Ethics of Abortion
The fundamental question that most philosophers agree on when discussing abortion is, “How do you determine the humanity of a being (Noonan, p. 117)?” Or, in other words, when does a being acquire a right to life? The answer to these questions will determine when it is, if ever, morally acceptable to abort a fetus. There are many different answers varying from one extreme to another. Conservatives believe that infants acquire their rights to life at the moment of conception while the liberals feel that fetuses actually do not have any rights to life until, at, or sometime after birth.
John T. Noonan Jr.
Noonan was a conservative. He feels very strongly that if human parents conceived you then you are a human being with human rights. It would therefore always be immoral to abort a fetus unless under the very severe circumstances whereby the mother and the unborn child’s lives were in danger (Noonan, p 117). To support his beliefs, Noonan came up with two arguments: his supporting argument and his positive argument.
The supporting argument goes as follows: (1) At conception there is a sharp increase in the probability of development, therefore, (2) it is reasonable to think that a fetus is a human from conception onward. The reasoning behind this argument is simple: In a normal ejaculation approximately 200 million sperm are released. The odds that any one sperm has of becoming human are therefore approximately 1 in 200 million. When sperm does meet egg however the probability of development increases dramatically. It goes from 1 in 200 million to 4 out of 5. Noonan felt that because the probability of development increased so much at the time of conception the fetus should be considered a human with full moral rights.
His supporting argument, however, is weak. The premise does not support the conclusion in any way. Just because the probability of a fetus becoming a human being increases so drastically, does not prove that a fetus is a human. The ideas put forth by Noonan seem to be, at first glance, a plausible solution to the question of abortion but in fact proves no such thing.
The second argument put forward by Noonan was his positive argument. This argument says that: (1) at conception the fetus receives human genetic code, (2) a being with human genetic code is human, therefore, (3) a fetus is a human from conception onward. Or put more simply, “a being with human genetic code is man.” (Noonan, p.120)
Even though this argument seems compelling, it is unsound. The problem is in the second premise where it says that a being with human genetic code is human. Let us take a blueprint of a building as an example. A blueprint is nothing more than a plan of a building. It is either drawn out on paper or on a computer. The blueprint does not have any of the building’s characteristics. It would be insane to call a blueprint a building; you could only call it a possible building. Just like a blueprint is not a building, genetic human code does not seem to be enough to consider a fetus a human.
Mary Ann Warren
Mary Anne Warren has a more liberal view on abortion. She does not think that fetuses should have moral rights at conception because they certain traits that are sufficient and necessary for one to be a person. Warren attacks the key premise to the conservatives’ argument in her attempt to prove that fetuses are not beings with any moral rights.
The conservative argument states: (1) it is wrong to kill beings with rights, (2) fetuses are genetically human, (3) being genetically human gives you rights, therefore, (4) it is wrong to kill fetuses because they are genetically human.
Mary Anne Warren believes that the term “human being” is an ambiguous term. She feels as if there are two different meanings for the term “human being” and they both point us in very different directions. The first meaning is what we usually think about when we hear the term human and that is the genetic sense of the word. That means that humans are human beings only if they posses human genetic code. The second meaning is a little harder to grasp but in fact is a very persuasive idea. It says that a being is human if it has moral worth.
Moral worth is only acquired after certain conditions are met. What is personhood? This is one of the questions that Mary Anne Warren answers in order to figure out the moral worth of fetuses. Mary Anne Warren says that there are five different characteristics a being should have in order to be a person. The five characteristics of personhood in relation to moral worth are as follows: consciousness (ability to feel pleasure or pain), reasoning (the ability to problem-solve), self-motivated activity, the capacity to communicate and lastly the presence of self-concepts and self-awareness. Even though there are five traits, only the first two are really important in determining personhood. Take the following thought experiment proposed by Mary Anne Warren:
Imagine, one day you find yourself on another planet infested with millions of tiny green aliens. The aliens show signs of consciousness and reason (the two most important factors that Mary Anne Warren says we find necessary and sufficient in order to be a person). Are these beings therefore humans with full moral worth or is it permissible to kill them for food? Because in this case the aliens do in fact show signs of consciousness and ability to reason, Mary Anne Warren believes that they are people and should be given full moral worth, therefore killing them for food would be wrong unless absolutely necessary.
The problem with Mary Anne Warren’s view is that there are many beings, which would not be considered to be worth anything morally. Infants, severely disabled people and non-human animals (as well as others) do not show much, if any signs of being able to reason. We still however believe that it is wrong to kill these beings because we still attach moral rights to their lives.
There is another problem with Mary Anne Warren’s argument. The problem is that she fails to prove her view of personhood. In the thought experiment above, the aliens did, in fact, show signs of reasoning and consciousness. What if they did not have any ability to reason but had the potential to reason? Should these beings be considered to be worth nothing morally? It seems as if there should be some other factors that determine one’s personhood and not just traits like reasoning and consciousness.
Mary Anne Warren’s reply to the problems of her view on personhood is very simple. There are people that are willing to take care of the people that do not fit into moral society, based on the concepts of ability to reason and basic consciousness. Those who are unable to reason should not be killed or taken advantage of because of their lack of reasoning because there is always someone that will love them and take care of them. There is always a home for newborn infants and severely mentally disabled people that are lacking these important traits. “Most people... value infants and would much prefer that they be preserved, even if foster parents are not immediately available.” (Warren, p. 141)
There is a problem with Mary Anne Warren’s reply to the criticisms raised by many people concerning her view on personhood. What if an infant or a disabled person was not loved by anyone or even were not being taken care of. If you really believe her reply then you believe it is morally permissible to dispose of these beings however you may wish. This, though, seems very harsh and extreme. Most will agree that it is ethically wrong to abuse and hurt these beings.
The way one perceives a fetus has a great impact on whether you believe that abortion is morally permissible. Both of these arguments have strong points that do help their beliefs, unfortunately they are both very flawed almost to the point where you might want to disregard these arguments and try again. The question both these arguments tried to answer was the same: When is a fetus worth the right to life?
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