Ethicist destroys pro-abortion argument that preborn ‘fetus’ isn’t a person
Editor's note: London-based ethicist Dr. Anthony McCarthy is the editor of the newly released book Abortion Matters. The book provides clear, convincing answers to the most fundamental questions relating to abortion, not least: why abortion is always wrong.
This is not true: many pro-life authors are by no means averse to using the term, even if it happily coexists with ‘baby.’ Just a cursory look at recent pro-life literature, from Helen Watt’s The Ethics of Pregnancy, Childbirth and Abortion, to Christopher Kaczor’s The Ethics of Abortion, to my own Abortion Matters, to Alexander Pruss’s article “I Was Once A Fetus: That Is Why Abortion Is Wrong,” will uncover hundreds of references to the unborn as fetuses. And that’s before we get to grass-roots campaigners with ‘Former Fetus’ T-shirts.
So the problem for pro-lifers isn’t really with the term fetus - though it can’t be doubted that the word is somewhat clinical and hence the term of choice for many on the pro-choice side to avoid ‘humanising’ terms such as ‘baby’ or ‘unborn child.’ As so often, Latin trumps Anglo-Saxon for those wishing to glide over some embarrassingly vivid part of the human landscape.
Reality is hard to ignore though, and pro-choicers in the lead-up to the Irish referendum were often quite prepared to use the terms ‘unborn child’ and ‘baby’ – especially when referring to late-term disabled fetuses aborted in Britain and brought back to Ireland for burial or cremation (obscenely, abortion providers sometimes offer parents footprints and handprints of what are agreed to be ‘babies’ - whose lives, however, have been first destroyed).
The question whether I was indeed a fetus is one any thoughtful person will want to consider when reflecting on abortion. Am I the same living being as the fetus, and if so, did I always have my current moral right not to be deliberately killed? All of the following is undeniable: At the moment of my conception a sperm from my father fertilised an ovum of my mother. Although containing DNA from both my mother and my father, the new living being was genetically distinct and not a part of either parent, still less a part of both. Nor did I behave like a part of either parent, but rather behaved like what I was: an entirely new living entity whose functioning was directed toward my own welfare and survival, interacting harmoniously with the support my mother provided until I was old enough to be born. If we watch the development of that living being, gradually forming into a fetus, neonate, toddler, adolescent and adult, we see a continuous development. There are no sudden breaks.
In the words of Alexander Pruss, “If an organism that once existed has never died, then this organism still exists.” Given that the bodily being from conception did not disappear or die, and all of me came from that being, we can only conclude that the bodily being simply is me and always was. That being did not die, nor did I replace it (him) at any point.
Now it seems that the only serious way to object to this argument is to say that I and my living body are two separate things – so the fetus who grew up to be my living body was not me, because my living body is not what I am. But this is plainly absurd. I am not a mere disembodied spirit. I am sitting here, right now, tapping at my laptop as an embodied human being. When I last made love it was not ‘my body’ which made love while my ‘real self’ stayed in the background. My body is not mere property I own. If you talk to me, smile at me or hit me, it is me you connect with, not a separate human body.
So there is the metaphysical argument: one that directly addresses what, or rather who, the fetus is. O’Neill does not address this kind of argument at all, nor does he address the problems with seeing moral ‘personhood’ as something acquired and not innate to the human individual.
Here is the eminent philosopher (and pro-choicer) the late Bernard Williams on the subject of personhood:
… if the foetus is not yet a person, then neither is the newborn baby; nor again, if the requirements of personhood are made sophisticated enough, will small children be persons. What is more, the senile, and other adults in defective condition, will be, on this sort of showing, ex-persons or sub-persons … if failure to qualify in the person stakes is enough, as this argument would have it, to eliminate restrictions on killing the foetus, it is presumably enough to remove restrictions on killing those other non-persons as well, and the results of taking this line are wide-ranging indeed. There is a deep fault with the notion of a person, as used in these connections. It sounds like an all-or-nothing matter whether a given creature displays, to some extent – it seems, an arbitrary extent – some psychological and social characteristics which lie on a sliding scale.
So, if we are going to talk about slippery terms, the term ‘personhood’ which O’Neill uses is indeed a “tactic of moral avoidance”. Unlike some who use the term, O’Neill does take it as just obvious that infanticide, at any rate, is wrong. The reason being that, as he tells us,
a child can be protected and looked after without interfering with a woman’s personal or moral autonomy, where a fetus cannot. There is nothing that can be done to a fetus that doesn’t involve interfering with the personhood of the woman…a fetus cannot exist independent of its mother’s biology…
But what of a woman living alone in a remote area who does not want her baby, but has no-one to give her baby to? Why can’t she commit infanticide, if she can’t immediately give the baby away? Her ‘autonomy’ and ‘personhood’ (in O’Neill’s atomistic conception of these) is surely hugely compromised in such circumstances, where she will need to use her body to feed and change and otherwise care for her child, given that no-one else can do this if she does not.
After all, the justification for abortion is often understood (although perhaps not by O’Neill) as a desire not to be a parent, not merely the desire not to be pregnant. In the future, if a woman doesn’t want her fetus, could she perhaps have it removed and placed in an artificial womb? Imagine an artificial womb that could take care of the fetus well before the current point of viability. Presumably now that the fetus is alive and outside of the womb of the woman, and does not depend on her in any other physical sense, she could not claim at this point that her ‘personhood’ was being interfered with in the way O’Neill seems to mean (i.e. physically).
So would O’Neill protect fetuses in artificial wombs from their mother’s (or for that matter, their father’s) choice to destroy them in order to avoid the burdens of parenthood? Perhaps denying the mother the choice to destroy the fetus outside her body would also be unreasonable in O’Neill’s eyes, since this would mean that “fetal life is more important than a woman’s autonomy”.
In that case, we would be entitled to kill the fetus in an artificial womb perhaps even at 9 months to avoid the burdens of parenthood and to do this precisely because we don’t want our offspring making demands on us, or being brought up by someone else. Prohibiting the killing of fetuses in artificial wombs would perhaps also ‘enslave’ the woman in O’Neill’s view (though given O’Neill’s praise of the late Hugh Hefner, a man who literally imprisoned and enslaved women, it’s a little hard to take seriously O’Neill’s stress on women’s autonomy.)
We learn, in conclusion, that “Choice is the foundation stone of the moral life. To be forced to do something against your will...is not to be a moral being.” Perhaps O’Neill hasn’t realized that we do have laws which compel us not do certain things, including deliberately killing the innocent which abortion so clearly does. We even have laws that require us to do certain things, such as support our own dependent children. Such laws have, generally, been regarded as morally necessary, as opposed to arbitrary and somehow opposed to reason.
Indeed, such laws help us to realize that we are not animals, that we are human beings capable of great evil and injustice, and that morality is about making choices which respect the flourishing of all human beings and not just of some. O’Neill sees only “enforced imitation” in such laws, but such laws in fact reflect the moral and metaphysical reality of the human being and his or her inherent dignity.
Many people won’t see that reality for a number of reasons, not least the moral choices they themselves may have made and which may have helped (though not of course irreversibly) to form their character and opinions. The moral law will appear to be nothing but oppressive to those who presume to make their own choices the ground of moral value. Yet to talk of the act of exercising moral choice, while praising mere choice as morally valuable, is not to talk about morality at all, any more than pointing at a compass needle without a compass is to engage in orienteering.
In reflecting on the Irish vote I suggested that sentimentality had played its part. By sentimentality, I mean that luxuriating in feelings which does not result in any serious positive engagement with the situation. The constant stories put out by the media of Irish women travelling to Britain for abortions were certainly designed to tug at the heartstrings. But where did the feelings generated go? Did they go towards helping women to have their babies – in a way O’Neill disparages but which some women in crisis gratefully accept? Did they lead people to glimpse and accept reality as a whole, and desire to accompany their feeling with thought and vitality? Or did they just lead them to a kneejerk reaction against abortion prohibition, while they refused to address what is actually at stake in pregnancy and what the choice of abortion amounts to?
Had the Irish Yes voters got over their sentimentality (and its flip side, cynicism), they might have understood that whatever the “lines” (in fact smooth gradations) between stages of human life, that life is in every sense the life of a human being. Once we realize that, we get a better sense of what kind of life should go with that recognition. The kind of life two-thirds of Irish voters seek to bury along with the fetuses their vote has just condemned.
Dr. Anthony McCarthy is an ethicist based in London at the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, and a visiting scholar at the International Theological Institute in Trumau, Austria. He is the editor of Abortion Matters and of Ethical Sex.