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Answering a More Sophisticated Defense of Abortion - Part 2

Answering a More Sophisticated Defense of Abortion - Part 2


Dec 14, 2007 / By: Jeffrey Jones
Category: Abortion Arguments


As promised we will delve deeper into David Boonin's case for abortion by over-viewing chapter one. In doing so, we will examine in more detail just exactly what Boonin intends to argue in his book. The reason his argument is unique (and more sophisticated than most) is that it attempts to argue from within a framework that critics of abortion can accept. He asserts that each side of the abortion debate has a worldview completely at odds with the other; e.g., a woman has the right do whatever she wants with her body vs. the fetus has an inherent right to life (do abortion advocates really believe that we should be free to do whatever we want with our body?). If neither side accepts the other's fundamental assertions or values, the debate goes nowhere. Boonin thinks that if abortion supporters are going to win the day, they must operate from within a moral framework abortion critics can accept. This is precisely what he attempts to do.

In chapter one Boonin lays down his aims and methods. He begins by framing the question he will deal with by narrowing down the options. First, he will not deal with the question of the legality of abortion, but rather of its moral permissibility. There are things that we may deem immoral (e.g., drunkenness) yet not want made illegal. There are also things that are illegal (e.g., jaywalking) that we may not consider immoral. In any case, he finds (and rightly so I think) the question of morality to be the more pressing one. That is, the moral question is more fundamental than the legal question. Second, within the morality question, he distinguishes between the moral "criticizability" of an action and its moral "impermissibility." An example of the former might be vocally spreading one's hatred toward another person, while an example of the latter might be actually hiring a hit man to kill that person. The first is morally criticizable yet permissible, while the other is morally impermissible. He explains: "To say that an action of mine is morally permissible is to say that no one has a valid claim against my doing it, that doing it violates nobody's moral rights" (5). Since critics of abortion believe that it does violate the moral rights of others, the defender of abortion must focus his attention precisely here.

Editor's Note – it should be noted that Abort73 does not invest any energy in the legislative process. We believe that the abortion law in this land is unjust, but we're working against it, not by pressuring lawmakers, but by simply educating people about abortion. We're often criticized by abortion supporters for "not letting women make up their own minds." Even if abortion is immoral, they argue, women should be free to choose it. In actuality, it is the abortion industry that is far guiltier of manipulating women. Their basic position is that women should be free to make up their own minds, but any information that might keep them from choosing abortion should be censored and discredited at all costs. Boonin may not embrace such tactics himself, but it is horribly disingenuous to argue the nobility of giving women the moral freedom to "choose" while strategically keeping them from any information that might call the moral legitimacy of abortion into question.

Having presented the fundamental question (Is abortion morally permissible?), Boonin moves to discuss how it should be answered. His choice method to address moral problems is referred to as "reflective equilibrium." (Try reading the Wikipedia article for a brief explanation.) In short, "reflective equilibrium" is the state of balance among a set of beliefs that a person arrives at through a series of mental adjustments among general principles and particular judgments. For example, if I believe in the general principle of keeping promises, how might that play out in the particular situation of promises made to those who are now dead? To achieve equilibrium I must go through some kind of mental deliberation. I can abandon my belief in keeping promises, add an exception to the belief, keep the promise anyway, etc. In essence, I attempt to make my general beliefs cohere with particular circumstances. Boonin thinks that this is the intuitive process we all go through when determining our own ethical decisions and actions. As a side note, while it may be true that we all go through something like reflective equilibrium when confronted with ethical decisions, I think it is a mistake to use such a method to justify an action. Nonetheless, Boonin applies this method to the abortion debate, posing the question: what position on abortion would someone be more likely to accept if he or she began with certain general principles? For instance, critics of abortion implicitly argue that their position best enables one to reach equilibrium between general theoretical considerations (e.g., terminating human life as morally impermissible) and specific types of actions (terminating life in the womb as morally impermissible). While moving from the general belief in a human being's right to life to the specific belief in a human fetus's right to life seems an appropriate one, Boonin argues that it is not.

In Boonin's own words: "if the critic of abortion is correct in maintaining that you and I have the right to life and that newborn human infants do as well, then the moral theory that would best account for this assumption entails that it is not true that the typical human fetus has such a right" (17). Furthermore: "I will argue against the claim that if the fetus has a right to life, then abortion is morally impermissible" (18). In other words, Boonin believes that it is an unreasonable stretch to assume that just because humans have a right to life after birth that they should enjoy the same right before birth (isn't that what all abortion advocates believe!?). His second quote cuts more against the grain. Apparently, he believes that he can grant the premise that unborn humans do have a right life, but still justify abortion within an acceptable moral framework. This, apparently, is how Boonin intends to engage abortion critics on their own terms, granting certain moral judgments and showing that they can lead somewhere else, namely to abortion as an acceptable practice.

That I think is the best summary I can give of Boonin's aims and methods. How it works out in practice is yet to be seen. But, having stated his objective, I'd like to hear your thoughts...


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