Article Aug 9, 2017

The worst philosophical defense of abortion you’ll ever hear

In a recent interview, Elizabeth Harman, a professor of philosophy at Princeton University, presents what is likely to be the worst defense of abortion ever made by a reputable philosopher.

Although I’ll be quoting Harman verbatim throughout this article, I recommend spending the five minutes to watch the video. It is truly one of the most jaw-droppingly incoherent cases for abortion you’ll ever hear.

To recap, Harman says she is defending the “liberal position about early abortion” that there’s “nothing morally bad” about early state abortions. Harman’s position is that among “early fetuses” there are two “very different kinds of beings.” She claims that she and her interviewers “already had moral status then”—that is, as an early embryo—“in virtue of our futures.”  Harman’s claim is that they were all “the beginning stages of persons.”

Ironically, Harman’s view is based in part on a famous, reputable argument against abortion, one that claims what makes killing inherently wrong is that it deprives a victim of their future experiences. She also concedes that the early embryo does indeed have moral status because it is the beginning stage of a person—just as infancy, adolescence, and adulthood are later stages of a person.

But Harman then adds a strange qualifier: the early embryo only has moral status if it lives. “[S]ome early fetuses will die in early pregnancy,” says Harman, “either due to abortion or miscarriage. And in my view that’s a very different kind of entity. That’s something that doesn’t have a future as a person and it doesn’t have moral status.”

Before we continue, let’s consider the implications if we applied her “different kinds of beings” principle to one of the other “stages of persons.”

Imagine there are two children, Jack and Jill, who are in children’s hospital and being treated for a serious illness. The doctors tell Jack he has been cured and can go home tomorrow, but they tell Jill her disease has progressed and she is expected to die tomorrow. Jack has a future, while Jill does not. According to Harman, Jack is a being that has moral status (because he will continue to have a future), but Jill is not only a being who does not have moral status right now (because she does not have a future), but Jill is a being who never had moral status.

That’s a strange conclusion, but it gets even more bizarre. In the example above, Jill’s condition is similar to miscarriage in that her moral status is changed by a natural death. But Harman argues that moral status also changes because of the decision to have an abortion. So in Jill’s case, she would cease to have moral status—and indeed would never have had moral status—if her doctor decided to murder her.

But that can’t truly be what Harman is claiming, can it? Could she really be claiming that our moral status depends on whether or not someone is planning to kill us? Sort of. As we’ll see, she adds a qualification that she believes distinguishes the early embryo from other stages of human development.

Her interviewers then ask if we can only determine if the being had moral status after it ceased to have a future. “Right, so there’s the real question of ‘How can we know?’” says Harman, “Well, often we do know. If we know that a woman is planning to get an abortion, and we know abortion is available to her, then we know that fetus is going to die. It’s not the kind of being like the fetuses that became us. It’s not something with moral status.”

To clarify, Harman thinks she is not claiming that the action of the pregnant woman determines whether the embryo has moral status. She is merely saying that if the child is going to die, then the child no longer has moral status—and never did. We’ll consider her reasoning in a moment. But let’s finish hearing her claims.

“Often we have reason to believe that the fetus is the beginning stage of a person,” says Harman. “If we know that a woman is planning to continue her pregnancy, then we have good reason to think that her fetus is something with moral status. Something with this future as a person.”

At this point one of the interviewers, James Franco, points out this sounds like circular argument: the permissibility of abortion depends on the moral status of the embryo, and the moral status of the embryo depends on whether the woman chooses to have an abortion.

Harman says that’s not the argument she’s making. She says, “So you [James] have moral status and, in my view, back when you were an early fetus you had moral status. But it’s not that aborting you would have been wrong. Because if your mother had chosen to abort her pregnancy, then it wouldn’t have been the case that you would have had moral status because you would have died as an early fetus. So she would have been aborting something that didn't have moral status.”

Let’s outline what Harman is claiming:

1. James now has moral status and had it as an early embryo. Let’s say that James has moral status now, at time Z, and also had it then, at time X.

2. However, if James’s mother had chosen to kill him in between time X and Z—let’s say that she aborted him at time Y—then James would have never existed at time Z (and so could not have moral status) but would also not have had moral status as time Y.

3. James had moral status if and only if he did not die, which is dependent on whether his mother decided not to abort him. Once she decided at time Y to abort him, he no longer had moral status at time X.

Harman clarifies that a child only has moral status if he does not die. “It’s a contingent matter if you have moral status,” says Harman, “you actually have moral status but you might not have counted morally at all if you had been aborted. You would have existed but you would have had this very short existence in which you would not have mattered morally.”

What Harman is saying is that events in the future affect the moral status of persons in the past. If the mother decides to have an abortion, then the child will die and thus he never had moral status at time X. If the mother decides not to have an abortion, then the child will live and thus always had moral status, including at time X.

How is this possible? Why is the moral status of the child contingent on whether the child dies because the mother decided to have an abortion?

As Harman explains, “Just given the current state of the fetus, it’s not having any experiences, there’s nothing about it’s current state that would make it a member of the moral community. It’s derivative of it’s future whether it gets to have moral status. So it’s really the future that endows moral status on it. And if we allow it to have this future, then we’re allowing it to be the kind of thing that now would have moral status. So in aborting it, I don’t think you’re depriving it of something it independently has.”

Harman here falls back on the tired old functionalist arguments for abortion. The embryo doesn’t yet have certain faculties necessary for moral status (consciousness, experiences, etc.) and thus only can get these faculties if the child lives. If you kill the child, though, it can never get these faculties and thus never had moral status.

The argument Harman makes in the video is based on a paper she published in the journal Philosophy & Public Affairs. In that paper she says we should deny the claim that, “For any two early fetuses at the same stage of development and in the same health, either both have some moral status or neither does.” Her reasoning is based on what she deems the Actual Future Principle: “An early fetus that will become a person has some moral status. An early fetus that will die while it is still an early fetus has no moral status.” She says the Actual Future Principle leads to the following conclusion: “The very liberal view on the ethics of abortion: Early abortion requires no moral justification whatsoever.”

It may seem that Harman’s argument for abortion still relies on the circular reasoning we mentioned above (i.e., the permissibility of abortion depends on the moral status of the embryo, and the moral status of the embryo depends on whether the woman chooses to have an abortion). But her argument is even less coherent than that. She preemptively responds to this objection by saying:

First, the objector is right that "you just can't lose" if you have an abortion. As I have argued, the Actual Future Principle implies the very liberal view on abortion. Therefore, according to the Actual Future Principle, no moral justification is required for an early abortion.

In other words, an early fetus that will become a person has some moral status but an early fetus that will die while it is still an early fetus has no moral status.

So there is no moral justification necessary for killing the early fetus since a fetus that dies has no moral status.

(Most professors wouldn’t allow a freshman taking Philosophy 101 to attempt to pass off this circular reasoning as a reasonable argument. Yet somehow it made it into a peer-reviewed philosophy journal.)

Harman’s entire argument is rooted in the idea that the current moral status of certain beings is dependent on what other people do to them in the future. If the child is killed, then it never had moral status since you can’t have moral status as an embryo if you do not have a future.

This argument utterly fails as a defense of abortion. But that’s not really Harman’s point. Her argument is not meant to justify abortion (which it cannot do because it’s based on circular reasoning) but to give a woman who wants to have an abortion a justification to ignore their conscience:

There is something upsetting and saddening about having an abortion, for many women, which is independent of uncertainty about the choice itself. It has seemed that the only way to explain these experiences is by saying that these women are recognizing their moral responsibility for a morally significant bad event, the death of the fetus. The very liberal view blocks this explanation.

The reason many women regret their abortions is because their conscience bears witness to the “the work of the law is written on their hearts” that killing one’s child is morally wrong (Rom. 2:15). Harman is attempting to give them a way to sear their conscience (1 Tim. 4:2) so that they will not have to recognize the natural guilt we feel in killing our own children. All that Harman has done, though, is torture logic and reasoning to justify the killing of children’s futures.

Addendum: The best rebuttal to Harman was offered a decade before her paper was published. In 1989, philosopher Donald Marquis provided an intriguing argument that explains why abortion is wrong that relies on many of the same reasons Harman herself accepts. Marquis circumvents the discussion of fetal personhood and examines the question of what makes killing wrong. According to Marquis, this is the question that needs to be addressed from the start:

After all, if we merely believe, but do not understand, why killing adult human beings such as ourselves is wrong, how could we conceivably show that abortion is either immoral or permissible.

Marquis concludes that what makes killing inherently wrong is that it deprives a victim of all the “experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments that would otherwise have constituted one’s future.” It is not the change in the biological state that makes killing wrong, says Marquis, but the loss of all experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments that would otherwise have constituted one’s future (hereafter we will refer to these as EAPE).

These EAPE are either valuable for their own sake or lead to something else that is valuable for its own sake. When a victim is killed, they are deprived not only of all that they value but all that they will value in the future. Therefore, what makes the prima facie killing of any adult human being wrong is this loss of future EAPE.

This has obvious implications for abortion. Marquis concludes that:

The future of a standard fetus includes a set of experiences, projects, activities, and such which are identical with the futures of adult human beings and are identical with the futures of young children. Since the reason that is sufficient to explain why it is wrong to kill human beings after the time of birth is a reason that also applies to fetuses, it follows that abortion is prima facie morally wrong.

Because Marquis defends the argument in detail, I won’t rehash the points he makes in response to objections. I recommend that anyone who finds fault with the conclusion read the paper in its entirety.