Many people reject the death penalty on the grounds of mistakenly taking the life of an innocent person. Why then do we allow abortion? If no one is certain when life begins, isn't to accept abortion an acceptance of mistakenly taking the life of a person?

I sometimes call this the "Ronald Reagan argument"; President Reagan was fond of a version of it that, as I recall, had to do with a man in a ditch who might or might not be dead. That also raises a preliminary issue. The question presumably isn't whether the fetus is biologically alive; it surely is. The question (or part of it anyway) is what this living being is. One common way of putting it is to ask whether the fetus is a person -- a being with the same moral standing as you or me. And so I'll put what follows in those terms.

The first thing that strikes me is that there's a glitch in the analogy. In the execution case, the being we execute is unquestionably a person who is possibly innocent. In the abortion case, the being is possibly a person, though if a person, then an innocent one.

This hardly settles the matter, of course. The reply might be that in either case, we run the risk of taking the life of an innocent person; the position of the word "possible" simply locates the source of the risk. But that's too simple. In the typical execution case, what we worry about getting wrong is a matter of fact; the person either committed the crime or s/he didn't and the concern is that we may be mistaken about that. The abortion case is different. Whether or not a fetus is a person seems to be what someone once called an essentially contested question: there may be no straightforward fact to be had. Fetuses are like paradigm cases of persons in some ways, and unlike them in others. A glance at the history of the debate makes it clear that two people can agree about all the background facts (genetic make-up, brain development, etc.) and still disagree about whether the fetus is a person. It's harder to cook up a case like that when the question is whether someone committed murder.

There's another difference: the thought of executing an innocent person makes our blood run cold when we think about it from the victim's point of view. Imagine yourself knowing full well that you've been convicted of a murder that you didn't commit, and that you're about to have your life taken away from you on the basis of a mistake. It's a horrifying prospect. Abortion holds no such horror from the fetus's point of view, because the fetus doesn't have a point of view. It has no conception of its future, let alone of itself.

Just to be clear, my point isn't to settle the abortion issue. After all, newborns don't have anything like the developed point of view of a paradigm person, but infanticide still strikes us as wrong. The point is simply that the Ronald Reagan argument, in its various versions, is too quick.

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