Yesterday, I presented a general discussion on the moral issue of abortion. Today, I would like to go through some more specific issues. I will not repeat the main core of my argument, and ask the reader to review yesterday’s entry for a review. Here, I will give some implications.
Should a wife be required to notify her husband before having an abortion?
Answer: Not by law. She should discuss it with him and, if they had a healthy relationship, she would do so. However, a just law would not require it of her. The fetus has not yet developed to the point where it has a brain, and thus has interests, then the woman does not need the father's permission or even to inform the father before having an abortion. I am not denying that the father has interests at stake in whether the abortion takes place. However, the father’s interests entail no right to the use of the mother’s body, without her consent, to advance those interests.
If, however, the fetus has a brain and thus has interests, then notifying the father would still not change the moral status of the abortion. The father still has no right to advance his interests by demanding the use of the mother’s body without her consent. More importantly, any interests the father does have are quite insignificant compared to those of the fetus which now has a brain and has interests of its own.
Does the father have any rights regarding a pregnancy at all?
Answer: No. No man has a right to the use of a woman's body without her consent to advance any interests of his own. Denying this is to treat women as property, whose purpose (like any property) is to serve as a tool for people to use in advancing their own interests. A man has no right to treat a woman like a chain saw or a hammer that he may use to obtain his own ends.
Should there be a waiting period before having an abortion?
Answer: No. If the fetus has not yet developed to the point where it has a brain, and thus has interests, then there is no right or duty to permit the use of a woman's body without her consent for one moment longer than she is willing to have it used. Imagine a rapist, using a woman's body without her consent, telling her, "You must endure this for at least a few minutes to decide whether or not you really like it before you are allowed to say no." It is her body. She has no obligation to wait.
If, however, the fetus has a brain and thus has interests, then waiting will not make the abortion any more morally permissible.
What happens if the mother does not have the opportunity to deny consent before the fetus develops a brain?
This question asks us to consider a situation such as one in which a woman was held under duress or forced against her will to continue a pregnancy past the point where the fetus develops a brain and thus has interests. At this point, would abortion be wrong?
Answer: No. If the woman had no opportunity to deny consent, then she has a decision to make the instant she finds herself in a position to give or withhold consent. If she decides against abortion at that moment, then she is bound by that decision until birth unless her life is in danger or some other extraordinary circumstance develops. However, she has the “first right of refusal” to the use of her body by another person.
What is a person?
I think that debates about the moral permissibility of abortion generally go nowhere largely because they focus on disputes over what counts as a "person." That dispute, in turn, is founded on a false assumption. That false assumption infects every conclusion that anybody might want to defend, making all conclusion indefensible.
Let me explain what I mean by this.
The "personhood" debate assumes that as soon as an entity acquires a particular set of properties (intelligence, human DNA, blue eyes) that it acquires a corresponding moral property of "personhood" as well. Personhood is said to "supervene" on these physical properties.
The task, then, is to discover just which set of physical properties entails this moral property. So far, nobody has been able to come up with a clear answer. There are problems with every proposal.
Some people may try to analyze this problem by saying that "personhood" is like "game". Try to give me a precise set of attributes where anything that fits into this description is properly called "a game", while, at the same time, it does not end up including things that are not commonly thought of as games. You will certainly fail.
I do not think that this analysis works. The reason that we have no precise definition of "game" -- the reason that the term is vague -- is because we have no use for a precise definition. Giving a term a precise definition and promulgating that definition is a lot of work, which is only worthwhile if we can gain a corresponding benefit from the more precise communication this allows. Science does this, because science recognizes a substantial benefit from doing so. Mathematics does this as well. For "game", there are insufficient benefits to compensate for these costs.
For "personhood," there is value in having a precise definition, but we cannot seem to find one that works.
The reason for this is because “personhood” is a moral term. That is to say, it is an “ought” term. To say, “X is a person” is to say that certain things ought not to be done to X and that one has obligations to treat X in particular ways. At the same time, all of the physical properties that this ‘ought’ term is supposed to supervene on are “descriptive” physical properties. The tell us what is true of the entity – that it has distinct human DNA, that it has a brain with desires, that it has blue eyes, or whatever different people use in claiming that it is a “person”.
The 18th Century Scottish philosopher David Hume warned us in one of the most famous passages in moral theory of the difficulties in deriving ‘ought’ from ‘is.’ The difficulties of this derivation are what stands in the way of defining a set of physical properties on which moral value supervenes. In short, this inference cannot be made.
Those who know my writing know that I deny that no set of "is" statements entails an "ought". I hold that "is such as to fulfill the desires in question" entails an "ought." I know that many would dispute this. However, for the purpose of this issue, it is not important. The supervenience of personhood on some set of natural properties raises exactly the types of problems that Hume was warning us about.
For the most part, the is/ought problem tells us that the standard “personhood” debate is a waste of time. We have to look elsewhere to find answers to the questions.
Debates on personhood are never going to go anywhere.
This inevitable failure applies as well to anybody who says that the moral property of “personhood” supervenes on an entity having desires. This is not my argument. The section, “Children and Animals”, in the previous post addresses this issue.
Yet, I still suspect, that the bulk of the objections that will be raised against this view will come from the false assumption that it attributes intrinsic moral worth to an entity in virtue of the fact that it has desires or preferences. This is a position I reject, though I do not have the space to detail those objections here.
Those who want a more detailed account these aspects of my view should visit my web site for a more detailed account of the moral foundation that I apply in writing these articles.