U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito asked Mississippi Solicitor General Scott Stewart “Are there secular philosophers and bioethicists who take the position that the rights of personhood begin at conception or at some point other than viability?” The question came up during oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The case is on the constitutionality of a Mississippi law that bans most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
The solicitor general’s response to the question was vague. It was in a sense an appeal to the plausibility of diverse thought within secular philosophy rather than specifying if secular philosophy includes positions that personhood starts at conception.
His response is understandable, however. The reason why it is hard to point to a specific secular philosopher that is anti-abortion is that most secular philosophers, overall, are disinterested in the debate about abortion. (Hence, most of the time it is deferred to science or law to address.)
Philosophers are more concerned with the question of what constitutes personhood rather than the political question of a woman’s right to have an abortion. This is not to say philosophers don’t contend with the latter question, but rather they tend to circle on the question of when life begins and the moral permissibility of having an abortion.
For context, there are generally three camps the moral permissibility of having an abortion falls under. Those are the Judeo-Christian view, the secular view, and the anti-natalism view (an extreme version of the secular view).
To quickly get anti-natalism out of the way—because I really don’t think this is a serious view to hold—philosophers like David Benatar believe human existence leads to unmeasurable harm to the whole of life, and therefore we should stop reproducing. (Yes, people believe this.) Again, I think this kind of pessimism about human existence is unproductive—and thankfully most people agree. But it is out there if you ever want to read about it.
Now, on to the other two views. We all know the Judeo-Christian view on abortion, so I don’t think we need to do much exploring on the theological reasoning. The more interesting one, in my opinion, is the so-called secular view about abortion, which has become a kind of dogmatic position itself in popular culture. What makes it interesting as a philosophical topic is where it starts from as moral justification: women’s rights.
Now, no one is going to deny that a woman’s right to decide to bring life into the world is a major consideration when it comes to the topic of abortion. However, most arguments from the secular camp take on a theological kind of reasoning rather than a non-religious one. Instead of rooting themselves in Biblical text and theology, they “center” their arguments in the work of feminist philosopher Judith Thomson. While I have a great deal of respect for her philosophical rigor—and I do see her as a true secular thinker—Thomson does not consider the value proposition of beings with futures like ours. Hence, adverting her view forward without reassessing the argument becomes a kind of dogmatism of Thomson’s belief. Accordingly, the predicate for the so-called secular view held by today’s advocates for abortion rights is based on what Thomson thinks as being morally important and not what is morally important about the topic of abortion.
With this context in place, we can really start to think about what it means to be a secular philosopher and if any of them are antiabortionist. While it is mostly theologians that lead the defense against abortion in philosophy, there are secular philosophers that are anti-abortion.
As an example, philosopher Don Marquis believes what matters regarding the moral permissibility of abortion stands or falls on whether a fetus is a sort of being whose life it is wrong to end. He argues that most deliberate abortions are seriously immoral. To support his philosophical position, he advances the claim that fetuses will have a future like ours, which entails all rights to be afforded to personhood. And when a being possesses that nature, it is generally not morally permissible to kill it. This argument essentially claims that a fetus will have a future like ours, so we should not deprive it of said future. Depriving a being of a future like ours makes killing it morally impermissible, and therefore killing a fetus is morally impermissible.
An important distinction to note about Marquis’ Future-Like-Ours argument is that it is not an argument from potentiality. (The potentiality argument is derived from Aristotelian metaphysics, which is what theologians typically pull from to argue against abortions.) By not predicating his argument on potentiality, Marquis avoids the type of criticism other secular philosophers like Joel Feinberg make against a fetus having the potential ability to have rights.
What makes Marquis’ Future-Like-Ours argument interesting is that it directly adverts the argument that life is present from the moment of conception.
Now to get back to Justice Alito’s question “Are there secular philosophers who take the position that the rights of personhood begin at conception?” Yes, there are secular philosophers that take the position that the rights of personhood begin at conception.
Joshua Peters is a philosopher and social critic from Raleigh, NC. His academic background is in western philosophy, STEM, and financial analysis. Joshua studied at North Carolina State University (BS) and UNC Charlotte (MS). He is a graduate of the E.A. Morris Fellowship for Emerging Leaders.