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What is an abortion?
Why might someone seek an abortion?
What ethical positions might one take on
Mary Anne Warren: “On the Moral and Legal Status
• Thesis: It is never immoral to secure an abortion.
• Warren’s argument responds to views that the fetus, as a
human, has the same right to life as other humans.
• Warren’s central argument depends on what we mean by
something’s being a moral human being (i.e. a “person”):
(P1) All and only persons have full moral rights (including
the right to life).
(P2) A fetus is not a person.
(C1) Therefore, a fetus does not have full moral rights.
(C2) Therefore, it is not wrong to abort a fetus.
John T. Noonan’s “Genetic Code” Argument
• At conception, the new being receives its genetic code from
its human parents.
• It is this genetic information which determines its
characteristics, and which is the biological carrier of the
possibility of human wisdom.
• With no such genetic code, one cannot be human; with the
genetic code, one is.
(P1) It is wrong to kill innocent human beings.
(P2) Fetuses are innocent human beings.
(C) Therefore, it is wrong to kill fetuses.
(Warren does not exactly match Noonan’s argument, but it’s
Warren’s Challenge to Noonan’s Argument
The term “human beings” in the argument refers either to
genetically human beings or to humans in the moral sense:
• If the term’s meaning changes in the course of the
argument, then Noonan is committing equivocation.
• If “human beings” refers to genetically human beings,
then Noonan has not established P1 (that it is wrong to
kill human beings).
• If “human beings” refers to persons (humans in the moral
sense), then Noonan has not established P2 (that fetuses
are innocent human beings).
Persons vs. Non-Persons
Central Traits of Personhood:
ii. Reasoning Ability
iii. Self-Motivating Activity
iv. Capacity to Communicate
v. Presence of Self-Concepts & Self-Awareness
• Sufficient, but not necessary: An entity need not fulfill all of
these criteria to be a person, nor is it the case that any of
them (with the possible exception of (i) and (ii)) are
necessary for an entity to be a person.
• If a being fulfills none of (i)-(v), then the being is not a
• Being genetically human seems neither necessary nor
sufficient to being a person.
Persons vs. Non-Persons (cont’d)
Warren’s personhood argument:
• All and only persons have full moral rights (including the
right to life).
• A fetus is not a person.
• Therefore, a fetus does not have full moral rights.
• (Therefore, it is not wrong to abort a fetus.)
• Warren admits a fetus might have some rights (maybe
some right to life, at some point in fetal development):
“…a woman’s right to protect her health,
happiness, freedom, and even her life, by
terminating an unwanted pregnancy, will always
override whatever right to life it may be appropriate
to ascribe to a fetus, even a fully developed one.”
• But if a fetus has a right to life it is a rather weak right to
life, and will always be trumped by the mother’s rights.
Fetal Development and the Right to Life
How far along in development does a fetus have to be before it
acquires some right to life (something person-like)?
• The average fish or mammal is as ‘person-like’ at birth as
any newborn baby.
• It may, to some degree, acquire a right to life, but it’s a
weak right to life compared with the right of the mother
What is meant by a woman’s “freedom”?
• It’s not immoral for a woman to terminate a pregnancy in
the 7th month if the woman doesn’t want to postpone a
trip to Europe.
• Weak right to life: it would be wrong to kill a fetus
Potential Personhood and the Right to Life
Does potential personhood give a fetus some of the same
rights as personhood?
Space Explorer Thought Experiment
• Warren: The potential person doesn’t have a right to life.
• It’s morally permissible to prevent oneself from being
broken up into 100,000 pieces to create 100,000 persons.
In the same way: It’s morally permissible to say it’s not
worth dying to bring about a potential child into actuality.
• It’s morally permissible to prevent oneself from having to
give up one year (or even one day) of one’s life so that
100,000 persons can be created.
• It’s morally permissible to simply prevent oneself from
being replicated (analogous to elective abortion).
• A newborn infant isn’t significantly more personlike than a
fetus, simply for having been born.
• So: It follows that infanticide isn’t murder.
• But it does not follow that infanticide is permissible for the
i. There are people who would want the baby to live – if
not its parents, then someone else. A great deal of
pleasure may be prevented by destroying the child. (So
killing a child is like destroying a work of art.)
ii. Most people value infants and would prefer they be
preserved, and as long as this is the case, it is wrong
ceteris paribus, to destroy it.
Infanticide Objection (cont’d)
• Why is an infant, in this case, different from a newborn?
- So long as the fetus remains unborn, its preservation,
contrary to the wishes of her mother, violates the
mother’s rights to freedom, etc. “…while the moment of
birth does not mark any sharp discontinuity in the degree
to which an infant possesses the right to life, it does mark
the end of its mother’s right to determine its fate.”
Warren doesn’t present any argument for her traits of
personhood. Do they seem reasonable?
What do you make of Warren’s claim that it is not wrong for
a woman in her 7th month of pregnancy to have an
abortion so she can go on vacation?
Is Warren’s claim about why it is wrong to commit