I'm in Boulder for RoME 2011. Prior to the official conference, the Boulder philosophy department held a panel to discuss Judith Thomson's classic paper on abortion. (Happy 40th!) Francis Beckwith was the first speaker and I thought I'd offer a few points on her behalf. His remarks seemed to follow some remarks he made earlier in a piece in the American Journal of Jurisprudence:
If it is true that no one position on the fetus's moral status wins the day, this is an excellent reason not to permit abortion, because an abortion may result in the death of a human entity who has a full right to life. If one kills another being without knowing whether that being is an entity with protected moral status, and if one has reasonable grounds (as Thomson admits) to believe that the being in question has that status, such an action would constitute a willful and
reckless disregard for others, even if one later discovered that the being was not a person.
Thomson is apparently saying that the different positions on the fetus's moral status all have able defenders, persuasive arguments, and passionate advocates, but none really wins the day. To put it another way, the issue of fetal personhood is up for grabs; all positions are in some sense equal, none is better than any other. In fact,
Thomson writes that "while I know of no conclusive reason for denying that fertilized eggs have a right to life, I also know of no conclusive reason for asserting that they do have a right to life." n37 But if this is the case, then it is safe to say that the odds of the fetus being a human person are roughly 50/50 (if we wanted to put a number on a "not unreasonable" position held be a sizeable number of well-informed and educated adults in the world). Given these odds, it would seem that society has a moral obligation to err on the side of life, and therefore, to legally prohibit virtually all abortions.
Imagine the police are able to identify someone as a murderer with only one piece of evidence: his DNA matches the DNA of the genetic material found on the victim. The police subsequently arrest him, and he is convicted and sentenced to death. Suppose, however, that it is discovered several months later that the murderer has an identical twin brother who was also at the scene of the crime and obviously has the same DNA as his brother on death row. This means that there is a 50/50 chance that the man on death row is the murderer. Would the state be justified in executing this man? Surely not, for there is a 50/50 chance of executing an innocent person. Consequently, if it is wrong to kill the man on death row, it is then wrong to kill the fetus when the arguments for its full humanity are just as reasonable as the arguments against it.
Two points before bed. First, Thomson does _not_ say that none of the views concerning the moral status of the fetus wins the day. She concedes that she knows of no conclusive reason to reject the views that prolifers have concerning the moral status of the fetus but nevertheless thinks she can give plausible arguments that the view is wrong. I don't have conclusive reason to reject lots of things that are nevertheless quite implausible. It certainly doesn't follow that a lack of a conclusive reason makes all views equally reasonable. It certainly doesn't follow from the fact that I lack conclusive reason for rejecting your view that your view is at all reasonable. Thomson concedes that the prolifer might not be flatly unreasonable in rejecting her arguments against this view, but this concession is certainly not the same thing as Thomson suggesting that she and the prolifer are epistemic peers.
Second, the cases differ in an important way. In the case of the possibly wrongly convicted convict we suffer from non-normative ignorance or uncertainty, not normative ignorance or uncertainty. In the case of abortion, we're alleged to suffer from normative ignorance or uncertainty. There are moral views that say that these differences carry no moral weight, but I think these views are deeply flawed. Suppose someone thought that the arguments for the prolife view and the opposition view were equally good and thought that there's a 50/50 chance that one of these views is right. Suppose also that they own a revolver. Which would be worse for them, that they have an abortion (which, given normative uncertainty) has a 50% chance (in some sense of 'chance') or that they play Russian roulette with a sleeping child that has only about 17% chance (in some sense of 'chance') of killing the child. I take it that the answer is obvious. Francis needs to distinguish expected from expectable value.