Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Persons and Alabama

As these efforts in Alabama focus on what a person is. I often have to insist that this is not where to end the abortion debate. What is at issue is not the ontology of the person which we then use to deduce when someone has moral standing! Mary Anne Warren had this trouble in her 5 criteria for personhood. There was no clear way the criteria happened. As soon as the baby possessed one of the five criteria, then bingo! It was a person. This also seemed to correspond to the miraculous manifestation of these properties when the baby entered the world. Bingo personhood once out of the womb! Like some weird Kantian property of contra-causal freedom of the will...

The abortion debate starts with first admitting two things from the extremes. First, it is not an issue of bodily autonomy in which abortion is morally neutral like getting a haircut. Secondly, the complexity of fetus in the very beginning of fertilization isn't exactly a person, and that we should not conflate being a person defined by species-membership and a being with moral standing. Given that, where do we begin?

Quite frankly, we start by admitting that there are moral scenarios where two beings have competing normative claims. On behalf of the woman, we have many possible issues: physical harm from birth and possibly death, quality of life for both the woman and potential child, and perhaps the desire to be free from having a child in the first place in combination with any of the other above all reasons. On behalf of the fetus, we cannot ask it to state its normative claim, and so we interpret that if the fetus had any claim, it follows from its dependent nature that the child would have a right to life. I concede that point wholeheartedly to anti-abortionists. If there are two competing claims, then we must admit that the function of morality is to resolve the competing claims so as to provide action-guidance to the conflict before us. As such, it is only the woman that can entertain reasons for why she ought to have an abortion, and while the fetus cannot communicate its claim to a right to life, we must default to the woman. The woman is actual, and the fetus's claims are only potential. Even if the fetus has a right to life, this claim only follows from its potential and dependent nature. The woman is an actual being, and has more concrete relation to the world that her choices will trump any potential being since moral norms apply more in proportion to actual beings than potential beings.

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