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  • Proof and Persuasion in the Philosophical Debate about Abortion
  • Chris Kaposy

Philosophers involved in debating the abortion issue often assume that the arguments they provide can offer decisive resolution.1 Arguments on the prolife side of the debate, for example, usually imply that it is rationally mandatory to view the fetus as having a right to life, or full moral standing.2 Such an account assumes that philosophical argument can compel the reader to see the fetus in a certain way and that dissent risks irrationality.

I wish to question this image of the use of philosophical argument in the abortion debate. I focus on the question of fetal moral standing, which is one of the subproblems in the debate. I am especially concerned with prolife arguments for fetal moral standing, since the prolife side must argue for a position that is compulsory. The prochoice side, in contrast, typically holds that people are entitled to believe what they want about the fetus’s moral standing.

My position is that philosophical arguments should be understood as tools for persuasion in the abortion debate rather than as a method for discovering decisive proofs about the morality of abortion. I argue that because any one position on the moral standing of fetuses cannot be established decisively, law and policy should favour the prochoice position. In support of these conclusions, I present two common argumentative strategies used to suggest that the prolife view of the fetus is rationally [End Page 139] mandatory, and I illustrate why arguments involving these strategies do not compel us to view the fetus as having full moral standing.

Framing the Issue

In order to show that abortion is wrong (in cases in which it is considered wrong), one must first establish that fetuses have full moral standing.3 It is a serious moral wrong to take the life of someone with full moral standing—this is part of what it means to have this status. The possessor of full moral standing is entitled to have his or her life protected. If abortion is wrong, then the fetus must have full moral standing, because without such standing, killing a fetus could be justified by the pregnant woman’s strong interest in ending an unwanted pregnancy. Those arguing against the moral permissibility of abortion must show that it is mandatory (in some way) to view the fetus as having full moral standing. There are a range of positions one could take with regard to the fetus’s status, from viewing the fetus as an incipient organism with no moral standing to seeing the fetus as gaining moral standing as the pregnancy progresses. But if it is mandatory to view the fetus as having full moral standing, all other positions must then be mistaken, incorrect, or somehow unjustified.

This paper analyzes why philosophers opposed to abortion think it is mandatory to attribute full moral standing to fetuses. There are two popular argumentative strategies offering different accounts of the source of this obligation. The first strategy suggests that fetal full moral standing derives from morally relevant facts about the fetus. According to this line of argument, we are rationally obligated to view the fetus as having full moral standing because we cannot deny (without courting irrationality) that there are properties, characteristics, or attributes of the fetus that entitle it to this status.

The second strategy is to claim that the fetus has full moral standing because this position is most consistent with our intuitions in cases unrelated to abortion. Philosophers taking this approach are fond of analogies comparing fetuses to comatose adults or to people at the end of life, for example. This strategy of appealing to your interlocutor’s sense of consistency I call the “shared-value” strategy.

The two strategies map very well onto the distinction some have made between argumentum ad rem and argumentum ad hominem. The philosopher of rhetoric Henry Johnstone Jr. draws this distinction in very clear terms, and others in the history of philosophy make note of the difference [End Page 140] between these two types of arguments as well.4 The appeal to the facts (or argumentum ad rem) seeks to establish the truth of its...


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