Should the United States government (federally or through states and territories) restrict (totally or partially) a woman’s right to an abortion? This article is the final installment in a debate series on the topic of abortion by authors Deion Kathawa and Andrew Beddow. Read their original arguments here, and their rebuttals here.
Abortion Should Be Legal: A Reply to Mr. Kathawa’s Critique of My Original Position
Mr. Kathawa’s first criticism concerns human freedom—why it (1) entails rights that constrain others in how they may treat us, and (2) is a non-arbitrary value on which to ground morality. I’ll answer the second point before returning to the first. As I said in my first article, only a good will can be regarded as good in itself, since any external object is only ever of conditional worth. Morality is concerned with the exercise of our will; we make choices when we believe that an object of choice is worth selecting, but the goodness of this object always presupposes a good will to use it. Wealth can be good or bad depending on its use, but only a person (considered apart from all material ends of choice) has inner worth. Since the will is the limiting condition on the value of all objects of choice, it is the will alone which is good in itself.
Since will is a precondition on any extraneous objects having value contingently, it is of objective value. Further, since in any volition will serves to ground the worth of a particular object of choice, the will is never to be treated as a mere means, but always as an end-in-itself. This is why, per (1), freedom is an innate right, since I must always regard your will as an end-in-itself, and you must treat mine the same. Nothing extraneous to the will could ever justify constraining it—not even the command of God. Freedom alone does, because freedom alone is of absolute value.
Mr. Kathawa next claims that abortion disregards the worth of the fetus, since ending the life of another always treats that other as a mere means. This seems straightforwardly untrue—in cases of self-defense, I am authorized to use deadly force in defense of my own life, but that coercion respects the dignity of my assailant, since the justification for my coercion is my right to self-determination, and the assailant only surrenders that same and equal right inasmuch as he violates my own. The fetus does not intend to violate the right of the mother (and for this reason it is not morally blameworthy), but it does so all the same, justifying the use of force.
In “A Defense of Abortion,” J.J. Thomson offers a compelling analogy. Imagine waking up one day to find that you have been strapped into a machine which will make use of your body to sustain the life of a comatose man. This man did not intend to violate your right to self-determination (he’s comatose), but almost everyone recognizes that you have a right to step out of the machine, even though this will kill the man. Your right to your body is not a blank check to make use of others, but it is a right to prevent others from making use of your body. Therefore, a comatose man and a fetus have no enforceable rights to your body, but you have a claim to your body against them.
The penultimate objection concerns the assumed obligation of the mother. Even were this argument true, it would not justify the absolute prohibition (in cases of rape, unintentional pregnancy, and so on) that my opponent advocates. Still, the argument is bizarre on its own terms. That my choice to go outside results (even routinely) in my being mugged is no reason why I consent to mugging. Even if a pregnancy were intentional, how does this obligation become enforceable? Does the woman contract out the use of her body to a person who did not even exist at the time of conception (and who certainly was not able to agree to the arrangement throughout pregnancy)? Special obligations can’t be legitimately imposed unilaterally. They require consent of the obliged party, and it’s unclear how this is possible in the case of pregnancy.
Mr. Kathawa’s last argument seems confused. I’ve been quite explicit that the right to kill the unborn in no way depends upon the inhumanity of the fetus, and I clarified in my last reply that human dignity does not concern our particular choices, but only rational nature itself. The justification for abortion is analogous to the justification of self-defense for reasons outlined above, and clearly those against whom we defend are people with rights.
I’ve justified why the right to freedom is a foundational principle that orders adjudicates between rival moral claims. My opponent raised some skepticism about this, but I’m not sure what (if any) moral principle he offers as an alternative, since he proceeds to appeal to the right to freedom in his main arguments anyway. Only one of these arguments (that mothers assume obligations by having sex) even addresses the right of a mother to her own body, and it does so (a) without much elaboration, (b) only to a limited degree (e.g. excluding cases of rape), and (c) highly implausibly.
Nowhere else does Mr. Kathawa attempt to resolve the tension between the rights of the mother and those of the fetus. He has neglected the fundamental question of this debate: he’s focused on refuting arguments for a mother’s claim on a fetus’s body, but nowhere has he justified the right of a fetus to the use of the mother’s body. But this is clearly a prior question, if only because pregnancy is prior to abortion! If an ordinary adult has no right to make use of my body (even unintentionally, as in the case of the comatose man), and if I am ordinarily licensed to use coercion to maintain control of my body, then Mr. Kathawa will need to offer compelling reasons why pregnancy is a special case wherein this principle does not hold. It is pregnancy, not abortion, which stands in need of extraordinary justification, since the presumption holds that it is only by consent that one acquires a right to make use of the body of another.
Abortion Should Be Illegal: A Reply to Mr. Beddow’s Critique of My Original Position
I want to begin by thanking Mr. Beddow for this spirited discussion, and the purpose of this final post will be to demonstrate why I believe that his critique of my original position—that abortion should be illegal—fails.
I would begin by making a brute, bird’s-eye view observation/assertion, i.e., one lacking explicit and immediate argumentative justification for its own merit, though hopefully made clear by the train of logic I have espoused thus far, both in my original argument and in my critique of Mr. Beddow’s original argument, as well as by my defense of my own position against his critique here: Legitimate rights never conflict.
As an example, in America, one has the right to speak one’s mind freely so long as one is neither threatening others nor inciting a mob to commit violence. If we accept that we in fact do have this right, then when some other person objects and says, “I have a right not to be offended by your exercise of your right to free speech,” it would be inappropriate for us to toss the right to free speech out the window, or attempt to balance it in some way with the objector’s emotional sensibilities. They are free to exit conversations or block others on social media, for example, but they are not free to silence me or anyone else. (If they were forced to stay in the free speech advocates’ vicinity and thereby be triggered by their words, then that would obviously be a different story; but the real justification for why that is unacceptable is that no one has a right to constrain another’s movement without cause/sufficient justification, not because emotional equilibrium or “safety” trumps the right of free exercise of speech.)
In the same way, then, there just is no balancing to be done in the case of abortion. Either a fetus has a moral right to be protected from the abortionist’s forceps, or not. If we have a prima facie right not to be attacked, as Mr. Beddow admits that we do, then there is no “rights calculus” in which to engage.
Mr. Beddow opens his salvo against my argument specifically by making a fatuous observation with respect to my contention that biological humanity is an overriding consideration if we are to reason well in answering the question of abortion’s legal status, namely, “Corpses and disembodied organs are all ‘human,’ but we wouldn’t ordinarily say that any of these things have rights” (emphasis in original). But I never argued that merely sharing human DNA, cells, or tissue was what was relevant. Rather, I maintained that a fetus ought to be protected by the law from being aborted because it has a (human) “nature”—“an internal principle of change, growth, and development”—as well as the “root capacity to actualize that natural ability [e.g., rationality] that comes with being the type of thing the fetus is by nature” (emphasis in original). In other words, the fetus is, from the moment of conception, “an immature, though internally complete, human being.” It is this reality which is ought to be controlling in the debate.
To give a full defense of the legitimacy of the State and my assertion that it has a duty to “protect those persons within its domain from physical violence of any sort” contra Mr. Beddow’s glib retort that this is a “straightforwardly absurd” though “appealing platitude” is beyond the scope of this reply. It will suffice to say, however, that I am not a radical anarchist (thank God), and I suspect most persons reading this are not either (neither is most of the world’s population). Therefore, I believe that the State, in some form or another, is legitimate and ought to exist (I quite like our constitutional republic, as it happens), and I make the not-so-radical assumption that most people accept intuitively that States as a general category of thing are legitimate. (Note that this does not commit me to saying that, e.g., the State of North Korea at present is good, or legitimate, or as good as the State of France, only that States qua States are legitimate.)
In addition, one must ask what the essential feature(s) of a State would be; what must a State be or possess necessarily to be properly designated as a State and not some other type of thing? It seems obvious that it must, at some level and to some minimally sufficient degree, be invested with, in the words of Hobbes’ Leviathan, a “power able to overawe them all [i.e., those living within its domain]”: to have a monopoly on the use of force, in more modern parlance. Surely that extends to protecting fetuses from aggression, especially since, as Mr. Beddow concedes, they are indeed persons!
Finally, Mr. Beddow attempts to deal with my claim that his view entails that various persons—young children, those who are asleep, and very ill people—would be legitimate candidates for what I termed “after-birth abortion” by saying that “it is rational nature that grounds the dignity of human beings, not the actual exercise of that rational nature” (emphasis in original). Recall that this is precisely what I wrote in my original post: Abortion ought to be illegal because a “distinction must be made between the immediate capacity to, say, be rational or exercise rationality, and the root capacity to actualize that natural ability that comes with being the type of thing the fetus is by nature.”
From the remarkable congruence of these two quotations, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that Mr. Beddow seems to eventually come around full circle to support my position, especially when he writes afterward (in tandem with his repeated assertion that he doesn’t “need to deny the personhood of the fetus”) that “fetuses have rights then, because fetuses—like children—have a rational nature that is not yet developed.”
I enjoyed thoroughly Mr. Beddow’s candor and the intellectual honesty of this exchange and invite him to join me on my side of the aisle because I remained convinced that he (admirably) failed to justify his position that abortion ought to be legal.