The Philosophy and Politics of Early Abortion in the U.S.

The past months have seen successful legislative efforts in several states to criminalize early abortion. Emboldened by Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, abortion opponents are hoping that the new legislation, once challenged in court, will force a reconsideration of Roe v. Wade, in which the Court ruled that “during the first trimester, governments could not prohibit abortions at all; during the second trimester, governments could require reasonable health regulations; during the third trimester, abortions could be prohibited entirely so long as the laws contained exceptions for cases when abortion was necessary to save the life of the mother.” (Update: see this comment from Legal Detail regarding this description.)

The wave of new legislation is being protested nationally today, at noon, at various #StopTheBans events. (You can check here to see if there is one near you.)

photo by Fred McDarrah

Abortion is a challenging and complicated subject in moral and political philosophy. In a recent post at his blog, Fake Nous, Michael Huemer (Colorado) writes, correctly, in my view:

If the abortion issue seems very simple and obvious to you, then you’re probably a dogmatic ideologue, and your ideology is stopping you from appreciating this very subtle, complex question. Abortion is a highly intellectually interesting issue, connected with all sorts of important—and very difficult and controversial—issues: Issues about personal identity, potentiality, the foundation of rights, the physical basis of consciousness, the doctrine of double effect, special obligations to family, negative vs. positive conceptions of rights, and the problem of moral uncertainty.

When I teach about abortion in my “moral problems” courses the aim, as it is generally in lower-level classes, is to convey the complexity of the subject.

Those concerned primarily with the current events concerning the legality of abortion may have little patience for such complexity. I’m no political strategist, so I’m willing to admit that from a political point of view, ignoring complexity may be the best strategy. I hope it isn’t, but I don’t know.

Regardless, I do think it’s worth noting that an appreciation that abortion is not “simple and obvious” is not necessarily a recipe for political inefficacy.

For one thing, getting people to appreciate the moral complexity of abortion may result in less of the political dogmatism that seems to fuel support for making early abortion illegal.

For another, thinking that the issue of abortion is not “simple and obvious” is compatible with having have well-reasoned, considered judgments on the matter. Philosophers, of all people, are likely to appreciate the complexity of the subject, and I think this makes us better equipped to take part in disputes over it, or to even change people’s minds about it. Being able to engage, one-on-on, with those one disagrees with politically in a way that helps them make sense of not just your view, but theirs, with an honest appraisal of the various difficulties for each, probably has a better chance of changing minds than standing on different sides of a barricade shouting slogans at one another.

This isn’t intended to discourage political demonstrations, protests, and the like. They have their value. But it is just a reminder that the typical readers of this website probably have other valuable tools at their disposal, too, and may wish to seek out opportunities in which to use them.

If readers have particular strategies for such engagement, or particular arguments they think are especially effective in such contexts, feel free to share them.

(For example, I find that talking about the argument that Elizabeth Harman (Princeton) gives in her “Creation Ethics: The Moral Status of Early Fetuses and the Ethics of Abortion” is particularly good for complicating people’s thinking about abortion.)


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