There are a lot of different arguments or sub-arguments that together make up the abortion debate. But they are all built on two central debates. Knowing what those debates are and how they differ from one another can make conversations about abortion better for everyone involved.
On the one hand, there are personhood arguments or moral status arguments. These are about whether embryos and fetuses are persons with full human rights, whether they are the moral equals of born people. These revolve around questions about what the pre-born are like, what features, properties, and capacities they have, and whether those features, properties, and capacities justify treating them equally. Examples of personhood debates that try to answer these questions include:
* Are the pre-born human beings?
* Does a living thing have to have the capacity for consciousness in order to be a person?
* What is the feature, property, or attribute that grounds equal rights or ‘full moral status’?
Personhood debates end with one of three broad conclusions:
1. The pre-born are the moral equal of the born. They have full moral status.
2. The pre-born have moral status that is not zero or near zero, but is less than that of a born human.
3. The pre-born have a very low level of moral status, at or near zero. (Zero moral status is something like “the amount that a blade of grass would have”).
For the pro-life argument to succeed, the conclusion of the personhood debate clearly needs to be 1. That’s what arguments like the Equal Rights Argument try to establish.
The second central debate regarding abortion is the one that involves bodily rights arguments. These are not about the nature of the pre-born, but about the rights of the woman. They essentially boil down to attempts to answer the question, ‘Does a woman’s right to decide what to do with her own body override the right to life of the child within her womb?’
Pro-choice bodily rights arguments are supposed to justify abortion (ethically or at least legally), even if the pre-born are persons with the same human rights as the born. That’s explicitly the aim of the most famous pro-choice bodily rights argument, Judith Jarvis Thomson’s violinist argument.
A pro-choice person person making a bodily rights argument is not necessarily saying anything about what they think of the pre-born. They could, in principle, believe exactly the same things about the pre-born as the most dedicated pro-lifer! To see how that’s possible, think about the widely-held belief that it’s justifiable to kill a person in self-defence if they’re threatening your life. That belief doesn’t (usually) rest on a claim that the person posing a threat to you is not a person, that they’re lacking human dignity or have become subhuman in worth. Rather, something about the circumstances you’re in makes it legitimate to kill the person even though they possess equal dignity and full moral status. I’ll stay agnostic here about what the justifying circumstances are. They could include the guilt or innocence of the person attacking you – something like ‘moral position’ as opposed to the ‘moral status’ that is equivalent to personhood. Or they could just be the fact that they’re attempting to lethally harm you. The point here is just that it’s possible to believe without contradiction that it’s sometimes permissible to kill someone even if you think they’re your equal in fundamental dignity.
The bodily rights debate is about whether or not pregnancy is one of those circumstances that can justify ending the life of a person. Questions that come up in bodily rights debates are ones like the following:
* Is a woman’s body a ‘sovereign zone’? Can she legitimately do anything she wants to any living being that’s inside her body?
* If not, does a woman still have a ‘right to refuse’ or a ‘right to evict’ any living being that’s inside her own body, even if that leads to the death of her child?
For the pro-life position to be the right one, the correct answer to these questions must both be no.
It might be objected that I’m missing a third kind of debate, what might be called social arguments about abortion. These take the following form ‘if this baby isn’t aborted, they will be very badly off in their life as a result of being very poor / adopted / disabled / the child of a rapist’. I’m leaving these out for a reason: I think they all ultimately reduce to being disagreements about moral status. We can see this by asking the people making these arguments if they think they work as a justification for ending the life of a 2-year-old. Inevitably, they don’t: because they think there’s a higher bar to clear for killing a two-year-old than there is for killing a pre-born child. In other words, people making these arguments are making them because they think 2-year-olds have higher moral status than do pre-born children.
Thinking about the abortion debate in this way – as having two distinct and separate parts – can really help make it clearer, and avoid both sides wasting time with confusions and blind alleys.
One feature of thinking about the abortion debate this way is that there’s one sense in which the pro-choice side of the argument has an easier case to make. If they can succeed either in arguing that the moral status of pre-born humans is less than equal, or if they can succeed in arguing that a woman’s right to bodily autonomy gives her the right to get an abortion even if the pre-born child is equal, then they will have made their case. They only need to win one of the two debates. Pro-lifers, on the other hand, need to win both.
If pro-lifers were correct about personhood, but wrong about bodily rights, then abortion would still be justified: at least, its legality would be justified (whether one can have a moral right to do something bad is a contested topic, but there are many legal rights to do bad things. It should not be illegal to say something deeply and deliberately cruel to your spouse, for example, even though doing so is very wrong). It might be true that the pre-born are equal persons, but that wouldn’t matter (at least to the legality of abortion) if bodily rights justify killing equal persons.
And if pro-lifers were right about bodily rights arguments but wrong about personhood, then abortion would still be permissible in all circumstances (if the pre-born has very low or zero moral status: you don’t need a right or even a good reason to crush a blade of grass), or at least some circumstances (if the pre-born child’s moral status is less than that of a human but still substantial). It might be true that a woman’s right to control her own body wouldn’t justify killing a person with full moral status, but that wouldn’t matter if abortion isn’t the killing of a person.
One of the most common mistakes I see pro-lifers make in the debate is to act as though the personhood / moral status question is the only question. This ignores half the debate, and tends to understandably frustrate pro-choice people who hold their position because of bodily rights arguments. It often leads to people ascribing beliefs about unborn babies to pro-choice people that they don’t necessarily hold. We really have to get the bodily rights arguments through our heads at this point: there’s a reason that ‘a woman’s right to control her body’ is such a prominent slogan of the pro-choice movement!
Pro-choice people, for their part, often fall into a different confusion: a failure to keep the two sorts of arguments separate. I’ll sometimes be having a conversation about abortion, and the person I’m talking to will start with a bodily rights argument (women have the right to decide what happens to their bodies). We’ll talk for awhile and I’ll say something about how bodily rights don’t seem to justify the killing of innocent persons in other circumstances (a conjoined twin who would survive a separation is not entitled to force a separation that would kill the other twin). Then the person will say, ‘But it’s stupid to think that a fetus has the same right to life that the conjoined twin does’. Then I say ‘OK, good, we’re talking about personhood now’. We’ll discuss that, I’ll make some version of the Equal Rights Argument… and then my interlocutor will say some variant of, ‘But anyway, even if unborn children are persons, a woman has a right to control her own body’. Circular arguments are bad!
Moral status / personhood arguments and bodily rights arguments are logically independent of one another. Obviously they are related, in that both have huge implications for the abortion debate, but what a woman has a right to do with her body and what moral status embryos and fetuses have are separate questions. Jumping from one to another just makes the discussion muddled and everyone frustrated. As I’ve said, the pro-choice position only needs one of the arguments to succeed: but it does need at least one to succeed on its own merits.
Keeping the distinction between the two different parts of the abortion debate clear in our minds will make our conversations about abortion clearer, more focused, and make us more likely to be able to genuinely listen to one another.