As it happens, I oppose abortion rights in general, although not in all cases, because I believe that at or, in any case, very shortly after conception the resulting member of the species Homo sapiens should be deemed a person. At least insofar as people are the sorts of beings we don’t go around killing without fairly significant justification. It does not, it saddens me to have to point out, follow that I must believe unborn human beings should have all the legal rights appurtenant to legal personhood any more than children have all the legal rights appurtenant to adulthood. I will give, without extensively arguing the points, my reasons in general for holding this position. Before we get there, however, a few preliminary points.
Obviously, there is no per se libertarian position on abortion. Probably the overwhelming majority of libertarians are “pro choice” because libertarians, after all, generally favor the most extensive range of individual rights and liberties possible. That isn’t the issue, however. The issue is what moral status it is appropriate to assign to a human being in its earliest stages of development. If the answer to that question is that the entity in question should be no more entitled to moral consideration than, say, the removal of a polyp, then it’s hard to see why there should be any legal restrictions on early stage abortions whatsoever. (I will defer the question of late stage abortions for another occasion.) If, on the other hand, the facts as we understand them and insofar as our moral intuitions and reasoning lead us, for whatever reason, to regard the human embryo / fetus as, at least in some respects, a person, then a different answer may obtain.
The second point I would make is that language matters. In fact, I think both sides to this argument are guilty of attempting to manipulate the language of the debate such that terms will be used not because they are the most precise or descriptive but because they are the most emotionally laden. I don’t mean to say that emotion should play no part in a discussion about matters of (possibly human) life or death, but we should at least take note of this rhetorical gambit on both sides. Thus, for example, the very notion of one side being “pro life” suggests the other side is “pro death” or “anti life,” which is not the case. So, also, the very notion of being “pro choice” suggests that those who oppose abortion rights wish to deprive women of their personal autonomy. Of course, all of us have our personal autonomy restricted in various respects, especially when the exercise of that autonomy would injure (or kill) another person. Mind you, I make these points here not because I think doing so leads to one position or the other but because I think it is important to see the rhetoric for what it is and not to be swayed on that basis alone.
My third point is that purely religious beliefs and arguments by themselves are insufficient to determine public policy. Which is to say that even if there were a majority or even a supermajority who were convinced on purely religious grounds that abortion was morally wrong (or, for that matter, morally right), imposing that position on those who do not share those underlying religious believes would be immoral. If by some bizarre quirk of fate Pastafarians should someday become the religious majority in American, their belief that the Flying Spaghetti Monster says that abortions are okey-dokey is no more a sufficient ground to make (or keep) abortions legal than a majority of Festivus celebrators’, um, beliefs would suffice to erect an aluminum pole on public property for the ritual airing of grievances.
Fourth, although there is scant evidence that such behavior is even possible, let alone likely, I would ask that discussion here refrain from personal attacks, especially including accusations of bad faith from those with whom one disagrees. Doubtlessly, there are many who do argue from positions of bad faith on the question of abortion. Nonetheless, it is the arguments, not the proponents of those arguments, which should be the focus of our attention.
That all said, I will offer now in only the briefest of terms why I consider the pre-born to be persons or, at least, sufficiently endowed with the indicia of personhood that intentionally ending their lives should be considered a moral wrong and therefore, in most cases, a legal wrong.
First, I would argue that in such matters the morally preferable perspective is to give the living being in question the benefit of the doubt. What I mean is that insofar as there is legitimate question regarding the ontological and therefore deontological status of an unborn human being, and I believe that there is, we should lean toward granting personhood rather than denying it.
I will use some analogies here. All analogies fail if pushed too far and most analogies fail even if pushed just a little bit, so any response to my analogies to the effect that the facts involved in the abortion debate are significantly different will be met with a rather world-weary “sure.” Still, imagine you are hunting and you see something you cannot identify moving behind some bushes. It might be a deer and it also might be a hiker. Should you shoot? Consider the case of an unconscious adult about whom doctors have dispassionately concluded that while the individual in question is not in a permanent vegetative state, it may be months and perhaps even years before the patient recovers consciousness. Should you “pull the plug”? In fact, you are essentially unconscious approximately a third of your life. Does anyone seriously contend that you are entitled to a lower degree of moral (and therefore legal) regard when you are asleep than when you are awake?
I recognize not only that these sorts of analogies and comparisons are imperfect but even that they are at some level silly. Put it this way. I am not so much trying to persuade you that my position is the correct one as to give you some sense of how I came to hold it. Of course, what persuades one person will not persuade another person even when they share the same information. (Were that not so, jury trials, for example, would be completely pointless.) It is my position that the ontological and moral status of unborn human beings ultimately requires a decision, not a discovery; that is, that we know all we need to know about how (human) life begins and develops to answer that question and that it is whether, how and to what extent we give moral weight to the facts that drives our answers. So, here I offer analogies and such merely as ways of going about the process of giving those facts that moral consideration.
Which brings me to my next principal point. I am personally unconvinced that any particular developmental threshold is per se sufficient justification for using it as the point before which abortion is morally acceptable and after which it is morally objectionable or unacceptable. I am aware, of course, that the prevailing position is that some level of brain development is a satisfactory or at least the best available criterion, presumably because that level of brain development is at least suggestive evidence of the being’s incipient consciousness or, at least, ability to feel pain or to suffer. Indeed, among professional philosophers there is a very strong consensus in favor of a psychological rather than a somatic theory of personhood and personal identity over time. I’m not oblivious to that consensus, I simply think that it is wrong and misguided in the way philosophical theories and arguments, especially moral theories and arguments, go wrong.
My third principal point is that there is nothing logically or morally problematic in holding that a human being can have a present interest in the future enjoyment of, among other things, consciousness and all that it entails even though that human being is at a normal and natural stage of development prior to the emergence of such consciousness. Again by way of (admittedly imperfect) analogies, the law and especially the law of property routinely permits or recognizes present and enforceable personal rights in future interests. Sometimes these interests are merely contingent and sometimes, as the law phrases it, they are vested. The important point is that they exist and have existed for centuries without causing metaphysical conundrums. As always, I’m not insisting that others weigh this principle as I do. I merely argue that it is a legitimate point of consideration. (The notion of a present protectable right to a future interest is, by the way, almost never considered in the philosophical literature I’ve seen.)
Perhaps less importantly, I would make several other points. First, one factor that appears to influence those who argue for the psychological model of personal existence over time is that it provides a certain symmetry for purposes of determining both the beginning of morally significant life and the end of morally significant life. Such symmetry might, ceteris paribus, be a desideratum, but all relevant factors regarding the beginning and end of human life are not, in fact, equal and, as a result, the insistence on such symmetry is more of an aesthetic preference than a sound argument.
Secondly, the fact that human embryos frequently spontaneously abort is irrelevant to the question whether there are moral grounds to refrain from causing an abortion. You would think, I hope, that this point is too obvious to have to be made, and yet I have a close friend whose opinions I usually respect who has repeatedly advanced the fact of frequent spontaneous abortion as an argument against the notion that human fetuses should not be intentionally killed.
Moreover and apparently somehow relatedly, he argues that this fact belies any claims that such beings could be possessed of a soul. Whether and when human beings become possessed of a soul is, as far as I am concerned, utterly irrelevant to whether and when they should be recognized as persons for purposes of not killing them without very good cause. Beyond that, insofar as we all die sooner or later, it is difficult to see how dying of natural causes sooner rather than later is of any moral significance here.
Third, I am not indifferent to but neither am I persuaded by the argument that because a woman’s body is her own property she has the unilateral right to, as it were, “evict” the pre-born human being in her womb. To be sure, there are many cases in which the woman in question has done absolutely nothing to assume the risk of a pregnancy, and I find such cases far more sympathetic than those in which the woman in question sees abortion as a morally unproblematic form of birth control. And, tediously, I will once again acknowledge that it is possible to see abortion as morally no more problematic than contraception because of one’s belief that the entity being aborted is not, for moral purposes, a person. The point I am making here is that those of us who do regard it as a person can and should be aware of and sensitive to other factors, especially including those generally lumped under the rubric of “a woman’s right to control her own body.” Indeed, were it only her own body in question here, I cannot imagine how there could be any objection at all.
By way of short-stopping some other tediously predictable objections, there is nothing at all hypocritical about being opposed to unlimited abortion rights on grounds of the personhood of the pre-born human being and yet being willing to accept the notion of legal abortions not only in the case of the woman’s serious risk of physical harm or death but also in, e.g., cases of impregnation resulting from rape. Yes, moral and metaphysical consistency requires acknowledging that a (innocent) person would be killed in such circumstances. But politics is the art of the possible and of compromise. Surely, there is something wrong with the notion that because one cannot, say, rescue everyone in a burning building one should not attempt to rescue those who can be rescued.
Which leads me to my final point for now. Notwithstanding the final sentence of the preceding paragraph, there is no moral symmetry between failing to save a person and intentionally killing a person. We do not owe it to the unborn to save them from spontaneous natural abortion any more than we are obligated in general to save others from circumstances or events not of our own doing. That said, there are good and sufficient reasons why we do not in general permit one person to kill another person. The questions of abortion are (1) is that what an abortion does and, if so, (2) under what circumstances would doing so nonetheless be morally justifiable.
I have outlined (but only that) my own position on the topic. I will not engage in detailed and protracted arguments on this topic at this time. In fact, I will probably comment again on this thread only to clarify my position and perhaps not even then. I do not expect to convince others that I am correct and I certainly do not expect others to convince me otherwise. I have been thinking about and discussing this topic for nearly forty years now and I am more or less at the same point Mr. Hanley says he is on the question of same sex marriage.
Still, I thought it would be worthwhile here, if nothing else, to give evidence that the authors of this blog are by no means always in agreement with each other or that there is somehow some single, necessary position to take on such questions simply because one self-identifies as a libertarian.
Have at it.