Boom! You’re a person! Boom! Now you’re not. Well, maybe. I don’t know. I haven’t made up my mind.
If you’re confused, don’t worry. So am I. Princeton professor Liz Harman attempted to make a defense for abortion that has everybody, including actor James Franco, who was interviewing her, scratching their heads.
If you haven’t seen the video, the gist of her argument is this. The moral worth of an “early fetus” depends on whether or not that fetus is going to die soon, but we can’t know that until after it has happened. If an early fetus, not really sure what that actually means, by the way, dies from miscarriage or abortion, then she never had moral worth and nothing bad has happened. But if that early fetus doesn’t die, then she had moral worth all along.
She deserves a gold medal for the mental gymnastics she does here to try to justify abortion, without justifying straight up infanticide like almost every other abortion rights argument does. And just like every other argument for abortion, this one fails miserably.
Let’s start with the obvious. She says that “there are two very different kinds of beings” among early fetuses. Whether or not that early fetus has a future determines its moral status, and thus what type of being it is. She never bothers to say what about having a future gives a human being worth. Are some futures more valuable than others? Do early fetuses with longer futures have more value? How do future experiences bring inherent value?
And, oh yeah, we’re all going to die at some point. Where is the cut off point for death to justify the abortion? She says that “if a fetus hasn’t ever been conscious, it hasn’t ever had any experiences, and we aborted it at that stage that actually nothing morally bad happens.” Before we even get to the fact that consciousness and experience are two very different things, we’re drowning in ambiguity.
If the fetus is going to die after having experiences, is it justifiable to kill it before those experiences happen? Or are those future experiences enough to give the fetus moral status?
Here’s another way to look at it. If a fetus isn’t destined to have a future, because she will die via miscarriage, is there then nothing wrong with just having the abortion? By Harman’s logic, it would seem so. Let’s play that out a little bit further. What if the child is destined to die at 6 months old? Or 2 years old? Could abortion be justified then? But by the act of having the abortion, you have changed the child’s destiny, therefore justifying the abortion.
Remember that the base of her argument is that early fetuses exist as two different types of beings. By choosing whether or not to have the abortion, the mother chooses what type of being that child always was, effectively changing the past. And if a woman is undecided about having the abortion, does the fetus exist in both states at once? Or neither?
Whew! That’s a lot. You still with me? Good.
Harman is going to try to respond to that challenge. Here’s what she says:
“So one reason is that, even, so you 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.”
Wait…what? It would have been wrong to kill you back then because you’re alive now? I’m getting dizzy from all these circles.
And here’s the zinger! She says, “it’s derivative of its future that it gets to have moral status. So it’s really that the future endows moral status on it, and if we allow it to have this future and then we’re allowing it to be the kind of thing that now would have moral status.”
So some people get to choose which other humans do or do not have moral status. Because nothing has ever gone wrong when that was tried before 🙄.
This has got to be the strangest justification for abortion I’ve ever heard and it really shows just how difficult it is to hold the position that there is nothing wrong with abortion. When this is the logic you have to come up with to justify your position, you need to rethink that position.
We created a little video noting James Franco’s obvious confusion
of Harman’s attempt at a philosophical argument for abortion- – –