Week of: 
January 9, 2011
What is it: 

Nothing stirs up controversy like abortion.  To some, it carries the steep moral cost of destroying human life, while to others, it represents an inviolable bastion of women’s rights over their own bodies.  Despite the polarizing nature of the debate, it covers broad philosophical ground, and touches on religious, political, social and moral considerations.  Ken and John seek a dispassionate and rational discussion of abortion with UC Berkeley Journalism professor Cynthia Gorney, author of Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars.

Listening Notes: 

As our show begins, John and Ken survey the landscape of the abortion debate. John posits that there are two acts whose morality is debated: the act of aborting the fetus, and the act of restraining women who want to get an abortion. He also notes that the relation between the morally objectionable nature of an act and the government’s right to interfere with it is not always clear. Ken, meanwhile, identifies two main strategies that have been used to defend abortion. The first is to argue that while fetuses are human beings, they are not persons. Persons have consciousness, the ability to feel pain, emotions, etc., and it is these properties that qualify persons for rights that human beings do not have, including the right to life. The second strategy is to maintain that even if a fetus is a person, killing it might be something that a woman has a right to do, since it is inside her or a part of her body.

John and Ken are then joined by guest Cynthia Gorney, who sets them straight on some of the facts around gestation and when we might consider a fetus a person, although she notes that scientists are far from consensus on many of the questions. She also emphasizes that while the legal debate dichotomizes between a non-being and a person with rights, most people think that there are many steps between these two states of being.

With some of the facts straight, the discussion turns to moral questions. Ken wants to know what kind of rights something on its way to being a person has. Gorney notes that in moral philosophy, philosophers often rely on analogies, and she cautions our philosophers against analogizing with respect to birth control, because it is unlike any other moral dilemma. So, of course, John offers a strange analogy, meant to show that because human development up to birth is gradual, the morality of abortion is also gradated. An audience member wants to know how laws could reflect a question of gradual morality. Ken considers the second pro-life strategy he had identified and finds it rather unpromising.

Finally, John and Cynthia agree that it is not consistent with the pro-life position to make exceptions for rape and incest. This is because, at its heart, the pro-life position is not about whether or not a woman is responsible for being pregnant, but rather about the right of a fetus to life. A fetus conceived via rape or incest should logically have the same right to life as one conceived consensually. Gorney wryly notes that while philosophers are free to make this point, most pro-life politicians will not, for fear of appearing heartless.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 7:10): Angela Kilduff interviews Aspen Baker, founder and executive director of Exhale, an organization dedicated to supporting women who have had abortions. Baker thinks we need a new language for talking about abortion that differs from the political, moral or religious language in which the debate is often couched—namely, the language of personal experience.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (seek to 48:51): Even the incorrigible Ian Schoales steers clear of making light of abortion. Instead he discusses movies about children, from light-hearted family comedies that celebrate procreation to the “evil-child” genre of films.

Cynthia Gorney, Professor, UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism

Bonus Content: 


EXTENDED INTERVIEW with Aspen Baker, Founder and Executive Director of Exhale

Related Resources: 



Boonin, David (2002). A Defense of Abortion. ISBN-10: 0521520355.

Gorney, Cynthia (2000). Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars. ISBN-10: 0684867478.

Kaczor, Christopher (2010). The Ethics of Abortion: Women's Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice. ISBN-10: 0415884691.

O’Connor, Karen (1996). No Neutral Ground? Abortion Politics in an Age of Absolutes. ISBN-10: 0813319463.

Online Resources:

Dec. 7, 2009. “The Abortion Debate: A Primer.” The New York Times.

“Abortion—An In Depth Overview of the issues debated around Abortion.” QuickOverview.

Montopoli, Brian. “Stupak to Vote Yes on Health Care Bill.”

NOW (Nov. 7, 2007). Aspen Baker of Exhale, a Pro-Voice Group.”

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