Summary and Analysis of “Abortion and the Concept of a Person”
Pantea Azizi Tourshizi
University of Miami
Summary and Analysis of “Abortion and the Concept of a Person”
The debate regarding abortion surrounds the moral, legal and religious status of induced abortion. Abortion is the deliberate termination of a pregnancy. This extremely controversial debate has two extreme sides “pro-choice” and “pro-life” The “pro-choice” movement emphasizes a woman’s right to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy, whilst the “pro-life” movement emphasizes the right of the embryo or fetus to gestate to term and be born. In this paper, I will delve into the essay “Abortion and the Concept of a Person” by Jane English, that examines the concept of a person and concludes that since no single criterion can capture the concept of a person that it will not suffice in settling the abortion debate. Furthermore, if a fetus is a person, abortion is still justifiable in many cases; and if a fetus is not a person, killing it is still wrong in many cases. I will also be providing an analysis of the argument where I evaluate the premises of English’s essay.
For many people, this controversy is important because abortion is essentially a moral issue that concerns the commencement of human personhood, the rights of the fetus, and a woman’s rights over her own body. The debate has also become progressively more political over the years with some countries having “pro-life” campaigners seeking to place anti-abortion laws, while “pro-choice” campaigners aim to repeal such laws and promote women’s access to abortions.
Jane English (1975) begins her essay by stating that the two popular positions on the abortion debate seems to be clearly mistaken. Conservatives maintain that human life begins at conception and that therefore abortion must be wrong because it is murder. However, not all killings of human beings are murder. Most notably in the case of self-defense. Liberals are just mistaken in their argument that since a fetus does not a person until birth, a woman can do as she pleases in and to her own body, First, if it affects other people adversely, the woman may not do whatever to she pleases. Second, if a fetus is not a person, that does imply that you can do to it anything you wish. Animals, for example, are not persons, yet to kill or torture them for no reason is wrong. At the center of this debate however is the issue of whether a fetus should be considered a person. Conservatives draw the line at conception, liberals at birth. English believes that the concept of a person cannot and need not bear the weight that the abortion controversy has thrust upon it because there is no sharp line that can be drawn when it comes to personhood.
English (1975) does not presuppose, unlike various philosophers, that the concept of a person can be captured in a straitjacket of necessary and/or sufficient conditions. Rather, “person” is a cluster of features, of which rationality, having self concept, and being conceived of humans are only part. Within our concept of a person we include certain biological, psychological, rationality, social, and legal factors. This list, according to English, however, is still incomplete or can have counterinstances. People typically can exhibit rationality, for instance, but someone who was irrational would not thereby fail to qualify as a person, as an advanced robot might. There is no single core of necessary and sufficient features which we can draw upon with assurance that they constitute what really makes a person; there are only features that are more or less typical. This does not go to say that there is no necessary or sufficient conditions that can be given. In the case of the fetus, rather than falling inside a sufficient condition or outside a necessary one, a fetus lines in the penumbra region where our concept of a person is not so simple. Biologically human beings develop gradually, therefore there should not be any specific time or sharp dividing point for when a person appears on the scene. For this reason, English believes that a conclusive answer to the question whether a fetus is a person is unattainable.
Even if a fetus is a person, English believes that abortion is still justifiable in various cases. English states that Thomson’s landmark article, “A Defense of Abortion”, correctly points out that some additional argumentation is needed at this point in the conservative argument to bridge the gap between the premise that a fetus is an innocent person and the conclusion that killing it is always wrong. To arrive to this conclusion, one must assert that killing an innocent person is always wrong. English believes that killing an innocent person is sometimes permissible, most notably in self defense. Some cases of pregnancy present a parallel situation. Though the fetus is innocent, it may pose a threat to the pregnant woman’s well-being, life prospects or health, mental or physical. If the pregnancy presents only a slight threat to her interests, it seems self-defense cannot justify abortion. However, if the threat is on par with a serious beating or the loss of a finger, then she may kill the fetus that poses such a threat, even if it is an innocent person.
If the fetus is not considered a person, however, English believes that it is not always morally permissible to have an abortion. Some people express concern that if the fetus is not considered a full-fledged person, then it is justifiable to treat it in whatever way we please. However, this does not follow, for two main reasons: non-persons do get some consideration in our moral code and the result of human’s psychological constitution that plays a role in how we feel towards person-like nonpersons. A clear example of this phenomena is seen in animals. Torturing animals is seen to be morally wrong, even though those animals do not have the same rights as persons.
Furthermore, our psychological constitution makes it the case that for our ethical theory to work, it must prohibit certain treatment of non-persons which are significantly person-like. If our moral rules allowed people to treat some person-like non persons in ways we do not want people to be treated, this would undermine the system of sympathies and attitudes that makes the ethical system work. For this reason, English states that people choose in the original position to make mistreatment of some sorts of animals wrong in general, even though animals are not themselves in the original position. Thus it makes sense that it is those animals whose appearance and behavior are most like those of people that get the most consideration in our moral scheme. It is because of “coherence of attitudes” that the similarity of a fetus to a baby is very significant.
Therefore, in the early months of pregnancy when the fetus hardly resembles a baby at all, then, abortion is permissible whenever it is in the interests of the pregnant woman or her family. The reasons would only need to outweigh the pain and inconvenience of the abortion itself. In the middle months, when the fetus comes to resemble a person, abortion would be justifiable only when the continuation of the pregnancy or the birth of the child would cause harms to the woman, be it physical, psychological, economic or social. In the late months of pregnancy, even on our current assumption that a fetus is not a person, abortion seems to be wrong except to save a woman from significant injury or death.
English concludes that application of our concept of a person will not suffice to settle the abortion issue. After all, the biological development of a human being is gradual. Second, whether a fetus is a person or not, abortion is justifiable early in pregnancy to avoid modest harms and seldom justifiable late in pregnancy except to avoid significant circumstances.
When analyzing English’s argument, I agree with her statement that abortion is only sometimes morally permissible whether or not the fetus is considered a person. As English mentioned, there is no sufficient way to settle the abortion issue through the concept of a person. Even though there is no developmental stage line that determines when a fetus can be considered a person, many conservatives state that life starts at conception. This argument is fallacious because, similar to the Paradox of the Heap, there is a developmental stage line at which one is considered a person, even if we do not know what that line is. English also states that even if we were to consider the fetus a person there are many justifiable reasons to still have an abortion. Many extreme “pro-choice” campaigners will argue that the fetus is an innocent person, and that killing an innocent person is wrong. However, this premise has flaws because killing an innocent person is not always wrong. English states that this is most clearly seen in cases of self defense. I believe that it also depends on which ethical theory is used when assessing the situation. In Utilitarianism, if it provides a greater net happiness then it is morally permissible to kill an innocent person. If the fetus is not considered a person, English asserts that it does not mean that it is justifiable to do as we please with the nonperson. She uses the example of torturing animals. This premise has some flaws to it because it depends again on which ethical theory is used. If this is looked at through a utilitarianism perspective, torturing animals or using nonpersons as a mean to an end is morally permissible if it benefits the majority. This is seen in cases such as animal testing, that sometimes causes these experimental animals considerable suffering provided that it will bring discoveries of great benefit to people. Jane English’s argument does have slight issues that arises when looked at from different ethical perspectives. However, it has good form and takes on the abortion debate with a view that is moderate and thorough.
Vaughn, Lewis. (2013). Bioethics: principles, issues, and cases. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.