Saturday, June 5, 2010

Murder before personhood? The ethics of abortion

One of the most socially contested issues of the past forty years has been the issue of abortion. Abortion is defined as the medical procedure which separates a fetus from its pregnant mother, almost always resulting in the death of the fetus. This issue has been contested by the two major sides of any political argument, the restrictive conservatives and the permissive liberals. This paper will focus on a specific section of this debate which takes place between the philosopher’s Jane English and Mary Anne Warren. Warren proposes a fairly moderate liberal view which permits early stage abortion on demand but places restrictions on late-stage abortion and attempts to give a rational defense of the immorality of infanticide. English, on the other hand, gives a slightly moderated conservative view which takes the “potential rights” (English, 76) of the fetus into account at every stage of development and places severe limitations on the practice of late stage abortions. Each philosopher gives their own definition of the concept of personhood and aptly explains their arguments. This paper will examine the strengths and weaknesses of each paper and will demonstrate that, while neither argument is entirely acceptable, Warren’s argument is much closer to the logical ideal than English’s.

English’s theory begins by crafting a comprehensive understanding of exactly what constitutes a person. English asserts that personhood encompasses all aspects of humanity including our biological, psychological, emotional, rational and legal definitions. English then applies this concept to the question of whether or not a fetus is a person. The answer that she arrives as it that there is no clearly defined time after which a fetus becomes a person according to her definition, therefore it would be rationally impossible to determine when a fetus would become a person. She arrives at this answer by means of claiming that a fetus has, at various stages of its development, many of these features which are necessary components of personhood, according to her. However, we have to be critical of whether or not many of these features are truly necessary components of personhood. Warren provides her own definition to counter English’s “rationally indecideable” (English, 75) definition of persons by listing 5 criteria that, not only, apply to fully functioning humans but, unlike English’s, do not suffer from speciesist thinking and actually distinguish persons from non-persons. This definition includes: rationality, sentience, self motivation, self identity and the capacity for communication. Although it is possible for some animals to meet some of these criteria I would suggest that the criteria of logic is the single most important criteria since that is the only true feature which distinguishes persons as we understand them from all other animals. In this line of reasoning it is therefore irrelevant that the fetus meets some of the criteria of personhood since it does not meet the most important and necessary one.

English’s belief in the moral status of the fetus does not necessarily rest of the issue of its personhood. English proposes a theory she calls the “coherence of attitudes” (English, 78) which deals with the way our psychology and our emotions, apparently, influence our opinions about the similarities between a fetus and a newborn child. However, this is a fairly moot point since, as far as philosophy is concerned, the influence of people’s emotions or psychological ineptitude cannot possibly be used in place of a rational argument. This assertion, however, is not surprising since English has already made the case that rationality has no place in this discussion and that therefore she has no need to prove rational links between her concepts and her conclusions. English believes that in many cases it is wrong to harm non-persons and she proposes examples such as torturing dogs for no reason. This principle that it is possible to treat animals wrongly allows her to make the case that there are cases in which it is possible to treat a fetus wrongly as it is similarly somewhat like a person. However, if we take Warren’s definition of person to be correct and not English’s then, even if we grant her this point, it is irrelevant since the fetus meets none of Warren’s criteria and is therefore not even person-like. However, English has a response to Warren’s arguments which focuses on a different issue.

English uses the issue of infanticide as a way to further make the case that Warren’s argument is unacceptable and that abortion should be fairly regulated. She believes that if abortion on demand were allowed that it would result in a degradation of the respect of personhood because of the lack of respect for person-like non-persons. This is directly taken from her point on “second hand” (English, 77 rights. This claim is rather ridiculous, as it commits the slippery slope fallacy and it is clear that there is no better evidence against this point then to simply look around us today and see that, despite the fact that abortion on demand has been legal in Canada and in most states for years now, we have not seen the degradation for the respect of persons that English warned us about. Simply because we decide that “person-like non-persons” (English, 75) do not deserve serious moral status does not mean that a degradation of respect for full persons will logically follow.

Warren’s concept of personhood, as well as much of her argument in general, follow an obviously Kantian route of thinking. She has very Kantian criteria for personhood and it logically follows that since a fetus meets none of these criteria, from Warren’s perspective, it deserves none of the protections or rights which are proper to persons. Warren’s response to English’s theory of second hand rights would most likely consist of her claiming that the only case in which the non-person’s status should be considered is in a case where the non-person’s fate may have direct, negative, implications for persons. Such as English’s theory of degradation of respect for persons resulting from disrespecting non-persons, however, we have already shown that to be an illogical prediction. Warren introduces the issue of potential personhood early in her paper. She believes that although a fetus does not ever meet any of her criteria for personhood, the fetus does achieve the potential to become a person. This essentially means that since we can say with high probability that if a fetus survives birth it will become a rational thinking person it must be granted some moral status. However, Warren asserts the claim that the rights of one potential person, indeed the rights of any number of potential persons, can never outweigh even the most trivial rights of a fully fledged person. This means that the fetus’ right to life is always trumped by the mothers right to do with her own body as she wishes.

One of the major areas in which theories of abortion are often tested is on the issues of late stage abortion and infanticide. These areas are often used as tests because there is so much intuitive belief based around them and it is often considered important to test new theories against the established intuition. Warren’s position on late stage abortion is, as one would believe, since the fetus never achieves any semblance of true personhood and since its potential rights can never outweigh the mothers rights abortion at any stage of the pregnancy, including third trimester, is morally permissible. Her position on infanticide, however, diverges from her theory. Although she still claims that directly after birth, up until about 3 or 4 months, a baby still does not meet the necessary criteria for personhood she makes the claim that once the baby is born killing it is wrong. This claim is based on her argument that once a child has been born the mothers objectives, often avoiding financial burden or personal stigma, can be avoided without killing the child and that therefore other, more responsible measures, should be taken. She also introduces a strange point that the rights of potential adoptive parents should be considered and that killing a child is tantamount to robbing these potential parents of some future happiness. However, this point seems to be irrelevant since once again we are getting into the potential rights of people who are not currently involved in the decision. As Warren has already stated no number of potential persons, or potential rights, in the case the potential rights of the potential adoptive parents, can ever trump the right of a mother to dispose of her property, the child, in any way she sees fit. English’s position on this issue, as one can imagine, is very different.

On the issue of issue of late stage abortion and infanticide English adopts a much more conservative stance. She makes the argument that as a fetus grows inside its mother it gains more and more features of “personhood”, namely the shape of a human, awareness of its surroundings, and self-motivated movement. She then claims that since a fetus is become more and more “person-like” (English, 75) it requires more and more serious reasons for a mother to abort her child. As the fetus nears the time of birth English removes more and more acceptable cases until, in the third trimester, the only acceptable reason, in her eyes, for a mother to have an abortion is to save her own life. Since this is a very rare occasion, thanks to modern medicine, English claims that this issue does not warrant serious public outcry since it will almost never take place. English also relies on the commonly held belief that it is perfectly acceptable to kill another person in order to protect you own life. This allows her to put forth a moderate, although still very conservative, view on the issue.

Both Warren and English give very well designed theories by which the issue of abortion can be semi-decided. While Warren gives us a moderated permissivist argument which holds that at early stages abortion on-demand is perfectly alright and late stage abortions are still permitted for most reasons, English gives us a slightly moderated conservative position which holds that abortion should never be done lightly and that the potential rights of the fetus must be taken into account for every case. The major issue in this debate is the contest over the definition of “personhood”. For both philosophers this definition is the foundation for their entire argument and without accepting each philosopher’s definition we would not accept, in any way, either of their arguments. Warren defines her concept of personhood in a vaguely Kantian way, focusing on features such as rationality and self-identity, while English chooses to veil her definition in a fog of indecision and “grey areas” (English 74). She refuses to give a strong, confident, well-formed, definition to her concept of personhood and this is consistent with the remainder of her argument which consists of half-arguments, intuition and appeals to emotion. Warren’s concept of personhood is clearly the more rational of the two since English explicitly states that her concept of personhood makes the issue of personhood “rationally indecideable” (English, 75). Since proper philosophy deals with logical arguments which are in line with reality it seems that English is committing philosophical suicide. By claiming that the foundation for her argument is not rationally decideable she is essentially claiming that the issue itself is not rationally decideable. English then attempts to evade this consequence by introducing the concept of “potential rights” (English 76) in order to give her argument a different focus. However, this new concept does little to help her cause as Warren easily de-bunks it with her argument about the irrelevance of potential rights when conflicting with the actual rights of living persons.

The issue of speciesism is something which comes to mind when reading English’s definition of personhood. English proposes that a great many of the qualities which define a person involve physical or genetic characteristics such as having a human shape or having human parents. This essentially means that even a fully functional, rational being which did not look like a human or have human parents would only be a partial-person in her eyes and would therefore deserve less moral status than a human. This is clearly a speciesist argument as it values the members of the human race above any other for no reason other than their inclusion in the species.

On the issue of late stage abortion and infanticide neither party gives a very satisfactory argument. Although Warren’s position is more permissive her reasons for this permission are not acceptable. She claims that as a fetus matures it gains sentience and self motivated action and that therefore it becomes more person-like and deserves a higher moral status. She then makes the claim that abortion on-demand should not be permitted but abortion for any serious reason, including financial or eugenic, is permissible. English makes exactly the same claim, although it is based on different criteria, and concludes that abortion in the late stages should only be allowed in self-defense. The difference in the philosopher’s conclusions is rather arbitrary and based entirely on the political system which they adhere to rather than on their arguments. In any case the fetus, at no point in its development, has acquired the single necessary component for personhood rationality. For this reason the fetus is not a person and deserves no rights. Although this line of reasoning may suggest that infanticide is acceptable since a fetus and a newborn are so alike this is not the case. There is only one real difference between a fetus and a newborn infant; however, this is the only necessary difference in this case, the observation of reality. A fetus has no ability to observe reality and therefore has no ability to develop its rational faculty. However, as soon as a child is born it begins the process of observation and identification. It quickly learns to identify its mother and father and instantly acquires the ability to learn. For this reason a child becomes a person the instant it exits the womb and this means that infanticide is utterly impermissible.

In this debate over abortion and its implications it is clear that Warren presents a more acceptable view. With this in mind it is important to note that neither philosopher’s view is entirely acceptable, both being far too steeped in Kantian metaphysics and ethics to be considered logical. Warren falls prey to this thinking in her arguments on late stage abortion and infanticide when she claims that the parents have a moral duty to the potential personhood of the fetus and the desires of potential adoptive parents. English falls prey to this thinking throughout her entire paper. From her inception, where she decrees that logic has no place in deciding the fetus’ personhood, to her conclusions in which she concludes that the mother owes a moral duty to the fetus regardless of its moral status. In both cases Warren and English allow irrationality and altruism to infect their arguments and therefore lose a great deal of credibility. Abortion is a serious case in the study of ethics with monumental impacts on the political and social atmosphere of our world. For this reason it is important for us to forbid any irrational arguments or arbitrary conclusions to influence our beliefs. Both parties in this debate commit logical fallacies or base their arguments on irrational premises; however, Warren’s position is most certainly closer to the logical conclusion of the abortion debate. In essence this logical conclusion is as follows: that a fetus is not a person and deserves no moral status or protection, since that is only granted to persons, that a newborn child is a person and therefore deserves all of the protections which are granted to any adult, and that a mother is a person who’s rights to dispose of her body and her property outweigh any number of screaming activists who claim that their emotions and intuitions give them an arbitrary claim on the rights and freedoms of the mother. Only when this conclusion, or a close variation of it, is accepted by the general public will the abortion issue ever be laid to rest.

Works Cited
Jane English, “Abortion and the concept of a person” in J. Kornegay ed., PHL 406: course reader (Toronto, Ryerson Bookstore, 2010) pp. 74-80
M. Warren, “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion” in J. Kornegay, ed., PHL 406: Course Reader (Toronto: Ryerson Bookstore, 2010), pp. 63-73.

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