Alison Jaggar

The issue of abortion is widely explored with a myriad of literature available for reference and analysis. This question refers to an area chiefly examined by Jane English; that is the ‘self defence’ aspect of abortion. To satisfy the title-question I must first overcome the main problem with abortion and the area which most philosophers/thinkers/campaigners address, which is the personhood of the foetus.

Following this, using English’s paper as a foundation it will be possible to explain, firstly, what is meant by ‘self defence’ and how it can be applied to abortion; and, secondly, that abortion can be justified under specific interpretations of the meaning of ‘self defence’. Jane English successfully elucidates the lack of importance of personhood of the foetus in justifying or deploring abortion. She explains that no definition or ‘person’, however elaborate, readily satisfies what we think of as a person. And that the question of abortion, for both pro and anti-abortionists, centres around what one calls a ‘person’.

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English calls ‘person’ a cluster concept; in that one can give a description which is more or less typical of a person. It is this lack of a sharp definition for personhood that renders any argument, pro or anti-abortion, that relies on such a definition dubious. 1 The first, and most basic, form of self defence is where one’s life is in jeopardy, and the preservation of one’s life requires aborting the baby. This we shall call ‘basic’ self defence. So, if giving birth to the foetus will mean a mother will certainly die, then most reasoned people would call this morally and practically acceptable.

Using an example of this in practise helps highlights the obvious acceptance of abortion as self defence in this case. If a policeman has a gun and is stood behind a suicide bomber about to murder an innocent civilian; no-one would question the policeman’s morality in shooting the bomber. If we take the policeman to be the Doctor aborting the child, the baby to be the terrorist, and the mother the innocent civilian we can see that abortion is acceptable. However, there is a stark difference between a foetus that has simply grown and threatens his mother’s life, and a terrorist who is actively seeking to murder a civilian.

This distinction is an important one, and it will be addressed in necessary detail later. The second form of self defence that requires analysis is again covered by Jane English; and is closely related to ‘basic’ self defence in that it addresses any disproportional actions when defending oneself. English best describes it as inflicting ‘somewhat but not enormously greater’2 harm on your attacker than he/she would if his/her attack was successful. This type of self defence will be known as ‘proportionate’ self defence; and it is with this that the waters of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ regarding abortion become murky.

The law states that so long as an action in self defence is proportionate to the one that would have been inflicted it is lawful. English seems to take this point and run (too far) with it. Using law and subjective individual case decisions as support for the proportionate self defence claim for abortion lacks thorough thought. For an action of self defence to be deemed proportionate one must be taken through the courts, and then acquitted of whatever potential crime their self defence warranted.

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