Abortion: Identity and Loss
Quinn (Warren S.)
Source: Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Winter, 1984) (pp. 24-54)
Paper - Abstract

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Author's Introduction

  1. Most philosophers who discuss abortion seem to presuppose that during any period of time in which a human fetus is not yet a human being1 abortion remains a matter of negligible moral consequence. The extreme anti-abortionist, of course, denies that there is any such period; but he too seems to accept the presupposition. For he argues as if everything depended on establishing conception as the point at which human life begins. The extreme pro-abortionist relies on the same presupposition. It enables him to move from the premise that no fetus2 ever fully qualifies as a human being to the conclusion that abortion at any fetal stage is permissible on demand. Even moderates are generally so classified because they take some intermediate point in pregnancy (for example, viability) to be the beginning of human life, and hence to be the moral watershed at which abortion begins to be objectionable. Thus all parties to the debate as traditionally conducted seem to regard the fetus itself as entering the moral drama in only one of two ways: either as a mere mass of cells which can be excised at the pregnant woman's discretion or as a human being with a full right to life of the very sort possessed by those who ponder its fate3.
  2. But this presupposition may be false. At least it is at odds with two intuitions I have long found persuasive:
    1. The first of these is that even a very early abortion stands in need of moral justification in a way that the surgical removal of a mere mass of tissue does not. Abortion is morally problematic not only because of its impact on the pregnant woman but also because of its impact on the organism that is killed and removed. The extreme anti-abortionist will, of course, share this intuition, but it is deliberately weaker and vaguer than anything he could endorse as a final position. This is shown by its apparent compatibility with my second intuition:
    2. That abortion occurring early enough in pregnancy, at least before all the organ systems of the fetus are complete, is not morally equivalent either to the killing of an adult or the killing of an infant. The early fetus not only fails to be morally protected by the same kind of right to life that mature persons possess, but its moral status also differs in some important way from that of the neonate.
  3. The extreme pro-abortionist will, of course, endorse (ii) but not the idea that it can be conjoined consistently to (i). But it is this conjunction that I find plausible. The early fetus is not, as the conservative thinks it is, under the full moral protections appropriate to a mature human being, but it is also not the morally negligible thing the liberal seems to think it is. To these two intuitions I shall add a third which sometimes strikes me as equally compelling:
    1. As pregnancy progresses abortion becomes increasingly problematic from the moral point of view. More, and perhaps considerably more, is required to justify an abortion at six months than at one month. This intuition, which may well be widely shared, almost never finds a secure place in philosophical discussions of the abortion issue.
  4. In this paper I shall discuss, in what will have to be a somewhat rough and schematic way, two alternative metaphysical theories of the status of the fetus and the nature of fetal development in which these moral intuitions could be seen to be satisfied. These theories attempt to articulate, each in its own way, the kind of individual identity that the fetus possesses, especially in relation to the identity of the future human being it will in some sense become. Each of them is offered as plausible quite apart from the question of abortion, for each does considerable justice to intuitions about fetal identity that arise from an attempt to take man seriously as a biological being.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: Footnote 2: Footnote 3:

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