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Abortion & Phenomenology

Michael Kowalik considers a possible implication of abortion for self-awareness.

The issue of abortion remains one of the most emotive, politicised, and socially divisive controversies of our time. Both the pro- and anti- sides are driven by strong and often dogmatic beliefs, making them appear irreconcilable. This impasse may be largely caused by the choice of criteria the debate is focussed through: religious belief, morality, and human rights. None of these criteria are firmly grounded in observable facts, but are more akin to terms of art: conceptual constructs that reflect specific ways of thinking that are not very amenable to critique in external terms. Religious beliefs are generally not open to revision by non-religious reasoning, and are therefore often irreconcilable with agnostic or atheistic points of view. Non-theistic morality, on the other hand, can be socially constructed (culture-dependent moral conventionalism); private (moral subjectivism); or based on alleged moral facts (moral realism); and the associated debate about the truth about ethics is no closer to an even broadly satisfying solution than is the abortion debate itself. Human rights, in turn, purport to reflect what most people already believe morality entails; but again, that’s a highly partisan issue. And yet none of these disparate criteria fares better than any other in terms of objectively grounding the arguments.

Phenomenology is the study of the structure of conscious awareness, and it offers a unique perspective on abortion which avoids the pitfalls associated with arguments from human rights, religious belief, or morality. Instead, and without negating the possibility that abortion may be justified for other reasons, it obtains reasons not to abort from the nature of agency and the commitments intrinsic to intentional action. Less formally, it says that abortion hurts because it involves killing something humans automatically identify with, and as humans we constitute ourselves just in terms of what we identify with.

Seeing Myself In Another

Being an unwanted child is a tragedy in itself. Growing up without your birth parents is an irreplaceable loss, a gaping hole in who you are that cannot be completely filled by anyone else, because only biological parents possess the unique characteristics their child has inherited. Seeing yourself – your own behaviour, traits and tendencies – embodied and expressed by your parents (or, conversely, by your children) is possibly the strongest link between the individual and humanity. Nobody is more like us than our natural parents (or children); and ‘kinship’ with what we are like is how we constitute ourselves as rational agents, according to some neo-Kantian theorists, especially Christine Korsgaard in her book Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity (2009).

pregnant belly
Pregnancy pic © pexels.com 2016

Thomas Nagel, in his famous paper ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’ observed that for an organism to have “conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism.” Perhaps the greatest phenomenological insight is that you as an individual can identify as a Self – that is, exist as a self-aware being – only through other individuals who are like you. If so, the core phenomenological question, ‘What is it like to be me?’, can be answered by a conscious being only by identifying with the kind of beings whose members actually are like them. This relational dependency was emphasised by Jürgen Habermas in Postmetaphysical Thinking (1992), where he writes that “the self of the practical relation-to-self cannot reassure itself about itself through direct reflection but only via the perspective of others” (p.186). This position is elaborated in his book The Future of Human Nature (2003): “Subjectivity… is itself constituted through intersubjective relations to others. The individual self will only emerge through the course of social externalization, and can only be stabilized within the network of undamaged relations of mutual recognition” (p.34). In other words, when I recognise my image, or simply think about myself, I already recognise myself as a member of a particular kind.

The primary question for phenomenology of abortion is therefore not about the degree of agency possessed by the foetus (which may indeed be absent), but the degree of likeness in terms of which we define ourselves as human beings. Do we see a being of our own kind in the foetus, or even in the fertilised unicellular zygote? A fertilised egg is not a person, at least not in the same sense as human adults are; but, unlike a spermatozoid or unfertilised egg, genetically it is already a definite being, which under normal conditions will progressively acquire predetermined features – its parents’ likeness; then unique functional agency; and, ultimately, the status of personhood and membership in the human community.

This knowledge of prospects, on its own, is still quite abstract, not supported by any noticeable experience of likeness. It is only when the embryo begins to develop recognisable human features that an experience of recognition becomes meaningful. And the more this life-form appears to be like us, the more its dismemberment and death involuntarily affects us. Even if killing in general is not necessarily morally wrong, it is damaging to our self-constitution insofar as we identify with what we are killing. This effect is so strong that even if we were to ‘kill’ just a computer simulated human, we are still likely to experience distress commensurate with the degree of lifelikeness of the simulation.

Integrity & Agency

In ‘Abortion and the Concept of a Person’ (Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 5:2, 1975), Jane English argues that there are no common necessary and sufficient features that could be ascribed to a human life-form in order to be sure that these features together constitute a person. Rather, it is our existential need to relate to other beings in a reflexive (self-recognising) manner that drives us to seek out humanity and personify the Other. As I argued, to exist as a self-conscious agent we are committed to recognise the kind of beings to which we belong, defined in terms of perceived likeness. The more features we recognise in others as constitutive of ourselves, the more real we are to ourselves, the more true to the kind we objectively are and whose existence we value. And self-existence is intrinsically valuable to agency: whenever we choose to act we must value our capacity to act, and therefore value our own existence as agents, and therefore the kind of beings we are… We therefore have good reasons to seek out and protect what we are like rather than deny it.

eye mirror

We can witness hundreds of corpses of animals without especially experiencing distress. I mean, we can feel regret for animal suffering, but we do not see non-human animals as our kind. Had we witnessed human carnage of the same magnitude, we would never be the same, shocked by the experience, and probably traumatised for life. Were we to personally cause a human death, the effect would be even more damaging. Every attack on our kind, even if justified, negatively affects what Christine Korsgaard referred to as our constitutive ‘integrity’: in any such disassociation from my kind, my reflection or likeness is to that extent no longer seen as the kind of being that I am, with deleterious effect for my own consciousness. Killing another human may sometimes be unavoidable to preserve one’s own life; but even if the killing is justified, it still damages the killer. Similarly, abortion may in some cases be necessary for self-preservation or other reasons, but killing our own at any stage of foetal development may diminish our own selfhood, irrespective of the reasons. It is unclear at what stage of embryonic development human likeness can be first apprehended; nevertheless, from a phenomenological perspective it is clear that the greater the degree of likeness we apprehend in what is killed, the more deleterious to Self is the act of killing.

Now an individual with a diminished degree of reflexive consciousness obviously does not disappear from the world as a material being – as an object: but they may experience progressive estrangement, demoralisation, depersonalisation, or identity fragmentation. This in turn may result in a diminished capacity to act intentionally. According to Korsgaard, “an action that is less successful at constituting its agent is to that extent less of an action. So on this conception, action is an idea that admits of degrees” (Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity, p.25). So an agent whose constitutive integrity is compromised is to that extent less of an agent. The lowest degree of agency is that of a ‘tyrannized soul’, who is no longer an agent, but “a mere force of nature, an object, a thing” (p.173).

Cautious Conclusions

Nothing I’ve said is meant to suggest that abortion should be illegal, or that it is morally wrong, or that there are no good reasons to choose abortion. I have only argued that abortion must have negative consequences for the women and men involved. So this phenomenological account of abortion presents reasons not to abort, without demanding that agents act on those reasons, and without negating the possibility that abortion may be justified for other reasons.

© Michael Kowalik 2018

Michael Kowalik is a Melbourne-based philosopher specialising in ontology, value-theory and metaethics. He regularly posts philosophical essays to CulturalAnalysis.net.

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