James Franco may be a little goofy but he has wide-ranging interests, like philosophy. Or at least, that’s what one might gather from his YouTube series, Philosophy Time, in which he and Eliot Michaelson talk deep with various academics. This video of their interview with Princeton Professor Liz Harmon was making the rounds a few weeks ago, but it’s worth another look:
Did that go by too quickly? Here’s Prof. Harmon’s argument (if you want to call it that) in her words with paraphrases. The italicized responses are mine, but James and I seemed to be thinking along the same lines at times.
Harmon: Some of our terminology when talking about abortion suggests it’s, like, always sad to end a life, even if you, like, feel you have to. But nah, not really. “. . . what I think is that among early fetuses, there are two different kinds of beings,” and one has moral status (i.e., a right to keep living) while one does not. “Your future as a person defines your moral status.”
Uh . . . okay. But what if you’d been aborted as a, whaddayacallit, “early fetus”?
Harmon: 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 we’re talking in here and the medical waste bin behind a Planned Parenthood clinic (where you might have ended up if you didn’t have a future)?
Harmon: 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 you had it, but it wouldn’t have been permissible if you 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 really 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)
Harmon: “. . . 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, as if they had finally given in to their wives’ demands to stop and ask for directions, and Prof. Harmon was the first passer-by they stopped to ask. (Just wait until they roll up the car window again—the wives are going to get an earful.)
You have to be pretty clever to keep with this argument. It’s worse than rocket science; it’s quantum physics. Just as a particle can be there and not there, a developing human being in the womb—what the professor calls an early fetus and a doting grandma calls a baby—is endowed and not endowed with moral status. Just as the figurative cat in the box was presumed to be alive or not-alive on the whim of a single particle, the early fetus (or possibly even late fetus) is futured or unfutured, depending on the thought processes of someone who is not him or her.
The elephant in the room is the being in the womb—no thought experiment, like Schrodinger’s live-and-dead Cat, but a real biological phenomena. The DNA identify it as a human: more than that, a distinct human, with sex and hair color and fingerprints already determined. Figments of the imagination can disappear without consequence, but 58 million aborted human souls (more or less, since Roe v. Wade) add up in unforeseen consequences of guilt, carelessness, sexual irresponsibility, and general devaluation. The subterranean effects of legal abortion are impossible to measure, but don’t be fooled: they exist. And one consequence is irrational rationalization like this.