Pro-Life Philosophers, Peter Singer Debate Abortion, Bioethics as Baby Cries

State   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Oct 23, 2010   |   4:53PM   |   Princeton, NJ

A baby’s cry, piercing the air from the back of an Ivy League academic hall, offered a disquieting counterpoint to a startling argument for abortion rights.

by Terrence McKeegan, J.D.

“An infant has no moral status because he is not self-aware,” said Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics.

Singer argued this point at an historic conference he co-organized at Princeton University last weekend, seeking new dialogue on the heated issue of abortion. Remarkably, for a conference examining abortion, there was virtually no discussion about the act of abortion itself.

“We have to get rid of the idea of evil,” said Frances Kissling, an abortion rights advocate turned bioethics scholar, who also organized the conference.

The headline panel featured two heavyweight Australian philosophers – Singer, a bioethics professor at Princeton, and John Finnis, a professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Oxford. The two debated the “Moral Status of the Fetus.”

Finnis argued that biology and metaphysics determined the status of the fetus, not ethics as suggested by Singer. Finnis objected to the very use of the term “fetus”, saying that it is an “F-word”.

“As used in the conference program and website, which are not medical contexts, it is offensive, dehumanizing, prejudicial, manipulative,“ Finnis said. “A website describing ultrasound for expectant mothers doesn’t talk about her fetus but her baby, and so do her doctors unless they’re her abortionists or think she has been or is interested in abortion.”

Finnis underscored the point that rights are recognized, not conferred, and rejected Singer’s “moral status” approach, which negates the personhood of unborn children.

Singer defended his support for infanticide, stating that self-awareness confers moral status, and not species membership. Abortion is the killing of a human being, but is not immoral because the child does not meet the self-awareness test, said Singer.

In his utilitarian view, Singer believes that there can even be a moral duty to kill humans lacking self-awareness, including the disabled, which he has been criticized for not following in the case of his mother.

The conference sought a new approach to talking and thinking about abortion. With one or two notable exceptions, it succeeded in its goal of conducting a civil debate between people on opposite sides of the issue.

Another conference goal, finding common ground between the two sides, proved more elusive. The opening session took up this topic, and included a former general counsel for Planned Parenthood, a self-described pro-life progressive evangelical professor, an independent bioethicist, and Kissling.

Many pro-life participants complained about the composition of some panels, including the opening session, and two panels on pregnancy issues as lacking balance and speakers who could properly articulate a strong pro-life position.

Kissling shocked the audience in the last session by saying, “I don’t care how you accomplish it [the right to abortion], whether through a constitution, the UN, state laws or federals laws, or by the Taliban.” The University of Pennsylvania, where Kissling is a visiting bioethics scholar, has drawn criticism for appointing the long-time abortion activist who lacks significant academic credentials.

Charles Camosy of Fordham University and Jennifer Miller of Bioethics International also organized the conference. Other notable speakers included Helen Alvare, Sunny Anand, Christian Brugger, Eleanor Drey, David Garrow, Richard Garnett, William Hurlbutt, Dawn Johnsen, Eva Kattay, and Robin West. Note: Terrence McKeegan J.D. writes for the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute. This article originally appeared in the pro-life group’s Friday Fax publication and is used with permission.