There’s a viral video going around of actor James Franco and philosophy professor Eliot Michaelson in a discussion about abortion with professor of philosophy at Princeton Elizabeth Harman. This is part of a new YouTube series by Franco, Philosophy Time.
Her argument is that if we abort the fetus before it is conscious and has experiences, then it is not morally bad to do so. How does she defend her argument for the permissibility of early abortions? She asserts that when it comes to the early fetus (and philosophers tend to use the catch-all term “fetus” to refer to the unborn organism at all stages of pregnancy, even though technically it’s not a fetus until about two months in utero), there are two different kinds of beings. Fetuses who have a future have moral status, and fetuses who don’t have a future, either because of miscarriage or because the mother kills the fetus in abortion, do not have moral status.
If you are perplexed by Harmon’s defense of her argument, you’re not alone. Franco’s expression tells it all. As Franco said, that’s something that you can only judge in hindsight. By Harmon’s criterion for personhood, that having a future as a person is what grants moral status, you can’t know whether or not any given fetus is a person because you can’t know whether or not that fetus has a future. And to argue that we know which fetuses are not persons because we know the mother is going to take her in and abort her, as Harmon does, is a clear case of ad hoc reasoning to justify her position on abortion. Her argument seems, prima facie, to be that whether or not a woman decides to abort is what determines whether or not she has moral status.
Harmon tries to save her view with a couple of caveats: 1) If you had been aborted while you were yet a fetus, then it wouldn’t have been wrong because you wouldn’t have had moral status, not being the kind of fetus that grows up into a person. So moral status is a contingent matter (i.e. contingent on whether or not your mother had aborted you). 2) It’s not looking at it correctly that each fetus has moral status which is taken away when the mother aborts him. There’s nothing about the present state of the fetus that grants it moral status. It’s not conscious and is not having any experiences. It’s derivative of its future that it gets to have moral status. Its future is what endows it with moral status. So when you abort him you’re not depriving him of something he independently has.
Neither one of these caveats save her view. It’s just as ad hoc as it was before. Caveat one, that if you had been aborted as a fetus it wouldn’t have been wrong is just another ad hoc explanation to justify her first ad hoc explanation. The only reason that fetus won’t grow up to be a person is because he is being prevented from doing so by his mother and the abortionist. If left alone, he will grow up into an infant and an adult. Even fetuses that miscarry have this same potential; it’s just being cut short by an external factor, just as an infant who dies of SIDS still has the potential to become an adult, it’s just being prevented by some unknown factor. Her second caveat, that it’s your future that grounds your moral status, abortion isn’t taking it away, again fails to take into consideration that all fetuses have that future, if not being prevented from doing so. These two caveats do not make her case any stronger.
Liz Harmon’s colleague, Robert P. George, stated on a Facebook status that Harmon’s view does have one redeeming quality: it does seem to explain the disconnect between a woman who aborts seeing her fetus as nothing but a “clump of cells” but a woman who wants the fetus seeing him as her baby, her child. But Harmon’s argument for abortion is so incoherent it’s a wonder why she doesn’t abandon it for another colleague, Peter Singer’s, better, albeit unsuccessful, argument for abortion. Ah, well. As has been well observed, there is no position so outlandish it has not been seriously defended by some philosophers.
That being said, another philosopher, Frank Beckwith, also on Facebook, pointed out that Elizabeth Harman has defended her argument in more detail in an article she's written and we should engage with the strongest version of her argument that she's put forth. So I will read Harman's article and respond to it in a future post. Stay tuned for that.
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