The Fatal Position

Christopher Kaczor
January 10, 2011
© 2010 the Witherspoon Institute.
Reproduced with Permission
The Public Discourse

A new, supposedly objective book on the abortion debate relentlessly tips the scale against life.

Chris Meyers' recent book, The Fetal Position: A Rational Approach to the Abortion Issue, seeks to lay out in the most charitable way all the chief arguments for and against the moral permissibility of abortion. Meyers addresses various aspects of the debate including ensoulment, the pregnant woman's responsibility for the unborn child, the golden rule argument against abortion, and Judith Jarvis Thomson's violinist analogy. Meyers declines, both at the beginning and end of the volume, to explicitly state his own conclusions about the issue, but consistently the pro-choice perspective is presented as if it were the most rationally compelling.

Unfortunately, The Fetal Position fails in its stated goal because it caricatures the most common defenses of the pro-life view. Rather than address the philosophical arguments that all human beings prior to birth should be protected by law and welcomed in life, Meyers misconstrues the mainstream pro-life position as if it were based on a theological belief in the soul. Missing in action is the philosophical case presented by Robert P. Georgeand Christopher Tollefsen in Embryo: A Defense of Human Life,by Francis J. Beckwith in Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice, or by Patrick Lee in Abortion and Unborn Human Life.

In failing to engage such arguments, Meyers critiques straw men. For example, he describes 'slippery slope' arguments against abortion:

We would all agree that killing a newborn baby would be morally wrong (barring some very unusual circumstances, such as the baby being anencephalic). Then we must also conclude that it would be wrong to kill a nine-month-old fetus just prior to birth, since there is no significant difference between the fetus/baby just before birth and just after birth. But if it is wrong to kill the fetus at nine months, then it is wrong to kill it at eight and a half months. ... The slippery slope argument continues along this line, arguing that since there is no significant difference between each stage of the fetus (or embryo) and the immediately previous stage -- all the way down to the level of a single fertilized egg -- there is thus no significant difference between the single fertilized egg and the newborn baby.

Meyers responds:

Similarly, the pro-choicer could start by claiming that the fertilized egg is just one cell. Surely there is nothing wrong with killing one human cell. And if it is OK to destroy the embryo at one human cell, then it is OK to destroy it at two cells -- all the way up to nine months. This pro-choice slippery slope is just as invalid as the pro-life version.

However, there is an important asymmetry that Meyers overlooks. The typical pro-choice advocate rejects infanticide, but the typical pro-life advocate does not accept killing human embryos, even at the one cell stage.

More importantly, Meyers's response misconstrues the pro-life position. The argument is not a slippery slope that since there are only small differences between the newborn stage of development and each successive earlier phase of growth, that therefore the unborn child has a right to life at every stage. Rather, the claim is that a human being's stage of development is unrelated to his or her basic moral status. As I've argued in my book The Ethics of Abortion: Women's Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice,conscious desires, sentience, viability, and brain function are all irrelevant to whether a human being has a right to life. Meyers provides no rationale for thinking that these or other biological benchmarks are morally significant, and he either ignores or is unaware of the many arguments against considering various stages of development as ethically relevant.

Meyers also fails to notice that his favored theory of personhood is inconsistent with his rejection of infanticide. "According to the naturalist, human beings have moral worth -- and a moral worth greater than dogs and cats and sheep and other nonhuman animals -- because of those qualities that make us a person. There may be some disagreement over exactly what these qualities are, but they will involve psychological states or capacities, such as the capacity for rational thought, human emotions, moral deliberations, or self-awareness." However, newborn babies cannot think rationally, display distinctly human emotions, deliberate morally, or achieve self-awareness. If he consistently applies the naturalist theory of moral worth, Meyers should deny moral significance to newborn babies as well as to severely mentally handicapped adults.

"The question under debate," writes Meyers, "is, 'What is it that makes someone have moral significance?' Is it being a member of the human species? That is not very plausible, for then we would owe [Star Trek's] Spock no moral consideration -- or at least no more than we owe to other non-human animals." However, we can hold that membership in the human species is a sufficient condition for having moral worth (all human beings should be respected) without holding that membership in the human species is necessary for moral worth (humans and only humans should be respected). Indeed, some defenders of human life even hold that there are a wide variety of non-human persons, such as angels and Divine Persons, to whom respect is due.

Even if every human being is a person, Meyers notes that questions exist about when precisely a new human being comes into existence. Is it when a sperm first makes contact with the egg? Is it when the sperm first enters the egg? Is it the mingling of DNA from sperm and egg? On Meyers's view, these questions pose a serious problem for the pro-life view because if this view "is going to ground moral principles, then it must be able to guide us in those borderline cases." Since abortions take place weeks after fertilization has taken place, these cases have no practical import. However, since the pro-life view "makes theoretical claims about when life -- in the morally relevant sense -- begins," Meyers believes the pro-life view must answer these questions satisfactorily or be rejected.

The pro-choice view, Meyers fails to note, suffers a greater theoretical problem because we have even less exact knowledge about when sentience, consciousness, or viability begin. We can pin down completed fertilization to within 7-10 hours, but estimates of the beginning of fetal consciousness, for example, range from 22 weeks to 35 weeks of gestation. Compounding the theoretical difficulty is the practical problem that abortions take place before, during, and after the onset of these markers for personhood.

Rehearsing a different line of argument, Meyers rejects claims of fetal personhood by appeal to the embryo rescue case:

A fire breaks out and quickly spreads throughout the [fertility] clinic. At about that time I happen to be walking by on my way home from the pub. Being the heroic fellow that I am, I charge into the burning clinic to find the embryo in a large, heavy insulating device and poor Dr. Smith unconscious on the floor. I can save only one -- which one should it be, the embryo or the doctor? ... Only a pro-life fanatic would prefer the life of a frozen embryo over the life of a person. If someone insists that we should save the embryo and let [her] die, then we may have reached a point where we simply cannot continue the discussion.

However, one can consistently hold that the doctor ought to be saved without denying the value of the life of the human embryo. All human lives have equal fundamental value which gives rise to the equal duty shared by all not to intentionally kill innocent human beings. But the fundamental equality of the right to life is compatible with making greater efforts to save the lives of some people than others. If forced to choose, it makes sense to save the life of a President or Prime Minister rather than a regular Joe or Jane, since, although all people have an equal right not to be intentionally killed, the (presumably) greater negative consequences of not rescuing world leaders tip the scale in their favor. Similarly, since the doctor has received an investment from her parents and society in terms of education and upbringing, has future plans that would be thwarted, has medical and personal responsibilities to discharge, and has strong relationships with others, it makes sense to choose to save the doctor rather than the frozen embryo. All human lives enjoy the same fundamental equality in the right not to be intentionally killed, but this does not entail that all human beings have an equal right to be saved in every situation.

Finally, Meyers defends Judith Jarvis Thomson's famous argument that abortion is like unplugging yourself from a violinist to whom you have been attached in order to save the violinist's life:

Would it be morally OK for others to seize you and force you to undergo surgery to remove one of your kidneys for the benefit of the sick violinist? Would you support this law? If your answer is no, then you do not think that one person's right to life should outweigh another person's right to decide what happens to and in her own body.

This analogy does not justify abortion. In the kidney case, you foresee that the sick person will die unless you donate a kidney. In not donating a kidney, no one's right to life is violated, since the person dies from the underlying illness. By contrast, in the abortion case, the fetus's right to life is violated because the abortionist intentionally kills the fetus. Recall too, that the violinist analogy concedes that the human fetus is a person with the same basic rights as other persons. If so, then the human fetus also has a right to decide what happens to and in her own body -- a right to bodily integrity. Now, the fetus, like an unconscious adult, cannot decide anything, but if the right to bodily integrity is to have any significance, it must mean that other people cannot violate your body by tearing out your organs and dismembering you without your consent. But this is precisely what takes place to the fetus in an abortion. So the intuition that one should not be forced to undergo surgery to remove one's kidney a fortiori supports the conclusion that the human fetus should not be subject to the even greater bodily violation of abortion.

Finally, Meyers's book has an uneven quality. Some sections reflect on sophisticated philosophical positions such as various conceptions of the human soul and the implications of these positions for the moral status of unborn human life. Other parts of The Fetal Position extensively critique sophomoric defenses of the pro-life presented by Meyers's students, such as that forbidding abortion is the just punishment for women who have engaged in illicit sexual behavior. A rational approach to this debate must engage the best arguments on the opposing side, not caricatures. The contemporary discussion would have been enriched by an accessible, reasonable survey of the various positions in the abortion debate, but this book does not provide that service. By not engaging the best arguments to the contrary, The Fetal Position neither presents both sides fairly nor justifies its own implicit defense of abortion.

Christopher Kaczoris Professor of Philosophy and the author of The Ethics of Abortion: Women's Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice.