What Is the Liberal Argument Against Abortion?
Were I still Evangelical, and still longed to end abortion, I’d have many reasons to celebrate. When your enemies pick up your arguments and tolerate your allies in their midst, you can be relatively confident that you’ve achieved the social and political dominance that you’ve worked toward for years. Milano and the DCCC have walked directly into a trap that abortion opponents set for them, and they don’t even seem to realize what they’ve done. Anything less but the prioritization of women over the pregnancies they carry cedes ground the left cannot afford to lose.
The properties of being human and alive, of being a person, and of having an FLO are criteria that participants in the abortion debate have offered to mark off the relevant class of individuals. The central claim of this essay is that having an FLO marks off the relevant class of individuals. A defender of the FLO view could, therefore, reply that since, at the time of contraception, there is no individual to have an FLO, the FLO account does not entail that contraception is wrong. The wrong of killing is primarily a wrong to the individual who is killed; at the time of contraception there is no individual to be wronged. However, someone who presses the contraception objection might have an answer to this reply. She might say that the sperm and egg are the individuals deprived of an FLO at the time of contraception. Thus, there are individuals whom contraception deprives of an FLO and if depriving an individual of an FLO is what makes killing wrong, then the FLO theory entails that contraception is wrong. There is also a reply to this move (McInerney, P., 1990). In the case of abortion, an objectively determinate individual is the subject of harm caused by the loss of an FLO. This individual is a fetus. In the case of contraception, there are far more candidates (see Norcross, 1990). Let us consider some possible candidates in order of the increasing number of individuals harmed: (1) The single harmed individual might be the combination of the particular sperm and the particular egg that would have united to form a zygote if contraception had not been used. (2) The two harmed individuals might be the particular sperm itself, and, in addition, the ovum itself that would have physically combined to form the zygote. (This is modeled on the double homicide of two persons who would otherwise in a short time fuse. (1) is modeled on harm to a single entity some of whose parts are not physically contiguous, such as a university. (3) The many harmed individuals might be the millions of combinations of sperm and the released ovum whose (small) chances of having an FLO were reduced by the successful contraception. (4) The even larger class of harmed individuals (larger by one) might be the class consisting of all of the individual sperm in an ejaculate and, in addition, the individual ovum released at the time of the successful contraception. (1) through (4) are all candidates for being the subject(s) of harm in the case of successful contraception or abstinence from sex. Which should be chosen? Should we hold a lottery? There seems to be no non-arbitrarily determinate subject of harm in the case of successful contraception. But if there is no such subject of harm, then no determinate thing was harmed (Noonan, J., 1970). If no determinate thing was harmed, then (in the case of contraception) no wrong has been done. Thus, the FLO account of the wrongness of abortion does not entail that contraception is wrong.
Once the distracting and misleading question of embryonic and fetal personhood is taken off the table, a more robust and fruitful debate is possible, one that could actually reveal common ground in this age-old controversy.
McInerney, P., "Does a Fetus Already Have a Future like Ours?," Journal of Philosophy 87 (1990): 264-8.
Noonan, J., "An Almost Absolute Value in History," in The Morality of Abortion, ed. J. Noonan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970).
Norcross, A., "Killing, Abortion, and Contraception: a Reply to Marquis," Journal of Philosophy 87 (1990): 268-77.
Paske, G., "Abortion and the Neo-natal Right to Life: a Critique of Marquis's Futurist Argument," The Abortion Controversy: A Reader, ed. L. P. Pojman and F. J. Beckwith (Boston: Jones and Bartlett, 1994), pp. 343-53.
Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, Declaration on Euthanasia (Vatican City, 1980).