Chapter 8 : Abortion


Mary Anne Warren: On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion

fetus is similar to a "guppy" for a person to be a member of a moral community there must be 5 traits:

consciousness, reasoning, self motivating, communicative and possessed of self concept


Outline by  Don Berkich,  University of Texas, Corpus Christi (by permission)

Synopsis: We began our investigation into abortion by evaluating what most people consider to be the key premise in the abortion debate: the "the fetus is a person" premise. What we found, of course, was that arguments against the personhood status of the fetus were unsound - at least those that we considered were unsound - and arguments for the personhood status of the fetus were also unsound. We concluded that we simply didn't know whether or not the fetus is a person.

Preferring to err on the side of caution, we decided to assume, just for the sake of argument, that the fetus is a person. Assuming that the fetus is a person, we found that abortion is permissible in the vast majority of cases: cases where the pregnant woman's life is endangered, cases where the pregnancy was due to rape, cases where contraception failed, and, perhaps (!), cases where pregnancy results from having unprotected sex while in a state of diminished capacity - while drunk, for instance. The conclusion was if the fetus is a person, then abortion is morally permissible in all cases except, possibly, those cases where the mother has explicitly assumed a special responsibility for the life of the fetus, as in cases where the mother intentionally becomes pregnant. This, note, is a profound result which does not at all concur with the intuitions of those who appear to think that if the fetus is a person, then abortion is clearly morally impermissible.

What if the fetus isn't a person?

According to Warren, it is possible to show that the fetus in fact is not a person and thus abortion is in all cases permissible. Her argument has the advantage over Thomson's of being quite straightforward, even though some found her conclusions to be morally unpalatable. The problem for Warren is whether in fact the fetus fails to meet the criteria she provides for personhood, even granting that these are the correct criteria. Some argued that we simply don't know and that it is a matter for science. There are two problems with this. First, the question of which properties are essential for personhood is a non-empirical question. No experiments will uncover these properties. The only way to get at them is to try to understand, a priori, what the property of being a person is, and that is an ongoing chore for philosophy. The second problem is that, even if we have a list of properties essential for a thing to be a person, they tend not to be empirically testable. Perhaps, then, there is a problem with our conception of personhood?

Warren's Theses:

  • Noonan is correct in holding that the key issue in the abortion debate is whether or not the fetus is a person.

  • Thomson's arguments are helpful, but it's not clear that we should share Thomson's intuition about, for example, the permissibility of unhooking oneself from the Famous Unconscious Violinist.

  • Abortion is neither an extremely unfortunate nor a morally serious act, as it would be--even when justifiable vis-a-vis Thomson's arguments--if the fetus were a person.

  • The fetus is not a person.

  • Abortion is morally permissible even in the case of late term abortion of a pregnancy which might inconvenience a vacation.

5 Necessary Conditions on Personhood

  1. Consciousness (of objects and events external and/or internal to the being), and in particular the capacity to feel pain.

  2. Reasoning (the developed capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems).

  3. Self-motivated activity (activity which is relatively independent of either genetic or direct external control).

  4. The capacity to communicate, by whatever means, messages of an indefinite variety of types, that is, not just with an indefinite number of possible contents, but on indefinitely many possible topics.

  5. The presence of self-concepts, and self-awareness, either individual or racial, or both.

Claim: No being which fails to meet all 5 conditions can possibly be a person, although it may be the case that a being could meet only some of the 5 conditions and still be a person.



If X fails to meet all five conditions on personhood, then X is not a person.



The fetus fails to meet all five conditions on personhood.



The fetus is not a person.


Question: Since the fetus is clearly not a person, perhaps the supposed moral wrong in abortion derives from the killing of a potential person?



If abortion is morally wrong then the killing of a potential person is morally wrong.



It is not the case that the killing of a potential person is morally wrong.



It is not the case that abortion is morally wrong.


Justification for Premise 2: Consider the case of the space explorer captured by aliens who want to use his tissue to produce clones of himself. Surely he has the right to escape and refuse these potential persons (his clones) life.


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