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The Abortion Argument

The Abortion Argument
Dave Dyer

Discussions about abortion are typically fruitless. It is rare for someone to change their mind and much more common for both sides to repeat slogans and get angry. They dissolve into religious debates or speculation about when, if ever, a fetus becomes a person.

This essay is an attempt to present an argument, or more accurately, a thought experiment, that should clarify your thinking and simplify your discussions on this topic. I do not claim to have solved the issue once and for all, but do think that most people will agree with me on the results of this thought experiment. Best of all, there is no religious content in my approach. People of any or no religious background can agree with my approach.

The most fundamental question on abortion is whether or not a fetus has rights. If you think that a fetus has rights, then the next step is to decide how the legal system should protect those rights and balance them against other considerations. On the other hand, if a fetus has no rights, there is no reason for any legal protection.

What does it mean to have rights? I don’t have a full theory of rights, but, luckily, that is not required to have a reasonable opinion about whether something does or does not have rights. I can tell that something is blue without having a complete theory about how various wavelengths of light produce the colors that I see. The term can be used properly by people who can’t provide a detailed explanation of its meaning.

Here is a good test of whether you think something has rights: Do you naturally want to consider the impact of your actions on the thing? Does it have some independent value of its own that is not dependent on people who may care about the thing? For example, if I wanted to paint my car purple, I might think about whether people would think I was silly, but that is about me, not the car itself. I don’t have to consider the rights of the car because I don’t think it has any. On the other hand, if I wanted to paint my dog purple, it would be natural to consider the effect on the dog, not just what people would think of me. That shows, I think, that the dog has a right to continue as it is unmolested in its current state. My worry about painting the dog is about the dog, not just about me. On the other hand, my worry about painting the car is only about me, not the car itself. The dog needs to be taken into consideration on its own; the car doesn’t.

Once you agree that it is natural to think that my dog has rights, then you have agreed that things other than humans can have rights. In certain cases, perhaps some inanimate objects can also have rights. Art objects, historical documents, archaeological sites or wilderness areas are often considered to have a value in themselves independent of the value they provide to humans. Reasonable people may disagree in specific cases, but that issue does not need to be resolved in order to advance my argument. My point here is that if things other than persons can have rights, we do not need to determine whether or not a fetus is a person in order to determine whether or not it has rights. That removes one of the contentious sticking points from discussions of abortion. The discussion can be about whether or not a fetus has rights without coming to a decision about whether or not it is a person.

Now for my thought experiment to help you clarify your views.

First, imagine a 24 year-old lady who wants to go bungee jumping. How would you feel about that? Well, as they say, it is her body and she can do what she wants. It may not be wise or safe, but nobody’s rights are being violated. Your comment might be, “Go ahead and do something risky if you want to”.

Now, consider that this same young lady intends to go bungee jumping while holding a can of beans. You would probably say, “Go ahead. What difference does a can of beans make?”

Next, imagine that she wants to bungee jump while holding a puppy. Your reaction would probably be more like, “Hey, what are you doing that for? Why put that puppy in danger?” That shows, I think, that you intuitively think that the puppy has some right to continue in existence as it is and that it has some value that is independent of the enjoyment that it may bring to its owner.

Finally, imagine that the same 24 year-old lady is 4 months pregnant and wants to go bungee jumping. Your reaction would probably be a lot stronger. “Hey, what a dumb thing to do!! Don’t you realize how dangerous that would be?” Your worry is about what might happen to the fetus, not the mother. This shows that we intuitively assign some rights to the fetus; it has some value independent of the mother. Risking it for some frivolous bungee jumping activity would be wrong.

I don’t claim to prove that fetuses have rights; I am just trying to show that most people, if they think about the issue clearly with the help of my thought experiment, will agree that they have rights. They still could be wrong. Actually proving that someone or something has rights would require a full theory of rights and I am not trying to solve that issue here. I am just arguing on a more practical, less theoretical, level. I am more concerned with the common every-day discussions that people have about their abortion issues.

Let’s suppose that you agree with my reaction to this thought experiment; you think a fetus has some rights. Notice that this conclusion is not based on the fetus being a person and it is not dependent on any particular religious belief. The experiment is designed to isolate your basic human instincts and give people of diverse backgrounds a basis for discussing the abortion issue.

However, once we agree that a fetus has rights, that does not mean that we have resolved all the moral and legal questions around abortion. The rights of others, especially the mother, must also be taken into consideration. Agreeing that the fetus has rights does not mean that nobody else does. An abortion to save the mother’s life is not the same as an abortion for convenience. Each case would need to be evaluated on its merits. But agreeing that the fetus has rights eliminates some of these simplistic slogans about the fetus being nothing but a part of a woman’s body. These slogans can give people an excuse to make decisions without thinking about them clearly; recognizing and balancing the rights of the fetus should generate more responsible discussions of this difficult topic without presupposing some particular religious belief.