If current media is to be believed opposition to legal abortion comes from misogynist fundamentalist fanatics who want to impose their religious mores onto others. This string of pejorative terms is amusing; however, it does not actually address the more crucial question of whether laws against feticide (the killing of a fetus) are just. I maintain they are and, unlike most media commentators and politicians who pontificate on the topic, I will argue three points for this thesis.
The first is that the typical arguments in favour of abortion succeed only if it is assumed from the outset that feticide is not a form of homicide. A couple of examples will illustrate this. It is frequently asserted that women have a right to do whatever they like with their own bodies. This assertion is false. Women do not have a right to do whatever they like with their bodies; no one has such a right. Women cannot use their bodies to rape or commit homicide or set fires. The right to do as we please is limited by the morality of our actions, thus whether abortion falls into the category of an action we are free to choose depends on whether feticide is homicide. If it is, then this argument fails but as currently used it is just assumed that it is not.
Some might object that such an interpretation is an uncharitable reading of this contention. What is important from this perspective is that all people have a right to control what happens inside or to their own bodies. I have a right to control what happens to mine and you have a right to control what happens to yours. Hence, provided the decision I make does not involve me using your body in a way that you do not consent to then I have a right to do it. However, implicit in this argument is the claim that a fetus, at least until born, is part of a woman’s body, that it is not a separate, bodily-living, human being on its own. However, this claim is erroneous. To suggest that a fetus is part of a woman’s body entails that the mother of a male fetus has two heads, four arms and a penis. Once again this argument is successful only if one assumes a fetus is not a human being from the outset because if the fetus is human then it too has a right to not have its body harmed.
The infamous illegal “back-street” abortion argument fares no better. The allegation that “hundreds” (I put this in scare-quotes because actually the figures show it was significantly a lot less than this) of women died from illegal abortions can justify legalisation only if feticide is not homicide. If it is homicide then this argument reduces to the bizarre assertion that we should kill eighteen thousand children each year in order to prevent “hundreds” of women from harming themselves by breaking the law.
Typical consequentialist arguments also fail. Abortion prevents unwanted children who are likely to be poor, abused or engage in crime. It is hailed as a solution to over-population and the existence of more handicapped people. It prevents adult and teenage women from falling into economic hardship and stress. It enables them to complete their education, pursue their careers. However, all this is equally true of infanticide. Infanticide prevents the existence of unwanted children and their associated social costs, lowers the population, prevents the handicapped existing and saves women and teenagers from the economic and emotional stresses of parenthood. Yet infanticide, as convenient as it is, is condemned because it is homicide. Again, all these arguments assume that the fetus is not human without actually arguing for it.
This is not to say feticide can never be unjustified. Utilising the justification of self-defence, I think a case can be made for feticide where pregnancy constitutes a threat to a woman’s life or perhaps in cases of rape (space prevents me elaborating the casuistry here). Such cases are extremely rare and make up less than 0.5% of all cases (according to figures compiled by the Abortion Supervisory Committee). So, if feticide is homicide, the vast majority of abortions lack justification. To defend permissive abortion laws on these grounds is a bit like allowing people to murder on demand on the grounds that there exist rare cases of justifiable killing in self-defence.
My second point is the claim that feticide is homicide has considerable prima facie plausibility. Consider this scenario. A hunter is in the woods and notices some rustling in the bushes. Looking through his scope he sees a six-foot high, bi-pedal being with brown hair, blue eyes, wearing a swann-dri. He refrains from shooting. Here, the hunter makes the sensible and reasonable judgment that in firing he would risk engaging in homicide. He bases this on what the target looked like. In the absence of reasons for thinking otherwise he has good grounds for this claim. However, “[there is] a general consensus that the fetus is recognisably human after six weeks, and certainly after eight” (D Boonin A Defense of Abortion (2003) 95). This fact, conjoined with the above illustration, entails that, in the absence of good reasons to the contrary, there are good grounds for thinking that feticide is homicide.
My final point is that good reasons to the contrary are not forthcoming. Here I will focus on three common examples starting with the fetus not being viable.
The fact that a fetus cannot survive independently of its mother does not mean it is not a human being. Fetal viability is contingent upon the medical technology of a given culture. A fetus that is not viable in Chad is viable in Los Angeles. If viability is necessary for something to be a human then a woman pregnant with a viable fetus in Los Angeles who flies from Los Angeles to Chad carries a human being when she leaves but this human being ceases to exist when she arrives in India and yet becomes human again when she returns (Peter Singer Writings on an Ethical Life (2000) 148).
Similarly, while the fetus lacks consciousness, lack of consciousness does not make a being non-human. If it did, then a human being ceases to exist when asleep or unconscious and then pops back into existence upon awakening. Shooting someone would cease to be homicide provided we render him or her unconscious first.
Appeals to fetal consciousness face other problems. David Boonin notes that those who attempt to ground humanity in the amount of brain development an organism has undergone face a dilemma. “Any appeal to what a brain can do at various stages of development would seem to have to appeal to what the brain can already do. Or to what the brain has the potential to do in the future.” (David Boonin A Defence of Abortion (2002) 125). Either option leads to problems for a defender of the permissibility of feticide who does not also want to endorse infanticide. This is because “by any plausible measure dogs, and cats, cows and pigs, chickens and ducks are more intellectually developed than a new born infant”.(Boonin, 121)
Suppose, then, that one takes the first horn of the dilemma and appeals to what the brain can already do. However, unless one wishes to affirm that “dogs, and cats, cows and pigs, chickens and ducks” are human beings then “appeals to what the brain can already do” will “be unable to account for the presumed wrongness of killing toddlers or infants.”
Suppose, then, one takes up the second horn and appeals to “what the brain has the potential to do in the future.” Boonin notes that this will entail that feticide is homicide. “If [such an account] allows appeals to what the brain has the potential to do in the future, then it will have to include fetuses as soon as their brains begin to emerge, during the first few weeks of gestation.”(Boonin, 121)
Finally, while it’s true that fetuses are not ‘persons,’ where person is defined as “a thinking, intelligent being that has reason and reflection and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking being, in different times and places,” (J Locke Essay Concerning Human Understanding) neither are newborn infants. In fact, a newborn cow is more person-like than an infant is. The price of a cogent pro-abortion argument is the reduction of newborn infants to the ethical level of cows. It is difficult to understand, on this view, why killing a newborn infant is any more problematic than killing a calf.
In summation, except for a few rare cases, abortion is justified only if feticide is not homicide. However, there are good prima facie grounds for thinking feticide is homicide and these prima facie grounds are not overridden by reasons to the contrary. Jointly, these contentions demonstrate that feticide constitutes unjustified homicide, and, hence, should not be a practice that is tolerated or sanctioned by the state.
I write a monthly column for Investigate Magazine entitled Contra Mundum. This blog post was published in the January 10 issue and is reproduced here with permission. Contra Mundum is Latin for ‘against the world;’ the phrase is usually attributed to Athanasius who was exiled for defending Christian orthodoxy.
Letters to the editor should be sent to: editorial@investigatemagazine.DELETE.com
Is Abortion Liberal? Part 1
Is Abortion Liberal? Part 2
Sentience Part 1
Sentience Part 2
Abortion and Child Abuse: Another Response to Farrar
Abortion and Brain Death: A Response to Farrar
Abortion and Capital Punishment: No Contradiction
During, Sherwin & Hutchison on Backstreet Abortion
Imposing Your Beliefs onto Others: A Defence
Boonin’s Defense of the Sentience Criterion: A Critique Part I
Boonin’s Defense of the Sentience Criterion: A Critique Part II