My "public engagement" on the topic of abortion has, from the beginning, been motivated by the thought that abortion is a complex issue that philosophers actually know a lot about. So, if more people understood abortion the ways philosophers do, discussions of it might be better and we might actually make more progress on the issue, in terms of how it's generally understood and engaged.
So here is a quick discussion of some of the core issues that can serve as an introductory overview of the topic.
Many people ask, "Are fetuses alive, living or life?" and are otherwise obsessed with the question, "When does life begin?"
The clear and obvious answer here though is, "Yes, fetuses are biologically alive: they possess the characteristics of living things, reviewed on page 1 of any beginning biology textbook." (How could anyone deny that?)
But is this true? All things that are biologically alive, living, or life are prima facie wrong to kill.
("Prima facie" is a useful phrase that philosophers use that basically means, "in most circumstances": it contrasts with "always," or "necessarily." It's useful because it allows us to set aside various "whatabout?" questions about extreme, very usual situations).
No, not at all. Uncontroversial counterexamples are easy to find: bacteria, mold, plants, etc. So it is not true that all things that are biologically alive, living, or life are prima facie wrong to kill. That was a core premise of the argument and it's false.
Now, maybe people mean something different when they say they are concerned about whether fetuses are "life," but this is the language they use: if they mean something more specific, they should say that: they can and should learn to better state their own views. They can and should learn more about the topic so they can better discuss it.
Note: there is another meaning of “alive, living or life.” For example, Howard Thurman wrote, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” By "come alive," he clearly didn't mean biologically alive: he meant something like that you have found something you are passionate about or a chosen purpose. Something like this is another meaning of "being alive" and the like.
While it's true that anything "alive" in this meaning or sense of the term is prima facie wrong to kill, fetuses are not "alive" on this meaning, despite being biologically alive.
People often ask this question, "Are fetuses human?" "Yes, they are biologically human! They aren't feline or bovine fetuses: they are biologically human." (How could anyone deny that?).
But is this true? All things that are biologically human are prima facie wrong to kill.
No. A blob of random, living human skin cells wouldn't be wrong to kill. A living human toe wouldn't be wrong to kill. So this premise, a core premise to this argument, is false: it is not true that all things that are biologically human are prima facie wrong to kill.
Now, again, maybe people mean something different when they say they are concerned about whether fetuses are "human," but this is the language they often use: if they mean something more specific, they should say that: they can and should learn to better state their own views. They can and should learn more about the topic so they can do just that.
3. A HUMAN, HUMANS, HUMAN ORGANISMS
Is each fetus a human? Are fetuses humans?
These terms sound like more than being merely biologically human: this is a step in a better direction since we know that something merely being biologically human is insufficient for it being even morally significant, much less having something like the right to life.
Perhaps what is meant then is the question: "Are fetuses biologically human organisms?" And, again, "Yes! The fetuses in question are biologically human, and they are organisms: they aren't parts of organisms: they are organisms, although dependent organisms." (How could anyone deny that?)
But is this true? All things that are biologically human organisms are prima facie wrong to kill.
Here is where things start getting abstract and challenging. This is where many people "fall off the wagon" in terms of being willing and able to productively discuss the issues.
This premise takes us to these questions:
- what makes or would make biologically human organisms wrong to kill?
- we are biologically human organisms (or, to many, it seems like that's what we are!), but are we usually wrong to kill because we are biologically human organisms? (We are also less than 10 feet tall and weigh less than 2000 pounds and are made of cells, etc. but that's not why we are wrong to kill).
These are abstract questions. We don't often ask these questions in "daily life," but potential answers need to be identified and reviewed if we want to think about this topic in serious, informed ways.
Many of the what are often viewed as best-developed and most plausible answers here are going to appeal to human organisms' having minds or mental lives or consciousness or awareness and feelings. This type of answer, however, isn't going to readily apply to at least beginning fetuses though, since they lack that.
Now, there are alternative views that will appeal to something potential for having a mind, or being the kind of being that is a conscious, sentient being, and these theories need to be reviewed and carefully evaluated.
So, in sum, thinking about abortion leads us to the abstract question of what makes us prima facie wrong to kill or why we are prima facie wrong to kill. Most people haven't studied the variety of answers to this question and their potential strengths and weaknesses. Most people haven't studied how you would evaluate answers to these questions or have developed trained skills at doing that. But having this understanding and these skills would help with this, and these are gained in philosophy courses.
4. HUMAN BEINGS
It's often asked, "Are fetuses human beings?" Again, it depends on what you mean by “human beings”! If "human being" means "biologically human organism" then, "yes," but, as we've seen above, there are live, relevant questions about what makes human organisms have, say, basic moral rights (to life, etc.).
I suspect though that by "human being" many people mean more than just "biologically human organism." There can be cases (say cases of brain death or permanent coma) where someone would say, "There's a biologically human organism here, but not a human being." Some people do talk that way and so I think there's another meaning of "human being," which is likely better expressed by "human person."
5. HUMAN PERSONS
It's often asked, "Are fetuses (human) persons?" Depends on what you mean by “persons”!
To answer this question though, we can ask this: "You are a person: why are you a person? What makes you a person?"
To answer this, we can think about when and why our personhood could end: death? Brain death? Permanent coma? These all involve the permanent loss of consciousness, which suggests a key aspect to being a person is being a conscious being. (A further data point is that to "personify" something is to give it a mind, with awareness, thoughts, feelings, and so on; this suggests that these are, roughly, the traits of persons).
But beginning fetuses do not have minds: they are not conscious or aware. So they would not seem to be persons, given what persons seem to be like.
6. POTENTIAL PERSONS
Are fetuses potential beings with goals, desires, dreams, etc.? Are they potential persons? Often, yes.
But is this true? If X is a potential Y, then X should be treated now like an actual Y. No.
So something being a potential person does not seem to result in it having the rights of a person or it being that we must treat it like a person.
7. THE RIGHT TO LIFE
Do fetuses have the right to life that would make killing them wrong? Two questions:
- Why would they have that? What makes something have that right?
- Does the right to life include the right to someone else’s body, even if you need that body to live?
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