, Volume 2, Issue 2, pp 163-191

Personhood, property rights, and the permissibility of abortion

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Abstract

The purpose of this paper is to argue that the tactic of granting a fetus the legal status of a person will not, contrary to the expectations of opponents of abortion, provide grounds for a general prohibition on abortions. I begin by examining two arguments, one moral (J. J. Thomson's ‘A Defense of Abortion’) and the other legal (D. Regan's ‘Rewriting Roe v. Wade’), which grant the assumption that a fetus is a person and yet argue to the conclusion that abortion is permissible. However, both Thomson and Regan rely on the so-called bad samaritan principle. This principle states that a person has a right to refuse to give aid. Their reliance on this principle creates problems, both in the moral and the legal contexts, since the bad samaritan principle is intended to apply to passive refusals to aid; abortion, however, does not look like any such passive denial of aid, and so it does not seem like the sort of action covered by the bad samaritan principle. In defense of the positions outlined by Thomson and Regan, I argue that the apparent asymmetry between abortion and the usual type of case covered by the bad samaritan principle is only apparent and not a genuine problem for their analyses. I conclude with a defense of the morality of the bad samaritan principle.

As several of my footnotes indicate, I have profited from conversations on this paper with many people. I owe particular thanks to Susan Appleton, Sonya Meyers Davis, Larry Davis, and Richard Wasserstrom for their comments on earlier drafts.