Dr. Kate Greasley is an Associate Professor in Law at the Hertford College at Oxford University. I reread her book, Arguments About Abortion: Personhood, Morality, and Law1 every year. In my mind, it is one of the best books written by a pro-choice advocate. It is healthy to develop the habit of considering the best arguments made by the people who disagree with us. Most of my discussions are not with PhD’s or those deeply immersed in the literature on the abortion arguments, so most of my discussions are better understood as opportunities to teach the various positions held on this issue rather than as engaging powerful arguments on the moral nature of abortion. Greasley brings clarity and a sharp analytical mind to her evaluations and reading her better equips me to counter the arguments of people who agree with her on the permissibility of abortion.
She also brings something else. She understands the law better than many authors on this issue. It is a common mistake to conflate the moral arguments about abortion with the legal arguments, not understanding the differences between those two. I have tried over the years to clarify with audiences that when I show up and defend the position that abortion is objectively wrong, an intrinsically evil act that can never be properly ordered in human good, I am making a moral case against abortion. We must set aside how we address abortion under the law until we answer some more pressing initial questions; what are the unborn and what are our basic obligations to them? Greasley’s background in the law brings refreshing balance often missing from those arguers prone to jump to legal conclusions from philosophical premises.
Finally, Greasley offers devastating criticisms of some pro-choice arguments she finds unpersuasive. The power of those criticisms in our rhetorical quiver cannot be overstated. Nothing disarms a hostile Q&A like being able to say, “One of the best thinkers in the world on your side of this issue agrees this is a terrible argument.” Abortion advocates often believe that all pro-life advocates argue from a position of ignorance or deceit or both. On those occasions when we can demonstrate careful and respected thinkers on their own side find a point unpersuasive our job gets a little easier. The truth is the truth, but often people can’t hear the truth from certain sources when prejudices have sufficiently poisoned the well before a case is ever made. A little friendly fire from their side can be helpful.
One of the projects I want to undertake as I begin to answer submitted questions and ramp up our content production at this website is to engage important books. This practice benefits both me and our audience. Revisiting good arguers always teaches us new things. It deepens our understanding of areas we thought we knew well. It can break us out of a sense of complacency and remind us how much work there is to do. We can believe we are cleverer than we are, so we dive back into challenging material to remember how deep the pool can get.
I will not attempt to recreate her work here. That would be unethical and counterproductive. I want people to read her book, and there is so much good stuff it would be impossible to share it all. My goal in this and in all future blogged books will be to engage with the big ideas and encourage others to chase the details on their own.
Chapter 1: What Should Abortion Argument Be About?
Greasley begins her consideration of this issue with the broadest question possible, what should we be arguing about? Every dialogue must operate within a set of agreed upon ground rules. Otherwise, we are not engaging in a dialogue but offering competing monologues. Greg Koukl and Scott Klusendorf helped train a generation of pro-life advocates to focus like a laser on a very specific question, what is the unborn? The right or wrong of abortion will be determined by how we answer that question. If the unborn is valueless tissue, then Koukl says abortion is no different than a tooth extraction. The procedure requires no justification. If the unborn is one of us, a full member of the human family, then justifications offered to support abortion fall woefully short. The only way to resolve the moral question of abortion is to identify what exactly is being destroyed in the process of abortion. What is the unborn?
Greasley asks whether this is the proper question to focus on, the personhood of the human fetus. It seems intuitionally to be the clearest starting point, but not everyone agrees. She identifies two broad objections against centering our arguments on the personhood of the fetal human being:
- The personhood or full humanity of the unborn will not establish anything critical in evaluating the moral and legal nature of abortion.
Judith Jarvis Thomson’s Good Samaritan Thesis falls into the first category. Women face no moral requirement to aid the fetal human life with the use of their organs to preserve the nascent human life. They have no duty to save. The Justifiable Homicide Thesis is another argument in the first category. Even if the unborn are one of us, killing them is justified based on the threat they pose to the freedom of the woman. Her freedom interests trump the life interests of the fetal human, and the destruction of that fetal life is justified. Neither of these cases requires the unborn to be something lesser. Both justifications operate the same even if the unborn is fully human. The humanity or personhood of the unborn simply does not matter when it comes to the right or wrong of abortion. Greasley tables the discussion on these points until a later chapter, so we will leave them behind as well. This leaves us to address whether the question of fetal personhood can be resolved at all.
What is meant by personhood?
We aren’t done setting the stage quite yet. Greasley acknowledges for the sake of the terms of engagement that biological human life begins at conception. This isn’t much of a concession. Steve Jacobs research at University of Chicago demonstrated that 96% of academic biologists affirm human life begins at conception.3 When else could human life begin? Which brings us to our next delineation of clear categories of argument. Science (life begins at fertilization) vs. Philosophy (early human life ought to be treated in a certain way). Conceding life begins at fertilization, (a scientific acknowledgement) doesn’t handcuff Greasley or anyone else to a view that embryonic human life matters. There are humans and there are human persons, and what makes a human a human person is precisely what Greasley thinks this discussion seeks to resolve.
What exactly does she mean by person? In her words:
“(A) category of beings which possess a certain kind of moral status, typically elaborated in terms of interests or rights, and yielding a cluster of normative implications concerning how it is morally acceptable to treat such beings.”4
Persons are the kind of beings we owe duties and to whom we are obligated. Not all persons are humans. Christians believe that God is a person, and yet not a human being. Angels would appear to be persons. Intelligent and moral alien life forms could be persons. The point is that being a person is not identical to being a human being. Non-human persons are easily imaginable and for many assumed to exist. It may be that all human beings are personal beings, then again it may not be the case.
I am always surprised how some people begin their reasoning from the position that the idea of a non-personal human is easily intelligible. I am not saying that it is entirely unreasonable. It just creates levels of complication I personally find difficult to accept without compelling reason to do so.
At first glance, I can understand why it makes sense to someone looking to justify actions like abortion or embryo destructive research. These are people who actively WANT early human life to have no value. There are too many benefits to enjoy and exploit by their destruction, freedom from parental responsibility, medical research breakthroughs, financial benefits from research grants and biological breakthroughs. If someone begins their reasoning on these issues from the starting point, “I want to be able to destroy this life” then it is easier to understand why they would look for immediately practicable capacities or biological formations that are absent in early development in order to define nascent human life out of the category of meaningful human life.
Their cavalier attitude notwithstanding, they fail to appreciate the weird reality this view creates. Philosopher Alexander Pruss addressed this weirdness where he identified the basic animal life which comes into existence at fertilization and the personal being who supervenes upon this animal at some later point such that both endure in a strange, shared existence.5 It is possible that the personal being could cease to exist at a future time and leave behind only the biological animal. It means our identity cannot extend back to the biological beginning of the organism we now inhabit. Our mothers did not carry us for nine months, but they carried that psychologically and emotionally void kind of an animal being that would eventually house the person now reading this. And this union we all experience could give way at any moment under sufficiently catastrophic medical conditions leaving behind the valueless animal life. When people tell me they find it bizarre that anyone could believe an embryo ought to be treated as a full human being, I usually point out that the position that I should treat every human life I encounter with the same basic respect, starting with refraining from killing them, is far less strange to me than the idea of what they think their mother carried around in her body for nine months. I am more comfortable with what has been termed the inclusive view of human value than I am with the idea that some group of humans feel entitled to define another group of humans out of existence in order to treat them horribly.
Greasley, to her credit, emphasizes the importance of this point later in the chapter. In wording similar to an observation by pro-life philosopher Christopher Kaczor, Greasley writes:
“In all other contexts, many now historical, in which the categories ‘human being’ and ‘person’ have been distinguished, and where legal systems and social orders have engaged themselves in separating out who is human in the simple biological sense, and who in the moral, rights-holding sense, those applying the distinction have fallen into grave moral error.”6
That is putting the situation rather mildly. That is exactly why it is so vital all parties address the question “What is the unborn?” The costs of being wrong on this issue is too high. If they are one of us, then call it what you will under the law, but abortion is deeply immoral. It is the unnecessary intentional destruction of our fellow human beings. If they are one of us, abortion is the willful destruction of the next generation before they are born to prevent them from being in our way. It is a ghastly act, made no less terrible by the frequency with which it occurs. Those who claim they are not one of us have a responsibility to articulate why. On this point, we have some agreement with Dr. Kate Greasley.
Next post, Greasley v Dworkin, or is the question of fetal personhood unanswerable?
5 Alexander Pruss, “I Was Once a Fetus: That Is Why Abortion Is Wrong”, Philosophy & Medicine 111: Persons, Moral Worth, and Embryos: A Critical Analysis of Pro-Choice Arguments, (New York: Springer 2011) 19-29