Via the Free Beacon, this is a fascinating conversation, for a host of reasons. First, it features actor James Franco, who apparently co-hosts a YouTube show that explores philosophical questions, alongside a professor named Eliot Michaelson. Second, their guest in this episode is Princeton faculty member Elizabeth Harman, who begins her answer on abortion by revealing that she's previously considered the issue in the course of her work, in which she's defended early-term abortion as a morally neutral act. This was not an improvised answer, in other words; she's thought about it before. And thinking about it is her job. Third, rather just nodding along, Franco and Michaelson press Harman on the -- shall we say -- flawed logic of her stated position. This skeptical approach is a testament to their critical thinking and willingness to question a viewpoint that is likely widely shared in their respective social circles. It also speaks well of their online program, which evidently isn't merely a Google-esque echo chamber, dressed up as thoughtfulness. Harman begins by asserting that there's "nothing morally bad" about early abortion, then her argument devolves from there:
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.
Notice that she argues not only that early-term abortion ought to be legal, but goes further by saying there's nothing morally wrong with it. The application of her moral judgment depends on the future of that fetus, she says, explaining that all three people participating in the conversation did enjoy "moral status" as early-stage unborn children because they all had futures. If one doesn't have a future as a person, one does not have moral status, she concludes. Both Michaelson and Franco quickly home in on the bizarre tautology on which this analysis rests: Aborted fetuses don't have futures because they're proactively killed. If they weren't proactively killed, they would have futures, and thus would be imbued with moral status, based on Harman's definition. Franco asks, "can't you only judge that in hindsight?" Her response:
There is a real question of, how could we know? Well, often we do know. So often, if we know that a woman is planning to get an abortion, and we know that abortion is available to her, then we know that fetus is going to die—that it's not the kind of thing like the fetuses that became us. It's not something with moral status, in my view. Often we have reason to believe that a fetus is the beginning stage of a person. So, if we know that it's that a woman is planning to continue her pregnancy, then we good reason to that her fetus is something with moral status something with this future as a person.
There's a very strange, 'avert-your-eyes-and-don't-think-too-hard' detachment that's required to advance these claims. "Because we know that fetus is going to die, it's not the kind of thing like the fetuses that became us," she says. But the only relevant difference is the choice of the mother whether or not to have her fetus killed. She's reduced to basically saying, we had moral status because we had futures, and we had futures because we weren't denied futures, and therefore moral status attached. A tautological merry go 'round. She's effectively arguing that the 'wantedness' of a person, as decided by the feelings of her would-be mother, determines the humanity and moral status of that person. If a woman decides that she's going to terminate her pregnancy, that child's lack of a future robs her of the moral status that would make killing her wrong. But if the same woman decided a moment later that she wouldn't go through with the abortion, that unborn child suddenly does have a future, and therefore achieves moral status. What? It's a circular argument that doesn't appear to impress either questioner. It even seems to tie the woman advocating it up in knots. She goes on:
Another thing that you were bringing up was the idea that, in my view, in aborting we're taking away the moral status that the fetus would have had moral status, but by aborting we take it away, and I think that's the wrong way to look at it. I think the right way to look at it is that just given the current state of the fetus you know it's not having any experiences. There's nothing about its current state that would make it a member of the moral community. It's derivative of its future that it gets to have moral status. So it's really the future and endows moral status on it and if we allow it to have this future and then we're allowing it to be the kind of thing that now would have moral status so in aborting it I don't think you're depriving it of something that it independently has.
Ah, but the whole crux of her contention boils down to the idea that by aborting a child, "we're taking away the moral status that the fetus would have had." Yet she claims that this is "the wrong way to look at it," perhaps intuitively understanding that this is an indefensible position. She again repeats that it's "the future" that "endows moral status" on a developing person -- but every single (relatively healthy) fetus has a future, unless it's interrupted. Also, a two-month old fetus has had exactly the same "experiences," regardless of whether her mother decides to allow her to have any more. She is denied her future by someone else's deliberate decision to end her life. The status of her future is in the hands of somebody else; it's not an independent factor. Harman's more straightforward answer would be to say that the moral status of one human being is determined by another human being. But that's not a logically or morally consistent standard, which may be why she feels compelled to construct this additional explanatory layer involving a person's "future," which only applies retroactively. If you're confused and unconvinced, join the club. So, it seems, is Professor Harman.
One final point: She addresses fetal consciousness and life experiences on a few occasions, which some pro-choice people may find more compelling than her "no future" framework. Put simply, if a child was never truly aware of her existence, ending that existence isn't unjust. But at what point does that calculation expire? Later-stage fetuses can recognize voices, respond to music, and even differentiate between languages. Are those experiences that "count" toward moral status? Exactly when does that person cross an experiential threshold that renders her unworthy of being discarded as morally worthless? And the question of consciousness is even trickier. Most people's first lasting memories don't arrive until toddlerhood. Does the apparent fact that newborns can't appreciate, understand (or later recall) their early existence mean that they've never really lived as a conscious, sentient human being at that stage of post-birth life? What moral implications would that have? But the way, this entire exchange illustrates why I favor discussions.