The Fetal Position: A Rational Approach to the Abortion Issue

The Fetal Position: A Rational Approach to the Abortion Issue

by Chris Meyers

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In this unique approach to one of the most contentious and emotionally charged issues of our day, the author argues that philosophy provides the ideal neutral forum for considering the soundness of both sides of the abortion debate. Unlike most books on abortion, this one takes neither a pro-life nor a pro-choice stance. Rather, using philosophical methodology, the


In this unique approach to one of the most contentious and emotionally charged issues of our day, the author argues that philosophy provides the ideal neutral forum for considering the soundness of both sides of the abortion debate. Unlike most books on abortion, this one takes neither a pro-life nor a pro-choice stance. Rather, using philosophical methodology, the author carefully scrutinizes the commonly voiced arguments for and against abortion with the aim of assessing them from a position that is as unbiased as possible. The author argues that since philosophy involves questioning our most basic assumptions and does not assume any one particular worldview, it is best equipped to provide objective clarity to the debate. The book considers all the hot-button issues, including:

-What is life? Theories of the soul vs. the naturalistic, biological concept of life
-The implications of the fact that life begins at conception
-Responsibility and how each side of the debate defines the term differently
-The status of the fetus as a potential person
-The application of the Golden Rule to the debate
-The question of the woman’s bodily integrity vs. the fetus’s right to life
-Assessing the consequences of abortion (with reference to utilitarianism)
-How our attitudes on abortion reflect our character (with reference to virtue ethics)

Whether you are pro-life or pro-choice, and especially if you are undecided, this thoughtful, clearly presented treatment of an important, controversial topic will prove enlightening.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Meyers (philosophy, Univ. of Southern Mississippi) thinks that both pro-choice and pro-life fanatics are mistaken, whether thinking that abortion is obviously morally permissible or obviously wrong. Meyers thinks that abortion is neither obviously permissible nor clearly wrong. The complex arguments in favor and against it, Meyers believes, need to be weighed carefully, with the verdict a person reaches depending on careful balancing. Meyers considers many of the most important of these arguments, including a famous one devised by Judith Thomson and the Golden Rule argument. Does life begin at conception? If it does, what is the moral relevance of this? What does it mean to say that a pregnant woman is responsible for her condition and what follows from this? These are a sample of the issues that Meyers raises. His aim is not to come to a conclusion on the matter, and he does not state his own opinion on the morality of abortion. Rather, his aim is to show readers how philosophical analysis can clarify an important moral issue, and in that aim he succeeds admirably. VERDICT A valuable book for students of philosophy and anyone engaged in the debate over abortion.—David Gordon, Bowling Green State Univ., Ohio

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Prometheus Books
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Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2010 Chris Meyers
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59102-768-3

Chapter One


Part of the reason, I suspect, that little progress has been made toward reaching any kind of consensus about the morality of abortion is the lack of willingness on the part of those with passionately held opinions to seriously engage in honest debate. Some people, on both sides of the issue, dogmatically assert their views without considering fairly the arguments for the contrary position. These people are only encouraged by certain politicians who pander to their base for support of their political careers.

Perhaps, to be more charitable, some people hold their views dogmatically because they do not realize that it is possible to present evidence for and against moral positions and to use rational thinking to determine the truth of the matter. They can hardly be blamed for being unaware of this kind of critical thinking, for there are so few examples to be found in public discourse today. This is where philosophy can, and I believe must, come to the rescue. It can provide a forum for debating such seemingly intractable issues. This is not to say that we will, in this short book, determine once and for all the correct view to which everyone will immediately agree. But philosophy can provide the means for getting some real discussion started in a fruitful direction.


Before addressing exactly how philosophy can assist us in this debate, we should first ask, "What is philosophy?" The answer will enable us to see how philosophy can help us resolve (or at least openly debate) the abortion issue. This question is not an easy one to answer. Many philosophers would even disagree over the correct characterization of what it is they do. This may seem very odd to nonphilosophers, but the difficulty of saying exactly what philosophy is actually serves as an illustration of what philosophers do and what philosophy is about.

In philosophy, everything is open to questioning—even of what philosophy itself is or should be. This is not the case in other fields. In physics, for example, there is virtually unanimous agreement as to what physics is and what physicists should be studying. Physics is the study of the most basic constituents of the physical world—in other words, matter and energy—and the mathematically describable laws governing their interactions in space (or something like that). This definition forms the foundation for all physics and so cannot be questioned, at least not within physics itself. To question whether observation and experimentation are reliable indicators of reality, or whether matter exists independently of our perceiving it, is not to ask scientific questions but philosophical questions.

Once, when I was a young college student first studying philosophy, I was having dinner with my then girlfriend's family when her father, who was a physicist, asked me, "What exactly is philosophy anyway?" To my utter embarrassment, I was unable to give any more than the sketchiest of answers. I hemmed and hawed and made some vague and lofty comment about the "search for truth." Of course, that is correct as far as it goes, but it does not go nearly far enough. Philosophy is the search for truth, but that is inadequate as a definition. After all, the sciences are also involved with the search for truth, as are history and math. That philosophers seek the truth does not distinguish philosophy from a large number of other academic and scientific pursuits. Yet it is nevertheless an important thing to remember because it does help to distinguish philosophy from literature and poetry, which are concerned more with meaning, rhetoric, and beauty than with truth. (No one criticizes a poem or novel because it depicts things that did not really happen.) Remembering that philosophers are seeking truth might help dispel any misconceptions based on stereotypes of philosophers sitting around thinking "deep thoughts," daydreaming about unknowable things, or pontificating about the meaning of life.

How does philosophy differ from other truth-seeking endeavors? Many areas of inquiry are identifiable not so much by their methods (which they may share with other fields) but by their subject matter. For example, biology is the scientific study of living organisms, and psychology is the study of human behavior. Mathematics studies numbers and their relations, while history studies past human events. There is, however, no particular domain that sets philosophy apart from other fields. We cannot say, "He studies X? Then he must be a philosopher!" Philosophy can be about anything. There is philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, philosophy of history, and so on.

One thing that does distinguish philosophy from other fields is that it asks more fundamental questions, questions that cannot be decided by observation. While physicists study the most basic constituents of matter and energy through experiment and observation, philosophers ask, "What is real?" and "What can we know?" This is the first part of our definition of philosophy: it is critical thinking about the most fundamental questions. How does philosophy of science differ from science? Philosophy of science questions the very foundations of science, asking questions about the meaning of scientific statements as well as the source (and degree of certainty) of scientific understanding. How does philosophy of mind differ from psychology? Psychology studies (among other things) human behavior and mental states such as beliefs and emotions, while philosophy of mind asks what are these beliefs and emotions. Are they, for example, physical brain states? Functional dispositions that mediate between perceptual input and behavioral output? Something independent of physical matter?

Another way philosophy differs from other fields of study is in its methods. Observation is the primary method of inquiry in science. The scientist formulates a hypothesis, makes a prediction based on the theory being tested, and then performs a critical experiment, if possible. The most important part is the last part. The scientist must observe the outcome and compare it with the predictions. With some theories, such as physical anthropology, experimenting is not possible. But anthropologists can make predictions and look for evidence to support them. For example, if humans evolved from apes, then we can predict that we should find fossils of apelike protohumans.

Other disciplines besides science look to experience and observation. Although historians do not formulate general theories like scientists do—and they do not necessarily make predictions—the methods of history are, like science, based on observation. Typically historians rely on the observations of others that have been passed down through testimony. They also observe the effects of past civilizations and historical events, such as ruins and artifacts. Historians need some observation, by themselves or others (in the past or present) in order to discover historical truth.

Philosophy has no particular method. Unlike science and history, it relies primarily on rational argumentation alone. In this respect it more closely resembles math than science. Mathematics does not rely on any observation of the world but can be done "in one's head" (or on paper). So the other part of our definition of philosophy is that it is the search for truth through rational argumentation rather than observation.

None of this should seem to imply that philosophy is better or more important than science. Philosophy is never going to cure AIDS or solve world hunger or even help make a breakfast cereal that will not get soggy in milk. And anyway, scientists can go about their business just fine without answers to these fundamental questions. The psychologist can discover many important things about human emotion and cognition without worrying about whether or not such states could exist in a computer. Biologists can usefully classify animal and plant species without answering questions about whether these categories are invented or discovered.

Nevertheless, I think that philosophy can be very useful. And its usefulness comes precisely from the fact that it is not committed to any distinct method and is not confined to any specific topic. It can be useful precisely because it can be about anything and does not need to rely on some definite set of basic axioms. This is what will make it so helpful in the abortion debate.


One of the central problems with the abortion debate in both politics and public discourse (or perhaps we should call it the abortion "fight," for rarely is there any real debate) is that the two major sides do not share enough common ground for discussion to take place. On one side we have the religious branch of the pro-life movement led by conservative Catholics and Fundamentalist Christians, and in the other camp we find pro-choice activists who mainly approach the issue from a more secular perspective. There are, of course, other camps that are smaller or less vocal. But these two sides largely define the terms of the debate today. Unfortunately, they start with such radically different fundamental principles, and so radically disagree in their basic commitments and overall worldviews, that they cannot communicate with each other. It is as if they are not even talking about the same thing or using the same language.

The widely divergent starting points make discussion on the issue impossible—even for those who want to discuss the issue fairly and open-mindedly. When the two sides do try to talk, they end up talking past each other, each one bringing up points that the other regards as irrelevant. For meaningful and productive dialogue to happen there must be some way for the two parties to find common ground. By analogy, suppose the parents of high school students are discussing the quality of one of the school's coaches. Some of the parents think that the job of a high school coach is to win games, while others think that the job of a coach is to develop skills and teach good sportsmanship. The coach might easily be a success according to one set of criteria and yet a failure according to the other standards. In order for the parents to have a meaningful dialogue, they will first have to have a discussion about what constitutes good coaching at the high school level.

I believe that what often happens with the abortion debate is that the two biggest camps—the religious pro-lifers and the more secular pro-choicers—disagree not only on the morality of abortion but also on much more fundamental issues, such as what constitutes human life and what properties a being must have to warrant moral consideration. One of these groups, on the pro-life side, consists of people with a predominately religious outlook who believe that each living human being has a soul and that it is this that makes a person worthy of moral consideration. The other group, on the pro-choice side, consists of people with a decidedly less religious view who tend to see the world, including human life, more from the perspective of the natural sciences. They see the human being primarily (though not necessarily exclusively) as a biological organism and believe that human beings warrant moral consideration because of some more-or-less observable property, such as self-consciousness, the ability to feel pleasure and pain, or the capacity for rational thought.

Of course, these two groups are not the only ones. Many people with an opinion on the matter do not fall into either camp. There are devout Christians who reject the claim that God forbids abortion and who believe in a woman's right to terminate her pregnancy. (There is even a political organization called Catholics for a Free Choice.) There are also some who have a decidedly naturalistic worldview and yet believe that it is wrong to kill a fetus, not because it has a soul but for other reasons. Nevertheless, the two major groups—the religious pro-lifers and the more secular pro-choicers—dominate the debate, and the profound differences in their respective worldviews is a serious obstacle to reasonable discussion.


Let's start with those in the religious camp who adhere to what we will call the sanctity of life principle. People with this outlook are committed to certain articles of faith. By "articles of faith" I mean something distinct from, and more specific than, fundamental beliefs. To believe something "on faith" is to believe it without evidence. When Doubting Thomas demands concrete evidence of the crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus says to him, "Oh ye of little faith!" Thomas lacks faith because he is not willing to believe without evidence. Articles of faith are basic, fundamental beliefs that are not proven and are believed despite the lack of any evidence or proof. Typically this is because they cannot be proven; there can be no evidence for them or against them. Since these fundamental articles of faith are not accepted because of any preponderance of evidence, believers tend to hold these beliefs dogmatically and are often not willing to question them. This is not necessarily a character flaw given that often, just as there is no evidence for these beliefs, there is also no contrary evidence against them.

I am not criticizing articles of faith. For one thing, our thinking about ultimate questions of what is real or true, or what is valuable, must start somewhere. You cannot begin construction of a building without a foundation, and once it is built you cannot go around making changes to the foundation. Furthermore, as we shall soon see, articles of faith are hardly unique to religious views but are at the core of virtually every systematic picture of the world. The secular-thinking people on the pro-choice side are as wedded to their own articles of faith as are the religious pro-lifers. Secular thinkers may be even more dogmatic at times because they are not aware of how their beliefs are grounded on faith.


What are the core beliefs that serve as articles of faith for adherents of the religious pro-life position? We must be careful not to over-generalize about members of this group, or worse, to offer up a caricature. I will try to provide a sketch of the fundamental claims of this view that its adherents will find acceptable. First of all, there is a commitment to the existence of a God, usually thought of as an omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent creator of the universe.

Essential to this religious sanctity of life principle is the existence of a soul—some supernatural element partly constituting the human being and human life. This soul is conceived of as a nonphysical, spiritual entity—though for rhetorical purposes, religious pro-life advocates often instead speak of the fetus as having a "Life" (with a capital L) in order to avoid being dismissed by more secular-minded people. We need to sift through the rhetoric to get at the arguments, so I say we call a spade a spade and use the term "soul." This soul is believed to be the source of human life and is what makes human life demanding of profound respect.

The notion of a soul is what makes this a religious outlook. But what leads to the sanctity of life principle is the further claim that all living human beings have a soul at every moment while they are alive. On this Judeo-Christian notion of the soul, only human beings have a soul. This raises them above nonhuman animals. The sanctity of life principle is a moral prohibition against killing anything with a soul. Since any human being that is alive has a soul, the sanctity of life principle forbids the terminating of any human life from the moment of conception up until there is no sign of life of any kind (until the human being "gives up the ghost," as it were). Even someone like Terri Schiavo (brain-dead but still biologically alive) has a soul. And according to this view, it would be wrong to end that life intentionally.


Those in the other main camp—the majority of those who defend the right to an abortion—have a more scientific view of the world and see the human being primarily (though not necessarily exclusively) as a biological organism. They have on their side all the support of a well-worked-out, empirical, scientific theory of biology. Nevertheless, it is important to understand that this more naturalistic view also has its articles of faith. This is something that many, especially those who hold this view, fail to recognize. Those with a more scientific worldview are often blind to the fact that, although the particular claims made within the sciences are well supported by empirical evidence, adopting a scientific worldview is not itself—nor can it be—supported by any empirical scientific evidence. That would be circular reasoning: appealing to observation to show that we should believe only what we observe. Science itself has as a foundation certain basic commitments that are merely assumed to be true and that cannot be proven (at least not scientifically).

What are the articles of faith for the naturalists? For them, what makes something human and what makes a human being alive must be some set of observable physical properties or processes. Being human, on this view, means having a certain genetic makeup and physiology. Being alive is simply the occurrence of certain biological processes such as growth, reproduction and cell division, nutrition, and so on. There does not seem to be anything of great moral significance in any of these physiological processes themselves, and I suspect that both sides would agree with that. After all, these biological processes can be found even in plants, and few people on either side would be willing to grant moral rights to plants. (Even vegans have to eat something.)


Excerpted from THE FETAL POSITION by CHRIS MEYERS Copyright © 2010 by Chris Meyers. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Chris Meyers (Hattiesburg, MS) holds a doctorate in philosophy from Loyola University, Chicago, and is an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Southern Mississippi. He has published articles in ethical theory and applied ethics in Philosophical Studies, Journal of Social Philosophy, and Social Theory & Practice, among other journals.

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