In Defense of Moderation
In this paper, I will defend L.W. Sumner’s moderate view on the issue of abortion. I will consider, but ultimately reject Judith Jarvis-Thompson’s liberal view and Sydney Callahan’s conservative view of this issue.
Sumner begins by stating that a fetus is a peculiar sort of being because it occupies the earliest stage in a particular life history beginning at conception. A pregnancy, therefore, is a particular kind of relationship between a fully developed human with full moral status, and a developing human with indeterminate moral status. The closest analogy we can approximate is the relationship between a human and a parasite, but this is imperfect; a fetus is not a parasite because, if left alone, it would become a fully developed person with full moral status. How then, do we define a fetus’ moral status? We can compare a fetus with two related things: gametes at one end, which presumably have no moral status, and an infant at the other with presumed full moral status. The fetus is somewhere in between, so it is difficult to determine exactly when moral status is acquired. Does it happen all at once at a specific time, such as conception, or birth? Or is it a gradual process?
Along with the difficulty of determining the moral status of the fetus comes the difficulty of determining the morality of abortions. Abortion can also be compared to its two temporal neighbors. Contraception, at one end, we generally consider benign. Infanticide, on the other hand, we generally consider morally serious. Abortion is also hard to define by these counterparts. It is difficult to determine whether it is infanticide, which is the killing of a morally significant being, or contraception, which is merely the prevention of one. Exactly where the delineation lies is not obvious. In order to make the decision whether abortion is more like contraception or infanticide, we must determine whether the fetus is more like a pair of gametes, or more like an infant. In order to have moral status, a fetus must have intrinsic value rather than just instrumental value. Therefore, in order to determine the morality of abortions we must ascertain the moral status of the fetus.
There are two standard Western stances on the abortion debate: the liberal or “pro-choice” position, and the conservative or “pro-life” position. Liberals claim that the fetus has no moral standing during the pregnancy, and therefore abortion has no victim, or (like Thompson) that the moral status of the fetus is irrelevant. They claim that there is no better reason to restrict abortions than to restrict contraception because it is only the prevention of a morally significant being. The reason for the abortion is irrelevant. The conservative, or pro-life view, holds that the fetus has full moral standing from the moment of conception on. Killing the fetus is as wrong as killing a fully formed human adult, and at all stages of pregnancy abortion is as morally serious as infanticide. Again, the reasons for performing the abortion are irrelevant. The problem with these two views is that they are too rigid and uniform. Both hold that all fetuses have the same moral standing throughout the pregnancy, regardless of whatever differences they may have. A fetus goes from a simple one celled organism to a highly complex six million celled organism in the span of nine months. It is difficult to believe that the single celled creature has the same moral standing as the six million celled creature. Another problem is that both hold the reasons for abortion to be irrelevant, but some of the reasons for abortions seem to be more pressing than others. These views are also somewhat different from common practices and opinions. Most public opinion polls reveal that most people feel the timing and reason for an abortion to be very important. Legislation in many Western countries places limits on abortions based on both timing and reason, but this legislation gets no logical support from either side of the debate. Although public opinion and governmental legislation hold no sway in a good argument, they do give us cause to wonder whether the traditional conservative and liberal views are the only two options.
Many people find an early term abortion less objectionable than a late term abortion, and there are some reasons that appear less objectionable than others. Sumner places the reasons most abortions are performed into four categories: therapeutic, eugenic, humanitarian and socioeconomic. A therapeutic abortion is performed to save the life or health of the mother, and a eugenic to prevent the birth of a seriously deformed infant. Humanitarian abortions are performed on victims of rape or incest, and socioeconomic abortions cover almost everything else: age, poverty, illegitimacy, etc. Public support for these vary, most people being in favor of therapeutic abortions, and opinion being split equally on socioeconomic reasons. The issue of abortion is not at all simple, so perhaps the flaw in the established views is their simplicity. There must be a complex solution for a complex problem.
The difference in moral standing between a pair of gametes and an infant is obvious: the gametes have no standing and the infant has full standing. Moral standing, therefore, is acquired at some point during the pregnancy. We cannot draw an arbitrary line, before which there is no moral standing, and after which there is; there must be some justification. It seems that whatever criterion we found moral standing on is developed gradually during the pregnancy; as all of the other developments occur, moral standing is acquired gradually as well. The main problem is pinpointing when this happens, but when the threshold is found it follows that abortions performed before it are as innocuous as contraception, and abortions performed after are as serious as infanticide. This threshold will not be a hard line, but a soft line, easily blurred.
Because of the problems presented in the uniformity of the established views, we must differentiate between fetuses --some will be awarded moral status while others will not. In order to find out which of the fetuses have moral status, we must ask what the criterion is for having moral status. One may say that moral status is given to those who can reason, but then infants and the mentally deficient would have none. These obviously do have it, so it is not our reasoning capacity that gives us moral status. Our criterion for moral status must include all people, so perhaps it includes some non-human animals as well. Sumner defines sentience as “having the capacity to experience pleasure and pain and thus the capacity for enjoyment and suffering.” This criterion would include all humans and many animals as well. This seems to be a sufficient criterion, because only those who are sentient can have any interests to protect. We do not feel it is right to kill a dog without a good reason, however we do not feel any qualms about cutting worms in half with our shovels because it does not even notice. We recognized the difference between a worm and a dog, so it follows that we recognize the difference between an early term and a late term fetus.
Our use of sentience as a logical criterion may be derivable from any of the welfare-based moral theories, from Kantian Deontology to Utilitarianism. Only sentient beings have interests, and all of them do whether they know it or not. So being sentient is both necessary and sufficient for having welfare. To apply this criterion for humans we must find the threshold of sentience and find with it the threshold for moral standing. Sentience is acquired at some time during the pregnancy because a freshly fertilized ovum has none, while a full term fetus is sentient. With our current technology it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when sentience is acquired, but we can approximate it. A fetus at the beginning of the second trimester will probably not be sentient, but it probably will be at the end of the second trimester. Therefore it is relatively safe to say that sentience, along with moral standing is developed at some time during the second trimester.
With sentience as our threshold, and that occurring during the second trimester, we can now flesh out our moderate view. Before the second trimester, abortion is as morally innocuous as contraception because it merely prevents the development of a morally significant being. The abortion decision should be left to the parents and any of the four reasons would be acceptable. After the second trimester, however, any abortion must be seriously considered, and not only by the parents. A therapeutic abortion would be acceptable regardless of the moral significance of the fetus because killing is not murder when it is done in self- defense. Eugenic abortions would be acceptable as well because some deformities would not show up until after the second trimester. Humanitarian and socioeconomic abortions would not be acceptable because they should have been performed before the second trimester. This abortion policy includes a time line for reasonable abortions, and some guidelines for later term abortions, but the time line is the important thing. Sentience is acquired gradually during the second trimester, so at that time moral standing is unclear. We must, however, pick a sharp dividing point for the sake of the law somewhere at the beginning of the second trimester.
Judith Jarvis-Thompson would raise some objections to this argument. She would claim that the moral status of the fetus is irrelevant because a woman has a right to expel anything from her body at any time for almost any reason, no matter what the time during the pregnancy. She would argue that a woman who has not intentionally become pregnant has no obligations to let the fetus keep using her body. The fetus’ right to live does not include the use of his mother’s body. But this is not a sufficient objection because Sumner agrees that during the first trimester an abortion may be had for any reason, so where does Thompson’s argument go? Therapeutic or eugenic abortion may be had in the late term, so why would Thompson want people to be able to have humanitarian and socioeconomic abortions in the late term, killing a morally significant being, when they would be allowed to have them during the first trimester? Yes, a woman has a right to her body, but her rights end when it comes to killing a morally significant being after the second trimester merely because it is inconvenient to let it live. Thompson’s objections fail because Sumner’s argument accommodates her position.
Sydney Callahan would also raise an objection to this. She claims that we think murder is wrong not because it hurts the victim, but because it cuts off any future possibilities, and abortion is wrong for the same reasons. Contraception cuts off the future for those gametes, yet she seems to have no problem with it. It is wrong to cut off the future of a morally significant being, yes, but there is nothing wrong with preventing the existence of a morally significant being. She herself advocates this position because she is not opposed to birth control.
In this paper I have presented and defended Sumner’s argument for a moderate abortion policy. Thompson and Callahan’s objections fail because they are too rigid, and treat the fetus as if it were the same throughout gestation, which it is not. The fetus has no moral significance before the second trimester, and full moral standing after, so only a moderate stance is appropriate.
1. L.W. Sumner, Abortion
2. Judith Jarvis Thompson, A Defense of Abortion, Ethics: Theory and Contemporary Issues, Third Edition, Barbara MacKinnon, Wadsworth, 20013. Sidney Callahan, Abortion and the Sexual Agenda: A Case for Prolife Feminism, Ethics: Theory and Contemporary Issues, Third Edition, Barbara MacKinnon, Wadsworth, 2001