In a YouTube video published on July 25, as part of a series called “Philosophy Time,” featuring actor James Franco and his friend Eliot Michaelson, Princeton University philosophy professor Liz Harman tries to justify the view that early-stage abortions are morally neutral.
Her argument, in a nutshell, is this: If a fetus does not have moral status, it is not wrong to abort it. If a fetus does not have a future, it does not have moral status. If a fetus will be aborted, it does not have a future. Therefore, if a fetus will be aborted, it does not have moral status. Therefore, if a fetus will be aborted, it is not wrong to abort it.
Harman tells Franco and Michaelson that they did have moral status as fetuses because they had futures. Fetuses who are aborted or miscarried, however, do not have moral status, nor did they ever have moral status, because they have no future (even if that is not known until they die).
I imagine some eyebrows are raised or furrowed right now. Franco’s and Michaelson’s expressions throughout the video were also very amusing.
In addition to appearing to engage in circular reasoning, Harman fails to explain why this argument should not apply to late-term abortions, assaults on the mother that result in the death of the fetus, or even the murder of born persons (though presumably it is because she thinks there is some other reason they would have moral status).
At the time of writing, the video has over 700,000 views and over twice as many dislikes as likes. If you want a laugh, check out the highly critical comments section. “So what’s her consensus on a failed abortion?” asks one commentator. Another: “I find it quite implausible that someone’s moral status depends on whether other people want them to exist.”
A lot of people recognize that this is a pretty terrible argument. “She works for Princeton!” you might exclaim. Yes. However, while the flaws in Harman’s argument might be particularly obvious, I want to argue, especially because I’ve just resumed my study of philosophy in university, that, actually, in terms of philosophical defenses for abortion, it’s not that unique in terms of its weaknesses.
One of the more prominent pro-choice philosophers who makes a personhood argument in favour of abortion, Mary Anne Warren, had to add a postscript to her article to explain why her argument, which hinged upon defining the moral community around traits like consciousness, reasoning, etc., did not justify infanticide. She could only say that infanticide would usually be wrong (provided that there are others willing and able to care for the baby and that it does not have severe disabilities), and conceded that under her view, an infant is not a person. Philosopher Peter Singer also bit that bullet, and is now quite well-known for his defense of infanticide and non-voluntary euthanasia of the cognitively disabled.
Judith Jarvis Thomson’s justification of abortion pertains to bodily autonomy instead of personhood. She erroneously compares being pregnant to being kidnapped and having one’s circulatory system plugged into that of a famous violinist with a kidney ailment so that you may preserve his life. Abortion, she says, would be the equivalent of unplugging yourself from this violinist. This analogy makes numerous mistakes – the conflation of killing and letting die, the neglect of the special parent-child relationship, the purpose of one’s kidney vs. one’s uterus – and implies that in situations where a child is left in the care of an adult without that adult’s consent, the adult would have the “right to refuse” this responsibility if it would constitute a great burden, even if it means killing the child.
My point is that while disagreements over first principles may be difficult to resolve, generally speaking, your average fellow on the street, whether he knows it or not, has the same first principles as pro-lifers – a belief in human rights and their universality. Pro-choice intellectuals like Harman, Warren, Singer, and Thomson are the ones who are at odds with society.
In order to be consistent in one’s pro-choice philosophy, one has to accept some pretty morally repugnant conclusions. In the James Franco video, Harman basically did the work for us in respect to exposing what those are in her own argument. They exist for every philosophical argument that the best and brightest of abortion advocates have to offer though. They simply need to be brought to light, and with a little luck people will have the same derision for abortion as they have for Harman’s defense of it.