One part of the debate about the ethics of abortion concerns the moral status of the foetus, i.e. whether human beings count for the same and have the same rights whether or not they are inside a womb. On the one hand it seems arbitrary to say they don't, but on the other hand it seems equally arbitrary to assign equal moral status to a just-fertilised egg as to a conscious feeling creature. Nevertheless, the people arguing against the permissibility of abortion are nearly always doing so on the basis that it is wrong to kill a foetus because it is wrong to kill a human being ('Foetal lives matter!').
However, there is another angle to the debate that begins by recognising that both mother and foetus have moral status and then attempts to adjudicate the resulting conflict of rights. This is associated with a famous philosophy paper by Judith Jarvis Thomson (summary; full paper), but it also fits well with the reasoning for the original Roe v Wade decision.
The core of this is the claim that just because a foetus has a right to life in general does not mean it has the right to receive the necessities of life from its mother in particular. In other words, there is a gap between the 1st and 2nd conclusions below.
P1. All humans have a right to life
P2. All fetuses are humans!
C1. Therefore, all fetuses have a right to life (general)
P4. If fetuses have a right to life then it is always forbidden to end their lives
C2. Therefore, it is forbidden for mothers to end a pregnancy if this will cause the death of a foetus (particular obligation)
I am not arguing that people do not have a right to life - quite to the contrary, it seems to me that the primary control we must place on the acceptability of an account of rights is that it should turn out in that account to be a truth that all persons have a right to life. I am arguing only that having a right to life does not guarantee having either a right to be given the use of or a right to be allowed continued use of another person's body-even if one needs it for life itself. So the right to life will not serve the opponents of abortion in the very simple and clear way in which they seem to have thought it would. (Thomson p. 56)
nobody is morally required to make large sacrifices, of health, of all other interests and concerns, of all other duties and commitments, for nine years, or even for nine months, in order to keep another person alive (Thomson p. 61-62)
P1. People have rightsP2. Governments have duties to guarantee those rights, and legal powers to compel citizens to comply with those dutiesP3. Coercion is badC. Therefore, governments should carry out their duties with the minimum coercion possible
1. Unwanted pregnancies* should be understood as the responsibility of society as a whole because these women are bearing the burden of society's duty to guarantee foetuses' right to life. Moreover, this burden falls on them for no other reason than that their bodies play an irreplaceable role in keeping foetuses alive. Basic fairness requires reducing such arbitrary burdens as far as possible. That means for example that all the medical and employment costs and risks of pregnancy should be borne by the state (for the same reason that conscripts shouldn't have to pay for their guns or body armour or medical care).2. Since an unwanted pregnancy is work on behalf of society, it is public service work and should be paid at least the public sector median wage. Doctors get paid for keeping people alive; teachers get paid for meeting children's right to an education; mothers should be paid for their essential contribution to meeting the foetus' right to life.3. Since an unwanted pregnancy represents an unwanted child, governments must create a reliable and efficient adoption service that would match unwanted babies to wanting parents at birth.4. Because coercion is bad, governments should systematically work to minimise the amount that is necessary. That includes minimising the number of unwanted pregnancies, for example with pro-active sex education and free easy access to long-term reversible contraception, especially for teenagers (the group most likely to want to end a pregnancy). It also includes research and development of care technologies for pre-term babies that would reduce the length of time for which a human body is the only means of keeping a foetus alive, and thus the length of time for which a pregnant woman's body would be conscripted by the state.
- Governments can ban abortions if children's right to life takes priority over women's right to bodily autonomy AND pregnant women should receive adequate compensation and support
- Suppose it is true that children's right to life takes priority over women's right to bodily autonomy
- Then EITHER pregnant women receive should adequate compensation and support OR it is not true that governments can ban abortions
- A ⊃ (B ∧ C)
- Therefore, C or ~A