Against the Current, No. 10, September/
Letter from the Editors
— The Editors
Editorial: Korea Workers Take the Lead
— The Editors
Death Squad Activity in Los Angeles
— Susan Wyler
A Strategy for Irish Solidarity
— Bob Nowlan
Why Class Struggle Is Central
— Ellen Meiksins Wood
Random Shots: More Mines for Ronnie
— R.F. Kampfer
- American Radicalism
Reflections on American Radicalism, Past & Future
— Paul Buhle
— Loren Goldner
A Response to Paul Buhle: Limits of Religious Rebellion
— Allen Hunter
- Abortion Rights & Socialism
A Group Liberationist Approach
— Milton Fisk
Why Socialists Should Support Individual Natural Rights
— Jeffrey Reiman
A Rejoinder: The Fallacies of Liberal Rights
— Milton Fisk
- Looking at Glasnost
Gorbachev's Glasnost: Thaw II
— Aleksei K. Zolotov
The Soviet Yuppie Takes Power
— Hillel Ticktin
Who Benefits from Reforms?
— Susan Weissman
Response to Reform & Bureaucratic Power
— Justin Schwartz
Reply to Question on Reform & Bureaucratic Power
— Michael Löwy
Whose Baby Is It Anyway?
— Julia Wrigley
Surrogacy Is a Bad Bargain
— Leslie J. Reagan
Wuthering Heights Revisited
— Michael Sprinker
“ABORTION AND SOCIALISM,” Milton Fisk sets out to answer the question: “How can the pro-choice camp best respond [to the anti-abortionist opposition] on the terrain of moral ideas?” He aims to articulate a “moral justification for the pro-choice position,” which he calls the “group” approach and which he contends is superior to the “liberal” approach of appealing to individual natural rights.
The liberal approach is to be abandoned because it is based on the notion of human beings as “pre-social entities,” who possess rights “without dependence on social context” and who “are what they are independently of the influence of society.” Defending the pro-choice position by appeal to such rights, he maintains, “accepts the liberal framework” within which “the interests of women as a group in overcoming their oppression have customarily been ignored.”
The group approach, by contrast, writes Fisk, starts “with the individual as a member of a group rather than with the pre-social individual.” In the case of abortion, this means that instead of starting with an appeal to women’s rights as individuals to control their bodies, we start with a commitment to liberate women as a group from their oppression.
With the group approach, we may assert that women have such individual rights, but it will not be because we believe that in any fundamental sense they really have them or really are entitled to them — it will be for strategic reasons: because they need such rights “to make progress in eliminating their oppression.”
I believe that Fisk is mistaken here, both about the shortcomings of liberalism and about the virtues of the group approach he recommends in its place. That the liberal approach has historical roots in an asocial conception of human nature and morality no more precludes its theoretical validity and practical value for Marxists or socialists than the fact that Marx and Engels had historical roots in the bourgeoisie disqualified them as defenders of the working class. Thinking otherwise amounts to committing the genetic fallacy-that of determining the truth or falsity of a doctrine by assessing the respectability of its source.
In fact, it is worse than being illogical. The rejection of liberal rights because of their shady pedigree is a form of intellectual Luddism fully as shortsighted about the longterm interests of the oppressed as was the smashing of machines because they were installed by and for the capitalist class. I shall show this by exposing the poverty of Fisk’s group approach and suggesting that what the group approach lacks is precisely what liberal rights provide.
That the liberal approach is tied to the view of human beings as having their nature and mortal status independent of society is not Fisk’s only objection to the approach. He seems also to think that this approach commits us to endless and thus pointless debate — here between the defenders of women’s rights and the defenders of fetus’s rights — and that in either case such rights “are only as solid as someone’s conjecture about what rights outside a social context might be.”
The group approach, by contrast, refuses to get mired down in debates about such conjectural rights and, instead, presents the champions of fetus’s rights with a “no-onsense demand” for the alleviation of the oppression of women.
This is a red herring. There is nothing inherent in the liberal approach that mires it in debate, nor in the group approach that gives it special powers to make no-nonsense demands. Defenders of individual natural rights can make no-nonsense demands (consider those made by the signers of the Declaration of Independence on behalf of individual natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness), and advocates of the liberation of oppressed groups can get mired down in endless debates (as the history of the New Left in the ’60s amply demonstrates).
Fisk’s claim that the liberal view leads to endless debate is based on confusion between the question of whether there is a correct moral solution to a problem and the question of whether social groups will in fact come to agree on that solution. That the latter question is answered negatively (if it is) does not imply that the former question is answered negatively, and thus it does not imply that the former question is pointless or unimportant to ask; nor does it imply that, once that question is asked and answered positively, we must continue in endless debate with those who refuse to agree.
Moreover, the existence of individual natural rights is no more conjectural than the existence of the oppression of women or workers. Contrary to what Fisk seems to think, merely asserting the latter in a no-nonsense tone of voice doesn’t make it any less controversial or more selfevident than the former. I shall, then, ignore this line of objection, and concentrate on the claim that appeal to rights is contaminated by its having historical roots in an asocial conception of human nature and morality.
My argument is divided into three sections. In the first, “Individual Natural Rights for Social Beings,” I shall show that, while the liberal approach may have been born tied to an asocial conception of human nature and morality, it survives the severing of this tie. The doctrine of individual natural rights is compatible with the notion that human beings and their moral status are profoundly shaped by their social context.
In the second section, “Rights and the Wrong of Oppression,” I shall go on to show that, once separated from its asocial origins, the liberal view contains an extremely important piece of moral wisdom. It provides the best foundation for claims of the sort that Marxists generally, and Fisk in particular, make about the oppression of workers and other groups. And here, while I shall mainly argue that it is the best foundation theoretically, I believe that it is equally the best strategically.
I suspect that the failure of socialists and the so-called socialist nations to absorb the wisdom of liberalism is one of the factors that has contributed to the general unattractiveness of socialism to workers in advanced capitalist nations who have tasted liberalism with all its many imperfections.
In the third section, “The Right to Abortion,” I shall suggest very briefly how the liberal rights argument works to support the pro-choice position, and why it is the best way-both theoretically and strategically — to support that position.
I. Individual Natural Rights for Social Beings
The core of the doctrine of individual natural rights is the belief that every individual human being is morally entitled to certain forms of treatment from his fellows and that-whether or not they do so in fact-his fellows, as rational beings, are bound to recognize and respect these entitlements.
On this doctrine, all human beings have moral rights independently of whether the group or society of which they are members acknowledges that fact, and in dependently of whether the legal code to which they are subject embodies those rights.
This is often obscured in the ways we talk about rights. For example, we sometimes speak of a person being denied some right, say, to freedom of expression, or of people in some society not having this or some other right. Strictly speaking, however, if there are individual natural rights, individuals always have them. And rather than being denied or not existing in some societies, we should say that in those societies people’s moral rights are not recognized or respected or are being violated.
Thus, when I speak in what follows of all people having individual natural rights, I do not mean that all people are in fact treated in ways that respect those rights. I mean rather that all people have a moral status that all other rational beings should recognize as entitling them to such treatment. I shall fill in more detail about the nature of rights as we proceed, but, in general, this is what I think leftists should believe when I say that leftists should believe in individual natural rights.
To evaluate Fisk’s challenge to this belief, let us grant that the doctrine of individual natural rights emerged originally in conjunction with a view of human beings as being what they are by nature rather than by nurture. Since, in the terms of this opposition, “nature” is equivalent to what we would today call genetic endowment, “by nature” signifies “prior to being shaped by interaction with other human beings.”
Fisk believes that human beings are, fundamentally shaped by such interaction, and thus that human beings are not what they are by nature. This can be granted too, though not without qualification: There are important features of human beings that are shaped (at least in substantial measure) asocially, that is, by genetic endowment; for example, need for food, vulnerability to suffering, capacity for reasoning and self-consciousness, as well as physical attributes like hands and eyes and noses.
Grant, however, that, aside from such basics, human nature, beliefs, attitudes, expectations, and the rest, are shaped by nurture, that is, by interaction with other human beings. Moreover, grant as well that morality is not something that emerges from genetic endowment. It lives among those beliefs and attitudes that are shaped by social interaction.
Fisk thinks that if we conceive of human nature and morality in this way then it is misguided to attribute individual natural rights to human beings. But this is only so if “natural” in “individual natural rights” is thought to mean what ‘by nature” did in the previous paragraph. If a natural right is thought of as something that people are endowed with genetically in the way that they are endowed genetically with their hands, then attributing natural rights to them amounts to assuming that they have some moral attributes that are fully a- or pre-social.
However, even if the originators of the notion of natural rights thought of rights this way, there is no reason that we have to do the same. We can think of “natural” in “individual natural rights” as signifying that the rights belong to human beings, not by nature, but because of their nature as humans.
Natural rights are rights that human beings have not by being born with them, but because aspects of their nature that they all share — such as the capacity for reasoning, self-consciousness, vulnerability to suffering, and so on — suffice to establish them as having a moral status that all other human beings are bound to recognize. This preserves the core of the doctrine of natural rights, namely, that all human beings have such rights independently of whether their groups acknowledge that fact.
But — and this is the crucial point — this view of their rights in no way denies that human beings are fundamentally shaped in their beliefs, attitudes, expectations, and so on, by their interaction with others in the groups of which they are members. For example, holding that people have a right to free speech because of their nature as speakers (and reasoners) is fully compatible with admitting that speech and language are fundamentally social and that what people will want to say is shaped by their social context.
Likewise, holding that people have a right to self-determination because of their nature as reasoners is fully compatible with admitting that how, and how far, people will choose to exercise this right will be determined by the goals they learn from the particular groups of which they are members.
It might seem that even if this argument works for the “natural” in “individual natural rights,” it won’t work for the “individual.” Surely that notion, the objection might run, is incompatible with conceiving human beings as social beings. But, in fact, the same argument applies. If “individual” is taken to indicate that individual rights belong to people “before they are socialized,” then individual rights attribute a- or pre-social moral properties to human beings, and the objection works. However, even if the originators of the notion of individual natural rights understood “individual” this way, we needn’t.
We can think of the “individual” in “individual natural rights” as signifying that the rights belong to human beings, not before they are socialized, but as individuals. This means only that we think of the rights as, so to speak, allocated on an individual basis, as giving each a claim on the behavior of others that she can make in her own name alone (that is, without having to obtain anyone else’s permission) and expect others to comply with.
Again, believing that each individual has rights that he can assert “in his own name alone” is fully compatible with recognizing that individuals get their names and so much else-including even their inclination to make such claims or the purposes for which they are made-from their groups.
That human beings have individual natural rights means that all human beings, because of aspects of their natures that they share with all other human beings (such as capacity to reason, self-consciousness, and vulnerability to suffering), are entitled as individuals to demand and receive certain behavior from their fellow human beings (in or outside of their groups).
All of this is compatible with viewing human beings as social beings, and quite detachable from its shady historical origins. But compatibility is one thing; advisability another. To see why it is advisable to adopt the doctrine of individual natural rights, we must consider what the doctrine offers.
II. Rights and the Wrong of Oppression
Here I think it is worth looking further at what is unique about rights as oral entities. Suppose I have a property right in some object. This right does not protect that object. I can, for example, destroy the object or license you to destroy it.
In neither of these cases is my right violated; quite the contrary, in both cases I exercise my right.
This reveals that what a right to something protects is not that something, but the right-holder’s ability to choose what becomes of that something. This is linked to the feature of rights that I described earlier in calling rights claims that a person can make in his or her own name. A right establishes a zone of sovereignty in which the right-holder is the one whose choice is supposed to govern what happens.
Not every moral code recognizes rights. The Ten Commandments, for example, forbid certain forms of behavior, but they establish no rights. “Thou shalt not kill” does not imply that murder is wrong because human beings have a right to life. It implies rather that murder is wrong because God proscribes the action of killing. Accordingly, this commandment was traditionally taken to prohibit alike both murder and suicide. The ending of human life-one’s own or another’s-is forbidden.
If, however, murder is thought wrong because it violates the victim’s right to life, then what is wrong is not the ending of life in itself, but the ending of the victim’s life against his will. And then suicide will have a much different status than murder.
The point here is that, unlike substantive moral rules such as those that comprise the Ten Commandments, rights are unique as moral entities because they protect choice itself. They are a kind of currency by means of which entitlement to effective freedom is allocated. It is this feature of rights that makes them uniquely suitable grounds for explaining what is wrong with oppression.
More than this, rights are uniquely suitable grounds for identifying when oppression is occurring. This is important because Fisk speaks about the oppression of women and workers in capitalism as if he were merely describing some feature of the world like the weather. But oppression is not a descriptive concept. It is not something that is merely observed and reported. I cannot simply see one person bossing another around and determine on this ground alone that oppression is occurring, in the way that I can determine straightaway that there are two people in front of me. The reason is that no distribution of power among persons is oppressive unless there is something wrong with it.
It won’t do to say that “oppression” simply describes the fact that some people’s interests are being sacrificed for the benefit of other people, or the fact that some people’s interests are being served less than other people’s interests, or the like. “Oppression” carries with it a sense of condemnation and that implies the normative claim that oppressive relations diverge from relations that are right.
Of course, people can define terms as they wish. So a person might simply stipulate a strictly descriptive definition of oppression. But then that person cannot turn around and point to the fact that oppression is going on as a condemnation or as reason for changing things. Since Fisk clearly does do this, we can take him as using oppression normatively.
This implies that oppression means (for him as for us) a distribution of power that is wrong. And holding that some distribution of power is wrong presupposes that there is some distribution of power that is proper in a normative sense. But to speak about a proper distribution of power among persons is to speak about who should be able to make which choices about which things. And that — whether or not the word is used — is to speak about rights. To identify some group as oppressed is implicitly to hold that some appropriate distribution of rights has been violated.
When, then, Fisk says that “Women as an oppressed group have rights on the basis of that oppression,” he puts the cart before the horse. Women are only an oppressed group if they already have rights which are being violated.
Insofar as Fisk claims to know which people are oppressed, he must implicitly assume that he knows what an appropriate distribution of power among people would look like. But to assume that is — whether or not the word is used — to assume something about people’s rights.
Fisk might reply that all he needs to assume is something about the rights of groups, and that this is far enough from the liberal’s conception of individual rights to make his overall point, even if it would require admitting the suspect term “rights” into his camp. But this won’t rescue Fisk’s argument.
There may be situations in which groups, like nations or corporations, have rights that are not simply the rights of their members. But the sort of rights whose violation constitutes oppression must be rights of individuals.
The reason for this is that while people may be oppressed because they are members of certain groups, they nonetheless suffer their oppression individually.
Groups cannot have abortions except by their individual members having them, and they cannot be denied abortions except by their individual members being denied, and they cannot suffer from this denial except by their individual members suffering. Though oppression may target individuals because of their group affiliation, it targets individuals nonetheless. It follows that we can only identify a group as oppressed by showing that its individual members are oppressed, and that implies that for a group to be oppressed, its individual members must be having their rights violated.
Moreover, unless we think of groups as oppressed because their individual members are oppressed, it will also follow that groups can be liberated from oppression without liberating their individual members. Consequently, Fisk’s group approach provides no theoretical defense against the oppression of individuals by groups. The practical outcome of this approach is a socialism that liberates the working class but leaves individual workers with no protection against oppression.
In short, Fisk’s group approach underwrites theoretically what is surely the most unattractive feature of existing societies that call themselves socialist. And this points up the theoretical and the practical virtues of individual rights for socialists, as well as the theoretical and practical poverty of the group approach.
Now this may show that Fisk implicitly needs individual rights to support his assertions about oppression, but does he implicitly need individual natural rights? These would be rights that people have, not because of membership in some group, but because of features of their nature that they share with all human beings.
Fisk comes close to addressing this issue when he writes: “Any attempt to define rights for [women] simply as members of society as a whole or more abstractly as persons will fail. Either the attempt will fail to yield a right to choose an abortion because the notion of a member of society or a person is too empty. Or else the attempt will lead to actually prohibiting the choice of an abortion because such a choice does not fit with what op pressing members of the divided society are.”
As far as I can make this claim out, it amounts to holding that either there is nothing that women share with all members of society or all persons that will support their right to abortion, or at least there is nothing that they share with those who oppress them that will support that right. But this is simply mistaken. All that women need share with other human beings to support a general right to self-determination are things like capacity for reasoning, self-consciousness and vulnerability to suffering.
Rather than this fact coming into conflict with the nature of their oppressors, it is precisely the fact that both women and their oppressors have rights to self-determination based on their reasoning capacity, self-conscious ness, and so on, that enables us to say that women are oppressed when their rights are violated.
Consider the alternatives: Either we are committed to liberating oppressed women because we are committed to liberating oppressed groups and find women to be one of these, or because we are committed to the interests of the particular group comprised of women. Put more succinctly, either we are committed to oppressed women because they are oppressed, or because they are women.
Now if we are committed to oppressed women because they are oppressed, then “being oppressed” must be definable without reference to the fact that it is happening to women. Then we are required to understand oppressive treatment as treatment that would be oppressive no matter to whom it was applied. And this, l contend, implicitly commits us to thinking of oppression as violation of rights to which all human beings are entitled because of features of their nature as human beings.
On the other hand, if we are committed to oppressed women because they are women, then we needn’t define oppression in any universal way. Indeed, we needn’t define oppression at all, since we are simply committed to furthering this group’s interests whether or not they are oppressed. But then, why are we committed to this group’s interests in the first place? Since we can’t say “because they are oppressed,” it seems to me that the answer to this must be some sort of non-rational affinity. There is a place for non-rational affinities in life, of course, but that place is not among the reasons for which principled political struggles are waged.
Once we say that we are committed to women not because they are human beings who are oppressed, but just because we are committed to this group, we give up basing our commitments on rational foundations at all, and what is left is a kind of non-rational (unjustified and unprincipled) tribalism. And that, I think, is what Fisk’s group approach finally boils down to.
Some might think that we can avoid these alternatives by asserting that we are committed to eliminating the oppression of women because it is in our self-interest to eliminate it. Obviously, this is in women’s self-interest, but the claim is made about all people or at least all leftists, and that includes men.
Now, no doubt we — men and women — would all be better off in a world where women were not oppressed. But it doesn’t follow from this that it is in men’s selfinterest to struggle for a world in which women are not oppressed. It would only be in men’s self-interest to do that if they could be confident that the liberation would come during their lifetimes-indeed, that it would come soon enough so that the benefits from it would repay the energies spent in the struggle.
The simple truth is that if men are to struggle against the oppression of women it must be because of something that goes beyond their self-interest and that will either be non-rational affinity for women or recognition that oppression is wrong.
As I see it then, the alternatives are either implicit appeal to non-rational tribalism or to something like individual natural rights. I have put the alternatives in such stark terms because I think that what plausibility Fisk’s view may have for his readers (and maybe even for him) lies in failure to see that these are alternatives.
Indeed, I suspect that what plausibility his view has derives from the fact that readers find his endorsement of the interests of groups such as women appealing because they (the readers, and perhaps he) implicitly take the liberal view and think of women as oppressed because they (the women) are treated in a way that would be oppressive to any human being who was so treated. But this is precisely what Fisk’s position rules out.
Having considered generally what the doctrine of individual natural rights offers to the Left, let us turn to what it offers specifically on the issue of abortion.
III. The Right to Abortion
Fisk speaks of socialists as coming lately to recognize that other groups besides workers are oppressed. But if socialists can come to recognize new groups as being op pressed, then why should they stop with the recognition that women are oppressed by prohibiting abortion? Why shouldn’t socialists go on to identify fetuses as a group that is oppressed by allowing abortion?
Again, it seems to me that the alternatives are stark: Either we simply assert our non-rational (unjustified and unprincipled) tribal attachment to women and similarly non-rational tribal indifference to fetuses, or we argue that aborted fetuses are not an oppressed group.
In much the same way as arguing that women are oppressed requires us to appeal to the rights they have because of features of their nature as human beings, arguing that fetuses are not oppressed will require that we show that they lack such rights precisely because they lack those features of human beings that entitle them to rights. So we are driven to ignore Fisk’s protests and take up the question of the rights of women and of fetuses.
Since I take it that women have individual natural rights to control their bodies, this leaves us with the question of whether fetuses have a right to life of sufficient weight to restrict the scope of women’s rights over their bodies.
Since I have already had the opportunity to present my views about the answer to this question in these pages (ATC, old series, Winter 1984), I shall not overstay my current welcome by rehearsing them now. I shall limit myself to suggesting why the argument that the fetus lacks a right to life because it is not a person is a more powerful argument than Fisk allows. Remember here what, as I said earlier, Fisk forgets, namely, that the question of whether there is a correct moral solution to a problem is distinct from the question of whether social groups will in fact come to agree on that solution.
In claiming that the personhood argument is more powerful than Fisk allows, I am making a claim about the capacity of that argument to show that recognizing that women have a right to abortion is the correct moral solution to the abortion problem. I believe as well that this argument has a good chance of convincing some abortion foes and many middle-of-the-roaders, but there is no guarantee that it will, nor any requirement that we wait until it does before acting on it.
Part of the reason that Fisk despairs of liberalism and thinks it throws us into endless debate is that he thinks that the arguments about the status of the fetus are intellectually insoluble. Accordingly, he takes up the main candidate arguments and claims to show that for each pro-choice argument there is an equally potent antiabortion rejoinder.
But Fisk is only able to make it appear that the argument from personhood is met by an equally plausible argument against it because he presents the argument from personhood as an arbitrary one to begin with, and thus it is easily countered with an arbitrary rejoinder.
Fisk presents the argument from personhood as a pair of assertions for which no reasons are given: First is the assertion that personhood is the necessary condition of having a right to life, and second is the assertion that (among other traits) self-consciousness (meaning aware ness of oneself as having projects aimed at satisfying one’s interests in the future) is a necessary condition of personhood.
Against this is set the supposedly equally plausible alternative view that personhood is not the necessary condition; potential personhood will suffice since (say in the case of children’s rights to education) we recognize rights now that are aimed at protecting someone’s ability to do certain things in the future. Since the assertion that personhood is a necessary condition of having rights is put forth as an arbitrary one, it appears easily matched by the arbitrary counterclaim that potential personhood suffices.
But neither the claim that personhood is a necessary condition of having a right to life nor the claim that selfconsciousness (understood as awareness of oneself as having a future and caring about it) is a necessary condition of personhood, is arbitrary.
All-too-briefly put, the reason is that rights can be established in a non-arbitrary way if they can be shown to be needed to protect something that is worthy of protection.
In the case of a right to life for fetuses-once religious doctrines are ruled out as inappropriate for the settlement of legal disputes among people with differing beliefs about religion-there are basically three ways to show that such a right is needed to protect something worthy of protection.
One way is to view the living fetus as intrinsically valuable. The problem with this is that it proves more than the foes of abortion (at least the sensible ones) want. The value of something is both an argument for not destroying it and an argument for creating new ones as fast as one can. The same valuableness that makes it foolish for me to destroy my diamonds makes it wise for me to try to dig up new ones. Then, the value of the fetus will only prevent abortion to the extent that it prohibits contraception and even abstinence!
The second alternative is the personhood argument. Contrary to the way Fisk makes it appear, this argument is more than an arbitrary assertion that persons have a right to life. Rather, with personhood reflecting (at least) awareness of oneself as having and caring about one’s future, personhood gives us something that it seems terribly worthwhile to protect with a right to life. This is not because there is something mysteriously valuable about the awareness of having and caring about one’s future (if that were all, this argument would collapse into the first alternative); but because, once a being has this sort of awareness, its death is to it a terrible loss.
Not only does this give us something worth protecting against, it is something that only occurs in already existing living beings, and so it prohibits killing without requiring an orgy of procreation.
The third alternative is the argument from potentiality. If full-fledged human beings are valuable, its proponents contend, then things that are going to become full-fledged human beings are also valuable. Notice that this is just a variation on the argument from the value of the fetus. Thus, like the first alternative, the potentiality argument will also lead to prohibiting contraception and abstinence, since it must prohibit any behavior that blocks the development of full-fledged human beings.
The same cannot be said of the argument from personhood. It does not entail the value of potential persons because it does not take personhood as a mark of value but as a condition in which death is a uniquely terrible loss. No particular concern for potential persons follows from this, since death prior to personhood is not yet a uniquely terrible loss.
It might be countered that depriving a fetus of a chance at becoming a person is also imposing a terrible loss on it; but this objection fails to see the crucial moral boundary that is passed once a creature has awareness of and interest in its own continuance. Before that point, we can say that it loses out if its life is ended, but what is this loss to it? As far as I can see, it is a loss on the order of the one you and I suffered in the seventeenth century by not being conceived then.
That is to say, until a being becomes aware of and interested in its continuance, the loss of its life is to it indistinguishable from the “loss” suffered in not having been conceived. And that “loss” is “suffered” by all the infinite possible combinations of ova and sperm that might have joined up in some womb and gotten born-but did not.
This last point shows why the argument from potentiality is not nearly as compelling as the argument from personhood. The argument from potentiality must end up either by prohibiting contraception and abstinence or by protecting against a loss no different than that suffered by all possible combinations of ova and sperm that might have gotten born but didn’t.
The argument from personhood, by contrast, points to something that any reasoning human being can see is a terrible loss worth protecting against. It is, thus, far from an arbitrary assertion. And, since there is no reason to think that fetuses have the kind of awareness that makes their death such a terrible loss, it leads (in conjunction with a woman’s right to control her body) to a right to abortion on demand.
It might be objected that this argument leads to infanticide on demand as well, since the neonate is not really different in its level of awareness from a late fetus.
This is a complex issue, about which I will say here only this: On the argument from personhood as I have put it, it does follow that it is not a terrible loss to a newborn to have its life ended. And from this it follows that it no more qualifies for a moral right to life than a fetus does. I think this is true and that, if recognized, it would prevent a considerable amount of the dangerous mischief currently accompanying our treatment of handicapped newborns.
On the other hand, I think that there are plenty of good reasons for restricting infanticide to cases of serious defect. Among these good reasons are the attachments that human beings naturally form with newborns, the danger of weakening the general valuation of life, and so on. Consequently, even though my view leads to the conclusion that killing a newborn is not morally speaking murder, I believe that there are good moral reasons for treating the ending of newborns’ lives in most cases legally as murder.
Note that nothing I am saying implies that handicapped persons who have arrived at personhood have any less claim to a right to life than non-handicapped ones. Quite the contrary, on the personhood argument, they have exactly the same right to life as any other person.
I think that the personhood argument works. It provides a satisfactory theoretical foundation for the right to abortion, a satisfactory explanation for why women are oppressed when denied abortions (their rights to control their bodies are denied groundlessly), and a satisfactory explanation for why fetuses are not a group oppressed by abortions (lacking rights to life, they are not oppressed at all by having their lives ended).
Moreover, since our political culture is one in which appeal to rights is widely respected, I contend that an argument of this sort provides the best (though of course not an airtight) chance of convincing the courts and the legislatures and maybe even some of the opposition.
And if they are not convinced, we needn’t go on debating with them forever. Together with the doctrine of individual natural rights, the personhood argument provides a sound theoretical basis upon which principled nononsense demands for women’s reproductive rights can be made and upon which leftists can struggle for the fulfillment of those demands.
September-October 1987, ATC 10