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What Is the Liberal Argument Against Abortion?

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McDonagh's basic argument is captured without too much slippage in a few basic analogies, the first of which appears in the affirmative presentation of the argument in her book, and the remainder in her responses to objections, and some of which are elaborated more carefully in her forthcoming law review article. The first analogy I've already noted. A nonconsensual pregnancy, McDonagh argues, is basically analogous to an assault by a born person in need of body parts, an assault against which one clearly has both the right to defend oneself and a legitimate expectation that the state will assist in that self defense.

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Abortion, Bill Clinton once said, should be safe, legal, and rare. The quote is quintessential Clinton: liberal, but not too liberal; feminism moderated by a touch of good old common sense. You can still buy bumper stickers with his quote on it, if you want to tell the world that women should control their own bodies — in the right circumstances. Clinton hasn’t been president since 2001, and pro-choice advocates have disavowed such timid language in the years since his departure. But the notion that abortion is sad, a thing to be avoided and disliked, persists. We’re all pro-life, Alyssa Milano told Chris Cuomo, not long after Georgia governor Brian Kemp signed a bill that would, if it goes into effect, ban abortions after six weeks. It’s unwise, probably, to pay much attention to Milano. Her fame does not make her a spokesperson for feminism. But her opinion is not as unusual among liberals as it should be, and that makes her difficult to ignore. Consider the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, now fundraising for Representative Dan Lipinski as if he’s a regular incumbent. But despite being a Democrat, Lipinski vehemently opposes abortion rights. The party is working against its most important pro-choice allies in a district that a more progressive candidate could realistically win

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.

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There is a cogent reply to this objection. If argument of the early part of this essay is correct, then the central issue concerning the morality of abortion is the problem of whether fetuses are individuals who are members of the class of individuals whom it is seriously presumptively wrong to kill

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.

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All in all, since liberals refuse to assign any particular moral significance to the embryo or fetus, their defense of abortion appears morally impoverished and squanders the opportunity to affirm the importance of women's equal autonomy to make weighty moral decisions. The way out of the doldrums is for both sides to seek reflective equilibrium and to appeal to public reason on abortion

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.

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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).

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