How can the abortion issue be resolved? Many believe that the issue can be resolved if, and only if, we can determine when human life begins. Those opposed to abortion choice typically say that human life begins at conception. Many who favor abortion choice say that we will never know when human life begins. The importance of the when-does human-life-begin issue is not so much argued for as it is taken to be self-evident. Furthermore, belief that this issue is fundamental is taken for granted – at least outside of philosophy – by many of the people who seem to disagree about almost everything else concerning abortion. It has been my experience that – with rare exceptions – even those who insist that the issue of abortion should focus on the interests of pregnant women believe that this focus is warranted because fetuses are either not yet fully alive or not yet fully human. The prevalence of this assumption is illustrated by the structure of this conference. The session titled “The Beginning of Life” contains talks by two individuals who have written extensively about abortion and who disagree about its permissibility. Presumably those who put this conference together simply assumed that the abortion disagreement is a disagreement about when human life begins. This assumption is not unreasonable. It has been taken for granted at the highest levels. Consider, for example, the most famous legal opinions concerning abortion, the majority opinions in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Justice Harry Blackmun, writing for the majority in Roe, said: We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer. Blackmun went on to defend this view. First, he claimed that according to many religions and philosophies, life does not begin before live birth. According to him, the Stoics held this view, and it is the predominant attitude of the Jewish faith and “a large segment of the Protestant community.” Blackmun then cited the views of various groups that had, according to him, rejected the view that life begins at conception. Second, Blackmun went on to defend the view that “In areas other than criminal abortion, the law has been reluctant to endorse any theory that life, as we recognize it, begins before live birth or to accord legal rights to the unborn….” He concluded that the court had neither judicial precedent nor philosophical or theological authority for making a decision based on the judgment that life begins before live birth. It is not hard to understand d how this conclusion, when combined with women’s liberty rights or privacy rights, leads to the permissibility of abortion. Blackmun’s view deserves discussion. Suppose it is true that life does not begin before live birth. Given this, what is the appropriate way to think of fetuses? It follows from our supposition that we should not think of fetuses as now actually alive. Since life presumably begins at the time of live birth, these fetuses will become alive at a later date under favorable environmental conditions. This explains, at least in part, why, when thinking of fetuses, Blackmun spoke of the state’s legitimate interest in “protecting the potentiality of human life”7 (my emphasis). This same language turns up often in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. In this opinion the State’s interest in potential life, or the State’s interest in the protection of potential life is repeatedly mentioned. What is the nature and extent of this interest? One would naturally suppose the Court to be claiming that the State has some interest in the protection of a fetus in virtue of its interest in potential life. There is, however, a problem with this supposition. If the State has an interest in fetuses because they are potential lives, then the State should also have an interest in gametes because they are potential lives. We know something about the importance of this latter interest. The State’s interest in the contents of condoms as they are discarded seems to be as minimal as possible.
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But if this is so, then the Court’s talk about the State’s interest in the potential life of fetuses seems to belong more to the category of rhetorical fluff than to the category of substantive legal doctrine. Reflection on Blackmun’s view suggests another question. Just what is the nature of this potential life in which the State is supposed to have an interest? Potential life talk seems to result from the denial that there is good reason for believing that fetuses are actually alive, and the acknowledgement that under the appropriate conditions the individuals in the fetal phase of existence would later be actually alive. Neither of these characterizations are of the present nature of fetuses. Certainly it is legitimate to ask what about a fetus, when it is a fetus, makes it potentially alive? If one considers what it is about fetuses that distinguishes them from other things that one would not dream of characterizing as potentially alive, such as rocks, one thinks of features such as metabolism, cell division, growth, and development into something that we might call a mature human being. The trouble with paying much attention to these features is that they seem to be signs of actual life. But the point of the talk about potential life was to deny this. This suggests that the Court’s claim about the State’s interest in potential life is incoherent. Consider two possible objections to the analysis offered above. One might object that I have selected texts from the famous abortion opinions to support it. To some extent, this s true. Sometimes the Court in Casey speaks of the State interest in protecting the life of the unborn.9 Taken literally this must mean the actual life, rather than the potential life. However, there is reason not to take this literally. The State interest in human life is a very significant interest. It explains why the State regards murder as a very serious crime. The Court would have had very great difficulty arriving at its decision if this language about actual life were to be taken as something other than a linguistic slip. The second possible objection is that sometimes when the Court speaks of when life begins; the Court seems, rather, to be thinking of the conditions under which the interests of human fetuses should be respected – what philosophers call fetal moral status. Accordingly, one might object that if one understands the Court this way, the argument that there is a problem with the Court opinion because fetuses are actually biologically alive would have no force. Inferences from biological properties to moral properties are invalid in the absence of additional premises. This objection won’t do either. There is absolutely no doubt, of course, that the Court in both Roe and Casey was concerned with the question of fetal moral status. However, it does not follow from this that the Court was not concerned with the question of when life begins. It seems clear that the issues of whether the fetus has moral status and when life begins were considered to be equivalent by the Court. They simply took for granted what I shall call in this essay “the standard view.” The standard view is the common view that all living human beings have the right to life because they are living human beings (although there may be, of course, special circumstances in which that right may be overridden or waived). If this (obviously partial) analysis of the major Supreme Court abortion opinions is correct, then it is clear that there is a huge problem within those opinions. The Court took for granted the supposition that being human and alive is what gives a human life full moral standing. Given this supposition, a major issue regarding abortion had to be when did that human life – with full moral status – begin? The Court claimed that they could find no reason for deciding that human life began before birth, a claim necessary for them to arrive at the doctrine of abortion choice. Nevertheless, this view has some consequences that seem to be absurd. The Court was induced to talk about an interest in potential life – an interest that seems to be all talk and no substance.
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