It seems to me that there are three key issues in the abortion debate.
(1) What is the moral status of the fetus?
(2) What kind of moral obligations does a pregnant women have toward the fetus?
(3) If the pregnant woman does have moral obligations toward the fetus, which, if any, of those moral obligations are legitimately enforceable?
Those of us in the prolife community spend almost all of our time on (1) and very little of our time on (2) and (3). I think that’s because many people (on both sides) simply take it as a given that if the fetus has the moral status of a person, then abortion is morally equivalent to murder. But that inference is too quick. The philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson points this out in her article “A Defense of Abortion”. And even though I disagree with her final conclusions, I think this point is well taken.
The fetus is dependent for its survival on the bodily resources of the mother. And, in general, we have the right to withhold our bodily resources from a person even if that person will die without them. I’m not obligated to give a stranger my kidney, for example, even if that stranger will die if I don’t. Or, it seems to me, if one were to maintain that I have an obligation to give the stranger my kidney, it would be all that much more difficult to maintain that this is a properly enforceable obligation.
So it seems to me that to argue that abortion is morally impermissible, it is not enough to argue that the fetus has the moral status of a person or that the fetus is the sort of being that it is prima facie wrong to kill. One also has to argue that a relationship exists between the mother and the fetus that grounds a moral obligation the part of the mother to offer up her bodily resources to sustain the fetus. I think that in typical cases of pregnancy, that can be done. I think, in typical cases, the mother is morally responsible for the fetus’s having become dependent on her. And I also think (though this is something that a strict libertarian would deny) that the biological relationship that exists between a mother and child grounds certain prima facie obligations (I think that anyone who denies that shouldn’t be so hard on deadbeat dads). And it seems plausible enough that these obligations are enforceable (again, anyone who denies this shouldn’t want the government to make deadbeat dads pay up – but it seems plausible enough that it is legitimate for the government to make deadbeat dads pay up.)
But in rape cases, the situation is much different. In such cases, the mother is not morally responsible for the fetus’s being dependent on her. And even though there is the same biological relationship between the mother and the child, the fact that the pregnancy resulted from such a violation of the mother’s person, I think, is enough to defeat whatever prima facie obligations that that relationship confers. In such cases, the mother, it seems to me, doesn’t owe the fetus her bodily resources anymore than I owe a stranger my kidney. And it seems to me that even if, at the end of the day, one wanted to maintain that the mother had an obligation to provide the fetus with her bodily resources, it would still be at least highly doubtful that it is a legitimately enforceable obligation.
By way of reply:
1.I don’t know why he acts as though no one in the prolife community has ever responded to Judith Jarvis.
2.He’s resorting to euphemisms about a “pregnant woman” and her “fetus,” instead of a “mother” and her “baby.”
3.He artificially isolates the obligation as if prolifers think a mother has sole responsibility for the care of her child.
4.Comparing the “bodily resources” of a mother with a donated kidney is disanalogous. I don’t have any objection to organ donation, but it’s not as if our organs were designed to be donated to a third party. That’s not their purpose. They exist for the sake of the host.
By contrast, the “bodily resources” of a mother were designed to provide for a child. Moreover, they were designed by God for that very purpose.
5.Finally, let’s go to the key contention. He’s argument apparently takes something like the following form:
Party A is only responsible for the needs of Party B if Party A took some voluntary action which made Party B dependent on Party A.
Let’s consider some counterexamples:
i) Are grown children obligated to care for their elderly parents in case their parents are too enfeebled to care for themselves? After all, the children did nothing voluntary to make their parents dependent on them.
ii) My brother and I share the same rare blood type. Due to an accident, my brother needs an immediate blood transfusion. Am I obligated to donate my blood to save my brother’s life?
a) I did nothing voluntary to make him dependent on me. I had nothing to do with the life-threatening accident.
b) For that matter, I did nothing voluntary to make him my brother. I had no say in the matter. I didn’t choose him to be my brother.
iii) Parents leave their 6-year-old son in the care of their 16-year-old son while they go to a concert. I did nothing to make my kid brother dependent on me.
Am I obligated to keep my kid brother from harm, or am I free to leave him alone while I go visit my girlfriend?
iv) Two parents are killed in a traffic accident, leaving their 6-year-old son and 16-year old son orphaned. It isn’t fair to the 16-year-old to be forced to take over their responsibilities for the care of his kid brother.
Under the circumstances, is the older brother at liberty to abandon his kid brother?
v) A devoted wife and mother is diagnosed with MS. As the disease progresses, she’s no longer able to care for her family. Instead, she becomes increasingly dependent on her husband and older children to care for her.
Since they did nothing voluntary to make her dependent on them, are they at liberty to desert her?
vi) I’m running late to catch a plane. at the airport, a stranger ahead of me suffers an asthma attack. He points to his backpack, where he keeps an inhaler. If I take time to find his inhaler and deliver a dose, I’ll miss my flight.
Since I did nothing voluntary to make the stranger dependent on me, am I free to let him die so that I can catch my plane?