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In discussing abortion, I've been told that the woman has a right to bodily

In discussing abortion, I've been told that the woman has a right to bodily integrity. Therefore she has the right to withdraw consent at any time to the fetus using her body, regardless of the situation of the conception (consensual sex, planned conception). Some say any time prior to viability. Is there a fully fledged philosophical argument along these lines? I'm aware of Judith Jarvis Thompson's thought experiment about the room and the people-seeds, but that didn't invoke the intuition in me, "yes, the seeds can be pulled up at any time." Does the fetus have a competing right to bodily integrity?

@Thomas Pogge: Thomson's violinist analogy doesn't address the questioner's puzzlement, because it doesn't support "the right to withdraw consent at any time to the fetus using her body, regardless of the situation of the conception (consensual sex, planned conception)." Thomson seems to recognize that it doesn't, so she eventually proposes the people-seeds analogy, the analogy the questioner found unpersuasive.

In the same essay, Thomson also tells the story of the violinist newly connected to you: "You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own." In nine months the violinist will have recovered from his ailment and can then be safely unplugged from you. But if you unplug him much earlier, then he will surely die. Does this do it? Do you have the intuition that it would be permissible for your to unplug right away?

Many pro-choice advocates maintain that, though abortions should be permissible,

Many pro-choice advocates maintain that, though abortions should be permissible, they are regrettable nonetheless. For instance, Bill Clinton famously said that he wanted to keep abortions "safe, legal and rare." I don't understand this view. To my mind, whether abortion is immoral turns on the question of whether a fetus is a person with a right to life. But this seems a clear dichotomy--either fetuses have such a right, or they don't. If they do, then abortion is immoral. If they don't, then not only should abortion be permitted, but there is nothing objectionable about them at all. Indeed, it is every bit as innocuous as using condoms. Sometimes I think that what is happening is that people who advocate this position are still captive to some kind of residual pro-life sentiment. They believe that abortions should be permissible, but they can't shake the feeling that they are still, somehow, a bad thing. (And not just because of circumstantial considerations, such as that women who need abortions are...

Thanks to everyone for their contributions, and especially to Bette for reminding us of the importance of hearing women's voices on such topics. I'll add one more point, along the same lines.

The questioner says that, if a fetus has a right to life, then abortion is immoral and should not be permitted; if not, then it isn't immoral and should. But surely this is wrong. I have a right to free speech, but it does not mean that I have the right to cry "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Other people have rights, too, and their rights can sometimes out-weigh mine.

The same is true in the case of abortion. The mere fact that the fetus has a right to life is compatible with a pregnant woman's having other rights that might out-weigh the fetus's right to life in some cases. For example, the woman herself has a right to life, and I for one have a very hard time seeing why that right should not trump the fetus's similar right if the pregnancy is endangering the women's life. Similarly, a woman has a right not to be made pregnant against her will, and it is the central point of Judith Jarvis Thomson's classic paper "A Defense of Abortion" that, when that right is violated, then, even if the fetus brought thus into being does have a right to life, even one as strong as that of the mother's (a claim Thomson concedes for the sake of argument), that fact does not make aborting that fetus impermissible. Thomson's argument for this claim has always struck me as absolutely compelling. But if so, then abortion is morally permissible at least when the life of the mother is threatened or in cases of rape, and that means that the mere fact that a fetus has a right to life does not make abortion morally impermissible.

That said, if the fetus does have a right to life, that might well imply that abortion, even in cases where it is morally permissible, nonetheless has moral costs or is morally regrettable. And, as Thomas Pogge has so ably argued above, there is nothing unusual about that.

The difficult question is what rights women have in this regard, and how those rights interact with whatever rights the fetus has. Are there other cases in which a woman's rights might outweigh the fetus's? Are unintended pregnancies such a case? Does it matter if the woman and her partner were responsibly using birth control, which failed (as sometimes happens), or were being irresponsible and simply ignoring the possibility of pregnancy? These are all good questions, even if, as I'd be inclined to argue, abortion's being morally impermissible in some such cases does not imply that it ought to be illegal. (I really do not want courts trying to make such fine distinctions under severe time pressures.)

But we can't even have this kind of discussion until we recognize that simply saying "The fetus has a right to life!" doesn't end it. It only begins it, because the women carrying these fetuses have rights of their own. It is because so-called "pro-life" advocates flatly refuse to recognize this fact that they continue to be vulnerable to the charge of sexism and, frankly, to have no decent response to that charge.

All of that said, I'll close by expressing what I think is agreement with Bette. I often find myself unsure whether the language of rights is really appropriate to the evaluation of such a profoundly personal decision. Might it not in some cases be a loving though still fraught decision to choose not to bring a child into the world, made in the full light of consideration of that child's prospects for health and happiness, even once his or her development has begun? A difficult, even heart-breaking, decision that a mother makes on behalf of her child, just as parents often are called upon to make hard decisions on behalf of their children? I have heard women describe their choices in terms not unlike those, but only rarely does one hear anything along those lines in our public conversation. Why not? Because women's experience is excluded from that conversation. That's why.

Try this account, written by a woman who got pregnant because of rape, if you want to start listening to the unheard.

You slide too easily from "ought to be legal" (which is what Clinton was saying) to "is morally permissible" to "is not regrettable". Neither of these transitions is valid. The problem with each transition can best be brought out by example. There are strong reasons for insisting that the expression of beliefs about scientific matters should be legal even when these beliefs are idiotic. So we strongly believe that people should be legally free to express the beliefs that there is no global warming, that global warming is not caused by human beings, that the members of certain races have inferior intelligence, that women have less native ability to deal with numbers, and so on. Expressing such beliefs is hurtful and damaging to social relations, and expressing such beliefs carelessly is therefore morally wrong/impermissible, at least in many cases -- and ought nevertheless not be criminalized. Similarly, it is often morally wrong to lie to your spouse; and yet we have good reason not to outlaw such...

Kant's contradiction of the will seems to suggest that it is inconsistent for us

Kant's contradiction of the will seems to suggest that it is inconsistent for us to allow abortion; that it is inconsistent to simultaneously will that we live and that allow that our mother could have had an abortion (meaning we wouldn't live...) However, I find this a little unconvincing but can't quite get it down. Is it not consistent to argue that the rights of me as a foetus are overridden by my mother's rights as an adult and that I will everybody to be treated according to the rights the can claim despite the consequences? Thanks a lot in advance!

Kant's contradiction in the will test suggests what you say it suggests only on the assumption that, as a rational agent, one necessarily wills one's own existence. Most human beings are happy to be alive, but it does not follow from this that any human (let alone any rational) being must will its own existence. Indeed, some philosophers have argued that, by giving birth to them, their parents violated their rights. So I think the best way to reject the Kantian argument you are suspicious about is to reject its premise that a rational being necessarily wills its own existence.

Something Kant did think rational beings necessarily will is the continued existence of rational life. Using this premise instead, we might get a moral rule against abortion when the survival of the human race hangs in the balance. Suppose rational beings found themselves in a world where, if they all took themselves to be permitted to act on the maxim to have an abortion whenever doing so promises a more pleasant life, rational life would go extinct. In that world, it would be impermissible to act on that maxim -- though a narrower maxim (e.g., "I will have an abortion if a scan reveals that my child would probably have some natural handicaps in regard to health or appearance") might still pass. In our actual world, survival of rational life is not endangered by a surplus of abortions (more likely the opposite!), so this premise does not look plausible as part of a Kantian argument against abortion.

Two more questions to think about. Suppose the permissibility of abortion did endanger the survival of the human race. And suppose we knew that there are other similarly evolved species living on other planets. Would abortion then be permissible? This question opens a possible individual-species analogy to the first paragraph above. Rational beings must will the continued existence of rational life, but not necessarily their own existence or that of their own species.

Second, what about the permissibility of sex-selective abortion when its universal permission does not threaten the survival of the human species? Are there other Kantian arguments -- related perhaps to the second formula of humanity as an end in itself -- that could support the impermissibility of aborting a fetus merely because it is female?

Kant's contradiction in the will test suggests what you say it suggests only on the assumption that, as a rational agent, one necessarily wills one's own existence. Most human beings are happy to be alive, but it does not follow from this that any human (let alone any rational) being must will its own existence. Indeed, some philosophers have argued that, by giving birth to them, their parents violated their rights. So I think the best way to reject the Kantian argument you are suspicious about is to reject its premise that a rational being necessarily wills its own existence. Something Kant did think rational beings necessarily will is the continued existence of rational life. Using this premise instead, we might get a moral rule against abortion when the survival of the human race hangs in the balance. Suppose rational beings found themselves in a world where, if they all took themselves to be permitted to act on the maxim to have an abortion whenever doing so promises a more pleasant life,...

From an ethical perspective, what does potential count for? My motivation for

From an ethical perspective, what does potential count for? My motivation for this question stems directly from a discussion on abortion I once had. In general, it seems to me to be evident that the fetus is not yet a person, but it is a potential person, and it seems that potential might count for something. For example, if we consider the case of a child who has the potential to become a masterful musician, but deny him the ability to ever play music, it seems that a moral wrong has been done.

What does potential count for? I don't think there is a general answer here. One important variable concerns the relation between the potential time-slice person who never came to be and the entity whose development into that time-slice person was disturbed. When these two are closely related, then potential may count for a lot. When you prevent a very talented and highly trained athlete from traveling to the Olympics, then you deprive this person of her chance of a medal; and this seems quite serious because here the person prevented and the person who would have competed are very closely related (the same mature person a few days apart). But suppose the opportunity to compete in the Olympics was closed off much earlier by the parents who sent the first-grader to the chess club rather than to the gymnastics club, so that she becomes as chess lover rather than a gymnastics lover. While the world may have lost a great gymnast, this is not a substantial loss for her (because gymnastics never came to mean much to her). The distance is even greater in the case of an abortion. In this case, there is never even a subject there about whom we can ask whether the lost opportunity was a loss for her. To be sure, we can say that through the abortion the world has lost a person who might have realized this or that valuable potential. But then how serious is this? The world is near carrying capacity (if not beyond) and is losing a few quadrillion such potential persons every day, one for each pair of egg and sperm cells that we fail to make fuse.

There may be other things wrong with having an abortion. But I don't think there is good reason for believing that having an abortion is wrong because it prevents the realization of some potential.

What does potential count for? I don't think there is a general answer here. One important variable concerns the relation between the potential time-slice person who never came to be and the entity whose development into that time-slice person was disturbed. When these two are closely related, then potential may count for a lot. When you prevent a very talented and highly trained athlete from traveling to the Olympics, then you deprive this person of her chance of a medal; and this seems quite serious because here the person prevented and the person who would have competed are very closely related (the same mature person a few days apart). But suppose the opportunity to compete in the Olympics was closed off much earlier by the parents who sent the first-grader to the chess club rather than to the gymnastics club, so that she becomes as chess lover rather than a gymnastics lover. While the world may have lost a great gymnast, this is not a substantial loss for her (because gymnastics never came to mean...

I never understood the bumper sticker "Against Abortion? Don't Have One." I

I never understood the bumper sticker "Against Abortion? Don't Have One." I mean, people who are against abortion believe that it is equivalent to, or close to, the murder of babies. But surely those who put this bumper sticker on their cars wouldn't favor a bumper sticker that suggested that if you're against infanticide, then the proper response is simply to refrain from killing babies. If it's murder, then shouldn't it be outlawed?

Yes, I understand what you mean. I've also been known to smile wryly when reading "Abortion Stops a Beating Heart" (as does taking someone off a respirator, killing a mouse or even a spider). Perhaps more controversially, "Women are Not Incubators" (many are, though none are "mere" incubators) and "Keep your Laws Off My Body" (the same body that even traffic laws, rape laws, smoking laws and indecent exposure laws constrain). Then there's "Abortion was a Nazi Program" (as was the Autobahn highway and the Volkswagen). But I must admit that after indulging myself in a sense of logico-philosophical supercilousness for a moment, I suppress my feelings of superiority and think perhaps that you and the other critics here should reconsider. Remember that what you're reading is a bumpersticker and not a philosophical or legal treatise. I agree that political discourse seems a rather paltry thing today. But that doesn't change the fact that we're dealing with a rhetorical form here to which the kinds of criteria you bring to bear only loosely apply. For myself, I'm glad to see people express their political views in this format. Like the other critics, however, I do wish its limits weren't characteristic of so much of the rest of the political discourse today.

Agreed, the bumper sticker has very little persuasive appeal to those it purports to be addressing. But something could be said against your more general point, as follows. Suppose someone believes that abortion is morally (roughly) on a par with infanticide and murder, and also that infanticide and murder are terrible crimes that ought to be criminalized and punished severely. Would it be incoherent for such a person also to hold that the criminal law should not interfere with any woman's decision about whether to have an abortion or not? One could hold these two views together -- in fact, Mario Cuomo held them together when he was governor of New York State. One could rationalize the combination like this: "I am convinced that abortion is murder. But the grounds of my conviction are rooted in a religion that many of my fellow citizens do not share. In fact, my country is deeply divided on the issue of abortion, with many reasonable persons on either side. Under such circumstances, it would...

I was born in the early sixties before Roe v. Wade. When my mother got pregnant

I was born in the early sixties before Roe v. Wade. When my mother got pregnant, my parents were unmarried, but they got married and I was born 8 months later. On the whole, I've had a wonderful life and I'm so grateful that I had a chance to experience it. I can't help thinking that if my mother had had an abortion, she would have done a terrible thing to me. She would have cut my life short--so short, in fact, that I wouldn't have ever had a chance to experience anything at all! If murder is bad because it denies a good life to a person in the future, then isn't abortion even worse?

If your mother had had an abortion, then yes, alas, there would havebeen no you who has had such a good life. But it’s also true that, ifyour mother had done anything different on that fateful nightin the early sixties– had she decided to stay home, had she decided shewasn’t really in the mood that night, had her amusing story gone on justa little bit longer– then, chances are, there would have been no you:that particular egg and that particular sperm just wouldn’t have gottentogether. In fact, had a multiplicity of other events in the past–e.g., the weather on a night millions of year ago when your ancientancestors got together-- been different from what they in fact were,then there would have been no you because there also wouldhave been none of your more recent ancestors. When you think of all ofthe events that had to conspire from the beginning of time to produceyou, then it becomes clear how very lucky each of us is even to havelived for just one minute. The odds against each of us wereastronomically high.

Now let’s imagine all the unimaginablymany possible unions of human egg and sperm that might have been, whomight have developed into people who had had a life as good as yours.If your mother’s story had gone on just a bit longer, then someone elsemight have been conceived that night. Was your success his loss? Shouldwe feel sorry for him? Should we grieve the losses of all of theindefinitely many people who might have been, had things turned outdifferently?

The difference between these other cases that I’masking you to imagine and the case that you imagine when youcontemplate your mother getting an abortion is that in the latter caseyou’re imagining a very near miss: all of the events over the eons had managed to lead to the union of that sperm and thategg, and had that abortion not taken place, then chances are, you wouldhave existed and lived your wonderful life. Near misses are morepsychologically painful than events that seem never to have been in thecards. If you almost landed that perfect job– in fact, you learn later,that as far as the search committee was concerned, you and thesuccessful candidate were both equally qualified and, in the end, theyhad to flip a coin in order to make a decision–, then your apparentloss is much more painful than if you had never even received aninterview. The job was practically yours, but then stupid fate snatchedit from you. Similarly, when you imagine the near miss of your motherhaving an abortion, you are imagining her taking away from you a lifewhich, it can seem, was already and rightfully yours. But was itreally? The job wasn’t really yours, even though it nearlywas. Was the life that you ended up living really the rightfulpossession of that fertilized ovum, which as things actually did turnout, developed into you?

In order for a wrong to have been done,I think (though many will disagree), there has to be some identifiableindividual who was harmed. (I have a much broader notion of harm, Ithink, than most people, and so, I will baldly assert that many of thecounter-examples that you’re now imagining don’t apply to my position.)If life (under most circumstances) is a good, as I think that it is,then to take away a life from an individual is to harm that individual.Of course, there are many significant harms to many individuals (e.g.,the ants that keep attempting to invade my kitchen this spring) thatmost of us don’t worry about very much: I set out ant-traps without amoment’s moral hesitation. Humans are different, most of us think. Ifsomeone had cut short my life, a significant moral wrongwould have been done to me. But I have to have existed in order for alife to have been taken away from me. Those merely possible people Iasked you to imagine never really had a life, and so, there was noidentifiable individual who was harmed when circumstances didn’tconspire to bring them into existence. The question you are raising,then, is: when I am imagining my mother having had an abortion, am Iimagining me and a life being taken away from me, or, am I imagining asituation in which I do not yet exist, but would soon exist if eventstake their normal course. Am I imagining my life being taken away fromme, or am I imagining the possibility of my never having existed at alland so never having been a candidate for harm?

The answer to this question depends, of course, on when Icame into existence, and at what stage we are imagining my motherhaving an abortion. And the answer to this question depends on whatfeatures make me me. Did I exist once that particular egg andthat particular sperm got together? Did I come into existence when thatfertilized ovum developed into a fetus with some mental properties? DidI come into existence only when that fetus developed into a being withhigher mental functioning?

These are very difficult and complex philosophical questions which I can’t explore here. But I willassert, again very baldly, that this third suggestion strikes me ascompletely implausible. Before there was a creature with higher mentalfunctioning, there was a me, and had my life been ended at that point, a significant harm would have been done to me, a harm that would have been equal if not greater than the harm that would be done to me now if my life were now ended.

By the same reasoning, your mother would have done a terrible thing to you if she had abstained from sex on this occasions or if she had insisted that your father use birth control. Such conduct, too, would have denied a good life to a person in the future. I assume that you would not want to classify such conduct as worse than murder, but rather as perfectly permissible -- even though sometimes, when you use birth control, a person who otherwise would have come to exist will not. The problem with your analogy is this: In the case of murder, there is a person who is harmed, a person who is deprived of further years of life, prevented from realizing her plans, projects, and ambitions. In the case of abstention or birth control, by contrast, there is no person who is harmed, no person whose life is cut short, no person disabled from realizing her plans, projects, and ambitions. Murder harms an existing person, birth control merely prevents the coming into existence of a person. This explains...