Melbourne. January 22, 2023, marks the 50th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade case, when the Supreme Court, in a historic ruling, recognized the constitutional right to abortion. This decision remained in place for nearly half a century until it was overturned by a majority of justices in the June 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision. People with broad views on abortion often say that their faith tradition helps form their opinion. But beyond religion, many other moral questions shape Americans’ attitudes on the subject. Here are some of The Conversation’s most thought-provoking articles on the underlying philosophical and bioethical issues involved in the abortion debate.
1. Rethinking ‘Persona’
Activism for and against abortion rights is often summed up in two simple terms: “connected to life” and “connected to choice”. But Robert Lawne of Northwestern University says, “‘life’ and ‘choice’ in and of themselves aren’t really an issue.” “The central question is what – or who – makes a person.” As an anthropologist, Lawne studies that question in the context of culture. He explained that different religions and societies think about the individual in different ways. Ideas about person in America, for example, often stem from Christian ideas about the soul and are black and white – someone is or is not considered a person. In some indigenous African traditions where he has researched, meanwhile, “many view being as a person as a process rather than a once-and-for-all event”—some humans gradually, over time, understand through relationships, or through rituals.
2. Moral position
Even within a single society, defining “being a person” can be complex and controversial. The being of the person is a major concern in bioethics, wrote philosopher Nancy Zeker of the University of Washington. In that context, being a “person” is not the same as being “human” – and it’s not an easy concept. “When philosophers talk about ‘being a person,’ they are referring to something or someone with an exceptionally high moral status, often regarded as having a right to life, an inherent dignity, or meaning unto itself. described as possessing,” he explained. Personhood means that someone or something can make strong moral claims, such as a claim against interference. In the abortion debate, Zecker said, “No one disputes the species of the fetus, but many disagree about whether the fetus is a person.” Americans hold three main views of when a person begins—at conception, at birth, or in between—which is a central part of the country’s inability to agree on abortion rules. But the implications of how society defines individualism go much further, Zecker said, affecting areas such as caring for the environment and ending life in this way.
3. Breaking Bioethics
Given the diverse views of Americans about religion and personality, are there other concepts that might help build consensus? In another article, Jaecker describes the four key terms of bioethics, the four foundational principles in this field: autonomy; non-harmfulness, or “do no harm”; providing benevolence, or beneficial care; and justice. People disagree about how to interpret those principles: someone in favor of abortion rights, for example, might be most concerned about harm to pregnant women, while someone who opposes it might be most concerned about harm to the fetus. May be more concerned about the loss. However, understanding how people view those principles is at least one creative step. Zecker suggested that, in the absence of reaching an ethical consensus, “expressing one’s own ethical views and understanding others’ may bring all parties closer to a principled agreement.”
4. Beyond ‘My Body, My Choice’
For decades, another phrase has dominated the American abortion debate: the slogan “My body, my choice.” At this point, the slogan has become practically synonymous with the movement for reproductive rights. It profoundly shapes how people think about abortion rights: as an issue of privacy, a decision that women must make for themselves with their doctors. But “my body, my choices” doesn’t fully reflect the dominant idea, argued Elizabeth Lanphear, a moral philosopher and bioethicist at the University of Cincinnati.
Reproductive rights are not just about lack of interference, what philosophers call “negative liberty”. Abortion is also about the right to access health care. “‘My Body, My Choice’ shows that people own their bodies, they control them,” she wrote. But the “positive liberty” of self-mastery, is of no value without the freedom to do something. “My research shows that ‘my body, my choice’ was an important idea at the time of the Roe to emphasize ownership over physical and health care decisions,” Lanphear concluded. “But I believe the debate has moved on since then – reproductive justice is about much more than owning your body and your choices; it’s about the right to health care.”
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