A Critique of Alison M. Jaggar on Abortion
Alison M. Jaggar begins her article “Abortion and a Woman’s Right to Decide” by saying that she seeks to defend a right to abortion that is contingent on particular social circumstances; it is neither universal nor absolute. Her core claim is as follows: “… each woman should have the sole legal right to decide whether or not, in her own case, an abortion should be performed” (Living with Contradictions, p. 281). In formulating her ideas as she does, Jaggar hopes to sidestep a host of issues, such as the moral status of the fetus and whether or not a woman’s right to abortion derives from a right to control her own body. She assumes only what she takes to be two relatively uncontroversial moral principles, from which she concludes that in at least some cases abortion can be morally justified. I will argue below that these assumptions are far too flimsy a foundation to support the rights that Jaggar wants them to support.
Jaggar’s argument for women’s right to abortion is based on two principles, which are, in her words:
(1) “…the right to life, when it is claimed for a human being, means the right to a full human life and to whatever means are necessary to achieve this.” (Living with Contradictions, p. 282)
(2) “… decisions should be made by those, and only by those, who are importantly affected by them.” (Living with Contradictions, p. 282)
According to Jaggar, these principles establish a woman’s right to abortion in the following way. In the first place, Jaggar argues that a lot more is needed for someone to live than the mere absence of attempts to kill them. People need such things as food, air, water, shelter, and human companionship. All these things are included in the right to life, and consequently no individual or organization can count as a protector of an entity’s right to life if they are not prepared supply that entity with all of them. When applied to the practice of abortion as it exists in our society, (1) entails that no individual or group, including the state, can count as a protector of a fetus’s right to life, because at present no individual or group is guaranteed to provide it with a full human life. Hence, Jaggar concludes, there is no individual or group in our society which is morally authorized to prohibit abortion.
Given this, the next thing to consider is who has a right to decide whether or not a woman is to have an abortion in a particular case. Thus Jaggar argues, in the second place, that only the mother should have the final say. This follows from (2) together with the fact that if a woman carries her pregnancy to term it will have its greatest impact on her. Jaggar attempts to show this by comparing its impact on the mother to its impact on the father, the medical staff who would be involved in the abortion procedure, and the state. In each case she concludes that its impact on them is not serious enough to give them a say that could trump the mother’s.
The logic of Jaggar’s first argument strikes me as curious. How is it supposed to follow that, if an individual or group is either unable or unwilling to completely fulfill a being’s right to life, it should allow that being’s right to be completely violated by letting it die? After all, being alive is a precondition for enjoying a full life, so anyone who kills a being or allows it to die is by that very act depriving it of everything that the individual or group would have deprived it of and more besides. If Jaggar nevertheless counts letting that being live out a less-than-full life as a greater offense than killing it or allowing it to die, the moral would seem to be that a total violation of a right is less serious than a partial one.
Jaggar’s argument is also problematic because an exactly parallel argument could be given to morally justify infanticide. As with the previous case, in our society neither the state nor any individual is, in general, required to provide an unwanted infant with all the things Jaggar thinks are required by a full right to life. If we accept (1) it follows, by a parity of reasoning, that no one can be regarded as the protector of an unwanted infant’s right to life. Thus there is no individual or group in our society which is morally authorized to prohibit infanticide. However, I find this conclusion deeply counterintuitive, to put it mildly. In any case, if I’m right that the original argument is unsound, we have no more reason to accept this modified version.
I also find Jaggar’s second argument to be unpersuasive. For it seems to me that there is an obvious counterexample to her principle that only those who are “importantly affected” by a choice should have a say in how it is to be decided. If, for example, I see that someone is about to be shot—a person who is, as it happens, both unknown and unrelated to me—does it follow that I have no right to intervene on the grounds that my life will not be “importantly affected” if they die? The would-be shooter has no right to choose to end this person’s life, and the fact that their decision does not harm me does nothing to take away my right—arguably, my duty—to stop them. Jaggar may well be right that the decision to have a child will have its greatest impact on the mother, but if (2) is false this fact is hardly decisive.
In response to my first criticism Jaggar might object that a less-than-full life might be worse than death, so that in a sense a total violation of a right is in this case less serious than a partial one. A fetus which is aborted suffers no further harm, but one that lives may go on to lead a very sad life, as Jaggar herself points out (Living with Contradictions, pp. 284-285). This fact, she might say, is enough to trump any right or duty on the part of the state or some individual to interfere with the mother’s choice.
This sounds plausible at first, but I think it is problematic. For if living such a life is a fate worse than death, why shouldn’t a mother who is unable to provide her child with a full life be forced to have an abortion? Would forcing her to have one, bad as it is, be worse than making her child endure a life so miserable that they would be better off dead? Yet if it is wrong to force a woman to have an abortion when she cannot provide her child with a full life, as Jaggar seems committed to holding, I think she must acknowledge either that a mother has a right to inflict grievous suffering on her child, or else that living a less-than-full life is not worse than death after all. The first alternative is a rather unpalatable one for Jaggar to embrace, and accepting the second undercuts her ability to make this objection. As for the morality of infanticide, Jaggar could simply bite the bullet and say that it can be morally justified for much the same reasons that abortion can. This issue seems to me to be so fundamental that there is little either side can do except appeal to their own intuitions (or lack thereof). I will simply say that if my criticisms of Jaggar’s other points survive scrutiny we will have no reason to accept her position, including this consequence of it.
In response to my second criticism Jaggar could object that my analogy is inapt for a very simple reason: The would-be shooter, as I have said, has no right to end his would-be victim’s life. Yet Jaggar explicitly assumed at the outset of her article that abortion can be morally justified in at least some instances. If that is so it would appear that, in at least some cases, the fetus either lacks a right to life or has one that has been overridden by other considerations, and in neither case would anyone have the right or the duty to intervene. In denying this assumption of Jaggar’s in the course of my second criticism, am I not simply begging the question against her? I think not, for the following reason: My criticism was directed primarily at Jaggar’s principle (2), not her contention that abortion is sometimes morally justified. Even if, for some bizarre reason, the would-be shooter did have a right to kill this man, it would be the would-be shooter’s right, and not the fact that his decision would have no impact on me, which would trump my right or duty to intervene. So even if abortion can be morally justified in some clear-cut cases, Jaggar cannot use (2) to show that it is morally justified in any cases besides those. Instead of just looking at who will be affected by the decision and how much, we will also have to consider such things as whether the fetus has a right to life.
If the criticisms which I have given above hit their mark, Jaggar’s assumptions are not strong enough to support women’s right to abortion. In keeping with the maxim that one can learn just as much from unsuccessful arguments as from successful ones, we would do well to ask ourselves why it is that Jaggar’s attempt to justify abortion did not succeed. It has failed, I think, because her assumptions were purposely crafted to avoid questions pertaining to the core differences of values which divide those on each side of the abortion debate. The simple fact of the matter is that the debate over the morality of abortion is inextricably a debate over the moral status of the fetus. I have, of course, done nothing to show either that a fetus has a right to life or that it lacks one, but the point remains that it is the existence of that right that is at issue. If feminists wish to secure a woman’s right to abortion they cannot afford to ignore that fundamental problem, which is as difficult as it is important.
Jaggar, Alison M. “Abortion and a Woman’s Right to Decide”, Living with Contradictions: Controversies in Feminist Social Ethics, edited by Alison M Jaggar. Westview Press, Inc. 1994.
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