Contemporary discourse concerning abortion is defective in a number of ways. The topic is often conflated, by the Right, with discussion of sexual morality, the virtue of continence, and the need for “consequences” for sexual immorality (Kukla and Wayne). The topic is similarly equated, by the Left, with the topic whether women have the right to bodily autonomy or reproductive autonomy when it does not infringe upon the rights of others (Schiappa). But neither of these are, I think, the fundamental question. With respect to the points that the Right makes, surely all can agree that those points are only relevant if the fetus does at some point before birth acquire a right to life — in the absence of such a right, it seems that there would be no cogent justification for requiring women to carry women to term, even if we think that sexual morality is especially important. Similarly, the points that the Left often makes are important arguments to take into account — but if there is no right on the part of the fetus to live, then those arguments are irrelevant, and if there is a right on the part of the fetus to live, those arguments cannot be assumed to be decisive; they must be weighed against the right of the fetus to live. In this paper, I will argue that a viable fetus has a right to live that is equal in magnitude to the right of a newborn; however, I will not argue that a society that illegalizes infanticide must also illegalize abortion. I will examine the distinction between the two in the latter portion of my paper.
The conclusion that abortion is morally equivalent to infanticide follows from several intuitively-acceptable premises. First: the right to life is a natural right, meaning that it flows from the nature of the individual protected by it (Nickel). Second: the circumstances of an individual are not relevant to the question of whether that individual benefits from a natural right (Nickel). Third: only the circumstances, and not the nature, of a fetus change between the point of viability and the point of birth (Singer). Conclusion: if a newborn has the right to life, so too does a viable fetus.
The first and second premises should be relatively uncontroversial, but I will briefly argue for them anyway. The very language that we use when speaking of “natural rights” or “human rights” suggests that they are inalienable — that they belong to all of us, always, and are not dependent on any particular circumstances for their existence (Nickel). We would likely react with extreme displeasure to the Inuit acceptance of infanticide, for instance, and would say that the circumstances (a lack of food, and so on) do not justify violating the child’s right to life. If we would not react in this way, it seems that this would be not because we feel the right to life is optional but rather because we don’t believe that there genuinely is a right to life — we would on this conception be consequentialists or virtue ethicists (Taylor; Sinnott-Armstrong).
It is this third point that I expect to meet with the most resistance. It certainly seems to many people that there is a fundamental difference in kind between the newborn and the viable fetus (Kukla and Wayne). And yet for the life of me I cannot figure out what that fundamental difference in kind is. If there is such a difference, it is likely because we are drawing our “kinds” too narrowly, and that the distinction is not sufficient to grant the newborn a right to life but not the viable fetus. Because the most significant distinction between the fetus and the newborn is nothing about the fetus at all; rather, it is where the fetus happens to be. A fetus born just past the point of viability by caesarean section is no different in kind than a fetus at the same age that remains in the uterus; the difference is solely in the circumstances of the fetus. And yet it seems that most would agree (contra Singer) that the caesarean-section newborn does in fact have a right to exist (Singer). If we as a society did not feel that a premature newborn had the right to live until it reached the point that would signify maturity had it remained in the womb, my thesis might meet with a bit more difficulty — but we do not. I could not find any example in the literature of such a line being drawn, and I suspect that most would never even think to draw such a line and would in fact find it abhorrent.
A careful reader will at this point observe that I have been citing a thinker, Peter Singer, who makes the case for infanticide. He believes that up to a certain point, infanticide is morally permissible (as, of course, he believes abortion is permissible) (Singer). It is very important to note, here, that my argument is not the same as his: I think that it is possible to make the case for infanticide being impermissible even if abortion is permissible. My reasoning goes as follows: it is never acceptable to violate the human right of another individual, unless doing so is the only way to vindicate a different human right (Nickel). Infanticide violates the human right to life of the newborn, but it is not necessary for the vindication of some other human right. Abortion, by contrast, may at times be necessary for the vindication of the human right to bodily autonomy (if indeed we grant that such a right exists) (Kukla and Wayne).
The point of my argument is not to show, therefore, that abortion is impermissible unless we accept infanticide. It is rather intended to show that if we reject infanticide, we must at least acknowledge that the fetus has a right to live, and the right to bodily autonomy must be balanced against the fetus’ right to life, which is a difficult inquiry and is far more complex than simply setting a cut-off date for the abortion.
In this brief essay, I have discussed one potential ethical grounding for a ban of abortion: the argument that the newborn’s right to life is only coherent if a fetus possesses a corresponding right to life. I have argued that if we accept that a newborn has a right to life, we must also accept that a fetus does, because there is no difference in kind between the fetus and the newborn sufficient to justify extending the right to life to one but not the other. However, I have been careful to keep in mind that this does not necessarily equate to a blanket prohibition on abortion; rather, it requires that when evaluating the permissibility of abortion, we take into account not just the mother’s right to bodily autonomy but also the fetus’ right to life. Such a calculus will depend on a great deal of very complex arguments that are frankly beyond the scope of this paper, but I would look forward to exploring them in another paper.
- Kukla, Rebecca, and Katherine Wayne. “Pregnancy, Birth, and Medicine.” Ed. Edward N. Zalta. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2016. Web.
- Nickel, James. “Human Rights.” Ed. Edward N. Zalta. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2014. Web.
- Schiappa, Edward. “Analyzing Argumentative Discourse from a Rhetorical Perspective: Defining `Person’ and `Human Life’ in Constitutional Disputes Over Abortion.” Argumentation Argumentation : An International Journal on Reasoning 14.3 (2000): 315–332. Print.
- Singer, Peter. “Taking Life: Humans.” 1993. Web.
- Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter. “Consequentialism.” (2003): n. pag. Web. 20 Sept. 2015.
- Taylor, R. Virtue Ethics: An Introduction. Prometheus Books, Publishers, 2002. Print.