Everything Is Just Dandy!

Ep. 301: Is Abortion Morally Permissible? (Part One)

The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast
Mark Linsenmayer

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We discuss some widely read papers about the morality of abortion, starting here with a selection from the Roe v. Wade decision (1973) and Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion” (1971). Featuring Mark, Wes, Dylan, and Seth.

Roe tried to sidestep the philosophical question of the current personhood of a fetus but did assert that the state has a legitimate interest in protecting potential human life, to be weighed against the right of privacy and the state’s interest in protecting the health of the mother. At the time, only a first trimester abortion was deemed definitely safer than carrying the birth to term, so before that point, the latter interest had no effect. But after that point, the state (said the decision) has the option to regulate abortions. Also per the state of medical science at the time, six months was the time that the fetus was determined to be viable, and so at that point and no earlier could states have the option of restricting abortion altogether; it would be up to the state at that time to determine to what degree the interest in protecting potential human life outweighs the right of privacy.

So the decision was flawed not because of its outcome (protecting abortion rights) or because of a shaky constitutional foundation (is the right of privacy really implicitly in the Constitution?), but because it cast into permanent law the momentary state of science at the time. Premature babies are born and survive much earlier than six months now, undermining the dividing point between second and third trimester that the decision had said marked the difference between the state being able to merely regulate vs. outright prohibit. So by their original logic, the state should now be able to intervene much earlier. However, late-term abortions are now much safer, undermining the distinction the court drew between first and second trimester regarding the mother’s health. So by their original logic, the state should not be allowed to intervene at all much later than three months. When these two points actually cross, e.g. let’s say at six months an abortion is now much safer than carrying to term, while viability now comes before that, the logic of the decision completely implodes.

The case did not itself weigh in on the morality of abortion, just with who gets to decide on its morality: Is it a decision for mother and doctor (as the court says), or for the state? This is interesting to philosophy as a matter of the relation between morality and legality, but the fundamental moral question remains: Is abortion morally OK, and does this change based on the fetus’ stage of development? Most arguments about abortion (including the paper we’ll discuss in part three of this episode by Mary Anne Warren) are about whether a fetus at X months should be considered a “person,” i.e. a member of the moral community, such that killing it would be murder.

Thomson sidesteps that issue entirely by arguing that even if a fetus is a person, it’s still permissible for the mother to abort it, because it’s relying on her body to survive, which is hers and so within the sphere of her moral decision-making. She argues this through a series of analogies, the main one being that if you woke up surgically attached to another adult and told that if you didn’t stay attached to them for nine months, they’d die. Thomson says that in such a case you certainly have the right to detach. It’s your body, your time, your autonomy, and you have the right to defend those things, even at the cost of someone else’s life. While it might be morally admirable for you to make sacrifices to keep the person alive, the decision is ultimately up to you, and it’s definitely permissible for you to say no.

So Thomson reframes abortion as a Good Samaritan situation. Are we morally required to make sacrifices for others? Even if the fetus is a full person, is the mother morally required to make the sacrifices involved in giving birth? Thomson says no, even though that kills the fetus.

In parts two and three of this episode (with part three featuring returning guest Jenny Hansen, who was supposed to join us for this first discussion but got COVID), we’ll discuss “Why Abortion is Immoral” by Don Marquis (1989) and “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion” by Mary Anne Warren (1973). I also refer in this discussion to an optional paper, “An Almost Absolute Value in History” by John T. Noonan (1970). We also did record a Nightcap where we debated the issue of representation as it applies to this podcast: Is it “absurd” for us to deal with this issue that so affects women’s bodies without having a woman as part of the conversation? You’ll get to hear that in about two weeks.

All of these papers, including the Roe v. Wade abridgement that we used, can be found in Contemporary Moral Problems, ed. James E. White. I think we’re interested in taking on more of these problems in future episodes, so you might want to pick it up. You can readily find the individual articles online too; here’s Thomson’s.

I also refer to podcasts on this, first by Angela Knobel of the Thomistic Institute, then by Kate Greasley on The Ezra Klein Show. Wes refers to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article “The Grounds of Moral Status.”

All this talk of our duties to boys fallen in ponds refers to our discussion with Peter Singer on ep. 150.

Image by Charles Valsechi. Audio editing by Tyler Hislop.