Visual by Shreya Sharma
Abortion is a hugely debated topic that often divides outlooks on the issue of reproductive rights. “Pro-choice” and “pro-life” are the two opposing views on abortion. The central claims of the former view are aligned with autonomy and privacy while the latter holds an anti abortion stance considering life to be sacrosanct. The Roe v Wade judgement of the U.S. Supreme Court leveraged this distinct division of outlooks last week, when it overturned its 1973 ruling guaranteeing accessibility to abortion.
The pro-life view goes such that, believing life to be sacrosanct it deems the act of abortion or the termination of pregnancy immoral. It is argued that the potentiality of life possessed by the foetus establishes the ground for holding an anti-abortionist position. Bestowing the notion of personhood on the foetus further, deems it unethical. Peter Singer’s argument on the conservative view in Practical Ethics is worth considering to get an idea of the view favouring life. The argument goes as such:
“It is wrong to kill an innocent human being.”
“A human foetus is an innocent human being.”
“Therefore, it is wrong to kill a human foetus.”
The opposition to abortion, therefore relies on the linkage of the foetus with a human being. This calls for probing the determining factors of being a human for “human is a term that straddles on two distinct notions: being member of the species of homo sapiens and being a person”, contends Singer. Henceforth, taking the foetus to mean a “person” makes the second premise fallacious which asserts that the foetus is a human being because it is neither rational nor self conscious. On the other hand if human is taken to mean no more than “member of the species of homo sapiens” then, argues Singer, the defence of “the sanctity of life” of the foetus, is based on a characteristic lacking moral significance that is to say that the foetus lacks the attribute of being innocent, so the first premise is false.
On a very fundamental level the anti- abortionist view vouches for a belief that, “life begins at conception”. Such a view is essentially fraught as it disregards the other means of fertility such as IVF. Apart from restricting the reproductive rights of birthing individuals, the Supreme Court ruling has also put the future of the fertility clinics in the cold. “Several states have introduced bills that would define a foetus as a person. Defining life as beginning at conception has major implications for the infertility care”, reported the Washington Post on Saturday, “that aided the birth of 83,000 children in 2019 alone.” Therefore, the anti abortionist stance faces the most challenges when the view gets extended to the social sphere, for, on what grounds does one apply the definition of “life” to an embryo inside a birthing individual and a lab?
The question over the precise stage at which life begins is more reflective of the absurdity that the claim, “Life begins at conception” is heavy with. Singer demonstrates this absurdity while commenting on the status of the embryo at the laboratory, in Practical Ethics,
“Suppose we have an embryo in a dish on a laboratory bench. If we think of this embryo as the first stage of an individual human being, we might call it Mary. But now suppose the embryo divides itself into two identical embryos. Is one of them still Mary and the other Jane? If so, which one is Mary? There is nothing to distinguish the two, no way of saying that the other we call Jane split off from Mary….there is something absurd about these speculations. The absurdity stems from thinking of the embryo as an individual at a time, when it is only a cluster of cells” (Singer, 1993).The unfolding of existence from conception is absurd, for the stage during which the human life develops in exactitude is hard to trace. An inconsistency therefore, occurs in the belief on which the anti-abortionist view hinges upon, i.e., of linking the aspect of personhood with a foetus and establishing life to be sacrosanct, consequently.
A closer look at this belief informs us about the significance given to life that could be than life, that already is. And this is where the stance that favours life, in the context of the issue of reproductive rights becomes fallible, for in doing so it contradicts the very thing it sanctimoniously soughts to protect, life.
1. Singer, P, Practical Ethics, Cambridge University Press: 1993
2.2022, Monkey Cage, The Washington Post, June 25. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/06/25/dodds-roe-ivf-infertility-embryos-egg-donation/
Kritika Sisodia is a Philosophy major from the University of Delhi with her research interests lying on social epistemology and gender, arguing for creative ways of expressing philosophical thought to dilute the Platonic line between rhetoric and philosophy.