Is abortion a global public health emergency?


Around the world, public health measures to cope with Covid-19 -- like social distancing and lockdowns -- have set an extraordinary precedent. It appears that to save thousands, even millions, of lives, people are prepared to accept serious limitations on their traditional freedoms.

The journal Bioethics has published an extraordinarily controversial article which explores whether this precedent could be applicable to abortion.

The direct target of the authors is Judith Jarvis Thompson’s famous argument in support of abortion. Most contemporary philosophers do not regard the foetus as a person; if this is the case, then abortion seems unproblematic. But Jarvis Thompson asked people to imagine that a famous violinist was tethered to a woman for nine months without her consent, depending for his life on her blood supply. Surely she would be justified in cutting herself loose. Similarly, she said, even if a foetus is a human person, a woman is not obliged to bring it to term.

Two British philosophers, Bruce P. Blackshaw and Daniel Rodger, ask their readers to accept Jarvis Thompson’s view for a moment. They argue that the utilitarian public health ethics which have justified severe curtailing of human rights in the pandemic will also justify a prohibition of all abortions.

Their argument works like this. If the foetus is a human person, abortion must be regarded as a global health emergency which is even more serious than Covid-19. There are an estimated 50 million abortions every year -- about the total number of deaths of infants, children and adults from all causes. Deaths from Covid are far lower. They speculate:

… if fetuses were legally recognized as persons by the state, abortion would have to be considered a far more significant public health crisis than the COVID‐19 pandemic in terms of the harm fetuses suffer by being killed. It would justify drastic action to protect this huge and very vulnerable population.

This is quite thought-provoking. If falling fertility rates threatened the viability of a nation (and some already are on track to disappear, like Armenia or South Korea), population decline might be regarded as a public health problem. If so, with the precedent of Covid-19 restrictions, would governments be justified in banning abortion?

Naturally, this line of reasoning is open to many objections: a possible increase in illegal abortions, the failure of prohibitions, an increase in the number of unwanted children, and so on. They respond to each of them in turn.

However, there is one novel recent argument against a pro-life view. Toby Ord believes that the global number of miscarriages could be as high as 200 million every year. Yet opponents of abortion seem unworried by this. This is said to show the inconsistency, even the hypocrisy, of the pro-life view. However, the authors’ riposte is that if miscarriages are a public health crisis, then abortions are as well.

They conclude that “if fetuses are persons, public health considerations require that abortion is prohibited. Abortion can only be tolerated in a society that values public health if fetuses are not regarded as persons.”

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge




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