Philosophical Missteps


Margaret Sanger in The Day Book, Volume 4, Number 141, March 13, 1915

From Prospect:

The anti-abortionists have deployed an effective strategy, keeping a relentless focus on the ethical question at the core of issue: what is the moral status of a foetus? They have talked powerfully of the taking of innocent human life, something everyone is against.

Instead of directly rebutting these arguments, however, the pro-choice lobby—as its name suggests—has generally ignored them and tried instead to base its case on the woman’s right to choose. This is a serious philosophical misstep. A woman only has a right to choose if that choice is ethically permissible. Otherwise, a woman has no more right to choose an abortion than she does to shoot an irritating neighbour. No appeal to freedom of choice can transform an act of murder into a surgical procedure.

Pro-choicers also dodge the core issue when they argue that restrictions on abortion are attempts by men to control the bodies of women. There is a lot of truth in this—although it rings hollow in the ears of the many women who oppose abortion. But an attack on the assumed, unprovable psychological or political motives of opponents of abortion is not an attack on their arguments.

If you win the argument that the “unborn child” is—up to around 20-24 weeks at least—still only a potential person and not an actual one, abortion can no longer be equated with murder. Only then does it become a question of the rights of the woman to make her own choices about her body.

Anti-abortionists might still worry about the erosion of the sanctity of life and the slippery slopes that could lead to infanticide, or that the routine abortion of the disabled will diminish the status of disabled children and adults. These objections should not be ignored. Everyone should be concerned to ensure that legal abortion does not have these unintended consequences. But they are not fundamental objections to abortion itself and each of them can be met with a convincing response.

“What philosophy can tell us about the right to abortion”, Julian Baggini, Prospect


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