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Do you think that women can sign away their reproductive rights?

Do you think that women can sign away their reproductive rights? Let's say man really hates abortion, and refuses to have sex with his partner unless she agrees to never abort any fetus of his. The woman agrees, and the two sign a "no abortions" agreement. Is she morally obligated to fulfill this agreement? Should the law force her to honor this agreement?

This seems like many other agreements two people might make, and not in a class by itself. On the whole, we should keep our promises, but we don't want the law to step in and enforce all of them. If a woman promises not to have an abortion, then she surely she should keep the promise. It would be the same in the other direction. A woman might ask a man to agree not ask her to have an abortion, if she should become pregnant. Morally, both have at least a prima facie obligation to keep their promises.

The law is another matter. If by making any promise we incurred the risk of being dragged into a courtroom, we'd make promises very sparingly. And then a valuable way of managing our personal relationships would be virtually lost. In this particular situation, either party would be able to foresee that the other could renege on the agreement. After all, as we all know, it's hard to predict what one will really want to do about something as life-changing as a pregnancy. A reasonable person wouldn't trust the other's word completely, and would avail themselves of good contraception.

The common pro-life argument against abortion is that the killing of an innocent

The common pro-life argument against abortion is that the killing of an innocent person is always murder, and that all fetuses are innocent people; therefore, all abortions are murder…but who’s to say that either premise is correct? I’m willing to accept the latter, but I question the former. I think I can give a few examples of when killing innocent people is not murder. A car accident: somebody jumps out in front of your vehicle and you hit them. Collateral damage in a war: in 1990 coalition forces accidently bombed a bunker full of civilians. I believe they killed 2,000 people in this single raid and that many were women and children, but we don’t call THAT murder. I could go on. So, I ask: Is it always murder to kill an innocent person?

First, let's dispatch with the abortion argument you mentioned. This is a classic example of a 'begging the question' argument. (So classic it appears in tons of logic texts!) The reason why it is question-begging is because whether or not a fetus is a person is exactly what is under debate in the abortion controversy. By assuming the very point they are looking to prove, proponents of this argument commit the sin of begging the question.

Your problem is a bit different, and more interesting. You are wondering if the seemingly attractive premise "killing innocent people is always murder, and therefore is always wrong" is actually worth much.

All of your examples seem to be cases of killing innocents by accident. (Whether war is ever an accident is a question we can [sigh] leave aside.) I think it is reasonable to say that killing someone by accident is not murder, though it may be grossly negligent and blame-worthy. You want to define murder as killing another, with the malicious intention of killing the victim. This definition seems fine to me. We can therefore reject the premise as too general and in need of more limitations.

But this move won't get you very far in the abortion debate. The woman who has an abortion is not doing so by accident. The fetus is not 'hit,' as the pedestrian out of the crosswalk is. Abortions are deliberate and planned. Abortion opponents would say abortion qualifies as murder by your own definition of killing another on purpose. Now we are back where we started: should a fetus count as another person, as a real victim? Until that premise can be justified this will remain a poorly constructed argument.

While I don't have a firm opinion on the issue, I never understand many pro-life

While I don't have a firm opinion on the issue, I never understand many pro-life positions that state they are against abortion except in the case of rape or incest. Life is life. These babies are as innocent as others. The situation in which they were conceived should have no bearing on whether they should be allowed to be aborted. It is illogical.

Perhaps, such positions concerning abortion are based on the idea that a developing fetus is very morally valuable, but not equal in moral value to a fully developed human being. Therefore, something like the great emotional pain involved in being forced to carry a child conceived as the result of rape might be enough to justify an abortion. But, very few things other than the life of the mother or rape would be adequate to justify an abortion.

Or, perhaps, such views on abortion are mainly developed based on political pragmatism.

Why is viability used as a standard to decide whether a fetus can be aborted?

Why is viability used as a standard to decide whether a fetus can be aborted?

There are some practical reasons for using viability as the standard for when a fetus may no longer be aborted. In particular, the viability of a fetus means that its life could be sustained without the mother's involvement -- which makes it much easier for others to effectively intervene. With scientific and technological advances, of course, life outside of the womb has become possible at earlier and earlier stages, so that disallowing abortion in cases where the fetus could survive apart from the mother'sbody would effectively disallow abortion during most of a woman's pregnancy.

Moral reasons for emphasizing viability are largely due to the idea that human beings have a right to autonomous existence (an existence which is not dependent on the desires of others) only insofar as they are capable of autonomous existence. (Compare: I have a right to make my own choices only insofar as I am capable of making my own choices.) This rationale is problematic, however, since (a) no baby, let alone a seriously premature baby, is capable of living independently of the desires of others, and (b) even for adults, independence from the desires of others is never complete.

My cousin recently gave birth to her first child. There were some complications,

My cousin recently gave birth to her first child. There were some complications, however, and the baby had to be delivered through a cesarean section four weeks early. At first she seemed healthy, but within seconds of the delivery the effort of crying was apparently too much for the premature baby and they had to put her on a special machine. Now, what interested me about K. (that’s her first name,) is that even though she was working her way to be two months early she still seems completely human. K. even smiled and giggled whenever they played with her. As far as I can tell she’s completely human. She laughs, cries, reacts to pain, even seems to have formed a bond with her mother who she’s only seen a few times. Recently there was a great outcry because late term abortion doctor George Tiller was assassinated by pro-life extremists. (Doesn’t that seem ironic?) Anyway, he apparently aborted fetuses within days of the delivery date. 32, 33, 34 week old fetuses. Now, what caught me about this is that K....

There are a few points that may be relevant to your thinking:

1) There is a substantial difference between 32 weeks and 36 weeks in terms of development, long term prognosis, etc. It is also uncommon for a newborn to be as responsive to social cues as you suggest. Typically "social smiling" doesn't occur until a full term baby is four to six weeks old. It is a mistake, I think, to generalize even about healthy fetuses from the vivid example you've just witnessed.

2) The cases of abortion Tiller performed were typically cases in which the fetus or mother faced significant medical complications. Would you feel differently if your cousin (once removed) was born to live with a disability that would cause constant and untreatable pain? How would you feel if your cousin's life was in danger, or if she faced a permanent and profound disability if she continued her pregnancy? Are there no cases in which you can imagine a late term pregnancy justifiably terminated?

3) It might be interesting to read some of the statements by physicians who provide abortions at Physicians for Reproductive Health and Choice:, or some of the comments on the memorial page for Dr. Tiller linked to that site.

Hello, my name is Conner and I’m a political science major here in Oklahoma. It

Hello, my name is Conner and I’m a political science major here in Oklahoma. It is my personal opinion that abortion should be illegal except in cases of rape, in which case I call upon Judith Jarvis Thompson’s argument. However, there’s something I was wondering about. Assuming that abortion is acceptable in other areas, would it be in –this- strictly hypothetical situation: A woman, let’s call her Stacy, is physically weak. She wants to have a baby but her body simply doesn’t have the strength to deal with a pregnancy. She and her husband then agree to ask her sister, Brittany, to carry the child for them. Brittany agrees at first and even signs a contract. Some time into the pregnancy, however, she decides that she doesn’t feel like being pregnant anymore and decides to get an abortion. Is she allowed to do so? Should she be allowed to do so? Could a real life case like this be taken to the Supreme Court?

Well, it is just this sort of case that gives surrogacy a bad name, of course. It depends on whether a contract in these circumstances is valid or not, and that is a legal not a moral issue. I suppose it would also be relevant to know what carrying someone else's child actually meant in this case, that is, is this Stacy's child implanted in her sister, or is the mother the sister and the father Stacy's husband, or what. Even advocates of abortion would be a bit disturbed by the idea of the sister deciding to have an abortion because she was a bit bored of being pregnant, especially if she had agreed to carry the fetus. It is a bit like being given a bag of money by someone and agreeing to carry it to the bank because the owner was too weak to do so, and then feeling fatigued and throwing it away en route, perhaps. So I can think of some real problems in abortion here even if in general it is not perceived as being immoral in general.

Let's accept that women have the right to abortion. Now consider the case of

Let's accept that women have the right to abortion. Now consider the case of several states before 1973. Persons who provided abortions could be prosecuted under the law, but women who received abortions were not. (Abortion was legal to "buy", but not to "sell".) Did such laws violate women's right to abortion, even though were legally allowed to get abortions?

Let's try some analogies. Suppose U.S. citizens have a constitutionally guaranteed right to vote for President, congressional representatives, etc. Now suppose that anyone who sets up or runs a voting booth is prosecuted for violating a law that says providing outlets for voting is illegal. It seems that this law would violate our constitutional rights. Or try it with the Second Amendment. In general, it is unconstitutional to bar selling guns as well as buying them, presumably since it would violate our right to bear arms if there were no way to get them. Accused defendents' right to legal counsel would be violated if it were illegal to practice law. And so on.

I think that the way you set up the question, by supposing women have a right to abortion, suggests the answer: it would violate that right to make laws entirely restricting doctors from providing abortions.

However, if you did not make that initial assumption about women's right to abortion, then it seems there is nothing inconsistent about outlawing the "selling" of abortions even if the "buying" were not outlawed, though it's unclear why such a double-standard would be in place.

Sometimes this is put as a challenge to those who argue that abortion is morally equivalent to first-degree murder: if you really believe that, then you should advocate punishing women who get abortions as murderers (i.e., not only punishing abortion providers). Of course, some might be willing to bite this bullet. Others might offer arguments for why abortion is wrong but not as wrong as murder. And others would say that the challenge illustrates the moral and legal difference between murdering a (fully-formed) person and aborting a fetus.

Suppose a woman hates to fold laundry and is some sort of embryological

Suppose a woman hates to fold laundry and is some sort of embryological neuroscientist. The woman conceives a child and takes a potion she has developed at an early stage before the embryo is conscious and when abortion is currently permissible such that when the child is born, the child has no desires other to fold laundry and put it away. The child is a sort of willing laundry slave. Let us suppose that the child is incapable of having any other desires than to do laundry and is incapable of being happy doing anything else. In fact, the child is completely happy in this state of laundry slavery. I have the intuition that the embryo is harmed at the moment the potion is taken even though the child who is born is incapable of objecting. If it is morally wrong to deny the embryo of its future freedom at the point when the potion is taken, why is it okay to deny the embryo of its future life at that same point through an abortion? The existence of future person who is harmed doesn't seem to matter in...

Different people will have different views about this, but I think the obvious thing to say is this. Taking the potion you described harms a person who will one day exist. Having an abortion does not harm a person who will one day exist. So that is the difference: In the one case, a person is harmed, but not in the other. That person does not exist at the time the harm is done, but I think you are correct that the person does not need to exist at that time to be harmed.

To see the importance of this, note that a similar case can be described even if the woman takes the potion before any child is conceived. In that case, no independent life exists at all, and yet it seems as if taking the potion is morally objectionable, for much the same reason.

There are complications here, surrounding the idea that the woman's behavior is wrong even if no child is ever conceived, on the ground that she risked harming someone. But I'll leave it to you, and others, to work this out. One important point is that, so far as I can see, "X risked harming someone" does not imply "There is someone X risked harming", any more than "X was baking a cake when she died" implies "There was a cake that X was baking when she died." (X died before any such cake came into existence.)

A friend of mine recently gave me a copy of an official report released by the

A friend of mine recently gave me a copy of an official report released by the United States Senate Subcommittee. Apparently they invited medical and scientific officials from all across the world to discuss the scientific status of a fetus. There wasn’t any debate. All agreed that human life began at some point during the initial conception except one who said he didn’t know. Here’s a quote from the report. “Physicians, biologists, and other scientists agree that conception marks the beginning of the life of a human being - a being that is alive and is a member of the human species. There is overwhelming agreement on this point in countless medical, biological, and scientific writings.” Subcommittee on Separation of Powers to Senate Judiciary Committee S-158, Report, 97th Congress, 1st Session, 1981 I did some further snooping on the internet and found that the medical and scientific community is in universal agreement on the fact that human life begins upon conception. This leads me to a few...

Let's agree that, from the moment of conception, we have a living thing -- and, if the parents are human, this living thing belongs to no other species than homo sapiens. So what? That fact doesn't in itself determine the moral status of the product of conception.

Here's one possible view: as the human zygote/embryo/foetus develops, its death becomes a more serious matter. At the very beginning, its death is of little consequence; as time goes on its death is a matter it becomes appropriate to be more concerned about.

In fact, that view seems to be exactly the one most of us take about the natural death of human zygotes/embryos/foetuses. After all, few of us are worried by the fact that a high proportion of conceptions spontaneously abort: few of us are scandalized if a woman who finds she is pregnant by mistake in a test one week after conception is pleased when she discovers that the pregnancy has naturally terminated a few days later. Similarly for accidental death: suppose a woman finds she is a week pregnant, goes cross-country horse riding, falls badly at a jump, and spontaneously aborts. That might be regrettable, but we wouldn't think she'd done something terrible by going riding and running the risk. (Compare: we do think it is a matter for moral concern that there are high levels of infant mortality in some countries; we would be scandalized by a woman celebrating the death of an unwanted newborn baby: we would be appalled at someone risking the life of nearly nine-months old foetus by going in for some potentially dangerous sports.)

So: our attitudes to the natural or accidental death of the products of conception seem to suggest that we regard them as of relatively lowly moral status at the beginning of their lives, and of greater moral standing as time passes. It would be consistent with such a view to take a similar line about unnatural deaths. For example, it would be consistent with that to think that using the morning-after pill is of no moral significance, while bringing about the death of an eight month foetus is getting on for as serious as killing a neonate, with a gradual increase in the seriousness of the killing in between.

Now, the point I'm making here isn't that this "gradualist" view is right (actually, I think it is, but you don't have to agree for present purposes). The point is that it that it isn't obvious that it is wrong. In other words, it isn't obvious that an all-or-nothing attitude to members of the species homo sapiens has to be right. It is not obvious that agreeing that the products of human conceptions are also human means that we should assign them all the moral weight we give to developed human beings. There's room for argument.

I've noticed that most comments on abortion ignore the question of foetal

I've noticed that most comments on abortion ignore the question of foetal conciousness and the stage at which the foetus becomes sensitive to pain, and is susceptible to suffering in the course of the abortion procedure. The gradualist approach (the foetus has few rights in early pregnancy but more rights at later stages) is attractive but suffers from the drawback that it does not provide a definite point in gestation at which personhood can be considered to start. Would it be reasonable to think of the onset of foetal consciousness as providing such a starting point? (I know there are immense practical difficulties in identifying the onset of consciousness but I am looking at this question as a matter of principle.)

The idea of giving rights to fetuses as soon as they are capable of consciousness is, I think, discussed in the literature. Fetuses have a functioning central nervous system very early in pregnancy (typically before pregnancy is detected) and possibly consciousness of some sort starts at this point. Probably you should also be willing to extend your ideas about the importance of consciousness to human rights later in life (e.g. to comatose patients).

Some writers on abortion argue that fetuses have rights to life before the onset of consciousness, and perhaps you might be interested at looking at these e.g. Don Marquis.