Elizabeth Harman’s Dystopian Philosophy

by Jonah Goldberg

Via the Washington Free Beacon, I watched this James Franco (yes that James Franco) interview of Elizabeth Harman, a philosophy professor at Princeton. You really should watch it, if for Franco’s facial expressions alone.

To make a long story short, she argues that fetuses have no moral status outside the intentions of the mother. If the mother decides that she will abort the fetus, then it is utterly devoid of moral status. But, if she decides she wants the child, ta-dah! It now has moral status. Uterine contents for thee, baby for me! Harman:

In some of my work I defend a liberal position about early abortion. I defend the view that there is nothing morally bad about early abortion. So, a lot of people think, “Well it’s permissible to have an abortion, but something bad happens when the fetus dies.” And I think if a fetus hasn’t ever been conscious, it hasn’t ever had any experiences, and we aborted it at that stage actually nothing morally bad happens. And this view might seem unattractive because it might seem that it dictates a cold attitude towards all early fetuses.

But, what I think is actually among early fetuses there are two very different kinds of beings. So, James, when you were an early fetus, and Eliot, when you were an early fetus, all of us I think we already did have moral status then. But we had moral status in virtue of our futures. And future of fact that we were beginnings stages of persons. But some early fetuses will die in early pregnancy due to abortion or miscarriage. And in my view, that is a very different kind of entity. That’s something that doesn’t have a future as a person and it doesn’t have moral status.

She says this same thing several more times in different ways because it’s obvious that Franco has the same trouble understanding this perspective that a lot of people would.

And it’s funny: Harmon’s argument amounts to my longstanding gripe with the way abortion is handled in popular culture. On many TV shows, when a character gets pregnant, there’s a lot of hemming and hawing about whether to keep “it.” But they almost always do. And when they do, mirabile dictu, it becomes a baby. The mother instantly behaves like there is a real person growing inside her and immediately orients her life towards the health of her baby. What starts in sitcoms — Rachel keeps Ross’s baby! — is now the stuff of “serious” philosophy.

It seems to me that what Harman is doing is applying Schrodinger’s cat to fetuses. The act of seeing the fetus like a person makes it a person. There are huge problems here, starting with the fact that it’s insanely unscientific. A doctor looking at an ultrasound sees the same thing regardless of the mother’s intentions.

It’s also morally and politically fraught. I know a lot of people roll their eyes at comparisons between abortion and slavery, but what the two very different phenomena have in common is the view that one human, via the state or some other instrumentality, can decide whether another human is a human, with inalienable rights. For all the bleating about A Handmaid’s Tale these days, it’s worth pointing out that such dystopias are built upon precisely this kind of thinking.

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