Abortion, Life and Personhood: A Philosophical Experiment

Abortion, Life and Personhood: A Philosophical Experiment July 19, 2012

Creepiest protest photo ever, complete with abstract fetus excised from a woman’s body as though she does not exist. This, fellas, is how you do misogyny: make women invisible except for the contents of their wombs.

A little while ago, Libby Anne at Love, Joy, Feminism posted a link to an article by Valerie Tarico on abortion:

What the Right Gets Right about Abortion and the Left Doesn’t Get

Abortion opponents may be driven by Iron Age sexual scripts, but they are advancing their cause primarily by appealing to universal, secular and –ironically, progressive– ethical principles. If history has a moral arc, the curve has to do with one simple question: Who counts as a person? Who deserves autonomy and opportunity and freedom from unnecessary suffering? Who merits our compassion or respect? In other words, who is morally relevant?

America’s history is one in which generations of our ancestors have asked and answered this question. Time and again they fought and won rights and dignity for those who previously were considered unworthy: the landless poor, religious minorities, Black slaves, workers, First Nations, women. In doing so, they were saying, “These, too, are persons— fully deserving of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Today, when activists fight for rights for gays, immigrants, animals, and once again, women, they are saying the same thing. Battles over who counts as a person have defined the progressive movement for the last two hundred years.

First of all, I’m deeply uncomfortable with a discussion about religious ethics that begins with the founding of America. Immigrants to North America inherited a long tradition of philosophical thought, from the Greeks and Romans to Catholicism. In the sixth century, Catholic philosopher Boethius defined a person as an individuated being possessing both intellect and will. This took place in the context of a debate about the Trinity, defining the personhood of God. The ideas we have inherited about the sacredness of personhood and being come from this original association with the divine.

The idea of the human being, the rational agent, as “created in the image of God,” undergirds secular humanism as well. Our intellect and free will, humanists claim, are what separate us from animals. Separation has thus always been at the center of the personhood debate: whether it was making sense of the Trinity or endowing rights to the Enlightened, white, property-owning male, defining personhood meant giving persons power over non-persons (slaves, wives, children, horses, land). God was above all because he possessed the fullness of the rational nature of which individual human souls took part. The white man, seeing himself as the pinnacle of Creation, likewise saw other human beings as incomplete, lacking the perfection of rationality found in his own person.

An assumption undergirds the history of personhood, which was made explicit early in the Catholic tradition: a person is not just a soul, but also a body. One soul, one body. For Catholics, the joining of soul and body occurs at conception – for Jews, it occurs at quickening. But what’s entirely overlooked in personhood debates is how little abortion disrupts this. Abortion is not, in fact, incompatible with fetal personhood. It’s not even immoral in the light of fetal personhood.

The doctrine of “one soul, one body, from conception until natural death” does not invalidate a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy. Why? Because no person has a right to two bodies.

Tarico dismisses this argument as “libertarian”:

Acquaintances have pointed out that an argument can be made for abortion rights regardless of fetal personhood status. Even if a fetus were fully a person, in no other arena do we force someone to act as involuntary life support (or as a blood donor or organ donor) for another being. In all situations except pregnancy, such donations are voluntary. Once again fiction helps us to explore the ethics of involuntary donation: My Sister’s Keeper, House of the Scorpion, Never Let Me Go. Involuntary donors are second class persona non grata, as are involuntary incubators as in The Handmaid’s Tale. As stories like these illustrate, the conditions of involuntary donation are incompatible with basic human decency. This argument about human rights might be a legal or ethical trump card in the abstract, but in the court of public opinion libertarian arguments fail when pitted against the idea of protecting children from harm.

A pro-life advocate might say, “Hey, that cuts both ways – a woman doesn’t have a right to her fetus’s body!” Only it’s not that simple.

To run with this idea a little farther: if a fetus does not have a right to a woman’s body, she does have a right to remove it. The rest of the abortion argument becomes less about abortion than euthanasia.

Most abortions are performed so early that there is no chance of viability. Therefore, the resulting death of the embryo or fetus is inevitable, and an abortion is conducted to prioritize the health and safety of the woman. Attempting to save the fetus by inducing labor too early, if even possible, would be an act of cruelty to both the pregnant woman and the dying fetus – forcing her to endanger herself to no purpose and forcing it to die naturally due to undeveloped vital organs. Hence euthanasia.

Even though it’s possible to use the “one soul-one body” doctrine to claim that a woman has no right to the body of the “person” inside her and thus can’t kill it, it’s not possible to remove a 10-week fetus without it dying. The abortion (rather than early labor) thus reduces the duration of fetal suffering before the inevitable (if you agree that suffering is possible for a 10-week fetus – which I don’t, by the way).

Now, I’m aware that the Catholic Church also stands against euthanasia. But it is a separate issue.

I take Tarico’s point: the philosophy of abortion arguments are worlds away from the kind of soundbyte politics that drive elections and referendums. I also understand the argument that everything pales beside the idea of protecting children. But there are anti-abortion activists who want to make “fetal personhood” a legal obstruction to abortion rights, and somebody’s got to point out that the premise doesn’t match the outcome.

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