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Schrödinger’s baby

An argument for “moral” abortion creates a logical pretzel


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Actor James Franco has had his problems, especially after running into the #MeToo buzz saw a few years ago. He’s a quirky character with many vices, but he’s also known for expressing serious thoughts. In 2017 he hosted a short series of YouTube videos with his friend Eliot Michaelson, a reader (professor) at King’s College, London. “Philosophy Time” featured interviews with distinguished academics on thorny subjects. Elizabeth Harmon, a Princeton philosophy professor specializing in ethics, joined them to share her views on one of the thorniest: the ethics of abortion.

The video is worth looking up, for the facial expressions of Franco and Michaelson, if nothing else.

Here’s professor Harmon’s argument, both in her words and paraphrased:

Some of our terminology when talking about abortion suggests it’s always sad to end a life, even if you feel you must. But “what I think is that among early fetuses, there are two different kinds of beings,” and one has moral status while one does not. “Your future as a ­person defines your moral status.”

A discussion ensues (with my parenthetical reactions):

But, Professor, what if you had been aborted as an “early fetus”?

Not a relevant question. Because I’m here.

But, isn’t that kind of 20/20 hindsight? I mean, like, what makes the difference between this nice garden spot where we’re talking and the medical waste bin behind a Planned Parenthood clinic?

What makes the difference is “that [a woman’s] intentions negates the moral status of that early fetus.” If she decides to have the abortion, that is.

So … what you’re saying is, the abortion is permissible because one had it, but it wouldn’t have been permissible if one hadn’t had it. (At this point, circular arrows are superimposed on the screen, indicating what kind of argument it is.)

The professor tries to clarify: “If your mother had chosen to abort her pregnancy—”

(Whoa, mama! I mean, literally: Are you sure you want to use the word mother?)

“—then that wouldn’t have been the case, that you had moral status …”

(My head is starting to hurt.)

“You would have had this very short existence in which you wouldn’t have mattered morally.”

(Speaking of “morally” …)

By now the guys look politely confused.

Harmon’s argument isn’t rocket science. It’s quantum physics, wherein matter can be in two states at the same time. Schrödinger’s cat comes to mind: the famous thought experiment of a cat in a sealed box with a flask of poison and a radioactive atom. If the atom decays, the flask breaks and the cat dies. Or not. Erwin Schrödinger posed the experiment to demonstrate the conundrum of quantum theory: Is the cat simultaneously alive and dead until someone looks in the box?

To extend the experiment: Is a developing human in the womb—what the professor calls an early fetus and a doting grandma calls a baby—endowed and not endowed with moral status until someone decides whether or not “to keep it”?

The elephant in the room is the being in the womb—no mental or philosophical exercise, but a biological fact. That’s been the issue all along: What is it? Does it have intrinsic value, or is it entirely up to the scared teenager, the overstressed single mom, or the up-and-coming career woman to assign “moral status”? Overturning Roe v. Wade could have opened the question for careful deliberation, but instead, waves of hysteria and reactionary counteroffensives.

Thought experiments can disappear without consequence, but 64 million legally aborted humans since 1973 add up to unforeseen, immeasurable costs. Guilt, carelessness, sexual irresponsibility, a general devaluation of lives that interfere with our own—these are not ­imaginary, and we have yet to see the end.


Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.

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