We now turn from the wild and exciting world of technologically-assisted creation of human life, to the very somber topic of ending early human life. To get a handle on how we can go about having this conversation, check out this short video by Dr. Little.
What Dr. Little helpfully points out is that there are more difficult questions here than is often admitted. Many people think that the permissibility of abortion rests on a question of moral status; and surely they are right that the question of status matters. But what we must recognize is that there is a further issue, which is that abortion is not merely an action that affects some individual with moral status; but rather, it is the ending of gestation, or what we will eventually call the refusal of intimate assistance. In short, both the status of the fetus or embryo, and the fact of embodied gestation, matter to the morality of the issue. With that in mind, let’s turn to the first of these issues: status.
In the first video by Dr. Little, we will take a look at views that grant early human life full moral status.
Now, the most obvious — at least in society — full moral status view is the Catholic view, which is a version of the Natural Law account of moral status. This view has serious pedigree, formulated powerfully by St. Thomas Aquinas, who in turn was inspired by Aristotle. It is no wonder that it has such an influence in the church. However, there are other versions of the full moral status view as well. One mentioned by Dr. Little — the ‘Future Like Ours’, or FLO view — was articulated by philosopher Don Marquis. Read his complete article here.
Although popular in the church, Marquis, in the article above, claims that full moral status views have received fairly little philosophical support in recent years, and that seems right. More philosophers seem to believe something like the view that early human life has modest moral status. Dr. Little explains this view below.
The view that early human life has modest status is in one way quite understandable; but the details of the argument can be difficult to grasp. The gradualist view, in particular, can cause us some trouble in understanding. Towards rectifying that difficulty, read Warren Quinn’s defense of gradualism.
I said at the beginning of this unit that settling the question of moral status does not settle the question of abortion, for there is a rather important little detail in the case of abortion — namely, that the being the moral status of which we are debating is inside a woman. In these next two videos, then, Dr. Little explores some nuances in navigating the jump from moral status to permissibility judgments. In the first video, she considers that gestating a fetus amounts to providing ‘intimate assistance’ to another being.
The argument presented by Dr. Little in this video was first made famous by Judith Jarvis Thompson; you’ll want to read that complete argument here before moving on. However, there is an even more extreme position available, and that is what Dr. Little will present in her final video of this section.
The view described here, that abortion is always permissible, is actually a nuanced one, since permissibility doesn’t imply freedom from criticism. And I’ll let you in on a little secret: the position is Dr. Little’s own, published in a series of quite well-known articles. For more insight into her view, read her most current articulation of the view in this article titled “The Moral Permissibility of Abortion.”
The possibility of terminating a pregnancy raises more issues than just concerning the permissibility of the act, simpliciter. One important set of moral questions is raised by the fact that we can choose to abort (or otherwise prevent early life, by failing to implant a fertilized embryo) in systematic ways, or for particular reasons.
On the one hand, this possibility takes us back to the topic of disability, as preventing early life from continuing is a common response to finding out that the resulting child will be disabled. That is: if genetic testing on a fertilized embryo, or routine prenatal testing during pregnancy, reveals likely disability, then the common response is either preventing the implantation of the embryo, or aborting the fetus. Disability theorists have serious concerns about this pattern, which Dr. Kukla discusses below.
Of the four arguments Dr. Kukla presents on behalf of disability theorists, we will focus on the hotly contested ‘expressivist critique’. For a defense of this argument, read this article.
On the other, far side of the debate over selective abortion, there is a view that morality recommends promoting only that early human life that is likely to turn out well. Although the argument tends to focus on pre-implantation genetic diagnosis during IVF rather than routine prenatal testing, the general argument is in support of the claim that parents ought to choose, when they can, to have the child that has the best chances of living a good life. And this same argument could be used equally to recommend aborting a sub-optimal fetus in the same way that it recommends implanting only the optimal embryos. The champion of this view, which is known as ‘Procreative Beneficence’, is Julian Savalescu. Read his argument for the view here.
Cheery stuff, eh? Don’t worry; now we can move on to happier topics, like whether there is anything we can do to prevent global catastrophe for humans in the near future. Yay!