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Answering a More Sophisticated Defense of Abortion - Part 3

Answering a More Sophisticated Defense of Abortion - Part 3


Jan 15, 2008 / By: Jeffrey Jones
Category: Abortion Arguments

Having finally worked my way through chapter 2 of Boonin's book, I'm ready to start posting about it. Chapter 2 is titled "The Conception Criterion, and refers to the claim that a human fetus acquires the right to life at the moment of conception. According to Boonin, the arguments in favor of this claim stem from the common idea: "that you and I have [the right to life], and that we are related to human fetuses in important ways in which we are not related to dogs, trees, ecosystems, and other possible objects of moral concern (19). He, of course, will attempt to show that none of the arguments in favor of the "conception criterion are successful, and that this can be demonstrated "on terms critics of abortion can and do accept (this is perhaps Boonin's favorite line). In chapter 2, Boonin deals with nine different arguments that have been proposed in favor of the conception criterion. In this post and the posts to come, we will take each of the discussed arguments and discuss Boonin's related remarks.

The first argument presented in favor of the conception criterion is called "the parsimony argument (20-23). This argument finds the simplest common denominator between people like you and me on the one hand and fetuses on the other: we are all members of the homo sapiens species. In order to operate on terms abortion critics can accept, Boonin grants that scientifically speaking human life begins from conception. He clarifies though that what scientists mean by "human is "member of the species homosapiens not "individual with the right to life. Consequently, Boonin thinks that species membership as a guarantee of one's "right to life is something that does not necessarily follow. That is, such a claim stands in need of justification. He happens to ague that claim is not justifiable.

Boonin's choice method for arguing that species membership does not guarantee one's right to life is by way of analogy. He asks us to imagine that he were to ask you to round up ten people that both defenders and critics of abortion would generally accept as having a right to life. He points out that although the ten individuals would differ in many respects, they would all have one thing in common: all would be homo sapiens. He then asks us to suppose that upon further examination it was found that one of the individuals you selected was in fact an alien. The alien may look just as human as the rest but differs slightly in his DNA structure. Boonin remarks, "it is extremely difficult to believe that this discovery would make us think it more permissible to kill him (23). So, since Boonin has come up with an example where species membership does not give us the right to kill, he concludes that species membership cannot be the basis for granting one a right to life.

He furthermore asks us to imagine that one of your ten selected individuals subsequently suffered some kind of brain trauma that that required him to be put on a life-support machine. While allowing that removing such a person from life support could be deemed morally criticizable, Boonin nonetheless says the claim that this person has the same right to life as you or I would be controversial at best. So, again, since he has come up with an example for which he believes species membership does not automatically justify keeping an individual human being alive, he concludes that species membership cannot be appealed to as a basis for keeping a fetus alive.

Obviously, Boonin is not arguing that it is morally permissible to kill any human being for any reason. He simply believes that we cannot use the parsimony argument - that species membership guarantees one a right to life - as a basis to not end a life, and particularly the life of a fetus. The question I want to pose is: has he done a good job of defending his claim? For me, the answer is "no. Just because Boonin has come up with some examples where species membership may not be the final arbiter in deciding whether to kill or keep alive, that doesn't mean that species membership can never be appealed to by the critic of abortion - especially when one of his examples is so improbable (i.e., finding out that one who looked human was actually an alien) and the other one is controversial in its own right (i.e., dealing with a person who can only be kept alive on artificial life support). I do not find this convincing as to why I should not appeal to species membership as a basis for protecting fetal life.

But now I'd like to hear from you. Boonin says that membership in the species homo sapiens as guaranteeing one's right to life is something that stands in need of justification. I have not made an attempt to justify it. I've just assumed it to be true. Is this a claim that needs justifying or is it one that we should simply take for granted? Furthermore, if it needs justifying, how would you go about it? Please comment...

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