Pro-Choice and Pro-Equality? I don’t think so.

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Equality

To be pro-choice is to reject human equality, to reject the idea that we are all entitled to a basic standard of treatment in virtue of the fact that we are human and all equally human.

This should not be a controversial statement. Indeed, it strikes me as obviously true.

As we’ve already seen it is a biological fact that you came into existence at fertilization – from this moment you were a distinct, living and whole human being. (If you are a monozygotic twin, you might have come into existence at a slightly later time but that’s a story for another time.)

And given this biological fact – that you, when you first came into being, were just as human as you are now – and the principle that things which are equal deserve to be treated equally, to support abortion means rejecting the idea that all human beings are equally morally valuable.

For the act of killing the unborn is usually justified on the assumption that the unborn are not our moral equals. But in terms of their humanity, they are equal – both you as you are now and you when you were in your mother’s womb are equally human. In which case, the supporter of abortion must reject the idea that being human is morally relevant. It must be the case that some human beings are more valuable than other human beings. (We assume here that the unborn are innocent of any wrongdoing and anyone who might claim otherwise evidently does not know what the word ‘innocent’ means.)

This of course raises the question: ‘Which human beings are more morally valuable than other human beings and what makes them more valuable?’

We touched on the possible morally relevant differences between you now and you when you were in your mother’s womb last time, but the point here is that one cannot (in general) maintain that human beings are equally morally valuable and at the same time support abortion.

So, if the supporter of abortion cannot ground ‘equality’ in our being human, what can he ground it in? Well, it’s not clear that there is anything to ground it in at all, and, to be logically consistent, it seems that he must reject the idea of equal moral value among humans completely.

Personhood

Related to this, you may have heard some advocates of abortion talking about personhood. They might say that the unborn is not a person, therefore we are justified in ending his or her life. The claim they often make is that while the unborn are biological humans, they are not persons.

Such a distinction is not as unreasonable as it might at first sound, for it is evidently possible that there could be such things as non-human persons e.g. an intelligent alien from outer space or, for many religious believers, God is thought of as a person. Dolphins and higher primates may, too, be thought of as persons depending on the criteria. It doesn’t matter whether God or aliens exist – these examples merely show that it is possible for there to be persons who are not human.

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But is it also possible for there to be humans who are not persons?

Proponents of abortion seem to think so. What we have at work here are basically two radically different conceptions of personhood – the substance view of personhood, and the functional view of personhood.

Functional/attribute view of personhood: This view holds that something is a person insofar as it is able to perform or exercise a certain function or attribute. For example, a pro-choice person might claim that what makes human beings valuable is their attribute of self-awareness.

Holding such a view would enable one to argue that abortion is therefore justified because the unborn, certainly at the earliest stage of his/her existence, is not self-aware, but you, as you are now, are self-aware.

Substance view of personhood: this view holds that something is a person by virtue of the kind of thing it is. For example, a human being is a person because it has a rational nature.

Personhood and equality

If one holds the functional/attribute view, then any notion of basic human equality is in serious peril. For there simply is no function or attribute which we all hold to precisely the same degree. We all have various attributes to varying degrees. We are all more or less self-aware or rational or whatever.

Importantly for the abortion debate, it also means that it is very difficult to argue that abortion should be permitted but infanticide, for example, should not be permitted. A newly born child, is not self-aware; he or she does not have the mental capacities which he or she will have later in life, and therefore, so the argument goes, just as abortion is permitted because you are not killing a person, so infanticide is permitted because you are not killing a person either. This is precisely the conclusion that many pro-abortion philosophers, such as Harris and Singer, come to.

This position should fill you with disgust. Unless of course, you are a moral idiot or moral philosopher (it’s surprising how often those two things overlap).

Conversely, the great merit of the substance view of personhood is that it ensures a basic equality among all humans. We are all persons because of the kind of thing that we are, regardless of other concerns and we are therefore entitled to the same basic treatment, because we are, at base, equal. This view of personhood does not depend on our psychological capacities or any other attribute or function.

Jeff McMahan, for example, a pro-abortion philosopher recognises the difficulty of basing the equal moral worth of human persons on properties that are unequal among human persons.

“All this leaves me profoundly uncomfortable. It seems virtually unthinkable to abandon our egalitarian commitments… [y]et the challenge of the equal wrongness thesis… support… scepticism about the compatibility of our all or nothing egalitarian beliefs with the fact that the properties[/attributes/functions] on which our moral status appears to supervene are all matters of degree. It is hard to avoid the sense that our egalitarian commitments rest on distressingly insecure foundations.” (McMahan, Jeff [2008]. Challenges To Human Equality. The Journal of Ethics 12(1), p81-104, pp.104)

So, why do abortion proponents have a problem with human equality? Because if we are required to treat all human beings as having the same basic moral worth, this seems to rule out abortion. Why? Because the unborn are just as human as the rest of us, there is nothing that can be added to make them more human.

They are completely and fully human – they are equally human, and therefore entitled to the same treatment as us. Can you support abortion and believe that human beings are equal i.e. have the same basic moral value? I don’t think so.

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