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The Abortion Debate: A Brief Overview

Sam Taylor

Posted on August 12, 2020 20:37

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The abortion debate is often misconstrued as a simple analysis of whether a fetus has a right to life. However, the debate is far more complex than such a conception indicates. In this TLT, I attempt to provide a brief, relatively unbiased overview of the debate.

When divorced from its emotionally-charged simplifications, the abortion debate becomes a fascinating web of moral philosophy. It poses questions ranging from the nature of personal identity to the extent of bodily autonomy: questions barred from decisive answers by fickle conceptions of morality laden with contradicting abstractions. In essence, it’s a freakin’ hard-to-solve debate, fraught with complexity. But in this TLT, I’ll attempt to provide a brief, (relatively) unbiased overview of the debate, misconstrued as it is by political rhetoric which unabashedly trades complexities for simplistic dichotomies and superficial euphemisms. 


The abortion debate can be divided into two parts: argument over whether the fetus has a right to life comparable to that of postnatal humans, and contention over whether such a prenatal right to life overrides a mother’s right to bodily autonomy (with respect to her pregnancy). Let’s talk about these parts separately: 


Does a fetus have a right to life? If so, to what extent? A decisive, universally-accepted answer to these questions has evaded moral philosophy, and the political discussions which accompany it. Some suggest (pp. 149-156) that a right to life—at least in the sense postnatal humans have it—only exists upon the realization of some higher-order mental faculty (e.g. self awareness), meaning that at least early stage fetuses wouldn’t have such a right. Others see the right to life as arising at the moment of conception, where a zygote with the innate potential to develop into a sentient human being comes into existence. Still, others argue that the fetus develops a lesser right to life (i.e. a value comparable to but less than that exhibited by postnatal humans) sometime during the course of its development, whether at the moment of conception or weeks before birth. 


But let’s assume, for the sake of analysis, that the fetus does have a right to life. According to some, the veracity of this assumption has no bearing on the morality of abortion, because the fetus’s right to life, even if comparable to a more developed human being, doesn’t trump a mother’s right to reproductive, bodily autonomy (i.e. choice). Perhaps the most famous articulation of this position was given by Judith Jarvis Thompson in A Defense of Abortion, wherein she suggested that it’s unethical to force someone to endure suffering (especially prolonged suffering) to save the life of another. Of course, many disagree with Thompson’s position, citing an intuitive calculus of morality whereby life is held to be of higher moral value than alleviating temporary suffering. Which formulation of morality is correct—whether Thompson’s or that of her opponents—depends, expectantly, on who you ask.


Now there are many other complexities in the subject of abortion (I barely even touched on the relation between personal identity and the right to life!), but they’re beyond the scope of this brief overview. Nonetheless, I hope this piece has fulfilled its basic purpose, in that you’re a little more acquainted with the complexities of the oft-simplified abortion debate. 

Sam Taylor

Posted on August 12, 2020 20:37

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