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Abortion and parental responsibility

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Standard approaches to the morality of abortion typically founder on the question of the “personhood” of the fetus. This paper attempts to avoid this problem by developing an alternative approach in which philosophical positions are derived not from a presumed right to life but from the special moral obligations of parents to nurture their immature children. After a discussion of the notion of parental responsibility, three leading accounts of the acquisition of parental responsibilities are examined: one based on biological relationship, one based on consent, and one based on causal responsibility. The consequences of each of these positions for the morality of abortion are examined and each is considered in relation to cases involving nonstandard methods of procreation, e.g. surrogate mothering, artificial insemination by donor, and embryo transfer. On the basis of these cases, I argue that the model based on causal responsibility provides the most adequate criterion for the ascription of parental responsibility. While some discussion is devoted to the question of implementing this model as social policy, the main thrust of the paper is not so much to defend a particular policy on the morality of abortion as it is to argue for the approach to the problem based on the notion of parental responsibility over the more familiar approach relying on the right to life.

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  1. In the context of the abortion debate, solving the problem of personhood is usually seen as a problem of establishing a demarcation criterion which provides a sufficient condition for determining the point at which a developing embryo or fetus first becomes a human being or person. Some of the more frequently mentioned proposals for such demarcation criteria are: (a) conception, (b) having a recognizably human form, (c) the arrival of a “psyche”, (d) viability, (e) birth, (f) having the capacity for meaningful social interaction, (g) self-consciousness, (h) linguistic ability, (i) possession of a moral sense, and (j) having a rational life plan. For a defense of the conception criterion see, John T. Noonan, Jr., “An Almost Absolute Value in History,” in J.T. Noonan (Ed.),The Morality of Abortion: Legal and Historical Perspectives. (Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1970). The arrival of the psyche proposal has been suggested by Gareth Matthews, “Life and Death as the Arrival and Departure of the Psyche,”American Philosophical Quarterly, 16, 1979, 157–161. The self-conciousness criterion is defended by Michael Tooley in “Abortion and Infanticide,”Philosophy and Public Affairs, 2, 1972, 37–65; reprinted in Joel Feinberg (Ed.),The Problem of Abortion, Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1973, pp. 51–91. Many other authors have questioned this whole approach and have suggested that the criteria for personhood are complex and incorporate several necessary and sufficient conditions. Cf. Mary Anne Warren, “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion,”The Monist, 57, 1973; reprinted in Tom L. Beauchamp and LeRoy Walters (Eds.),Contemporary Issues in Bioethics, Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1978, pp. 217–228; Joseph Fletcher, “Indicators of Personhood: A Tentative Profile of Man.”Hastings Center Report, 2, 1973; Lawrence C. Becker, “Human Being: The Boundaries of the Concept,”Philosophy and Public Affairs, 4, 1975, 334–359. Still others have suggested that the search for a set of conditions which are necessary and sufficient for something to be a “person” is a snark hunt in that personhood might turn out to be a cluster or family resemblance concept which is not strictly definable. Cf. Jane English, “Abortion and the Concept of a Person,”Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 5, 1975, reprinted inContemporary Issues in Bioethics, op. cit., pp. 241–243. And also, Daniel Dennett in “Conditions of Personhood,” in Amelie O. Rorty (Ed.),The Identities of Persons, Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1976, reprinted in D.C. Dennett,Brainstorms, Cambridge, Mass, Bradford Books, 1978, pp. 267–285, a penetrating essay which helped to inspire my moving to the approach developed here.

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  2. Alasdair MacIntyre,After Virtue: a study in moral theory Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981.

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  3. For an interesting attempt to develop such a general theory of parental responsibilities see Jeffery Blustein,Parents and Children: The Ethics of Family New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

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  4. The distinction between “goal-based,” “right-based,” and “duty-based” approaches to ethical theory is discussed by Ronald Dworkin, “The Original Position,”University of Chicago Law Review, 40, 1973, 500–533; reprinted in Norman Daniels (Ed.),Reading Rawls, New York: Basic Books, 1976, pp. 16–53. A discussion of the difficulties of a “rights-based” approach to the problem of abortion can be found in Roslyn Weiss, “The Perils of Personhood,”Ethics, 1978, 66–75.

  5. My approach to this question closely resembles that discussed by David Lyons in his “Rights, Claimants, and Beneficiaries.”American Philosophical Quarterly, 6 1969, 173–185, and also that developed for a different but not entirely unrelated case by Joel Feinberg in “Can Animals Have Rights?” in Tom Reagan and Peter Singer (Eds.),Animal Rights and Human Obligations, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1976, pp. 190–196. If we regard fetuses as being capable of having rights, then the principle of parental responsibility will provide for obligations to and corresponding rights of fetuses to be nurtured. If, on the other hand, we deny that fetuses satisfy the conditions for being right-holders, then the principle of parental responsibility yields obligations concerning them which do not establish correlative rights. While this distinction raises some interesting philosophical questions, it makes no difference which we choose since in either case the bearers of parental responsibilities will have strong obligations to prevent harm to and to nurture their immature children. Although my approach here is duty-based, I take no position on whether children possess any rights not derived from the duties of others. For a defense of children's rights see Howard Cohen,Equal Rights for Children, Totowa, NJ: Littlefield Adams, 1980.

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  6. Judith J. Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion”Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1 1971, 47–66. Interestingly, Thomson at one point notes that “Opponents of abortion have been so concerned to make out the independence of the fetus in order to establish that it has a right to life, just as the mother does, they have tended to overlook the possible support they might gain from making out that the fetus is dependent on the mother,” (p. 58) which is what the parental responsibility approach tries to do.

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  7. So far as I know, the only legal precedent for cases of this kind is the 1968 Appellate Court of California's decision in the case ofPeople vs. Sorenson, in which the court ruled that the man to whom a woman is legally married at the time of artificial insemination by donor (AID) is the legal father of any child who is produced, and may be obligated to provide child support even after divorce. Since this ruling, several states have passed laws which require the husband's written consent before AID may proceed. An interesting variant of this sort of case was reported in which a sterile male obtained a healthy testes from his brother and had it implanted in his scrotum. He was then able to inseminate his wife, she conceived, and a healthy boy was born. When asked if he ever wondered whether the child was his or his brother's he responded by saying, “Since I would change no baby's diapers but my own, and I change his diapers, he must be mine.” (Cf. “The World's Most Unusual Father,”Hastings Center Report, 11, 2, 1981, 3–4.

  8. It might be argued, I suppose, that the doctors who fertilized and implanted the embryo-which-became-Pat are the real or efficient causes of her existence and so they are her parents under the causal responsibility model. This untoward result is not, I think, a serious problem for the theory since the doctors did not themselves initiate the procedure but were merely acting as the instruments of the persons who employ them. A different judgment, however, might be reached in cases in which human embryos are created for the purposes of genetic experimentation. (See note 13 below.)

  9. It will still be necessary to determine the moral standing of the fetus apart from parental responsibilities, for instance, in order to establish ethical guidelines for genetic and fetal research. The problem of determining standards for the ethical treatment of fetuses in medical experimentation is a difficult one, and is made more complicated by conflicting intuitions concerning the morality of abortion. Cf. Paul Ramsey,The Ethics of Fetal Research New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975, especially Chapter 5. The approach to this issue employing the right to life tends to blur the distinction between the two issues; however, the approach developed here clearly separates them and treats them as falling under different moral principles.

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  10. Cf. Hugh LaFollette, “Licensing Parents,”Philosophy and Public Affairs, 9 1980, 182–197; and also Jeffrey Blustein,Parents and Children, op. cit., pp. 240–252.

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The basic research for this paper was conducted while I was a participant in a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar for College Teachers directed by Gareth Matthews at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. An earlier and shorter version was presented at the New Jersey Regional Philosophical Association meetings at Rutgers University, on January 31, 1981. I would like to thank Gary Matthews, Randy Carter, Frances Kamm, Joe Margolick, and Sally Winston for their helpful comments on earlier drafts, though I am myself responsible for whatever errors may remain.

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Winston, M.E. Abortion and parental responsibility. J Med Hum 7, 33–56 (1986).

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