Philosophers debate: Is abortion wrong?
On Wednesday evening, students filled a Sharp Lab lecture hall to attend a debate between two university Philosophy professors, Katherin Rogers and Richard Hanley. The philosophical question up for debate was, “Is abortion wrong?”
Hanley prefaced his argument with a clarification of language, calling for a need for more precision when discussing the disagreements on abortion.
“There are a lot of things people on both sides agree about,” Hanley said. “But I have very little use for ‘pro-life,’ ‘pro-choice’ names chosen for their rhetorical force.”
Hanley defined the main point of disagreement between himself and Rogers as a disagreement on a specific subset of abortions which he referred to as “early abortions-on-demand.”
That is, first trimester, deliberate terminations of pregnancy that are available “on-demand.” Cases of rape, severe abnormalities of the fetus or pregnancies threatening the mother’s life or health, would not be included in this definition, Hanley said.
Early abortion-on-demand, then, refers to the abortion of developmentally normal fetuses from healthy pregnancies as a result of consensual intercourse, done with reasonable knowledge of the consequences of sexual intercourse. Hanley also explained how decisions on policy and governance have complicated the issue of abortion as it related to matters of bodily autonomy.
“Early abortion-on-demand is never seriously wrong,” Hanley said. “When a government instrumentality makes rules on what you do with your body, this is a striking public policy claim.”
Hanley said that this liberal view concerned policies on abortion becoming an unacceptable intrusion into the private life of women. It raises questions on who gets the final say in the matter, which Hanley said should be the mother.
Conversely, Rogers, the president of the Society of Catholic Scholars of Delaware and Hanley’s colleague in the philosophy department, was more comfortable taking-up the “pro-life” label as she sought to rebut Hanley’s positions.
“There is only one basic pro-life argument,” Rogers said. “If it is the same organism that developed continuously from conception, there really is no good place to try to draw some kind of a line. If the issue is the sort of nature or status of the fetus, then it makes sense that the fetus is a person as much as you and I are.”
Rogers said he believed that the wrongness of murder is not exceptional to matured stages of life. Rather, it is wrong to kill for the same reasons across the continuity of development, according to Rogers.
“You as you sit here now are the same organism,” Rogers said. “You are an entity that it would be wrong to kill for the same reasons, across stages of life and development.”
Rogers concluded her introductory statements on a more personalized note.
“I assume that most of us want to believe that we are loving people who care for others,” Rogers said. “You have the abortion. You could have 100 philosophers giving you 100 arguments. In your heart, you’re still going to feel like that that was your baby and you killed it, and you’re going to be miserable.”
However, Hanley was also quick to reassert his stance.
“I don’t think the main worry women have when they have an abortion is whether or not they have to look after the child,” Hanley said. “The fact that women are being told what to do with their body is far more important. For a woman that doesn’t want to be pregnant, it is a kind of confinement. It is a significant reduction of their autonomy.”
Hanley’s following rebuttals primarily targeted Rogers’s arguments about the continuity of life. Hanley questioned if an organism at conception and an adult human are really the same, and therefore deserving of the same moral status.
Rogers responded to Hanley by arguing that a woman can make a more informed decision if certain policies are enacted, such as compelling the mother to be shown an ultrasound in the process of confirming a third-trimester abortion.
“We both agree that abortion should be relatively rare,” Hanley said. “There are very weighty considerations on both sides. We should give the other side credit on these weighty considerations.”
Steven Stavrakis, a sophomore neuroscience and philosophy double major, expressed a hopefulness and gratitude towards more respectful debates on potentially charged subjects like abortion.
“It’s obviously a hot topic,” Stavrakis said. “But the better off we are for it. One way or another, we’re coming to a better understanding.”