Review of Kaczor’s “The Ethics of Abortion” – University Faculty for Life (2022)

Fine new book by UFL member Chris Kaczor — here is my review of it:

The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice. By Christopher Kaczor. New York NY: Routledge, 2011. Pp. 246. $39.95 paper.

There can be no philosophically sophisticated discussion of the morality of abortion that fails to give an adequate treatment to the definition of personhood. Kaczor wisely puts this topic at the center of his considerations. Doing so is crucial because of the claim — often repeated today — that not all human beings are persons. The scientific tests now available for genetic analysis make it easily possible to differentiate a human embryo from an embryo of any other kind. Thus it is fairly simple to determine biologically which beings are properly to be classed as human and which not. The debate over the morality of abortion and infanticide has come to turn instead on the question whether all human beings are persons. Thus resolving the disagreements over the appropriate definition for the term “person” has become crucial to the debate.
Before turning to the questions raised in the subtitle of his book (e.g., women’s rights and justice), Kaczor gives a thorough-going review of the various positions that one might take on the question of the beginning of personhood. In chapters two through four he carefully reviews the range of views that populate the professional literature today and delivers detailed and cogent refutations against the arguments adduced by such figures as Peter Singer, Mary Anne Warren, David Boonin and others that personhood only starts after birth, at birth, or at some point in pregnancy other than conception. After pointing out the intractable problems that plague the first three options, he offers a positive argument for the position that personhood begins at conception by spelling out in some detail what he calls the “constitutive property argument.” In brief, this argument holds that if an individual being can be said to have a constitutive (that is, essential) property at any point in time (that is, a property intrinsically responsible for what it is), it has that property at each point throughout its existence as that individual being. Considered in this way, a constitutive property is distinct in kind from any property that comes about extrinsically or later in time or in a way that is not essential to the being, such as standing in a changeable relation to something else, or having some value assigned to it by others like economic worth as measured by what others may be willing to pay for it at a given time. Since those individuals that are recognized outside the womb as persons because of a constitutive property are the same individual human beings in the womb (or for that matter in vitro) — a recognition made on the basis of what can be come to be known by observation and scientific data — it follows that the fetus, the embryo, and even the zygote from which any given human individual developed was already a person and therefore should be recognized as worthy to enjoy the same fundamental rights that anyone truthfully recognized as a person enjoys.
Needless to say, the crucial premise of this argument turns on the type of definition that one has for personhood. Under any such definition there are various implications for determining the proper identification of the essential properties of what is being defined. There is something particularly insightful about the chapters that Kaczor devotes to analyzing the arguments mounted by various philosophers for the definitions of personhood that would assign its beginning to some point during pregnancy, at birth, or even after birth. At the center of these chapters is Kaczor’s identification of a recurrent error made in these arguments when they confuse the criteria needed for distinguishing one type of being from another type of being on the basis of its constitutive properties with the criteria needed for determining membership within a type by the identification of a non-arbitrary demarcation point at which the individual in question begins to exist and after which the changes that it experiences are properly to be regarded as developments of a being whose constitutive property is already and continuously present.
Kaczor argues that for arriving at the proper definition of the human person, one needs to focus on the constitutive or essential properties that are typical of the kind (what he calls “an endowment account of personhood”). A functional criteria (as part of what he labels “a performance account of personhood”) such as the operation of a certain mental activity or even its execution at a certain level of proficiency) can be extremely helpful when comparing individuals of various species by a review of the powers typical of mature, healthy individuals from these different species. Such considerations provide good ways to generate the sort of definitions that will reliably distinguish the species from one another. But such functional definitions do not serve as well to answer questions about the membership of individuals within a species, especially when the nascent members of that species need to experience a process of growth and development in order to reach the stage at which the function begins or some specific level of proficiency that one might want to test for. If factors internal to the individual beings that are members of a given kind direct the development of the organs and processes required for the function in question, those factors actually reveal the presence of a constitutive or essential property that is continuously present as an endowment in the individual being even prior to the manifestation of the activity of some organ or some process in actual performance.
With his metaphysical argumentation accomplished, Kaczor devotes chapters six through nine to specifically ethical questions: Does the human embryo have rights? Is it wrong to abort a person? Is abortion permissible in hard cases? Could artificial wombs end the abortion debate? In the chapter on whether embryos possess rights one will find a meticulous examination of the main objections now in play within the literature to considering all human embryos to be human persons. These objections range from the acorn analogy (viz., even though oaks truly do develop from acorns, an acorn is not yet an oak tree), through the perplexities over such phenomena as embryo fusion, to the uncertainty argument that arises from the consideration of “probabilities.” Refusing to settle for jousting with straw-men opponents, Kaczor’s arguments on each point engage the best formulations of these problems available and provide reasonable judgments even where scientific understanding of complex phenomena is still in some flux, such as on the complex topic of twinning.
The chapters on whether it is wrong to abort a person and on hard cases are organized in similar fashion: the presentation of the arguments frequently brought to bear in the current literature is followed by a philosophically astute reply to the most compelling form of the objection. The arguments treated here include the violinist and burglar analogies devised by Judith Jarvis Thomson as well as objections based on the bodily integrity of the pregnant woman and on the difference between intention and foresight.
This volume is specially valuable for its chapter on hard cases, for Kaczor there deftly treats not only the difficult situations that critics of abortion need to handle, such as fetal deformity, rape, incest, and the health and life of the mother, but also the difficult situations that defenders of abortion may not avoid considering, such as sex-selection abortions and abortions for frivolous reasons. While the cornerstone that Kaczor uses for the adjudication of the philosophical problems always remains the ontological nature of personhood (understood in terms of constitutive or essential properties), the resolution of these ethical questions invariably requires the application of common sense in the practical sphere, and readers will profit very much from studying Kaczor’s way of handling cases of conscience in this chapter.
Finally, the book offers a brief account of the interplay of the philosophical analysis of moral questions with certain political issues. Kaczor offers, for instance, a philosophically telling critique of the position that is sometimes popular with candidates for political office who claim to be “personally opposed” but remain publically supportive of abortion. In his final chapter Kaczor raises the fascinating possibility that if technology were ever to make artificial wombs feasible, this development may be perhaps contribute to ending the abortion debate. If such an option were available, relatively affordable, and no more intrusive a procedure than present-day abortion, he argues, it is hard to see how abortion defenders on their own grounds would have reason to prefer the extermination of nascent life to its extraction.
The present volume is thus a fine book-length defense of the claim that abortion is morally impermissible and a splendid guide to the philosophical complexities involved in the abortion debate. It brings together under one cover a thoughtful and readily accessible account of the positions and arguments of the major disputants, and it argues for its position in philosophical and scientific terms, without recourse to religious or theological assumptions.

Fordham UniversityJoseph W. Koterski, S.J.

Father Joe Koterski

Rev. Joseph W. Koterski, S.J., is a member of the Philosophy Department at Fordham University, where he has taught in areas such as natural law ethics and the history of medieval philosophy since shortly after his priestly ordination in1992. He also serves as the Editor-in-Chief of International Philosophical Quarterly and as Chaplain and Tutor in Queen’s Court Residential College for Freshmen on Fordham’s Rose Hill campus. He has produced videotaped lecture-courses on “Aristotle’s Ethics” and on “Natural Law and Human Nature” for The Teaching Company and on “Spiritual Theology” for the International Catholic University. Among his recent edited volumes: The Two Wings of Catholic Thoughts: Essays on Fides et Ratio (Catholic University of America Press, 2003) and Karl Jaspers on Philosophy of History and History of Philosophy (Humanity Press, 2003). His website:

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