The view that human life has special value is deeply rooted in most people’s thinking and no serious ethical theory allows a person to be killed without strong moral justification. Abortions terminate the lives of fetuses. Given that these fetuses are human, and of course innocent of any wrongdoing, it is easy to see why some people consider abortion to be unjustifiable homicide. In some respects fetuses are like persons; but in other respects they are very different. Therefore we need to ask whether they have the same moral status as those human beings we think of as persons.
In the first article in this Part, Michael Tooley provides a challenge to the view that fetuses are persons. In his 1972 landmark article “Abortion and Infanticide,” he seeks to articulate and defend an ethically significant criterion that confers personhood and a right to life. To have a right to life, Tooley argues, an entity needs to possess a concept of self, that is, be “capable of desiring to continue existing as a subject of experiences and other mental states.” An entity that has this capability is a person, whereas one that lacks it is not. This view has implications that enable us to defend abortion, but also challenge the moral views of most people who accept abortion; for on this view neither fetuses nor newborn infants are persons, whereas some nonhuman animals, such as chimpanzees and elephants, do seem to be persons.
Tooley thus holds that the potential to become a person is not sufficient to give fetuses a right to life. Here it is important to take a closer look at the notions of potentiality and capacity. Sleeping persons – unable to exercise the capacity to desire their own continued existence while asleep – are, according to Tooley, still persons because they possess the relevant capacity in a sense in which fetuses do not. A person who is asleep was self‐conscious before she went to sleep and will be the same self‐conscious person when she wakes up; a fetus, on the other hand, has never been awake and self‐conscious.
Tooley takes the issue of personhood to be central. Judith Jarvis Thomson, in “A Defense of Abortion” takes a very different approach. For the purposes of her argument, Thomson accepts that the fetus is a person, but argues that even if one grants this premise, the conclusion that every person has a right to life – in the sense that would make abortion wrong – does not follow. She then uses an ingenious analogy to support her view that one person’s right to life does not always outweigh another person’s rights to something less than life. This general view applies, Thomson holds, in the case of pregnancy and abortion. A woman has a right to control her body, and a fetus only has the right to use a woman’s body if she has implicitly given it that right. This would be the case if the woman is responsible, in some sense of the term, for its presence in her body. In many cases – certainly in the case of a pregnancy resulting from rape, and arguably, if more doubtfully, when contraception has failed – the woman bears little or no responsibility for the presence of the fetus in her body and would thus, according to Thomson, be justified in having an abortion. She would not be killing the fetus unjustly.
Thomson reminds us that any complete assessment of the ethics of abortion must focus not only on the purported rights or interests of fetuses, but also on the rights of women. But her argument has been criticized as incomplete. One of the strongest objections focuses on her narrow understanding of the right to life. It has, for example, been argued that a right to life, properly understood, also entails the provision of positive aid. If this is correct, then Thomson’s argument on abortion is inconclusive.
In “The Wrong of Abortion” Patrick Lee and Robert P. George argue that the choice to have an abortion is immoral, in an objective sense. They begin by noting three features of human embryos: their distinctiveness from sperm and egg, their humanness, and their completeness or wholeness. In their view, it follows from this that during an abortion a human being is killed. This human being is at an earlier stage of development than you or I, but is a member of our species nonetheless.
Lee and George reject Tooley’s personhood argument. In their view we are not consciousnesses that inhabit human bodies, rather we are continuing living bodily entities, some of which may take years to develop the capacity to reason. Contra Tooley, they think that the right to life belongs to any being with a rational nature, by which they mean, not that the being is actually capable of reasoning, but that it is a being with “the internal resources and active disposition” to develop the higher mental functions that are typically developed by human beings. This implies, of course, that whole human beings have that right, from the moment of conception. They reject Thomson’s argument by suggesting that while an unwanted pregnancy may lead to significant inconvenience, this inconvenience pales into insignificance considering that abortion leads to the preventable death of a human being.
In the final article of Part I, Don Marquis adopts yet another approach to explain, as the title of his article indicates, “Why Abortion is Immoral.” Like Tooley, and Lee and George, he assumes that the morality of abortion depends on whether or not the fetus is the kind of being whose life it is seriously wrong to end. According to Marquis, abortion is immoral for the same reason that it is wrong to kill you or me – not because the fetus is a person or a potential person, but rather because killing the fetus deprives it of its future. The loss of one’s life is one of the greatest losses one can suffer; it deprives the victim of all the projects, experiences, enjoyments and so on that would otherwise have constituted that individual’s future. This, Marquis holds, is what makes killing, other things being equal, wrong – regardless of whether one is a fetus, child, or adult.
Marquis argues that his position must not be confused with a sanctity of human life view. It does not, for example, rule out euthanasia. Killing a person who wants to die when she is seriously ill and faces a life of pain and suffering does not deprive that person of a valuable future. Nor is his theory, he claims, speciesist. The view that killing is wrong because it is the loss to the victim of the victim’s future is, Marquis points out, straightforwardly incompatible with the view that it is wrong to kill only beings that are biologically human. It would be equally wrong to kill nonhuman animals and species from other planets, if these beings have futures relevantly like ours. Similarly, it would not be wrong to kill a human fetus with a genetic abnormality that precludes any possibility of a life that is worth living.
These features of his theory, Marquis claims, avoid some of the problems faced both by proponents of the sanctity of all human life, and by adherents of a personhood view. Those who deny that fetuses are persons find themselves in the embarrassing position of having to accept that their theory will, in principle, not only allow the killing of fetuses, but also the killing of infants. Opponents of abortion, on the other hand, often rely on what Marquis calls the “invalid inference” that it is wrong to kill fetuses because they are potential persons. But is Marquis’ own account really so different from the argument from potential? Does it, like that argument, face the further criticism that such accounts make abortion and contraception equally wrong: if it is wrong to kill a one‐cell zygote because doing so deprives the zygote of a valuable future, why is it not equally wrong to deprive an egg and a sperm, still separate but considered jointly, of a valuable future?