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Nicholas Everitt reviews Ronald Dworkin’s opinions on life and death.
That people have deep and irreconcilable disagreements about the morality of abortion, and to a lesser extent about euthanasia, seems undeniable. But in Life’s Dominion, Dworkin argues that the protagonists in the debate have misunderstood their own positions, and are in fact in fundamental agreement. He argues that if we try to understand the dispute in the traditional way, the position of each side quickly reveals inconsistencies; but that if we understand it in his preferred way, these inconsistencies drop away. The differences which remain between the two sides can be seen as differences in emphasis or in application of shared fundamental values, and not the expression of radically divergent moralities. How can these claims be defended?
Suppose we take the traditional conservative claim that abortion is wrong because it violates the right to life of the foetus, a right which it has in just the same way that all human beings have a right to life. It then becomes mysterious, says Dworkin, why the great majority of conservatives nevertheless think that in exceptional circumstances abortion is permissible – for example, where it is the only way of saving the woman’s life, or perhaps in cases of rape. For in general, we recognise that it is not permissible deliberately to kill one innocent person, even if it is the only way of saving the life of another innocent person. Even less do we think that killing an innocent person is permissible if it is done to spare a woman a very unpleasant but not even life-threatening set of experiences, such as would be involved in bearing and rearing the child of a man who had raped her. So the fact that a traditionalist can even contemplate an abortion in such cases shows that she does not really think that foetuses have a right to life as normal adult human beings do.
By contrast, a standard liberal view on abortion would deny that the foetus has a right to life or is more than a part of the woman’s own body, and would claim that the final decision whether to abort should therefore always rest with the woman. But then it becomes mysterious (says Dworkin) why standard liberals also agree that the decision to abort is always a morally important one. In particular, why should it be thought that late abortions are always a more serious matter morally than early abortions? And why should it be thought entirely understandable if a woman feels scruples beforehand and regret or remorse or guilt afterwards? Why is abortion regarded as any more problematic than appendectomy or cosmetic surgery?
What we need to recognise, Dworkin argues, is that both sides of the debate agree without realising it on some fundamental moral value. He expresses this value in different ways at different points of the book, but one standard expression is this:
“…human life has an intrinsic innate value; …human life is sacred just in itself;…the sacred nature of human life begins when its biological life begins” (p .11)
Conservatives think (wrongly) that the only way to acknowledge this value is to treat foetuses (and indeed fertilised ova) as if they were fully-fledged people, with the rights and interests which go with the status of a person. Liberals, sensing that recognition of the value of the mother’s life will sometimes imply the necessity for an abortion, have felt (wrongly) that they therefore have to deny that a foetus has an ‘intrinsic innate value’from the moment of conception. But what both sides reveal (claims Dworkin) is an adherence to the intrinsic value of human life.
What, then explains the fact that conservatives and liberals disagree, if they both accept the Dworkin principle of the intrinsic value of all human life? The explanation is that they give different answers to the question of what it is that frustrates the realisation of the value of human life. One answer is that death would be such a frustration, and it is a mark of an extreme conservative to hold that this is the only way that the value of life can be frustrated, or if not the only way, then always the most severe way. From this, it follows that an abortion will nearly always be a more serious frustration of life’s value than any other conclusion to a pregnancy. But a liberal, by contrast, maintains that there are other ways of frustrating the value of life than the mere cessation of that life. If a foetus is so badly deformed that it can face only a short life of constant and excruciating pain, then on the liberal view
“it would be a worse frustration of life to allow this foetal life to continue because that would add, to the sad waste of a deformed human’s biological creation, the further, heart-breaking waste of personal emotional investments made in that life by others but principally by the child himself before his inevitable early death” (p.90)
Further, the liberal thinks that even if the potential child’s life could be fulfilling, this fact can be outweighed (e.g. in cases of rape, or even of unplanned pregnancy) by the frustration to the life of the woman of continuing with the pregnancy. Hence the liberal’s support for abortion in such cases is (like the conservative opposition to abortion) founded on a recognition of the value of life.
This provides us with the central strand in Dworkin’s analysis of the morality of abortion. But he embeds that moral discussion in a subtle analysis of the legal considerations surrounding abortion, in particular of United States law. Then, in the final part of the book, the same idea of the intrinsic value of human life, and of the different ways in which that value can be frustrated, is applied to the issue of euthanasia.
Dworkin writes lucidly and, in his legal discussions at any rate, persuasively. But his central thesis that liberals and conservatives about abortion share a fundamental value is altogether more dubious. The problem here is not with his thought that liberals and conservatives mischaracterise their own beliefs. It lies rather in the belief which Dworkin attributes to them. He rightly ridicules the idea that fertilised eggs have a right to life; but the thesis with which he replaces that view (namely that fertilised eggs have ‘an intrinsic innate value’and a ‘sacred nature’) is surely no less absurd. He devotes a chapter to this thesis, providing a secular interpretation of it and trying to show that the thesis is indeed something which ‘we’ all want to accept. But his defence of it (which includes likening the value of human life to the value of works of art) left this reader at any rate more convinced than ever that the thesis was indefensible. And if it is indefensible, a good deal of the interest of Dworkin’s discussion evaporates.
Life’s Dominion: An Argument About Abortion and Euthanasia by Ronald Dworkin is published by HarperCollins.
© Nicholas Everitt 1994
Nicholas Everitt is a philosophy lecturer at the University of East Anglia.