas. Plus, it has explanatory power in other areas.
His first point is that his view of personhood helps us understand why we are persons and how we cease to be persons. But the pro-life view of personhood does this, too: we are persons because we have a rational nature. And we never cease to be persons. Nobis assumes that one can cease to be a person, but this obviously has to be argued for (and he probably has in other articles he’s written).
His second through fourth points are that his view helps justify a belief that some non-human animals, extraterrestrials, and divine beings would be persons. However, this is simply a question-begging argument. You have to first assume that these beings are persons in order for your argument, that it justifies your belief that these are persons, to even get off the ground. But that’s exactly what’s at issue here. You can’t start from the premise that some animals, extraterrestrials, and divine entities are persons and then use that as an argument to show that your view has explanatory power. Plus, this argument assumes that no pro-life people believe that non-human animals, extraterrestrials, or divine beings have rights, but this is clearly false. My view of human personhood would exclude non-human animals, but some pro-life people believe that some non-human animals have rights. But you can’t use this explanatory power to show why the rational nature view of human personhood fails. You first have to see which view succeeds and then use that view to extrapolate which types of entities have rights. Nobis is simply putting the cart before the horse here.
So not only does the pro-life view of personhood share explanatory power with the pro-choice personhood view regading these points of explanatory power, but the pro-life personhood view also has better explanatory power for why racism and sexism are wrong. Racism and sexism have, traditionally, led to some serious tragedies. But what accounts for the view that it’s wrong to judge someone as a non-person based on their skin color or their gender? It’s not the fact that they’re self-aware, or are able to perform some function that white people can perform. Not only does this conflict with our deeply held intuitions that all human beings have equal value, but it also doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. Arguing that racism or sexism is wrong because of self-awareness, or ambitions, or some other thing, is to simply trade on one form of unjust discrimination for another. It’s just as wrong to kill or torture someone because they lack ambitions or because they lack self-awareness as it is to kill or torture someone because they’re black or because they’re female. So the pro-life personhood view has better explanatory power as to why racism and sexism are wrong than the pro-choice personhood view.
Considering how powerful the explanatory power of the pro-life view is over the pro-choice view, if we take Nobis’ argument at face value, we ought to reject the pro-choice view for the pro-life one.
2b. The pro-choice view is too ambiguous to be useful
One of the major issues with arguing a point that personhood is established as anything other than fertilization is that it is too ambiguous. The problem is that many philosophers disagree over what property is necessary to bestow personhood. David Boonin argues that it’s when cortical brain activity begins, which occurs at around 30-32 weeks in utero. Michael Tooley believes you have to be sufficiently self-aware such that you can see yourself as existing through time, which happens well after you’re born. Nobis apparently believes that the late-term fetus is a person, but not before “their brains and nervous system [are] sufficiently developed and complexly interconnected enough for consciousness and personhood.” But he never tells us how much development and interconnectedness is sufficient. He just assumes that there is some sufficient amount which justify our achieving personhood status. But other philosophers would disagree. Tooley doesn’t believe our brains are sufficiently complex or interconnected enough until after we’re born. So not only does he have the pro-life advocate to contend with, he has other pro-choice philosophers to contend with.
So the pro-life position not only has the advantage in explanatory power, it also has the advantage in placing the demarcation line between non-person and person in an objective line (fertilization/conception) while also being able to provide a solid reason for why, exactly, that point is the point at which personhood is established.
Argument #3: Potential Personhood?
Nobis now considers the claim that if he is correct about personhood, fetuses are, at least, potential persons. So is that potential personhood enough to justify a right to life since they will one day become persons? Nobis says no, because potential things don’t have the rights of actual things. I am a potential judge, but I do not have the right to rule on criminal court cases because I do not have the qualifications. I am also a potential doctor, but I do not have the right to perform surgery. So just because a fetus is a potential person that does not mean it has the right to life as actual persons do.
Here, Nobis is correct. A potential X does not have the same rights as an actual X. And while there have been some pro-life thinkers who have argued that a fetus is a potential person and therefore should be treated as an actual person, I find these arguments to be extremely weak. But that’s okay because the strongest pro-life arguments do not argue from potential personhood — they argue that human embryos and fetuses are actual persons with great potential. Sperm and ovum cells are potential persons in the same way that flour, sugar, and milk are a potential cake (though, if we want to be super technical, they are not, strictly speaking, potential persons since they will cease to exist once they contribute their genetic material to the new human embryo). Being potential persons does not grant the sperm and ovum cells a right to life as they are not actual persons. But the human embryo that results from the sperm/ovum fusion are actual persons, not potential persons. So I grant Nobis’ response here, but with the qualification that these arguments are not very strong and we should focus on discussing the stronger arguments.
Argument #4: Valuable Futures?
Here Nobis refers to Don Marquis’ famous argument against abortion, the argument that what makes killing an adult human being wrong is that you are preventing their future of valuable experiences from obtaining. You are basically robbing them of their future. Since fetuses have a future of valuable experiences as adult humans do, so, too, is it wrong to kill a human fetus because you are also robbing her of her future of valuable experiences.
Nobis has two brief responses to this argument: 1) Our futures are plausibly valuable, in part, because we can, at present, look forward to them. Since fetuses have no conscious awareness of their futures, this makes an important difference between the adult human’s future of value and the fetal human’s future of value. 2) His second argument is a reductio ad absurdum against this argument: An ovum and sperm cell both arguably have a future akin to the fetus’ future. But using contraception (even by abstinence) would be wrong, since it robs the sperm and ovum cells of that valuable future.
And my response would be: slow down, Turbo. There are a couple of fatal errors being made by Nobis in these responses.
Regarding response 1, Nobis says our futures are valuable in part because we can presently look forward to them. Nobis, himself, concedes that this is only part of what makes our futures valuable. The fact that we have this future also makes it valuable, and one does not always have to be consciously aware of something in order to be harmed by being deprived of it (e.g. a child who is set to inherit a fortune from his dead father is surely harmed if the executor of his estate squanders the inheritance and never tells the child about it).
Regarding response 2, Nobis is just mistaken that the sperm and ovum cells have a future of value. The future of the sperm and ovum cells are to die. They will not become a human organism, they will simply make a human organism. When the sperm contributes its genetic material to the ovum, it ceases to exist. And even though the embryo inherits certain structures from the ovum cell, such as the zona pellucida, the ovum cell, too, ceases to exist once the new human organism comes into existence. The sperm and ovum cease to exist, they are not biologically continuous with the new human embryo as the embryo is biologically continuous with the adult she will become. So using contraception does not deprive anything of a future of value, it simply prevents a human being, with a future of value, from coming into existence.
Argument #5: The Right to Life?
Finally, Nobis considers the possibility that all the previous answers may be wrong, but abortion may still be impermissible because the fetus has a right to life. But Nobis rejects this argument, channeling Judith Jarvis Thomson in arguing that if I had need of your kidney to stay alive, do I have a right to it? No, and you don’t violate any right I may have by refusing to let me use it, even if refusing it means I will die. This shows that the right to life does not include a right to the use of someone else’s body, even if it’s necessary for you to stay alive.
The problem here is that organ donation is not relevantly like abortion. In the case of abortion, the embryo/fetus plausibly does have a right to the use of the uterus, considering that the woman created the fetus and placed the fetus in a state of dependence upon her (in the vast majority of cases), which grounds an obligation of care from the pregnant woman to her child.
This is a much different case than organ donation. If you need my kidney and I refuse to give you one, I am not actively killing you. This is certainly not nearly as wrong (if it is wrong at all) as actively killing someone, even if you need my kidney. Your kidney ailment is. I may be letting you die, but I am not actively killing you.. By contrast, you must actively kill the fetus in order to deprive her of the use of the pregnant woman’s uterus. So organ donation is not an apt metaphor — more apt would be to consider that you already received a kidney transplant (which is a more similar situation regarding the fetus who already has obtained use of the uterus). In this situation, the abortion would be analogous to killing or maiming the other person to get your kidney back because you have revoked consent regarding the kidney. But once the kidney transplant has already been made, you can’t get your kidney back because you would have to operate on someone against their will to retrieve it. So it is with the abortion; it is wrong because the fetus has already obtained the use of the woman’s uterus, so she can’t revoke consent because she would have to kill the fetus in order to revoke that consent.
So a right to bodily autonomy does not carry with it the right to kill innocent people who are in the way of something you want (e.g. financial independence, a college education, etc.). Killing a human embryo or fetus violates its right to life because it is not violating the woman’s bodily autonomy by existing.
I appreciate people like Nathan Nobis who are able to have a reasoned discussion about abortion, even though (or perhaps, especially because) we disagree on the issue. I believe I’ve made a sufficient, brief case for why these arguments in support of abortion are mistaken and why the pro-life position should be seen as superior. I’m of course willing to continue the discussion in the comments, so long as the discussion is kept civil.
[Today’s guest post by Clinton Wilcox is part of our paid blogging program.]