Jeffrey Reiman, William Fraser McDowell Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Social Policy at American University argues that abortion is a morally permissible act because a fetus is not sufficiently conscious enough to care about its future, and, therefore, taking away such a future is not a loss it can feel. Don Marquis disputes Reiman’s claim, arguing that the very arguments Reiman uses to defend his position can also be used to defend a fetus’s right to life. He argues that taking away a fetus’s chance to obtain all good does it great harm and that causing such great harm to a human being is morally wrong. While both Reiman and Marquis make compelling arguments, Marquis’s argument is more credible from a Kantian perspective.
Perhaps Kant’s key contribution to moral theory was his Categorical Imperative, which suggests that people should only act in ways which they could accept as universal laws. He also theorized that such actions could only be deemed moral if an individual and that they could accept as right if every person was compelled to perform them.
In order to understand why Marquis argument is closer to the Kantian idea of right than Reiman’s it is important to examine the key points in each thinker’s argument. Reiman first argues that the only thing that can account for “the way in which we think that the murder of humans is wrong” is “human beings’ own subjective awareness of, and caring about, the continuation of their own lives.” He suggests that killing someone is wrong only “when it is the killing of one for whom consciousness of self has begun” and that being, therefore, is a person. Fetuses, according to Reiman, do not count.
“A fetus,” he says, “does not have a right not to be killed because losing its life cannot matter to it. It cannot matter to a fetus because it does not yet have a self—it is not yet a “who”—to whom it could matter.”
Strengthening Reiman’s claim is some of the research that has been done on fetal pain. Dr. Stuart Derbyshire, Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Director of the Pain Research Laboratory, University of Birmingham suggests that the idea of fetal pain “is a moral blunder, because it draws a false equivalence between the observer and the observed.” He suggests that during most of their existence, fetuses lack the physical ability to feel pain and even after fetuses develop cortexes, they cannot recognize or understand pain. Reiman takes his argument further than this, however. For him, infants do not count as full people either. “Awareness of themselves—and thus selfhood—,” says Reiman, “does not happen to infants until at least well into their first year of existence.”
Reiman stipulates that we cannot make moral judgements based on what a being may become in the future, so the fact that a fetus might become aware later does not matter. Yet he argues that it is not morally permissible to end the life of suicidal or depressed people who have no desire to live, because they may temporarily and irrationally believe they lack the desire to live, but that desire may return to them at a later point in time.
(Reiman, 2014, p. 119)
Marquis takes issue with Reiman’s argument, noting that in order to forbid the killing of depressed people, Reiman relies on notions of what people may be like in the future. If Reiman’s arguments apply in these cases, they can also justify a right to life for fetuses. Meanwhile, while Reiman argues that taking a life away from a fetus does it no harm because it cannot care enough about its future to mind being robbed of it. (Marquis, 2014, p. 123) Indeed, he says, “To deprive someone of all the goods of her future life is to cause great harm to her.” He takes this argument a step further, saying, “It is wrong to harm others, and it is certainly wrong to cause great harm to others.
Reiman’s argument makes a certain amount of sense. It makes sense to believe that if a fetus is not really harmed by the termination of a pregnancy that a woman’s right to autonomy might be of greater value. Yet it would still be morally impermissible from a Kantian perspective. Reiman’s entire argument hinges on the idea that certain human beings deserve more protection than others. He is not alone, Professor John Harris, Director of the Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation and the University of Manchester suggests that, perhaps, people have to prioritize some lives over others. If a hospital is burning, he says, people need to determine which lives are worth more than others. “Go back to our burning hospital and the pregnant women in the maternity wards,” he says. “Do they count for two? If they are pregnant with sextuplets, do they count for seven?” He suggests that the lives of fetuses have less value than the lives of adults because they have a lesser moral status.
Kant, however, believed in the universality of moral laws. He believed that people should not take actions unless they would permit every other person acting in the same way. Allowing a murderer to kill someone, then, would only be permissible if we could accept every person murdering every other person. Ending the life of one human being – even if that human being was not as fully developed as another human being – would not be permissible to a Kantian, because it would mean that the ending of every life was permissible.
Kant’s categorical imperative stresses equality. Reiman stresses differences. He believes that fetuses deserve less protection than infants because infants have more value to mature adults who think of them affectionately – yet he also argues that infants should not warrant the same protection as mature adults, because they are not as autonomous, and therefore, it is more morally permissible to kill an infant than it is to kill an adult. None of this would sit well with Kant.
Kant also believed that men should act out of a desire to do their duty. Acting selfishly, for Kant, was immoral. Yet Reiman justifies those who act in favor of their own autonomy and desires. He suggests that we should respect the desires of other people simply because they are desires and sees no duty of women who seek abortions to protect fetuses they do not want. Marquis, on the other hand, suggests that men have a duty not to harm one another and suggests that all human beings have equal rights to life. His argument, therefore, makes more sense from a Kantian perspective.
- Derbyshire, S. (2008). THE PROBLEM WITH PAIN: WHAT THE FETUS FEELS. Abortion Review Special Edition, 1-22. Retrieved from Abortion Review Special Edition.
- Harris, J. (2008). THE VALUE OF LIFE: WHEN DOES IT MATTER? Abortion Review: Special Edition, 1-22.
- Johnson, R. (2014, June 21). Kant’s Moral Philosophyq. Retrieved from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=kant-moral
- Marquis, D. (2014). The Deliberately Induced Abortion of a Human Pregnancy is Not Ethically Justifiable. In A. Caplan, & R. Arp, Contemporary Debates in Bioethics (pp. 120-128). Malden: Wiley Blackwell.
- Reiman, J. (2014). The Deliberately Induced Abortion of a Human Pregnancy Is Ethically Justifiable . In A. Caplan, & R. Arp, Contemporary Debates in Bioethics (pp. 111-119). Malden: Wiley Blackwell.