Actor James Franco recently joined with philosophy professor Eliot Michaelson to challenge a Princeton University faculty member’s argument about the “moral status” of an unborn baby.
Franco, together with Michaelson, of King’s College in London, has launched a YouTube series called Philosophy Time, in which the two discuss “contemporary philosophy” with various guests.
During the episode on July 25, Liz Harman, philosophy professor at Princeton University, said, “In some of my work, I defend a liberal position about early abortion. I defend the view that there’s nothing morally bad about early abortion.”
“I think if a fetus hasn’t ever been conscious, it hasn’t ever had any experiences, and we abort it at that stage that actually nothing morally bad happens,” she proposed to Franco and Michaelson.
Harman – as observed by the Washington Free Beacon – teaches courses such as “Morality in the Face of Moral Ignorance.” She admitted that her view might appear “cold,” but continued nevertheless:
But what I think is that, actually among early fetuses, there are two very different kinds of beings. So, James, when you were an early fetus, and Eliot, when you were an early fetus, all of us, I think that we already did have moral status then. But we had moral status in virtue of our futures. In virtue of the fact that we were the beginning stages of persons. But some early fetuses will die early in pregnancy either due to abortion or miscarriage. And in my view, that’s a very different kind of entity. That’s something that doesn’t have a future as a person and it doesn’t have moral status.
Michaelson asked her how the future of a fetus would determine whether it has “moral status.”
“Why would we think that what’s actually going to happen to a fetus in the future is going to make this big difference between having some moral status and not?” he challenged.
“Can’t you only judge that in hindsight?” Franco similarly asked.
“Right, so there’s a real question of ‘how could we know?’” Harman replied, but then added, “Often we do know”:
So often, if we know that a woman is planning to get an abortion, and we know that abortion is available to her, then we know that that fetus is going to die – that it’s not a kind of thing like the fetuses that became us. It’s not something with moral status, in my view. Often we have reason to believe that a fetus is the beginning stage of a person. So, if we know that a woman is planning to continue her pregnancy, then we have good reason to think that her fetus is something with moral status, something with this future as a person.
An apparently confused Franco asked for some clarification:
So what you’re saying is if the fetus is never destined to become a person, it doesn’t have “moral status.” If a woman decides to have an abortion with an early fetus, just that act or that intention negates the “moral status” of that early fetus, just because if she goes out and has an abortion, it’s pretty certain that it’s not going to become a person?
Harman struggled with her argument, but continued with two reasons why it is correct:
So one reason is that, even, so you have moral status – and in my view, back when you were in early fetus, you had moral status – but it’s not that aborting you would have been wrong because if your mother had chosen to abort her pregnancy, then it wouldn’t have been the case that you would have had moral status because you would have died as an early fetus, so she would have been aborting something that didn’t have moral status.
Harman added that, if you are a fetus, whether you have “moral status” is a “contingent matter.”
“You actually have moral status, but you might not have counted morally at all if you had been aborted,” she insisted. “You would have existed, but you just would have had this really very short existence in which you wouldn’t have mattered morally.”
She then attempted to summarize her view that “moral status” is not something that is taken away from a fetus when it is aborted. Instead, “moral status,” according to her, is bestowed upon the fetus when he or she has been determined to have a future by the mother.
I think the right way to look at it is that just given the current state of the fetus, you know, it’s not having any experiences, there’s nothing about its current state that would make it a member of the moral community. It’s derivative of its future that it gets to have moral status. So it’s really that the future endows moral status on it, and if we allow it to have this future and then we’re allowing it to be the kind of thing that now would have moral status. So in aborting it I don’t think you’re depriving it of something that it independently has.
“I think we could talk about this forever,” Franco ultimately responded.