Warren on persons

Class notes for 2 May

Main points

Warren maintains both that abortion rights cannot be defended without showing that fetuses are not persons and that she can show that this is so.

After an impromptu lesson about the term “question begging”, I said that I thought that her argument was open to three objections.

There was a handout. It just included quotations from Warren’s article, but it’s available in pdf format here.

Why accept her criteria?

As Bonnie noted, those who are opposed to abortion reject her distinction between those who are merely genetically human and those who are morally human or persons. They think the two amount to the same thing. They think that being a member of the human species is a sufficient condition for having moral rights.

Does Warren show that they should change their view? In other words, does she give those who are opposed to abortion any reason to accept her criteria for membership in the ‘moral community’?

As Daniel pointed out, one could easily think that people are valuable because they are God’s creations. If so, none of the additional valuable features that they have would matter, provided there is a way of knowing that all other biological humans are also God’s creations and that they deserve different treatment than other things God created.

Is there a right to kill the merely genetically human?

Even if we granted that fetuses are merely genetically human, and not members of the moral community, would it follow that they could be killed?

Well, no. We don’t think coma patients can be killed even though they fail the five criteria.

More broadly, there are lots of reasons why it’s wrong to kill things that aren’t members of the moral community. Once we get beyond common insects, we usually expect people to have a better reason for killing than “I wanted to” or “it was in my way.”

We might say that women are at least permitted to abort fetuses in defense of their health. I agree with Mary Beth that if that’s the argument, then we’re back to where we were with Thomson.


Young infants seem pretty much like late-term fetuses. There are two ways to go with that.

  1. Young infants have no right to life, just like late-term fetuses.
  2. Late-term fetuses have the right to life, just like young infants.

Warren chose the first option but the second strikes me as more plausible.