The most common justification for abortion that I hear is to explain the differences between a foetus and a normal person. If a foetus lacks the important and distinguishing features that make killing a person wrong, the moral issue surrounding abortion is rendered null. While I so think personhood arguments provide valuable support for the legalisation of abortion, I also struggle when it comes to setting the actual legal limit for acceptable abortion implied by this argument. The limit could be wet at eight weeks when the foetus become recognisably human, or around 20 weeks when most of the personhood criteria are met, or some time after birth when full personhood is obtained. The first option is hardly different from a total abortion ban, the second leaves a period of pregnancy when abortion is outlawed, and the third justifies some types of infanticide. Because of these difficulties I prefer the dependence justification for abortion.
Basically, I would argue that while the foetus is absolutely dependent on the mother for nutrients, oxygen, and a safe environment she should be allowed to withdraw that support. The resulting death of the foetus, while predictable, is not murder because it results from the withdrawal of sustenance. I also add an extra requirement of exploring reasonable options that could avoid the need for an abortion but since current technology does not allow aborted embryos to survive and develop independently from the mother, abortion should remain legal.
However, over on M and M (New Zealand’s most popular Christian blog) I found a few counter-examples to my favoured arguments which gave me pause. While some are easy to answer others are a little trickier.
Example 1: “A hiker who breaks her leg a week’s walk from a road will die if her companions do not bring help.’
In New Zealand and other common law jurisdictions there is no duty to rescue. While we might look down on people who leave people to die rather than rescue them, it is not prosecuted as a criminal homicide or any other felony. See this example of mountain climbers being left to die on Everest. I would prefer the general principle that people attempt to rescue others if they are able to do so safely but I also don’t want to force someone into a potentially dangerous action if they are unwilling. This is consistent with my position on abortion. I would prefer if the potential mother to explore all options but if she is unwilling to go through the pregnancy, I would not force it upon her.
Example 2: “An elderly woman may be totally dependant on her children looking after her.’
This is similar to the problem above, there is no legal duty placed upon children to take of their parents in old age. It may be the respectful thing to do, but I do not want the law changed to force children to be responsible for their elderly parents.
Example 3: “A newborn is totally dependent on its mother if it happens to be born in an isolated area where there are no other lactating women and there are no means of bottle-feeding.’
This example I find harder to answer. One point to make is while the above two scenarios are realistic this one is fantastical and unlikely to occur in everyday life. There are always plenty of people around who could look after a new baby if required. Never-the-less, I think this scenario requires an answer: would it be acceptable for a mother to refuse life-sustaining support for her own child? There is a duty to rescue in a parent-child relationship and to refuse aid would be negligence at the least. The expectant mother and the foetus do share an approximation of the parent-child relationship so perhaps the pregnant women does have some duty to provide a life-sustaining environment for her offspring.
I throw it open to you. Is there a relevant difference between the two cases that doesn’t rely on a personhood argument?