In a recently published video for their “Philosophy Time” series, actor James Franco and philosophy professor Eliot Michaelson spoke with Elizabeth Harman, a Princeton professor, about early abortion.
The video began spreading rapidly, causing near unanimous and bi-partisan mockery.
Harman seeks to justify early abortion with her casual tone. Here’s a portion of the transcript:
I defend the view that there is nothing morally bad about early abortion. So, a lot of people think, ‘Well it’s permissible to have an abortion, but something bad happens when the fetus dies.’ And I think if a fetus hasn’t ever been conscious, it hasn’t ever had any experiences, and we aborted it at that stage actually nothing morally bad happens. And this view might seem unattractive because it might seem that it dictates a cold attitude towards all early fetuses.
But, what I think is 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 we already did have moral status then. But we had moral status in virtue of our futures. And future of fact that we were beginnings stages of persons. But some early fetuses will die in early pregnancy due to abortion or miscarriage. And in my view that is 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.
Harman’s point suggested that unborn children are only worthy enough of this “moral status” if they are wanted enough to have a future, a point she espoused throughout. When asked what dictates that “moral status” and future, Harman stuck to abortion talking points suggesting humans dictate the future and worth of other humans:
There is a real question of, how could we know? Well, 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 fetus is going to die—that it’s not the 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 it’s that a woman is planning to continue her pregnancy, then we good reason to that her fetus is something with moral status something with this future as a person.
When Harman tried to clarify, it got more confusing:
So one reason is that, um, even 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.
…But what it turns out is that it’s a contingent matter that you have moral status you actually have moral status but you might not have counted morally at all if you had been aborted. You would have existed but you just would have had this really very short existence in which you wouldn’t have mattered morally.
…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 the future and 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.