Several days ago, actor James Franco interviewed Elizabeth Harman, a philosophy professor at Princeton, about abortion on his new YouTube series “Philosophy Time,” which he co-hosts alongside Eliot Michaelson, a philosophy professor at King’s College London. During their interview, Harman tried convincing Franco and Michaelson that killing the unborn is not immoral. However, based on the facial expressions that Franco was making while she was talking, it doesn’t look like she was successful.
Specifically, while speaking with Franco, Harman stated, “in some of my work I defend a liberal position about early abortion. I defend the view that there is nothing morally bad about early abortion.” To clarify, she said, “A lot of people think, ‘Well it’s permissible to have an abortion, but something bad happens when the fetus dies.’ [But] I think if a fetus hasn’t ever been conscious — it hasn’t ever had any experiences, and we aborted it at that stage — [then] actually nothing morally bad happens.”
In an attempt to justify her position, Harman claimed, “this view might seem unattractive because it might seem that it dictates a cold attitude towards all early fetuses, but what I think is actually among early fetuses there are two very different kinds of beings.”
She added, “so, James, when you were an early fetus, and Eliot, when you were an early fetus, all of us I think we already did have moral status then. But we had moral status in virtue of our futures. And future of fact that we were beginning stages of persons. But some early fetuses will die in early pregnancy due to abortion or miscarriage. And in my view, that is a very different kind of entity. That’s something that doesn’t have a future as a person and it doesn’t have moral status.”
By saying this, Harman is basically claiming that unborn babies killed in the early weeks of a pregnancy don’t have moral status. Confused, Michaelson asked, “why would we think that what’s actually going to happen to a fetus in the future is going to make this big difference between having some moral status and not?”
With a perplexed look on his face, Franco added, “can’t you only judge that in hindsight?”
Harman replied, “there is a real question of, ‘how could we know [whether or not a fetus will die]?’ Well, often we do know. So often, if we know that a woman is planning to get an abortion, and we know that abortion is available to her, then we know that fetus is going to die—that it’s not the kind of thing like the fetuses that became us. It’s not something with moral status, in my view.”
Her response completely shocked Franco, who gave her a look of utter bewilderment. To make sure he understood her correctly, he asked, “so [what] you’re saying [is] if the fetus is never destined to become a person, it doesn’t have moral status? If a woman decides to have an abortion with an early fetus, just that act or that intention negates the “moral status” of that early fetus just because if she goes out and has an abortion, it’s pretty certain that it’s not going to become a person?”
Harman answered, “my view isn’t that if you do abort, abortion is OK but if you don’t abort, abortion would have been wrong…[Rather], it’s a contingent matter that you have moral status. You actually have moral status, but you might not have counted morally at all if you had been aborted. You would have existed but you just would have had this really very short existence in which you wouldn’t have mattered morally.”
“Another thing that you were bringing up was the idea that, in my view, in aborting we’re taking away the moral status that the fetus would have had moral status, but by aborting we take it away, and I think that’s the wrong way to look at it,” stated Harman.
“[But] I think the right way to look at it is that just given the current state of the fetus you know it’s not having any experiences. There’s nothing about its current state that would make it a member of the moral community. It’s derivative of its future that it gets to have moral status,” she continued, noting, “so it’s really the future and endows moral status on it and if we allow it to have this future and then we’re allowing it to be the kind of thing that now would have moral status so in aborting it I don’t think you’re depriving it of something that it independently has.”
Although her reply is difficult to understand, she’s basically saying that merely existing doesn’t make a fetus a part of the moral community. According to her, the unborn only matter morally when their mother intends on giving birth to them. If they’re not expected to be born, then she claims killing the helpless children is not a morally bad thing to do.
But clearly, this is absurd. What makes an unborn child a member of the moral community is the fact that it has the potential to be born. Whether or not their mother intends to kill them is irrelevant. All that matters is that it’s a life that will one day develop into a human. Fortunately, based on Franco’s facial expressions, it’s likely that he understands this.
Still, Harman’s stance on abortion is deeply troubling. Conservatives must work together to disabuse people like her of the idea that abortion isn’t immoral. Doing so will help end the barbaric practice, which will ultimately save the lives of countless women and unborn children.