Truly Pro-Life: Personhood and Abortion

by Jason Stotts

For too long there has been a raging debate in our country on the issue of abortion. Indeed, the issue has come to an absolute impasse as both sides have taken to ignoring their opponents and wrapping themselves in the armor of indubitable belief. The issue, however, needs a resolution. We cannot hope to end the debate that has been raging for decades by wading into it in its current situation, rather we must begin at the beginning in order to gain perspective on the issue and avoid making the same mistakes and unfounded suppositions with which our predecessors have burdened the debate.

Although it may seem strange to those unfamiliar with the abortion debate, we must begin our analysis by inquiring into the nature of personhood. In order to do this, we need to make a distinction between what it means to be simply human and what it means to be a person. For example, we would want to differentiate a fully functioning reasonable person from a brain dead body that was slowly dying. In the latter case we may call the entity “human” as it is a body of a certain kind, although we may not call it a person as it lacks any cognitive function or ability to reason. Indeed, we must emphasize that it is the faculty of reason that differentiates people from all non-people. Although we share the majority of our genetics with apes, our bodies are physiologically very similar, and they even exhibit many human characteristics, apes are not people because they lack our developed faculty of reason.

Reason is the key differentiator of the human versus non-human and provides the basis for personhood. This is because reason is the human means of survival. Every action that a human takes requires reason to perform or required an application of reason when it was originally learned. Even learning about our own bodies and our physiological responses requires an application of reason to identify the phenomenon, discover its cause, and find a resolution. It is because reason is distinctive of humans that Aristotle called us the “rational animals”.

To be human is to be a rational animal: an entity possessing a certain kind of physiological constitution and the faculty of reason. This is the minimum condition necessary to identify any existent as a human. It is important to note that it is not the exercise of the faculty of reason that identifies an existent as human or not, but merely the possession of this faculty. As long as a being possesses the right kind of body and the faculty of reason, it is human.

Alternatively, to be a person requires a further condition. A person must be able to actualize their faculty of reason: they must be able to use their faculty of reason. Because of this condition for personhood, we must distinguish different classes of personhood. The three possibilities: a full person, a potential person, and the damaged cases.

Since a full person is a human who has full control of his faculty of reason, a potential person is a being who will become a full person through a natural process of growth and development. That is, unless prevented, this being will become a full person in the course of its natural development. Obviously, the only kind of being that is a potential person is an immature human: a child. It is because a child is a potential person, although not yet a full person, that they are accorded some rights and responsibilities of a full person, although with the understanding that they are not fully developed and, consequently, cannot assume full status as a person. Because of this, they are the responsibility of their parents until they are mature, since their existence is a consequence of their parent’s actions.

A damaged case person is differentiated from a potential person due to his inability to ever gain full control over his faculty of reason due to injury, defect, or retardation of development. Since a damaged case person has, and can only have, a limited use of his faculty of reason, he is less than a full person. To the extent that he can overcome his situation and develop his faculty of reason is the extent to which he is a person; where no such possibility exists, the being in question is not a person and has no rights or responsibilities as such.

Thus, we have drawn an important distinction between the classes of human and person , and also between different kinds of person. In each case we were able to categorize a being based on its faculty of reason and its use of that faculty. Let me stress that in each instance we were analyzing actually existing beings with discrete identities and independent existences, our discussion does not apply to beings not yet in existence. This caveat is important because not only is a fetus not yet a human, it is most certainly not yet a person. An unborn child is a potential human until such time as it is born and becomes an independent existence. Now that we understand the issue of personhood, we are in a better position to understand the issue of abortion.

Abortion is a medical procedure whereby a yet unborn child is purposely destroyed and caused to pass out of the body of the woman in whom it was developing. It is important to note that where there is no intent to achieve this end, the action cannot be called an abortion. For example, an fertilized egg that never implants in the uterus is not an abortion, nor is a miscarriage, nor is terminated pregnancy as an unintended consequence of another action (falling down, becoming ill, et cetera). Alternatively, a woman hitting herself in the stomach with the intention to cause her pregnancy to terminate could be classified as a form of abortion, since the woman is purposely trying to end her pregnancy with her action. Whereas a woman being hit in the stomach by another when neither party had any knowledge of the woman’s pregnancy cannot be construed as an abortion, since it could not have been the intent of either party to end a pregnancy of which neither had any knowledge.

While the specific situations that constitute abortion and non-abortion are innumerable and may require analysis, the principle is clear: abortion is the purposeful termination of pregnancy.

The primary question that we need to consider, in order to understand the ethical implications of abortion, is the reason that the woman is choosing to have an abortion. Let me emphasize this point, the primary question is not whether abortion is the destruction of a potential human life, but the reason the woman is choosing to have an abortion. Ethics is about how to live a good life, it is not applicable to non-entities or non-agents. The fact that a fetus might someday develop into a person does not change the fact that a fetus is not a person: the potential is not the actual. Let me concretize this particular point as it is pertinent: just because I have the physical ability to raise a gun, point it, and shoot a little old lady in the face (i.e. I have the potential to do this), does not mean that I would ever do such an action (i.e. actualize this potential). The discussion of what could have been or what might possibly be is inconsequential in the face of the discussion of what is. Thus, the question of the fetus is a non-issue from an ethical standpoint.

The entire ethical import of abortion rests solely on the woman and her reasons for having an abortion. However, before we enumerate the conditions under which abortion would be ethical and unethical, we must insist that no matter the ethical judgment of the woman, her right to her own body necessitates that abortion be a legal option for her. Even if it is judged that it would be immoral for this woman to have an abortion, she must still maintain her legal right to do so if she is to maintain her right to life and her status as a full person in society, as opposed to a slave to whom it can be dictated what she does.

We cannot here enumerate every conceivable situation under which a woman may seek to have an abortion, but we shall analyze some of the paradigm cases that are usually cited in these debates and then identify the relevant ethical principles.

The paradigm case that the advocates for abortion always raise is the issue of a woman who is raped and as a result becomes pregnant. They insist that since this act is so morally repugnant that any woman would certainly want to end this pregnancy as soon as possible. They see this case as one to which no person of conscience could object as everyone views rape as reprehensible. However, the relevant analysis would have to include the woman’s judgment of the situation.

The first fact of the matter is that no one’s future is predetermined. A child of rape has no more disposition to be a moral monster than any other. The primary reason that a woman would want to have an abortion in this case is because the rape itself was traumatic for her and she does not want to be constantly reminded of it. This by itself would justify an abortion in this case. However, it is easy to imagine to a woman who wants to overcome the trauma in her life by continuing the pregnancy and raising the child to be a good person, thus demonstrating to herself her ability to overcome even the worst of problems and justifying her belief that any person can choose to be good.

In general, we can note a number of criteria that are applicable to any woman’s judgment of whether she should have an abortion. First, and most importantly, is the impact on the woman’s future and whether having a child will disrupt her life plans. For example, a woman who wants to be a doctor, and will have to work her way through medical school in order to pay for it, may not in a position to have a child. If the woman judges that she can do all of this, then she could reasonably wish to have her baby. However, if the woman judges the situation to be either/or, then she must choose which outcome is more important to her and what kind of life she would like. This kind of decision is momentous in a life and will change this woman’s future.

Since we only have one life to live, she must carefully decide how she wants to spend it. A woman deciding that having a baby would destroy her future is ethically justified in having an abortion, whereas this same woman deciding to have the baby anyway is not ethically justified and this decision would be unethical. Alternatively, a woman deciding that having the child is more important to her than any other alternative is ethically justified in having the baby, whereas the same woman deciding to get an abortion is not ethically justified and this decision would be unethical.

The second criterion, although often mistaken for the first, is whether the woman will be able to support the future child. This question must come second as it is irrelevant if the woman decides that having a child would destroy the possibility of the life she wants to lead. It is, however, an important question. If a woman must work full time to support herself and cannot expect assistance from anyone else, deciding to have a child will impact her ability to feed herself and make it impossible to care for the child. A woman must judge whether she has the resources, or can reasonably expect to acquire the resources, that will allow her to care for herself during pregnancy and to care for the baby once it is born. A woman deciding that she does not have, and cannot reasonably expect to acquire, the resources that would allow her to have a child is ethically justified in deciding to have an abortion. If this same woman decided to have the baby, this would be unethical, as she is abdicating her responsibility to care for herself and her child and is willfully putting herself at the mercy of others: she is abdicating her independence.

The third criterion is whether the woman is making the judgment concerning the possibility of abortion herself or whether she is merely doing what others tell her to do. Given that this decision will affect the rest of this woman’s life and that it is her alone who must bear the consequences of it, she must make this decision herself. This is not to say that she should not consult others if she needs more information, for to make a decision out of ignorance is a folly unto itself. However, although she may ask others for information, she must ultimately judge this information herself and come to her own conclusions.

The fourth criterion is more of a caveat, but it can invalidate the other criteria. It is immoral, under all circumstances and for any reason, for a woman to treat abortion as a light form of contraception. A contraceptive is used to prevent a pregnancy. Today we have many contraceptive options like intra-uterinal devices (IUD’s), hormonal birth control pills, birth control patches, condoms, et cetera. Abortion is dramatically different from contraception: abortion is used to terminate a pregnancy. There are no conditions under which the use of contraception is immoral, unless the contraception were to act by harming either potential parent (and this does not include surgeries to that end). However, the use of abortion as contraception is a reprehensible example of irresponsibility and irrationality.

I call the use of abortion as contraception as follows: a woman who has serial abortions whenever she becomes pregnant, when she purposely engages in sexual intercourse without the use of contraception and with no regard for the possible outcome. It is not that I object to a woman having one abortion, even if her pregnancy is her own fault. Given the appalling state of ignorance about sexuality and contraception in our cultures, through the efforts of religious groups to suppress this information, it is all too easy for a woman to become pregnant unexpectedly; especially when she is young. However, after learning that sexual intercourse leads to pregnancy, ceteris paribus, a woman should either abstain from intercourse until such time as she desires a child or take precaution to prevent pregnancy through the use of contraception. Relying on abortion as a means to terminate a string of pregnancies through the carelessness and irresponsibility of the woman is unethical. It should, however, remain legal.

It is important to note that it is not the fact that the woman is having multiple abortions that makes this situation unethical: it is the woman’s irresponsibility and irrationality. If a woman were to need multiple abortions because her form of contraception kept failing, although she was conscientiously trying to employ contraception, then this is in no way unethical. Let us imagine a situation where a young woman becomes pregnant because she was ignorant of how to prevent pregnancy and so has an abortion to terminate it. Afterwards the woman begins using condoms and later has a condom break, although it was used correctly, and consequently becomes pregnant and has another abortion. Let us then suppose that the woman tries a hormonal birth control pill and although she takes the as prescribed, still becomes pregnant and decides to get another abortion. We can, in no way, judge this woman to be immoral even though she is having serial abortions because she is being responsible and rational and trying to take measures to prevent the pregnancy. It is not serial abortions that are unethical; it is the use of abortion as a form of contraception.

Now that we have identified criteria with which to judge the decision to have an abortion, let us abstract the broad ethical principles at work here. The relevant ethical principle is this: abortion is an ethical alternative for a woman if her life would be reasonably improved by the action. We have seen the criteria to relevant to understand this principle, in what ways the woman’s life would be reasonably improved, and in which ways abortion can be used ethically and unethically. Abortion is not so simple of an issue as either those who consider themselves “pro-life” or “pro-choice” believe it to be. It is important to remember also that the abortion debate, if it must continue, must focus only on the woman involved as she is the only ethical agent in the situation.

There are a number of other loose ends that we must now, to continue the metaphor, tie up. For example, what is the moral status of the potential father and what role does he play in the decision whether to have an abortion? Certainly our above analysis has focused only on the woman involved and has given no role to others in the decision. This is because it is the woman who must carry and bear the child: it is her life that will be principally impacted. Although the potential father may reasonably attempt to influence the mother one way or another, he can have no moral right to insist that a woman carry a child against her will. To give the potential father this right would be to destroy the woman’s right to her own life.

A more interesting question is this: if the potential father advocates that the woman get an abortion and the woman decides to have the child, is the father responsible for it? The answer here is not simple. Given that the man knows that having sex with the woman can result in pregnancy, if a pregnancy occurs he can be reasonably expected to be responsible for his actions. However, if the couple takes precaution against pregnancy and, nonetheless, the woman still becomes pregnant, the situation is less clear. In this situation his responsibility is determined by the context of the situation. In situations where it would be ethical for the woman to decide to keep the child, the man can be held responsible and reasonably expected to help to provide and care for it. In situations where it would be unethical for the woman to decide to keep the child, the man is absolved of his responsibility as no one can reasonably be expected to be shackled to the irrationality and irresponsibility of another. Thus is the extent of the potential father’s role in abortion and the extent of his responsibility for the child. It should, however, be noted that for a rational woman in a good relationship, her lover’s happiness is partly constitutive of her own and, therefore, she should consider the full impact of having a child on both her, her lover, and their relationship and not merely herself in isolation. If the woman values her lover and their relationship, it would be irrational for her not to include him in the full context of her decision.

Ultimately, the situation of abortion is not one for which blanket rules of right and wrong can be made. To understand the ethical implications of abortion, one must undertake a nuanced analysis of the entire context of the woman and her life and only then can a conclusion be reached about the ethical status of a decision. However, no matter whether an abortion is judged to be moral, it must remain legal if women are to retain their right to life and their status as full persons in society. If we illegalize abortion, then every woman’s body becomes property of state and they are deprived of all rights. A person without the right to his own life has no basis for any other rights and becomes no more than a slave of those who do possess the right to his existence.

3 Responses to “Truly Pro-Life: Personhood and Abortion”

  1. Erosophia

    […] For a fuller account of my position on abortion, see my essay “Truly Pro-Life: Personhood and Abortion“. […]

  2. Erosophia

    […] I recommend going and reading the whole thing.  I wouldn’t call the arguments original, except #5, but it’s well put together. If you want my take on abortion, see my somewhat older essay “Truly Pro-Life: Personhood and Abortion“. […]

  3. Sexuality and Privacy at Erosophia

    […] a person to choose between options they might not want: carrying a child to term or getting an abortion.  Even with sexual technique, trial and error isn’t a great option.  Most people know little to […]