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James Franco Questions Princeton Professor’s Attempts to Excuse Early-Stage Abortion


Princeton University professor Elizabeth Harman gave a perplexing answer to a question about abortion from "Spider Man 3" co-star James Franco.

Harman appeared in an episode of Philosophy Time, a YouTube series in which James Franco and philosophy professor Eliot Michaelson have conversations with academics about a variety of topics. Harman was discussing her support for early-stage abortion and why she believes nothing morally bad happens when it occurs. In her explanation, Harman argued that fetuses that are aborted early on have not lived long enough to have a "moral status," because moral status depends on the future.

Harman's argument on whether a fetus has "moral status" is dependent upon if the fetus has a future.

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. So, a lot of people think, ‘Well it's permissible to have an abortion, but something bad happens when the fetus dies.' And I think if a fetus hasn't ever been conscious, it hasn't ever had any experiences, and we aborted it at that stage actually nothing morally bad happens. And 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. 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 beginnings 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.

Michaelson asked how the future of a fetus determines whether it has "moral status."

"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?" Michaelson asked.

Franco asked whether Harman's view relied on hindsight.

"Can't you only judge that in hindsight?" Franco asked.

Harman argued that a fetus only has "moral status" when a woman decides to continue her pregnancy.

There is a real question of, how could we know? 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. Often we have reason to believe that a fetus is the beginning stage of a person. So, if we know that it's that a woman is planning to continue her pregnancy, then we good reason to that her fetus is something with moral status something with this future as a person.

Franco asked Harman to further clarify.

"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?" Franco asked.

Harman struggled to clarify her explanation. She argued "moral status" is contingent on the duration of existence of the fetus. In her view, a woman getting an abortion isn't morally wrong, because the moral status of a person relies on a person's future timeline. An aborted fetus, according to Harman, has not survived long enough to garner a moral status.

Right, so it might look like on my view abortion is permissible because you had the abortion but that abortion wouldn't have been permissible if you didn't have the abortion. That's not quite the view, for I think two different reasons. So one reason is that, um, even you have moral status—and in my view back when you were in early fetus you had moral status—but it's not that aborting you would have been wrong because if your mother had chosen to abort her pregnancy, then it wouldn't have been the case that you would have had moral status because you would have died as an early fetus, so she would have been aborting something that didn't have moral status.

So it's not—my view isn't that if you do abort, abortion is OK but if you don't abort, abortion would have been wrong. But what it turns out is that 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.

Harman said "moral status" is not something that is taken away from a fetus when it is aborted. She believes "moral status" is endowed when the fetus has a future and is allowed to be born and experience life.

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. 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. 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.

Harman teaches philosophy at Princeton and has taught courses titled, "Designing Life: The Ethics of Creation and Its Control," and "Morality in the Face of Moral Ignorance."  She has a PHD in philosophy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor's degree from Harvard University. Her father also was a member of the Princeton philosophy department faculty, and the two worked alongside each other.

The Philosophy Time video with Professor Harman was published on July 25.