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Abortion and the personhood of the fetus

In my post last week I addressed the idea that uncertainty about the personhood of a human embryo or fetus should lead us to think that we should refrain from causing harm to any entity that might be a person. Therefore, if we are uncertain about whether a human embryo or fetus is a person we should protect that embryo or fetus in case it is a person.

One of my students, Mark Taylor, wrote a paper this spring in the Medical Ethics class I teach that took a different approach to the disagreement in our society about the personhood of the human fetus in relation to the issue of abortion. In contrast to Judith Jarvis Thomson who took the position that abortion should be permissible even if the fetus is a person, he suggested that there are reasons to consider abortion impermissible even if the fetus is not a person.

His arguments are based on the idea that the impermissibility of an action is based more on the moral obligations of the person performing the action than on the rights of the object being acted upon. He presented an argument from aesthetics and virtue and an argument from justice that supported the position that abortion is impermissible even if the fetus is not a person. The first argument says that a fetus is a complex human organism which is a thing of beauty which has been created in most cases by an action chosen by the mother which was known to lead to the creation of such a beautiful being. To choose an abortion would be an irrational act that would be wrong in the same way that it would be wrong to create a great work of art only to destroy it. It would also violate the virtue of responsibility by engaging in an action know to add beauty to the world only to destroy that which is beautiful rather that caring for it. This argument only applies to the abortion of pregnancies that result from consensual sex, but those make up the vast majority of abortions. He argues that failure of contraception does not negate this argument since it is know that contraception is not foolproof.

The argument from justice is based on Rawls’ concept of justice as fairness and the use of the veil of ignorance. Central to Rawls’ system is the idea that a just society is one in which a person who does not know what role he or she will play in that society would judge the society to be fair. Taylor argues that one of those roles that the one judging the fairness of the society might assume behind the veil is the role of the fetus. Even if the fetus is not a person, we all go through the stage of being a fetus so just as the person behind the veil might take on the role of a child the role of the fetus should also be considered in whether the society is just. If the role of fetus is one that the one judging the fairness of the society may assume then it would not be concluded that if would be just to allow a fetus to be aborted.

These arguments suggest the possibility of being able to argue for the impermissibility of abortion no matter what position is taken on the personhood of the fetus. If the fetus is a person then the traditional arguments against of killing an innocent person apply. If we do not know whether a fetus is a person then we should refrain from killing an entity that could be a person. If the fetus is not a person there are still reasons why a person would have a duty not to destroy the fetus based on obligations of virtue and justice that are not dependent on fetal rights or personhood.

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