In response to the growing hostility toward discussion of the abortion issue on campus and dissolution into name-calling, as seen in the impressively consistent vandalism of Harvard Right to Life’s poster campaigns, I’d like to present a philosophical argument for the pro-life position. HRL’s innocuous “Smile, your mom chose life.” posters have been ripped down within hours of posting almost without exception. At a school where free speech and diversity are valued so highly, this is a travesty. However, it seems to follow from the fact that the Harvard community limits its dialogue about abortion to religion and politics. I will set these aside to address the ethics of the situation, without which reasonable discussion is impossible.
The reason there is so much tension and so little understanding between individuals of differing opinions on the abortion issue is that the two sides approach it from completely different angles. The “pro-choice” side emphasizes women and their rights while the pro-life side focuses on the other person involved. We can all agree that women should have control over their bodies—but it is imperative to determine whether or not a second person is involved before we can talk about women’s rights.
The philosophical argument for life has two simple premises one from natural value and one from natural science.
The premise based on natural value is that all human beings have the right to life because they are human. Surprisingly enough, this is the premise that most pro-abortion philosophers will disagree with in the modern debate—they will deny universal values altogether and argue instead that values are simply subjective.
The premise based on natural science is that the life of each individual mammal begins at conception. Modern science has made it nearly impossible to defend the view that the fetus is not human, considering that from the moment of conception it has human DNA, so the issue centers on personhood. If the human is a person only when neurologically functioning as a human, then by that same argument it would be permissible to kill people while they are in deep sleep, in comas, or mentally handicapped. Similar arguments can be made for location and viability. The only time when we can consistently argue the human fetus becomes a person is when he or she becomes human: at conception.
The most compelling argument for abortion is denying that the fetus is a person. If one can do this absolutely, then abortion is not wrong. If one rejects one of the above premises, I’d like to ask him to consider the following quadrilemma. We begin with two new premises: The fetus is a person or is not a person, and we either know it or we don’t know it. We end up with four possible outcomes.
In the first case, the fetus is a person and we know it, so abortion is the deliberate killing of an innocent person. In this case, abortion is murder and therefore is always wrong. Alternatively, if the fetus is a person, but we don’t know it, then abortion is killing a person unintentionally—manslaughter. Even if the fetus is not a person, but we don’t know it, abortion qualifies as criminal negligence. Without perfect certainty that the fetus is not a person, doing anything to endanger its potential personhood is morally indefensible. Only in the final case, if the fetus is not a person and we know it definitively, is abortion morally permissible.
Therefore, if we can’t prove or disprove the personage of the fetus, the strongest argument of the pro-abortion viewpoint becomes one of the strongest philosophical defenses for the pro-life position. Abortion can only be permissible if the fetus is definitively not a person. Those who are pro-life believe that the fetus is a person, but even those who are skeptical of this point should not be advocates of abortion. And those who think they do know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the fetus is not human should engage in meaningful dialogue instead of throwing tantrums, calling names, and ripping down posters.
Aurora C. Griffin ’14, a classics concentrator, lives in Pforzheimer House. She is a member of Harvard Right to Life.