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Moral Status and the Future: Liz Harman on Abortion
Recently, Princeton University professor Liz Harman told James Franco that if Franco’s mother had decided to abort him, it would have been fine.
No, she didn’t mean it as an insult. She simply stated the logical conclusion of her argument for abortion.
Let’s take a look.
First, the video in question:
Here’s the argument that Professor Harman makes, distilled down:
- There are two different kinds of beings among early fetuses.
- The first kind is a fetus that has a future as a person. This kind of fetus will grow up to be an adult, like you and me.
- The second kind of fetus does not have a future as a person for a variety of reasons, including miscarriage and abortion.
- A fetus only has moral status when it is conscious or will gain consciousness.
- We cannot know which kind of being an early fetus is in most cases, since a miscarriage is a possibility.
- We can, however, know that a fetus is the second kind (without a future) if, for example, we are aware that the pregnant woman intends to abort the fetus.
- Therefore, aborting a fetus is morally acceptable if a pregnant woman has decided to abort her fetus.
If that seems like a stretch to you, your instincts are right.
One caveat worth mentioning here: Professor Harman claims that the conclusion, in point 5 above, isn’t quite her view. She offers two reasons in explanation of this:
- Moral status is contingent on the growing of the fetus into a conscious entity.
- Nothing about the fetus’s early existence endows it with moral status. Aborting it, therefore, is not depriving it of moral status, merely preventing the fetus from achieving a state in which it possesses moral status.
It isn’t entirely clear how those two explanations help reinterpret her point that an early-stage fetus has moral status due to its future, which is what point 5 above stands on.
So, at which point does Professor Harman’s argument fall apart?
To begin, the first point (that there are two kinds of fetuses) is only morally relevant if we accept point two. In other words, if we reject the idea that fetuses only have moral status if they have consciousness and understand instead that fetuses have moral status by virtue of their membership in humanity, then the idea that there are two “kinds” of fetuses in regards to moral status is undermined. This also makes the third point largely irrelevant, since a fetus possesses moral status on virtue of its humanity, not its future.
Let’s turn to point four briefly. Even if we grant the first three points for the sake of argument, point four claims certainty based on a possible future. It claims that we can know the future of a fetus if a woman has decided to get an abortion, but that simply isn’t the case. A woman may change her mind, for instance. She may also live in a country where abortions are illegal. The point rests on the future, despite its claims to certainty.
It is clear, then, that we should not accept the conclusion, given the faulty premises.
Over at National Review, Jonah Goldberg appropriately notes that the argument is a bit like applying Schrodinger’s cat to fetuses: “The act of seeing the fetus like a person makes it a person.”
In short, a fetus is not granted moral status on the basis of its future. And even if it were, we could not reasonably claim to know its future. This argument for the moral viability of abortion thus falls flat on its face.
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