In a current paper, philosopher Stephen Kershnar argues for the following striking conditional thesis: “if the pro-life position is true, then it is permissible to assassinate abortion-doctors.” A complete abstract of the paper is here and the paper itself can be accessed here (image: headline).
Initiation of force is a “statist” concept. Use of force is only allowed in self defense. If abortion is “outlawed” as the pro-life people wish, very quickly we’ll see illicit abortions taking place. Did our drug laws eliminate illicit drugs? Did Prohibition eliminate the drinking of alcoholic beverages? The police do kill unarmed people. Should we have an “open season” on police officers?
Kershnar is clearly correct. The argument is purely hypothetical: IF fetuses (embyos, etc) are morally equivalent to adults, then those who attack fetuses – abortionists, say – are would-be murderers, and we may stop murderers by lethal force, at least if necessary.
For that reason, attention has to be directed at the premise. But it is no use asking whether fetuses “are human” – biologically, of course, they belong to the human species. The question has to be whether morality should protect entities that have the properties that fetuses are known to have. And it is pretty obvious that they should not. That is to say: the occurrent, nonrelational properties of fetuses are not, as they stand, the sort of properties that would give their possessors the rights that adults (and children for that matter) clearly should be regarded as having.
“Pro-lifers” as they are misleadingly called defend a thesis with no credibility at all. The real reason for extending such rights to fetuses as they should have is that (a) they belong to their parents, not to the rest of society, and (b) they will, in due course, grow up (with any luck) into persons who, of course, should be understood to have [which is to say, have] strong rights. (b) of itself is not a sufficient reason for endowing them with those rights – that would be a fallacy. But it is basic to the reasons why society should protect parenthood and thus children. No children, no people – of course.
It is the interests of persons, not of pre-conscious organisms or sets of genes, that matter morally. Since expectant mothers (and their partners, but we needn’t go into further issues here) do not want their fetuses to become the persons they will become if all goes normally, and since fetuses as such have no rights, the murderous pro-lifer is simply in the wrong.