Thursday, March 5, 2009

Abortion Part II, Roe V. Wade

Instead of asking whether or not a woman should be allowed to obtain an abortion, novice debaters often begin to bicker over the moral status of a fetus. Does it classify as a living human being and if so at what stage? Where do we draw the line? Who gets to decide what a living human being is and why do they have that privilege?

One question leads to another and soon we lose sight of the original topic. I do intend to address these inquiries but before I digress I would like to first delineate the foundation of Roe V. Wade. We can matriculate from there but I feel it apropos to first address the initial issue.

In Roe V. Wade the Supreme Court ruled that attaining an abortion is a constitutional woman’s right. Justice Harry Blackmun wrote the majority opinion for Roe V. Wade saying: “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins.” He described the sciences of biology and medicine as inadequate and “unable to arrive at any consensus.”

The justices did not necessarily decide that life does not begin until birth (although, Blackmun did claim that there has always been strong evidence for this). Rather, they argued that the status of a fetus is irrelevant and that either way a woman has the right to attain an abortion.

Judith Jarvis Thomson does a fine job defending the logic of Roe V. Wade in her, "A Defense of Abortion."[1] In this article she actually grants that a fetus has human rights. In the same breath she asserts that a woman has no constitutional or legal obligation to support the fetus.

She gives an effective, though admittedly outlandish, hypothetical situation to prove her point. In this example she asks that you suppose you were kidnapped and attached to a musician through a series of life supporting tubes. You can protect this man’s life by remaining attached to him for nine months, or cut the cord and spend that time unencumbered. However, if you make the latter decision the musician will inexorably die.

Judith offers a bit of praise for mothers who see the pregnancy through when she notes that it would be a wonderful thing for you to support this life. Yet, you have no legal or constitutional obligation to be a wonderful person. Actually, you have a right to do the opposite. You have the right to cut the cord. A woman has the right to attain an abortion.

One might note that this example is only applicable to cases of rape. Judith took this into account. According to statistics provided by Planned Parenthood through the Alan Guttmacher Institute and the Center for Bioethical Reforms[2] less than one percent of abortions are being attained in response to rape. Judith's article is titled "In Defense of Abortion,” not “In Defense of a Some Abortions Attained in Specific and Relatively Rare Circumstances.”

However, her approach and the logic of Roe V. Wade do seem to have some weak points. Should we grant that a fetus does have human rights as Judith does, we must follow up and consider that these rights are also being transgressed upon.

In cases of consensual sex it is no longer a matter of being kidnapped and forcibly attached to the musician. Instead it would be more accurate to say that you chose of your own volition to attach yourself to this stranger without his consent. (A fetus never asks to be conceived.) You have just made this man reliant on you for survival.

Imagine an ambitious girl fresh from high school. Her plan is to go through college and become a legislator. On the way she falls in love with a man who convinces her not to pursue her education. Instead he asks her to marry him, abandon her career, and become a stay at home wife. After forty years of marriage he divorces her. We now have a fifty eight year old with no tangible work experience or financing skills trying to survive in society.

Luckily, our courts protect this woman. The husband created a dependent and is held accountable for it. [3] Judith says that a woman has no constitutional obligation to be a wonderful person. Well, she’s right. We can be immoral or amoral. Nevertheless, we are required to provide for our dependents. There are strict laws concerning the care of children. [4] Why, if a fetus is just as human and has just as many rights as I do, should our laws force us to support a newborn but not an unborn? Under the postulate that a fetus is a living human and has human rights these laws apply.

However, Blackmun did not believe that a fetus was a living human. The majority opinion for Roe v. Wade tells us that we “need not answer the difficult question of when life begins,” but then it tries to do just that. Blackmun wrote, “There has always been strong support for the view that life does not begin until live birth. This was what the Stoics believed.”

So, was Blackmun being a bit dishonest? This seems to be a convenient contradiction within the text. Blackmun tells us that a fetus is not a living human, but that this is irrelevant. In doing this he manages to uphold his belief, the belief of the stoics, without having to defend it. "I think the earth is flat," "But these pictures..." "Well, it doesn't matter anyway."

Roe v. Wade is glaringly flawed, but this does not necessarily mean that abortion should be restricted. There are still various arguments to be considered. We can attack the status of a fetus. Constitutionally speaking, a fetus is not classified as an American citizen, and science is not ambiguous on this issue either.

The topic is incredibly complex. Entire chapters and books can be dedicated to debating abortion. I’m not entirely certain that we’ll be able to scrutinize every nook and cranny involved. However, I will try to address as many arguments and approaches as possible in future segments.

[1] Thomson, Judith J. "A Defense of Abortion." Philosophy and Public Affairs 1971: 47-66.

[2] "Facts on Induced Abortion in the United States." Guttmacher Institute. Ed. Sharon Camp and Fatima Juarez. July 2008. Guttmacher Institute. 2 Feb. 008 .

[3]alimony." The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2008. 2 Apr. 2009 <>.

[4]"Child Support." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. The Gale Group, Inc. 2005. 2 Apr. 2009 <>.


  1. Thank you for putting your efforts into these essays. I am thoroughly enjoying them. :-)

    One of the aspects of abortion that I have never completely understood is the "We don't know when the baby technically becomes a baby," line. Someone who murders a pregnant woman receives two murder charges, which only leaves me to assume that the fetus is considered a living human being. Society in general seems to find it particularly abominable for a pregnant woman to die or be killed; yet a pregnant woman is given the choice of whether or not she wishes to give birth to an extension of her family. If not, then she is legally allowed to abort it. In both cases the baby dies. In one, the baby is considered a human being worthy of justice, and in the other, it is merely a “thing” that a woman does not want to be encumbered with. This makes no sense to me. No doubt you intend to discourse on this very topic, but I couldn’t help throwing in my thoughts anyway.

    Even the KKK must read occasionally. :-)

  2. Thank you very much for “throwing in,” your thoughts. I am always happy to interact with my readers. I will address your question so please continue to take time and consider my posts. When we get to that point leave another comment and we can converse further. Until then I have more research to do.

    I’m sure that some members of the KKK can read. I just doubt any of them have a mind open enough to do so. Not when the content of the article is anything other than propaganda.

  3. Just so you know, I was slightly kidding with you about the KKK. However, your essays might perhaps influence people like them for the better, so don't automatically assume someone like that wouldn't read this blog.

    If it's any interest to you, your clock is incorrect.