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What If a Fetus Were a Person?

POV photograph of blood donor with another patient in blurry background

The recent Supreme Court draft opinion leak indicates that Roe v. Wade will soon be overturned. If this happens, the legality of abortion will no longer be a constitutional affair; it will become a decision for politicians and voters. And both sides of the debate have wasted no time making their cases.

The legal status and the moral status of abortion are, of course, separate issues (some think, for example, that abortion is morally wrong but ought to be legal to reduce the harm associated with illegal, unregulated abortion). But the new political fight over abortion’s legality has also brought the moral debate back into the spotlight.

Moral disagreements about abortion are typically about how we morally conceptualize the fetus.

Pro-life advocates often claim a fetus is a ‘person’ or at least a ‘human being’ or a ‘baby’. On the pro-choice side, it is common to use biological terms such as ‘zygote’, ‘embryo’, and ‘fetus’. To talk of killing a person, a human being, or a baby sounds, at first glance, terrible. Talking of terminating a pregnancy or aborting a fetus, on the other hand, sounds much less morally dubious.

These are not just empty word games; the difference in word choice reflects a deeper moral disagreement – disagreement about the moral status of a fetus: Does it have the same rights as any other person? Or does it merely have the same rights as other clumps of cells?

But I want to sidestep this familiar impasse and instead ask a different question:

What if a fetus were granted the same moral status as an ordinary adult human being? What would the ethics of abortion be then?

The answer might seem very obvious. If a fetus is morally equivalent to an adult human being, it would seem wrong to kill it in just the same way that it would be wrong to kill an adult human. But things are not this simple.

The philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson imagined the following case:

You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. [If he is unplugged from you now, he will die; but] in nine months he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.

Is it morally permissible to unplug yourself, even though it will surely cause the death of the violinist?

It would certainly be morally admirable to stay plugged in. But it seems like someone who stayed plugged in for nine months would not merely be doing their moral duty; they would be going beyond their moral duty. It would be like jumping on a grenade to save your comrades: more than anyone could reasonably expect. Moral philosophers call these kinds of actions, that are so morally good that they go beyond moral duty, “supererogatory” acts. Refusing to perform these kinds of morally heroic acts is morally permissible. And refusing to stay plugged in also seems morally permissible. We couldn’t blame someone for refusing the violinist, and walking away to continue their normal lives. It’s your moral right to choose to leave.

This is interesting because we all accept that the violinist has the right to life. “Everybody must refrain from slitting his throat, everybody must refrain from shooting him” writes Thomson, “and everybody must refrain from unplugging you from him.” But the violinist’s right to life does not entitle him to the use of your body. Therefore, his right to life does not make it wrong for you to unplug yourself. “If you do allow him to use [your kidneys],” says Thomson, “it is a kindness on your part, and not something you owe him.”

Likewise, even if we assume that a fetus has the same right to life as an adult human, that alone does not necessarily make it wrong to withdraw the use of your pregnant body, even if it causes the death of the fetus.

It is a powerful argument, but it must be acknowledged that Thomson’s analogy, like all analogies, is imperfect.

Being plugged into a stranger in a hospital bed for nine months is perhaps more burdensome than the average pregnancy. If we only had to stay plugged in for a few minutes to save the violinist’s life, then you might consider it immoral to unplug. So the seriousness of the burden of pregnancy seems like a potentially important consideration. Complicating things further, the burden of pregnancy is highly variable. Perhaps Thomson’s violinist case even suggests that aborting the “easiest” pregnancies is morally impermissible while aborting more difficult ones is permissible.

Another challenge to Thomson’s analogy arises from the fact you have nothing to do with the violinist’s unfortunate situation or your kidnapping. This seems like an important detail. It helps explain why you don’t owe the use of your body to the violinist. But things are less clear than this with many cases of unwanted pregnancy. Unwanted pregnancy is generally the result of consensual sex. Pregnancy is a known risk of sex, even with contraception. Even if a pregnancy is fully unintended, and even if sensible precautions are taken, most pregnant women have made choices which at least raised the chances of a fetus requiring the use of their bodies for nine months. Perhaps this makes them partly responsible. Some think this is enough to make pregnant women more morally entangled with the fate of their fetuses than you are with the fate of the unfortunate violinist.

Others, including Thomson, disagree and think that the sheer bad luck of having an unwanted pregnancy creates no special moral duties toward the fetus. She gives the following analogy:

If the room is stuffy, and I therefore open a window to air it, and a burglar climbs in, it would be absurd to say, “Ah, now he can stay, she’s given him a right to the use of her house – for she is partially responsible for his presence there, having voluntarily done what enabled him to get in, in full knowledge that there are such things as burglars, and that burglars burgle.” It would be still more absurd to say this if I had had bars installed outside my windows, precisely to prevent burglars from getting in, and a burglar got in only because of a defect in the bars.

Perhaps, particularly if contraception has been used, the foreseeable risk of pregnancy isn’t enough to create a special moral duty for the mother — a duty to provide the fetus with the use of her body.

The wider point is this. We often assume that the fetus’ moral status, its having or lacking a right to life, is the beginning and end of the abortion issue. But this assumption is wrong. Even if we grant a fetus the same moral rights as an adult human, we still need to answer this; how much can one person’s right to life reasonably demand from another person?

Who’s Harmed by Abortion?

photograph of pro-life protestors in front of Planned Parenthood

Earlier this month, the Texas Heartbeat Act came into force. The Act empowers citizens to sue anyone assisting a pregnant person in securing an abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detectable – generally around the six-week mark. This means that anyone tangentially involved in the causal chain of events leading to an abortion can be implicated. From the clinician who conducts the abortion, to the individual or company that provides the funds to pay for the procedure, to the taxi driver who drives the pregnant person to the clinic; if you can be linked to the abortion, you could be sued. Upon a successful lawsuit, the defendant must pay $10,000 to the person who raised the case and cover the legal fees of both parties.

The Act’s introduction has generated a lot of ethical, jurisprudential, and social debate. This includes its constitutional viability in respect to Roe v. Wade, the acceptability of deputizing private citizens to enforce state law, the lack of exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, and the fairness of the ‘six-week mark’ given that most people don’t know they’re pregnant at this point. In a previous post, I’ve highlighted the Act’s problematic use of language. However, a Wall Street Journal article stood out to me, and I wanted to examine it here.

In “The Texas Abortion Law Is Unconventional Because It Had to Be,” Texas State Senator Bryan Hughes clarifies what he believes to be the ill-informed commentary surrounding the Act. He states that the legal gymnastics conducted by the Act were essential as the Supreme Court had gone beyond its purview in its decision in the Roe v. Wade case. Hughes argues that the Court meddled in affairs outside of its jurisdiction by taking the question of abortion out of the electorate’s hands. The Texas Heartbeat Act is a response to this overstep Hughes claims, writing that, “[l]ike it or not, states will keep crafting unconventional means of regulating abortion until the Supreme Court puts the question back where it belongs.”

To support this claim, Hughes talks about the nature of the wronged party in civil cases, arguing that, “[i]n almost every case, the person wronged, and therefore the person who brings the claim, is the plaintiff.” Concerning abortion, the problem, at least as Hughes sees it, is twofold. First, the criminal law is unable to tackle the issue of abortion because of Roe V. Wade. Thus, civil law must be utilized. And this leads to Hughes’ second problem: in instances of abortion, the wronged party can’t bring a civil case against those that have done it harm, as that party no longer exists; abortion eliminates the supposedly wronged party. He writes:

In the case of abortion, the wronged party has been extinguished. If we can’t depend on criminal enforcement, even if Roe is overturned, and the party who directly suffered harm cannot bring a claim, what’s left? Someone else must enforce the law.

The idea that a gestating being is harmed is essential for Hughes. His argument rests upon the civil law being used to compensate for that harm – no harm means no justifiable civil case. Yet, it’s not clear what harm means in this context or why we should care. And it is this lack of clarity that’s fascinating.

You might not think there’s much of a mystery here. You might say that the gestating life is harmed by being aborted, which would not be a novel line of argument. Many anti-abortionists and pro-lifers, such as Pope Francis, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Marco Rubio, make similar claims. But, this stance isn’t without its problems.

Simply saying that something is harmed doesn’t provide us with any clear indication that such harm is morally relevant or a matter deserving retribution. Instead, it’s the outcome of that harm, qualities particular to the harm, or the experience of being harmed that conveys importance here. Thus, harm, in and of itself, is not morally relevant. To illustrate this, let’s turn to the 1995 classic Toy Story.

Sid, the film’s antagonist, is a destructive boy with a penchant for breaking toys. This habit is depicted as horrifying because the toys are not inanimate beings but are conscious, capable of possessing minds and feeling pain. Thus, their destruction at Sid’s hands is vicious, mutilative, and, yes, morally wrong. Yet, if those toys weren’t alive, Sid’s troubling actions wouldn’t be of moral concern. Thus, while he could harm the toys in terms of their physical destruction and deconstruction, it wouldn’t be harmful in the same way as one could harm another living being; Sid pulling the head off his sister’s doll would be entirely different from pulling the head off his sister.

Harm, as it concerns the destruction of an organized matter, is not inherently morally troublesome. We do it all the time when we eat or tear clothing. What matters is that action’s associations. In Toy Story, the toys are alive, so Sid should, in Woody’s words, “play nice.”

In the case of abortion, the harm is judged by anti-abortionists as being ethically reprehensible because it is harm inflicted upon a morally relevant being – the gestating lifeform. For them, the clump of cells developing in the womb is not the same as a toy, nor is it the same as other biological matter (like a puddle of blood). There is something special about gestation that confers moral importance.

But is there? Here, the idea of abortion as harm runs into another, much more substantive hurdle – what is the moral status of the gestating being?

Credit where it’s due, Hughes puts his cards on the table in his article and states, “I believe life begins at conception.” Thus, for him, the moral relevance of a gestating being begins at that exact moment. From then onwards, its moral status is considered comparable to that of any other human. This claim, derivable from the position of the Catholic Church since the nineteenth century, is one of the foundations upon which he builds his argument. Not that abortion causes the physical destruction of a complex material structure, but it harms a morally relevant being through that being’s obliteration; not that something has been destroyed, but someone has been harmed. Yet, this easy-to-understand view – that life after conception is comparable to life at any other point – leads to some counterintuitive outcomes. Namely, you have the same duties to the gestating being as you would to a fully-formed adult.

For example, imagine you discover that a fire has broken out at a fertility center, and you can hear yells coming from inside. With no one around and the fire department unlikely to arrive in time, you enter the building. You eventually find someone in one of the labs, trapped under a table. Unfortunately, freeing them will take time and risk both your lives. In the same lab, you see several trays labelled ‘fertilized eggs’, all of which contain hundreds of test tubes. As the fire intensifies, you realize that you can either save the person or hundreds of fertilized eggs, but not both. Which do you pick?

It’s a numbers game; how many lives can you save? The answer to that question depends on when you think life begins. You should grab the trays and leave the trapped individual to their fate if it’s at conception. After all, why save just one life when you could save hundreds? Yet, this would seem to be a bizarre outcome. To leave a conscious being to a painful death to save clusters of cells would strike many as counterintuitive, regardless of how many fertilized eggs you could carry. Yet, this is what Hughes’s beliefs require.

Now, that being said, I don’t think this line of reasoning inherently discredits the Texas Heartbeat Act. There are arguments, such as it being a response to the Supreme Court’s judicial oversight, which may be used as a justification for its implementation. However, trying to justify the Act as providing a necessary recourse for those who are supposedly wronged, as argued by Hughes, certainly needs refinement.

Confirming Amy Coney Barrett: Against Secularism or For Religious Freedom?

photograph of Trump and Judge Barrett at nomination ceremony

On September 26, President Trump announced he would be nominating Amy Coney Barrett to fill the Supreme Court seat recently vacated by the departed Justice Ruth Bade Ginsburg. This decision is not only controversial considering the fact that recent political precedent would imply that the winner of the upcoming election should choose the next Justice, but also because of the perception that Barrett is not only under qualified to sit on the Court, but also potentially unfit considering her strong religious views. Barrett is a stout Catholic, member of the spiritual group People of Praise,  and has been vocal about the influence of faith on judicial ethos. Various politicians, activists, and even those with personal ties to Barrett have expressed staunch opposition to her nomination, most strongly on the basis of her perceived bias. However, in response to this criticism, many have come to her defense, arguing that not confirming Barrett on the basis of her religion is in fact religious discrimination.

Are these critics right to assert Barrett’s religious views are a conflict of interest? Are her defenders right to argue religious discrimination? And which is the correct interpretation of the First Amendment: secularism or religious freedom?

Secularism is informed by secular ethics, which derives morality from the human experience and rationale, rather than perceived higher powers or specific religious text or tradition. Secular states are countries guided by secular values in the political and governance process, neither favoring nor discriminating against any specific religion. The majority of countries in the world are considered secular states, including the United States.

The majority of the arguments over Barrett concern different interpretations of the principle of secularism. The principle of secularism aims to separate the state from any religious guidance or influence. In the United States, this concept is often boiled down to the “religious freedom” communicated in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Republicans, and others defending Barrett argue that to use her faith, or its influence on her, as a ground for not approving her is in itself religious discrimination. Critics, though not Senate Democrats specifically, are wary of Barrett because of their concern that her entire judicial philosophy is anti-secular if it is influenced by her faith.

This is not the first time that Barrett’s religious views have been brought up in the context of her judicial discretion. In 2017, Barrett was nominated for a federal judicial appointment by President Trump. During her confirmation hearing, Democratic Senator Barbara Feinstein expressed the concern that “The dogma lives loudly” within Barrett. Feinstein’s comment was simultaneously blasted as an expression of religious discrimination and rebranded by Catholics across the internet proudly. After Barrett’s nomination, this interaction has been visited again by Democrats and Republicans alike, by the former to reassert concern for her religious bias and by the latter to imply that much of the criticism of Barrett results from religious intolerance. Both of these concerns can be backed up by evidence. On the one hand, the current Supreme Court hosts 5 Catholics, by far more than any other religion. Despite this newfound domination of the bench, historically only 13 Catholics have ever sat on the Supreme Court, despite making up roughly 20% of the United States population. Some, such as law professor Cathleen Kaveny argue that the recent appointment of so many Catholics to the Supreme Court is a “victory over historic prejudice.” While Catholics do not face much modern day social persecution in the United States, that has not always been the case. Between the late 19th century and early 20th century, Catholicism in America was associated mainly with immigrants from Northern and Eastern Europe. These groups were discriminated against not only due to their immigrant and ethnic status, but also on the basis that Catholicism was morally perverse. Historically, Catholics were one of the groups targeted by the Ku Klux Klan, though this is not necessarily the case in modern times.

On the other hand, a Supreme Court made up of staunchly religious Justices, or too many from a certain religious faith, arguably stands in direct opposition to the principle of secularism. This guiding principle, most commonly associated with the separation of church and state, has been highly regarded since the formation of the United States. While the separation of church and state is often brought up in reference to legislative attempts to favor or discriminate on the basis of religion, the Supreme Court’s role in consistent affirmation of secularism is paramount to its existence. The Court regularly makes judicial decisions which involve the First Amendment, for example, recently in American Legion et al. v. American Humanist Assn. et al. Having a court made up with even a few deeply religious justices could impact the judicial philosophy of the most powerful court in this country. This alone a cause for concern considering the fact that certain religious traditions take hard, and sometimes unpopular stances on highly debatable moral issues. This is especially true of the religious group that Barrett identifies with, the People of Praise, which has been criticized for its reinforcement of gender roles and female subordination.

Outside of her possible beliefs, Barrett has been vocal about how her faith guides her stance on abortion, despite the fact that the majority of Americans support a woman’s right to choose. While the popularity of a certain legal stance does not necessarily speak to its morality, there is certainly an ethical value in having a judicial system which is fairly representative of the moral inclinations of the majority of the population. While the Supreme Court is not meant to be a political or moral institution, there are certainly righteous ethical concerns about our Justices sitting on the extreme end of the moral spectrum and serving to guide the legal interpretation and judicial discretion in every courtroom in America.

Barrett’s faith is not the only aspect about her which could guide one’s moral stance on her fitness to serve on the Supreme Court. Her age, gender, and even personal life might also be taken into account when deciding how one feels about her nomination. However, as long as discussions about her faith dominate political and media debate, our moral inclinations about her religious views will likely guide whether or not we believe she should be confirmed.

Harm Reduction, Moral Relativism, and Female Genital Mutilation

In a first-of-its-kind legal case, Dr. Jumana Nagarwala is being prosecuted in Detroit, Michigan for violating a 1996 federal law against female genital mutilation. Nagarwala was indicted alongside another woman who was allegedly present in the room during the mutilation. Nagarwala’s husband, who owns the clinic where the procedure occurred, is also being prosecuted. Nagarwala is accused of performing female genital mutilation on two seven-year-old girls who had been brought from Minnesota for the procedure.

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Feminism in 2017: Inclusionary or Exclusive?

At the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference, Kellyanne Conway revealed that she does not identify as a feminist “in the classical sense.” This seems a bit paradoxical, considering the fact that she was the first woman to ever successfully run a presidential campaign, thereby setting further precedents for what women can do. The Oxford Dictionary defines feminism as the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes, but Conway does not believe that is how the current feminist movement is coming across. During her CPAC appearance, she cited the term “feminism” as having “anti-male and pro-abortion” tendencies.

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Modes of Morality in (De)criminalizing Sex Work

Liberal ideas of women’s rights and conservative perspectives on sexuality and sexual violence have come to a head in India following the infamous 2012 Delhi gang rape case that made international news. On October 12th, India’s Supreme Court ruled on a twenty-year-old case to acquit three men of the rape of a woman who was allegedly engaged in sex work. According to the Times of India, the “vengeful attitude” of the victim to recover money from the suspects after a history of working for the men constituted a compelling reason to forge a fake accusation. Ultimately, the acquittal keeps us asking questions about the nature of sex work as legitimate work, in relation to rape as sexualized violence — mutually exclusive actions with separate motives and disastrous effects on workers and victims.

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Ethics of “Over-the-Counter” Birth Control

Birth control access has been a long debated issue in the United States. Obtaining birth control methods usually means women must go to a doctor’s office in order to obtain a prescription, which can be difficult, for financial reasons or if the hospital is religiously affiliated, for example. On January 1, Oregon’s “over-the-counter” birth control law went into effect, and .

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