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May 02, 2003

thinking about the fetus without analogy

Here's a question prompted by a seminar discussion today. (The speaker was my colleague Robert Sprinkle.) Would it be possible to consider the moral status of a human fetus without analogizing it to something else? The standard way to think about the morality of abortion is to ask what fetuses are most like—babies, organisms (fairly simple ones at first), or tumors. We know that babies cannot be killed, that simple organisms can be killed for important reasons, and that tumors can be removed and destroyed without regret. So an analogy can help us to answer the fundamantal moral question about abortion. (It's not necessarily the end of the matter. Judith Jarvis Thomson, and many others, have argued that you may kill a fetus even if it is like a person, because it is inside another person.) But a fetus isn't something else; it's a fetus. So could you simply consider it and reach moral conclusions? One might reply: "There is no way of reasoning about this entity; there is nothing to say to oneself about its moral status—unless one compares it to another object whose moral status one already knows." But how do we know the moral status of (for example) human beings? Presumably, experience and reason have rightly driven us to the conclusion that human beings have a right to life. Similarly, most of us have decided that insects do not have rights. Couldn't we reach conclusions about the moral status of fetuses without analogizing them to anything else?

(Some religious readers may say: "Experience and reason are not the basis of our belief in human rights—we get this belief from divine revelation." But there is no explicit divine revelation about fetuses, so the question arises even for religious people: Could we think morally—and perhaps prayerfully—about fetuses, without analogizing them to other things?)

Posted by peterlevine at May 2, 2003 11:28 AM

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