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Intrinsic Properties and Abortion Debate Essay

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The philosophy of intrinsic property rights has created many problems for those who can justify abortion but believe that new born infant has to be treated as a human being. The intrinsic property philosophy also makes it difficult to justify killing animals but not humans. This soul searching debate is the subject of this essay. An intrinsic property is a property within the object or organism. Mass of a body is an intrinsic property, while weight of the body would depend on its location and its gravity and is an extrinsic property.

The debate regarding protecting moral and legal rights of a living being when applied to fetuses creates a new set of problems for the pro-abortionists. Is a fetus entitled to the same rights and privileges as a new born? Can we regard a fetus with the same rights and privileges as a living human? It is morally and legally wrong to kill innocent human beings. The fetus is capable of developing within itself, meeting its needs with the ability it has within itself to appropriate nourishment and grow.

These intrinsic properties qualify the fetuses as living organism and if we consider this living organism as an innocent human being, the conclusion would be that it is morally as wrong to abort (or kill) a fetus as it is morally wrong to kill an infant. The pro-abortionists argue that the fetus cannot be given the same importance as a newly born infant [McNeil, 2000]. Many feminist philosophers argue [Warren, 1973] that this approach to morality is based on abstract rules and conflict of rights and is inappropriate.

Some feminist philosophers have declared that the concept of moral right may be inconsistent with the social nature of persons [Wolgast, cited in Warren, 1973] The philosophical views on the right of fetuses have debated various aspects of the morality or otherwise of abortion. The acknowledgment of intrinsic property rights means that an individual has certain moral rights. The presence or absence of a single determining factor of that intrinsic property which entitles an individual to these moral rights has been open to interpretation.

This single criterion [Warren, 1973] which distinguishes between those who have intrinsic property rights and those who do not is in itself a dilemma. Accepting the intrinsic property argument makes the right of the woman carrying the fetus as irrelevant as the moral right of the fetus demands that its right be protected and it is allowed to develop as a separate entity. The single criterion and intrinsic property right taken together give a new born baby the same rights as a nearly mature fetus, if we accept this argument than late abortion tantamount to infanticide.

[Summer, 1983] argues that sentience (ability to sense) should be used as the criteria for permissible abortion. Summer uses the sentience argument to limit abortion to first trimester. The problem with the intrinsic property and single criterion becomes more complicated when we find that philosophers like Tooley argue that both infants and nearly mature fetuses are incapable of desiring their own existence as they have no concept or experience of being a ‘person’. The conclusion drawn by him are rather shocking as he shows that infanticide in past history was not treated at par with other murders.

[Warren, 1973] rightly points out that sentience alone, cannot be considered a criterion for comparing moral equality of the fetus and of an infant, as if we were to give equality on the basis of sentience mice and other animals which have much higher recognizable sentience are not treated as such. Sentience argument unlike fetus viability however draws an identifiable boundary as fetus viability can change with time and place. In developing countries with poor medical resources even a nearly mature fetus cannot be kept in an incubator and have the required life support to survive.

In developed countries with excellent health care facilities nearly half term fetuses already have a reasonable chance of survival. Treating infants and fetuses at par as necessary under to doctrine of intrinsic property would subject the women undergoing a miscarriage to investigation for ‘murder’. [Warren, 1973] cites an actual example when an irresponsible pregnant woman was charged for negligent homicide as she failed to observe the precautions and suffered a miscarriage.

It is clear that an infant and an unborn fetus cannot be treated as equal in terms of intrinsic property rights. Warren rightly concludes that birth marks an important point of distinction of rights for the infant, the fetus and for the woman. An infant can have a life of its own, in mothers’ care or even with foster organization/parents. Even if the infant is still dependent on others for survival the birth marks the beginning of a socially responsible individual or person.

Pregnancy whether in advance term or at the beginning does not award the right of parenthood, the birth is the clear difference between the fetus and infant and while fetuses in advance state of development need to be protected as indeed they are, they cannot be considered equal to infants in their rights. In brief Warren’s philosophy is to give people the rights of a moral community and have moral rights. She defines personhood as meeting five important criteria; ability to recognize internal and external objects, ability to feel pain, ability to reason, self motivated activity, capacity to communicate and self awareness [McNeil, 2000]

Peter Singer’s is an advocate of utilitarianism. His views, although though provoking cannot be described as mainstream, he appears to believe in sentience theory but without a species distinction. He believes that species-ism is a kind of racism or gender based discrimination. [Singer, 1999] also refuses to acknowledge that human lives are more precious because of humans are more intelligent. He argues that if intelligence were to be the criterion we would permit medical experiment on mentally retarded! He appears to be less concerned about infanticide or abortion and his theory is that of great moral good.

Singer presents very thought provoking debates but several of his arguments would create serious social right issues. He considers experimentation on animals as immoral but the possible benefit to millions by the sacrifice of a few is permitted in Singer’s logic. This type of logic can be used to justify slavery, genocide of a minority and create many more similar dilemmas. Warren’s philosophical views on the moral and legal status of abortion on the other hand are a serious and practicable discussion and presents logical views. Singer defends a quality-of-life view in ethics and has little regard for sanctity-of-life view.


McNeil, M. A. , (2000), The Real Problem with Abortion, [Online] retrieved from Internet on May 05, 2007, http://www. abortionessay. com/files/realproblem. html Singer, P. , (1999), Practical Ethics, Cambridge University Press 2nd Edition, ISBN-10: 052143971X Tooley, M. (1983), Abortion and Infanticide, Oxford: Oxford University Press, Cited in [Warren, 1973] Warren, M. A. , (1973), On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion, The Monist, LaSalle, Illinois, Vol. 53. Also published in James Rachel’s’, The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings in Moral Philosophy (2nd Ed. , McGraw-Hill College, 1999)

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