Bananas: Princeton philosopher explains why it's okay to abort babies who don't have a "future" or something

“My view isn’t that if you do abort, abortion is OK but if you don’t abort, abortion would have been wrong,” says professor Liz Harman at one point to hosts Eliot Michaelson and James Franco. (Yes, that James Franco.) It’s not? Watch the clip, then read the transcript, then watch the clip again and tell me that that isn’t inescapably the point she arrives at. If a fetus has a future, she argues, then it has moral agency and aborting it is wrong. If it doesn’t have a future then it lacks moral agency and abortion is permissible. That distinction might be defensible in cases where the fetus lacks a future because of extraneous circumstances — if it carries a gene that ensures early death, for instance, then the moral stakes in aborting are lower because you’re not depriving the child of a long life. But she’s not limiting the “future” question to extraneous considerations. A mother’s decision to abort is itself relevant to the calculation. If mom decides baby won’t have a future then, per Harman, the moral stakes are low and abortion is permissible. If mom decides to carry to term then there’s a big future at stake and the moral balance tilts against abortion. Whether abortion is morally right or wrong ends up depending on the mother’s preference. One word: Bananas.

In fact, this is so bananas that I’m inclined to agree with Megan McArdle. There has to be a more coherent point at stake here that Harman’s simply doing a terrible job of explaining:

Or maybe she’s hit on how American popular culture tends to approach this issue. We celebrate life and instinctively treat that as the correct moral decision — except when a mother chooses to abort, in which case that must have been the morally right thing to do in her case:

And it’s funny: Harmon’s argument amounts to my longstanding gripe with the way abortion is handled in popular culture. On many TV shows, when a character gets pregnant, there’s a lot of hemming and hawing about whether to keep “it.” But they almost always do. And when they do, mirabile dictu, it becomes a baby. The mother instantly behaves like there is a real person growing inside her and immediately orients her life towards the health of her baby. What starts in sitcoms — Rachel keeps Ross’s baby! — is now the stuff of “serious” philosophy.

It seems to me that what Harman is doing is applying Schrodinger’s cat to fetuses. The act of seeing the fetus like a person makes it a person. There are huge problems here, starting with the fact that it’s insanely unscientific. A doctor looking at an ultrasound sees the same thing regardless of the mother’s intentions.

A woman’s choice is moral whatever it may be because morality is subjective. That’s basically Harman’s position, although rather than embrace something as problematic as subjective morality, she’s trying to shoehorn it into some inane future/not a future calculus that all comes down to the mother’s choice anyway. This reeks of her starting from a conclusion she knows she must reach — abortion is moral — and then trying to tunnel through an intellectual mountain to get there. Keep going until you see daylight!

David Strom 6:41 PM on September 26, 2022