This month, the Philosopher’s Eye is inviting discussion on our free article “Killing, Letting Die and the Morality of Abortion”. But for many of us, our position on abortion is not one that we easily submit to philosophical scrutiny. When we question this reluctance, we might find that it rises because our position on abortion is entailed by other ethical commitments; we are first and foremost defenders of a woman’s right to determine the fate of her own body, or the right to life, or perhaps even both at once. It is easier for us to leave the questions specific to abortion largely unexamined, appealing instead to background values.
Anton Tupa’s article fights against this trend, and demands that we consider a question that is currently central to the morality of abortion: this is the question of whether or not upholding that it is morally permissible for X to let Y die means that we can also uphold that it is morally permissible for X to kill Y if merely allowing Y to die would bring harm to X or require undue sacrifices from X. For instance, an abortion by hysterotomy (removal of the fetus from the womb) may be an instance where the fetus is not killed, but let die. However, hysterotomy is far more invasive and dangerous to the pregnant woman than other forms of abortion that involve directly killing the fetus. If we uphold that hysterotomy is letting die and thus morally permissible in some instances, then why shouldn’t we permit women to use methods such as vacuum aspiration in their stead?
Tupa raises some excellent arguments against this line of reasoning; the chief being that it seems to permit “killing innocent, somewhat endangering, non-consenting, burdensome people”, when it can be argued to be morally permissible to let such people die.
For this reader, however, there seemed to be a larger issue at point: once a decision has been made on the part of X that will either directly or indirectly lead to Y’s death, shouldn’t the method behind Y’s death be that which causes the least distress to Y (assuming, with Tupa and others, that the fetus is a person with a right to live)? And might not this method fall under the ‘killing’ side of the killing / letting die divide (if such a divide is even tangible)? Please share your thoughts below!
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