[Today’s guest article is by Leslie Corbly.]
In her article, “Abortion Rights after Artificial Wombs: Why Decriminalisation is Needed Ahead of Ectogenesis,” feminist scholar Claire Horn argues that the advancement of technology allowing for fetal development outside the natural womb of a woman threatens a woman’s right to abortion. Preserving the life of the unborn is increasingly possible without requiring women to carry pregnancies to full term. Pregnancy as a violation of a woman’s bodily autonomy has been the foundational premise upon which abortion advocates have relied when arguing for the morality of the procedure. (Horn, pg. 81-81) Since Horn supports her arguments about technology by first arguing that unborn life has no inherent value assigned to the unborn by a pregnant woman, the first installment of this article will address the premises and inconsistencies with that portion of her argument.
Horn’s argument posit the following premises: (1) fetuses are non-persons (2) fetuses become “persons” upon birth; personhood is not slowly acquired over time (3) abortion is a vital medical procedure (4) the vital medical nature of the abortion procedure is not subject to change even in light of powerful emerging technologies, such as artificial wombs (5) a pregnant woman should be able to access abortion at any point in pregnancy, even if technology could be utilized to preserve the life of the unborn outside the womb of the mother. (pg. 84)
Horn makes no effort to define the unborn beyond definitionally placing them in the category of “non-person.” At no point in her article does she deny the human nature of the fetus, neither does she define with specificity what the fetus represents. This presents two problems: First, Horn has categorized an identifiable subset of humanity, i.e. human fetuses, as “non-persons,” and second, she has failed to describe with specificity what is being killed. Categorizing any identifiable group of humanity as “non-persons” is inherently problematic because such categorization devalues humanity. Second, if the fetus is a human life but a non-person, what exactly is it? Here, Horn is content with the absence of a tangible definition for what the abortionist kills. She makes no comparison between fetal life and other forms of human life because she spends no time discussing the nature of that which is killed in an abortion procedure. Horn simply states, without any clarification, that the unborn are “non-persons” and therefore their death is of no consequence. (Horn, pg. 84) Horn does not argue the termination of a pregnancy does not kill the fetus, because such a claim is demonstrably false. The entire purpose of terminating a pregnancy is to cut off the ability of the fetus in utero to continue growing. All successful abortions end in death. This reality is unavoidable. To her credit, Horn acknowledges this reality, stating emerging technological advances could “allow a person to end a pregnancy without causing the death of the foetus.” (Horn, pg. 82)
It appears Horn’s first premise relies on accepting the morality of allowing mothers the unilateral ability to determine the worth of unborn human beings. Although not directly stated, Horn’s premise rests on the idea that the value of the unborn is entirely contingent upon the desires of the unborn child’s mother. This can be seen through her reference to “extremely preterm” “babies,” whose lives should be preserved due to their status as being “wanted” by their mothers. (Horn, pg. 103) At no other point throughout the article is a fetus, regardless of gestational age, referred to as a “baby.” For Horn, a fetus only reaches the status of “baby” through the stated desires of the mother.
Unlike some who argue that, in a world where the ability to preserve life does not require the involvement of the mother’s body, abortion becomes irrelevant, Horn argues abortion rights must be protected because such rights are inherently tied to the dignity, respect, and personhood of a woman. (Horn, pg. 81, 84) Indeed, she argues that the idea that abortion itself is a “problem” implicating moral philosophy is rooted in a “patriarchal notion that pregnant women are foetal incubators rather than people.” (Horn, pg 85) Not only should the procedure be free and easy to acquire, but, because it is a healthcare procedure, abortion should “not require an ethical justification.” (Horn, pg. 84)
Horn’s argument that the dignity and respect of women as a group depends upon the ability of women to access abortion is not clearly justified. If her premise regarding the moral status of the unborn is incorrect, then her argument posits that women’s rights are predicated not only upon violence, but murder. By admitting that abortion requires the death of the fetus, Horn acknowledges on some level that her belief in women’s rights rests on a violent foundation. Without repeating the problems with Horn’s categorization of the unborn as “non-persons,” the structure of Horn’s argument reveals that she is not attempting to persuade her audience of her foundational premises; rather, Horn asserts these premises as facts requiring no further explanation.
Horn’s second premise, that personhood begins at birth, is problematic because “birth” is not clearly defined. Is birth merely the exit of the fetus from the womb? Is it possible that premature babies have more worth than babies in utero of a greater gestational age? Horn makes no effort to answer these questions or define birth. However, a story out of Oklahoma underscores the ambiguity absent clearly defined standards. According to the Lawton Constitution, a local resident, Brittney Poolaw, suffered the stillborn birth of her child. When she was rushed to the Comanche County hospital her child was outside the womb but attached to the mother via the umbilical cord. Whether the child’s life ended before or after Ms. Poolaw was taken to the hospital is unclear. What is clear is that, at 17 weeks gestation, Ms. Poolaw could have sought an abortion in many US jurisdictions. However, because the child was no longer in the womb at the time of death, Ms. Poolaw was subject to criminal charges of first-degree manslaughter due to the use of methamphetamine which the prosecution alleged caused the death of the child. The case created controversy for abortion advocates who argued miscarriage had been criminalized.
Was the situation above a stillbirth or a miscarriage? This situation, although rare, underscores the reality that birth does not occur precisely 9 months after conception in all cases of pregnancy. Although Horn has no doubt never heard of this specific situation, her failure to provide a specific definition of birth is an oversight because, in instances such as the one described above, the definition of birth is crucial for understanding the moral status of Ms. Poolaw’s child under Horn’s argument. If birth has occurred, then the unborn life moves from “fetus” to “person” and death has moral weight. However, if birth has not occurred, the moral status of the fetus remains in the category of “non-person.” The premises of Horn’s arguments do not clearly apply a standard to the situation above because they are not sufficiently developed to account for the ambiguity inherent in her method of valuing the moral status of unborn human life.
Horn’s third and fourth premises–that abortion is a vital medical procedure and that its accessibility should not be changed based on emerging technology–stand on a weak foundation. Horn is adamant that, because abortion is a healthcare procedure, it requires no moral defense. (Horn, pg. 85) The position that “abortion is healthcare” rejects the idea that “anyone other than the person seeking abortion should have the right to adjudicate their decision to terminate a foetus that is growing in their body.” (pg. 92) Attempts to debate gestational time limits for abortion, Horn argues, are “paternalistic” and attempt to place abortion “in the sphere of authority of doctors to maintain both technical and decisional control.” (Horn, pg. 92)
Horn’s position that abortion, as a healthcare procedure, belongs outside a moral framework leaves no room for good faith debate regarding the morality or ethics of healthcare procedures. Horn’s attempts to discount such voices appear to be rooted in a dogmatic moral statement rather than sound logic. An entire body of medical ethics exists purely for the purpose of ensuring medical procedures are undertaken in accordance with ethical norms. Given the realities of pregnancies and the intertwined nature of the unborn child to the mother, those who assign even a shred of value to the unborn will concern themselves with the morality of abortion as a procedure.
As for Horn’s concerns about doctor involvement and paternalism, it stands to reason that medical doctors would be involved in the conversation regarding the ethics of a medical procedure. Given that many women (doctors and otherwise) are concerned about the morality of abortion, Horn’s insertion of paternalism is confusing. The heart of Horn’s argument is that the moral status of the fetus should be unilaterally and independently determined by the pregnant woman. (Horn, pg. 92) Horn posits the moral status of the fetus is subject to change over the course of gestation, but only when “understood from the perspective of the pregnant person’s perceived relationship to the foetus.”
Horn’s insistence that any external limitation on abortion is categorically immoral because it infringes on the subjective reality of the pregnant woman assumes a pregnant woman’s subjective experience should operate as objective fact. Horn’s arguments rely on elevating an individual’s subjective relational experiences to objective fact, because the only individual whose value assessment of the appropriate moral status of the fetus is the pregnant woman’s. Horn considers no other opinion, no matter its basis, relevant. Such a standard creates inconsistency in the application of normative ethics to specific situations because the value of human life depends on the experiences of one individual. Such a paradigm allows for situations in which two human beings at any given point in gestation may fall into mutually exclusive moral categories based on the desires of two different human women, should those women come to different conclusions regarding the value of unborn life. One human being would fall under the category of “non-person” while the other would be granted the dignity and value that come with the term “baby.” Such a value system is fundamentally flawed because, although the pregnant woman’s subjective relational experience with life growing inside her is important, that experience alone is insufficient in determining the objective value of human life.