That the many decades of attempts to solve the ethical problem of abortion have yielded little or no progress is unsurprising considering that the problem itself is nothing like other moral dilemmas that humans have grappled with. While other moral dilemmas may be solved by applying general moral principles, nothing is general about abortion. For instance, a fetus is very different from a fully developed human being and its relationship with the pregnant mother is unlike the relationship between a child and its mother. These peculiarities render abortion a polarizing issue even among people with common moral views about many other issues. Acknowledging this peculiarity, Manninen believes that presidential candidates could win or lose elections based on their stand on this issue alone (33). This essay will show that abortion is permissible by demonstrating that opponents of abortion have not adequately responded to the questions that their own claims such as the personhood of a fetus generate, and that compelling a woman to sustain the life of another individual is unethical.
The primary argument that critics of abortion have raised is that killing the human fetus through abortion denies the fetus its right to life. The assumption in this argument is that the fetus is a person and thus is entitled to the right to life, meaning that any deliberate action or inaction that results in the death of a fetus such as abortion is morally wrong (Boonin 14). Although anti-abortionists agree that the fetus has a right to life, they disagree about the point at which a fetus becomes a person or an operational human. For instance, Nebraska’s Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act (PCUCP) allows abortion as long as it occurs within 20 weeks after conception (PCUCP 1). The lawmakers in Nebraska argued that a 20 week old fetus could feel pain. However, the age at which the fetus becomes sentient is controversial even among pain experts. In fact, medical research suggests that the fetus does not attain sentience until way into the second trimester (Manninen 33). Some states such as Montana and Colorado have attempted to prohibit abortion altogether based on the argument that personhood begins at conception. However, their attempts failed because they could not substantiate their claims of personhood at conception.
The lack of consensus on the legal age at which the fetus becomes a person points to a much serious problem of the vagueness of personhood itself and consequently its appropriateness as a prerequisite for attaining the right to life. According to Boonin, personhood is not only an ambiguous term but also one with confusing usage (15). For example, one might use the term personhood to refer to “the state of being human” and thus deserving the right to life. In other words, anti-abortionists ascribe personhood to the fetus simply to imply that the fetus has the right to life. In this sense, the term personhood has normative connotation (Will 591). Similarly, personhood may also be used to describe the possession of certain factors such as the ability to experience pain, express and respond to emotional stimuli. In this sense, the term is simply descriptive rather than normative. These different usages of the term personhood render it insufficient and inappropriate for qualifying humans or the fetus for the right to life. It is unlikely that scientists will coin a satisfactory definition of personhood. As Manninen observed, personhood is a philosophical rather than an empirical phenomenon (35). Similarly, after investigating European legal systems, Te Braake concluded that the diversity of philosophical ideas about the personhood of the fetus is so varied that a consensus on the meaning of personhood is not forthcoming (386). Therefore, discussions about personhood are irrelevant in solving the abortion dilemma at least for now.
Now that the claim by anti-abortionists is that the fetus is a person and thus has a right to life fails because of the ambiguity of personhood itself, we will adopt the moral stand of the anti-abortionists that the fetus has the right to life and still demonstrate that abortion is morally permissible. For more than a century, the society has defended the right to bodily autonomy without notable compromise or debate. In 1914, for example, Justice Benjamin Cardozo of the New York Court of Appeals ruled that adult human beings have a right to bodily autonomy and thus nothing can be done to their bodies, even if it is for their own benefit, without their consent (Manninen 39). The ruling was a reflection of societal attitudes towards bodily autonomy rather than an imposition of moral standards. Since no one has opposed the right to bodily autonomy, it is agreeable that the society considered, and still considers using another person’s body or body parts without their consent an immoral act.
However, the exercise of the right to bodily autonomy may have dire consequences for others. For example, suppose John is suffering from leukemia and needs a bone marrow transplant to survive. Suppose also that after a long search, the physicians finally find Jim, John’s brother, as the perfect match for the bone marrow operation. Unfortunately, Jim refuses to undergo the operation necessary to obtain the bone marrow sample needed to save John. The key ethical question that this scenario raises is not that Jim would violate John’s right to live by refusing to donate his bone marrow. Rather, is it morally permissible for the physicians (or the society and the government) to force Jim to forfeit his right to bodily autonomy in order to save John? When the judges in a Pennsylvanian District Court were confronted with a similar question as this in 1978, they did not hesitate to rule that forcing an individual to give up his bodily autonomy would shake the very moral foundation upon which the society lay (Manninen 39). The consequence of such ruling means that John’s life would be lost unless somebody concedes to the intrusion of his/her body to donate the bone marrow.
The analogy of Jim and John reveals that by refusing to donate his bone marrow, Jim does not deny John the right to life, or otherwise imply that John’s life has no value. It simply shows that Jim is not under any moral obligation whatsoever to give up his body or part of his body to John to enable John to exercise his right to life. Thomson shares a similar view in his case for abortion by arguing that an individual who depends on another for life support cannot claim to have the right for such support (Thompson 267). In other words, John has no right to depend on Jim for survival, yet clearly, John retains his right to life. Similarly, a pregnant woman has a right to bodily autonomy that the society already recognizes as moral. Bodily autonomy means that nothing can be done in and on her body without her consent. But, prohibiting abortion does exactly the opposite. While the fetus and the woman have an equal right to life, the fetus depends on the mother to live, but is not entitled to the mother’s body. In other words, forcing a woman to carry a pregnancy is equivalent to denying her right to bodily autonomy. Therefore, abortion is the act of a mother freeing herself from a dependency relationship in which she provides another person with the means for survival. A mother should be free to choose whether to offer her body for the fetus to use it for its survival. This way, she would be afforded equal protection, a right that other individuals not affected by abortion by the fact that they cannot carry a pregnancy, enjoy freely.
The abortion debate cannot be solved by basing arguments for or against it on the personhood of the fetus because it is highly unlikely that scholars will arrive at a specific and universal meaning of the term. Instead, the debate should progress with both parties acknowledging that a fetus has a right to life. With this in mind, it is morally wrong to demand that a woman render her body for use by the fetus since it would violate her right to bodily autonomy and equal protection. When a woman becomes pregnant, she should choose freely between carrying the pregnancy to term and terminating it altogether because it is the only way to ensure that women’s ability to become pregnant does not limit their enjoyment of their right to fair treatment.
“Pain Calpable Unborn Child Protection Ordinance (PCUCP).” Web 12 June 2014
Boonin, David. Defense of Abortion (Chapter 1). New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.
Manninen, Bertha Alvarez. “Rethinking Roe V. Wade: Defending the Abortion Right in The Face Of Contemporary Opposition.” American Journal Of Bioethics 10.12 (2010): 33-46. CINAHL with Full Text. Web. 12 June 2014.
Te Braake, Trees A.M. “Does A Fetus Have A Right To Life? The Case of Vo V. France.” European Journal of Health Law 11.4 (2004): 381-389. Academic Search Complete. Web. 12 June 2014.
Thomson, Judith Jarvis.“A Defense of Abortion.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 1.1(1971): pp. 266-273.
Will, Jonathan F. “Beyond Abortion: Why The Personhood Movement Implicates Reproductive Choice.” American Journal of Law & Medicine 39.4 (2013): 573-616. Academic Search Complete. Web. 12 June 2014.