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Breaking Down the James Franco Abortion Interview: Did Elizabeth Harman Say What You Think She Said?

A video which has been making waves on the internet recently has been widely misunderstood. In the video, James Franco and Eliot Michaelson interview Princeton Philosopher Elizabeth Harman about abortion, but the conclusions people have drawn about her arguments aren’t quite right.

Just as we should not endorse incrementalism when it is saying that an anti-abortion position is right for the wrong reasons, we should not endorse arguments saying that a pro-abortion position is wrong for the wrong reasons.

Many people have understood Harman to be arguing that abortion is justified when the mother chooses to abort if the child eventually dies and is not justified when the mother doesn’t abort and the child lives. In other words, the act of abortion is self-justifying because the act in question provides the grounds of justification for that act.

For example, LifeSiteNews author, Claire Chretien, wrote that”Using her logic, an aborted human fetus is worthless because he was aborted, but being aborted is what made him worthless in the first place.” Townhall.com author, Guy Benson, said, “If a woman decides that she’s going to terminate her pregnancy, that child’s lack of a future robs her of the moral status that would make killing her wrong.”

All of that certainly sounds insane and despicable, but that is not what Harman is actually arguing.

The reason that people are missing Harman’s point may have to do with how the video is edited and presented but more likely has to do with Harman’s inability to communicate on camera.

But watch the video more closely and you will see that she makes a subtle shift in her argument which, while not excusing her from supporting the heinous act of aborting preborn human beings, is actually less insanely stupid or nonsensical than most viewers realize.

If you read her paper from 1999 on this topic, you’ll see that people are misunderstanding what she was saying.

Harman is not trying to make a case against either the abolitionist or pro-life position. She is making a case for her extreme pro-abortion position (which she calls the “very liberal view”) and trying to make it more palatable in order to persuade those of a more moderate pro-abortion position (which she calls the “liberal view”).

In her paper, she introduces the concepts she’ll be talking about by saying that “a very liberal view about the ethics of abortion is more attractive than has been previously thought.” She says of one of her conclusions:

I provide arguments to bring someone from a moderate liberal view on abortion (held for particular reasons) to Conclusion 3. No argument is provided to bring someone from a conservative view about abortion to conclusion 3.

So, what is she arguing? She starts with the idea of an “early fetus” which is defined as “a fetus before it has any intrinsic properties that themselves confer moral status on the fetus.” The abolitionist will dispute the very foundation of what she is saying, but this isn’t aimed at them. She wants to say that no early fetus has intrinsic moral value, but that moral value can be imparted to it on the basis of what she calls the “Actual Future Principle.”

Harman isn’t saying that fetuses lose value if they die in the future. She doesn’t think they have value to begin with. She thinks some fetuses gain value because they are going to live in the future.

So, to make it out like she is trying to justify the harm of some fetuses because they have lost moral value is to turn her argument on its head.

Consider what she says in the video:

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.

Here, many people think that what she is about to say is meant to argue against the anti-abortion position. But she is actually arguing against a pro-abortion position. This is why she continues the way she does:

So, a lot of people think, “Well it’s permissible to have an abortion, but something bad happens when the fetus dies.”

Who thinks that abortion is permissible but bad?1 There is a segment of the pro-abortion crowd that does. Continuing on:

Continuing on, she says it is not only permissible but not bad:

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.

So, this is an extreme view. It is the “on demand, without apology” sort of view, not the “safe, legal, and rare” view. But, she wants those who hold what she calls (in her paper) the liberal view to switch to the very liberal view. So, she wants to make her view seem more attractive and less heartless:

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.

At this point she has shifted her argument. She has stated that abortion is okay because the fetus doesn’t have experiences that give it moral status. Now she wants to talk about why this view doesn’t have a cold attitude. This is what her paper was about. She wants to give some fetuses moral status to appease the emotional and intuitive adversity towards her view.

At some point, Franco wants to make sure he understands and asks her if she is saying what everyone seems to think she is saying:

So what you’re saying is: 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?

Here it is! She is asked in the video if this is her view! Does she think the future act of abortion negates the moral status of the fetus?

Pay attention to the way she words her response:

Right, so it might look like in 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

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. (emphasis mine)

Why is that the wrong way to look at it? Remember from the beginning of the video that abortion is okay because the fetus hasn’t had any experiences, and look at what she says as she goes on:

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.

So, the fetus does not have any intrinsic moral value. Why does she bring up the future at all? To make her view more palatable by explaining why you can hold her view and say that it was wrong to harm you, for example, as a fetus, or wrong to harm a pregnant woman’s fetus against her will. But the moral status that is given is not intrinsic. It is derivative and contingent on the future:

It’s derivative of its future that it gets to have moral status. So it’s really the future that endows moral status on it; and if we allow it to have this future, 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. (emphasis mine)

All of that is to point out that she thinks abortion is fine because the fetus has no intrinsic moral status, not because the mother was going to kill it. So, when she goes on to argue for her “Actual Future Principle,” she is actually engaging in a sort of “in-house” pro-abortion argument. Franco was simply on the receiving end of what is probably a pet topic for this professor and didn’t follow what she was saying since he had no reason to suspect she would focus on an “in-house” issue rather than the issue at large.

At the end of the day she is wrong about abortion and, of course, wrong about her “Actual Future Principle.” But she wasn’t using it to justify abortion, and we should not misrepresent what others are saying, even when it is wrong. Many people looked at the video and saw what they thought was low-hanging fruit. Often times there is low-hanging fruit. But we should try to listen to what people are saying and not be lazy in our arguments.

Footnotes

  1. Pro-lifers also sometimes think this and legislate like this, with incest and rape exceptions, for example. But, as the context will show, that isn’t what she has in mind with this statement.