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From the July/August, 2003 issue of Touchstone


The Unnatural in Pursuit of the Unreal by Anne Barbeau Gardiner

The Unnatural in Pursuit of the Unreal

A Defense of Abortion
by David Boonin
Cambridge University Press, 2002
(350 pages; $23.00, paperback)

reviewed by Anne Barbeau Gardiner

The blurb on the opening page informs us that Daniel Boonin has written, in A Defense of Abortion, “the most thorough and detailed case for the moral permissibility of abortion yet published.” The book evolved from a college course on abortion that the author has taught since 1995, and it is one in a series of “Cambridge Studies in Philosophy and Public Policy,” recommended for students of applied ethics and bioethics.

Boonin is not content to let the debate on abortion end with “reasonable people” continuing to disagree. He is sure he can persuade the critics of abortion that, in typical cases, abortion is “morally permissible,” his word permissible here meaning “justified” and in no need of excuse. His task in this book is to prove “rationally” that the most powerful arguments against abortion are “ultimately unsuccessful.” He believes he has achieved his goal by using the very premises and terms accepted by the critics of abortion.

The Right Properties

But from the start, there is a lack of coherence in Boonin’s language and reasoning. In the first chapter, he presents us with the following unreal situation: We are to suppose that an “uncontroversial example” of an individual with the right to life has suddenly been found to have no human DNA, but to be an alien from another planet. Since this individual still has the same “properties” he had before we found him out, it is not permissible to kill him. The properties that give this imaginary alien the right to life are a key to the entire book. For Boonin keeps insisting, as we read on, that only the acquisition, possession, and retention of certain properties can give us the right to life.

The term property/properties keeps tolling like a bell, page after page; for example, on pages 62 and 118 it recurs ten times. For Boonin, the human fetus has no soul, no substantial identity, and it needs “some other fetal property beyond its species membership” to have a right to life. Even if one has the property of personhood as an adult, it does not mean he had it as a fetus, for personhood is not an essential, but only an accidental property, which one must acquire and can lose.

In the second chapter, Boonin returns to this imaginary alien, whose right to life trumps that of a human fetus. The crucial property possessed by this imaginary creature is “a brain exactly like ours.” Boonin declares that when “the fetus acquires a property, namely, the possession of a brain like ours, that might account for its having the same right to life as you and I.”

What is “a brain like ours”? A human fetus develops a three-part brain by the twenty-fifth day of gestation and has noticeable brain activity after the sixth week, but Boonin calls this early brain not “morally important.” Why? Because he sees “two distinct properties”—the mere “possession of a brain” and the “possession of a functioning brain.” Only the latter gives one the right to life. By “functioning,” Boonin means organized cortical brain activity that can be recorded in an EEG. Since fetal brain waves like this have been recorded only after the twenty-fifth week of a pregnancy, Boonin finds this to be evidence that the fetus is not “conscious” till then.

Regarding the fetus’s behavior in the anti-abortion video Silent Scream, he assures us it can be better explained as unconscious reaction to physical stimuli. Hence, an imaginary alien with no human DNA can be deemed a person with the right to life, but an indisputably human fetus with a human brain and human reactions cannot.

More Surreal Examples

Boonin discards the argument about the sanctity of life as irrelevant. Critics of abortion, he explains, either present themselves as nonreligious, or refuse to concede that abortion is “wrong only for reasons that are essentially religious in nature.” But since the idea of the sanctity of life rests on purely religious grounds, it must be rejected.

Further, the fact that the human species survived evolution confers no moral status on it that is not conferred “equally on all species.” If a defender of the sanctity of life should “cajole” us into looking at a “human zygote with awe,” says Boonin, we ought to respond by looking with equal awe at the “zygotes of dogs, cats, rats, and so on.” Sacredness is trumped by self-interest: One might hold a redwood tree to be sacred, yet think it permissible to kill the tree to avoid “a major disruption of one’s life.” The implication is that the human fetus, even if admitted to be sacred, has no more right to life than a rat or a tree.

Putting the unborn child on a par with much lower creatures is a pattern in this book. In one place, Boonin remarks that “it is difficult to see why we should not also call the spider crawling up my window a person,” supposing it had “a big enough brain.” He claims, too, that “the fact (if it is a fact) that I have greater duties to human fetuses than to mature pigs does not show that human fetuses have a greater right to life than do mature pigs, or, indeed, that they have any right to life at all.”

At another point, he leads us from the real to the unreal by asking us to picture the early stages of human life as a series of “discrete individuals,” each a member of a different and unrelated species: “So instead of representing Alec the human being at the one-celled stage of his life and then Alec the human being at the two-celled stage of his life, the first picture represents Alice, a fully developed one-celled creature who will never be more than a one-celled creature, and the second represents Bob, a fully developed two-celled creature.” Since he finds “virtually no difference” between the mature one-celled creature and the human being in its first stage, he reasons that if a human being like Alec has the right to life at the one-celled stage, then so would the one-celled creature named Alice.

Another use of language to dehumanize the fetus occurs when he compares the unborn child to a cockroach. He dismisses the “general consensus that the fetus is recognizably human after six weeks” by saying that what the “human fetus looks like is not relevant to whether it has the same right to life as you or I.” He adds that its appearance would not be relevant even “if it turned out that the human fetus looked like a grotesque cockroach until very late into its gestation.” Though it is true that a fetus’s moral status is not based on its appearance, Boonin chooses the cockroach comparison not to illustrate this truth, but to banish pictures of the unborn child from the public square: “The external human form criterion should be rejected [as irrelevant]. But so, too, should the use of visual representations of fetuses that do look like human infants, and for precisely the same reason.”

In Boonin’s view, the only reason that “killing individuals like you and me” is wrong is that we possess “desires” about our “personal futures.” The fetus has no such desires except insofar as it resembles a thermostat: “If by desires one only means desires in this simple behavioral sense, then it is equally true that a thermostat has desires.” Further, he says that feminism is not opposed to violence against all living things, citing chemotherapy, which “violently destroys living cancer cells,” and claims that it is up to pro-lifers to explain why a fetus “has a right not to be treated in this [same] way.”

Rat zygotes inspiring awe, imaginary spiders with big brains, the one-celled “Alice” and two-celled “Bob,” thermostats with desires—what is the point of all this surreal imagery? Boonin uses these disorienting images and arguments to lead the reader to an artificially constructed world where abortion need not disturb anyone’s conscience. He explicitly defends his use of “surreal examples” to “illuminate real moral issues” by declaring that “if morality is to be a practical science, we need not worry if our principles yield counterintuitive results in impractical if not impossible cases.” He wants to unsettle our moral intuitions by taking us into an unreal world governed by unheard-of laws. Only in such an unreal world can an unnatural act like abortion look normal.

Pulling the Plug

The longest chapter in A Defense of Abortion is devoted to a so-called good Samaritan argument and what has been written about it, pro and con, over the past thirty years. The argument is based on a surreal story proposed by Judith Jarvis Thomson in 1971 in defense of the moral permissibility of abortion. Boonin finds the story persuasive, though he keeps fine-tuning it to repel various objections. It goes like this: You wake up one day in a strange bed to find that you have been “plugged into” a famous violinist with a fatal kidney problem who is lying unconscious next to you. You have been kidnapped by the Society of Music Lovers because you have the right blood type and your kidneys can be used for nine months to clean the violinist’s blood as well as your own. So now, if you unplug yourself, you kill him, but at the end of nine months, he will be healed and you can unplug yourself without harming him. The point of the story is that since it would be morally permissible for you to unplug yourself from the violinist before the nine months are up, so it is likewise morally permissible for you to have an abortion.

One common reaction to this story is simply to dismiss it as weird. Boonin wants the reader who reacts this way to grant him at least “that those who do find themselves moved by it are reasonable in believing that they have provided a sound defense of their position.” He asks us to consider that “many intelligent, reasonable people” think that abortion is “morally on a par with unplugging yourself from the violinist.” We should simply take the story on the authority of these “intelligent, reasonable people” and make a leap of faith. Boonin has a quasi-religious zeal about the matter: He wants the reader to open his “mind to the subjective force of such arguments.”

But he also credits the story of the unconscious violinist with “objective validity,” insisting that the argument is not undercut by the weirdness of the story: “The weirdness of the violinist example is a virtue, and not merely not a flaw. [Note his use of the word virtue here: I cannot recall another time when he uses the word.] This is so because focusing our attention on bizarre cases can help us to avoid succumbing to an unwarranted form of moral conservatism.” The virtue Boonin finds in the story is that it is “so unusual that it allows us temporarily to set aside these larger issues,” like traditional family values. Such “artificial cases” take us away from a “familiar context” that keeps us in “moral complacency or prejudice.”

So here we have it: Boonin wants us to embrace something admittedly weird, because intelligent and reasonable people have done so, and to believe that the story’s weirdness is actually its virtue, because it prevents us from “succumbing” to moral conservatism. So now we see what he considers the greatest danger of all—moral conservatism. Once again, as with the alien, the big-brained spider, and one-celled Alice, we need a bizarre image to avoid endowing an unborn child with the right to life.

Defying Moral Intuitions

What the pro-abortionist gains from the story of the unconscious violinist, according to Boonin, is that a woman must give the fetus her “explicit consent” for the use of her body. The fetus is a tenant without a lease who can be kicked out at any time. It is not enough, Boonin claims, that the woman voluntarily engaged in intercourse and knew that conception might be the “accidental but foreseeable result” of her action: “We cannot justifiably insist that she has tacitly consented to waive the right to the control of her body.” Here mother and child are in an adversarial relationship, like the plaintiff and defendant in a tort case.

Boonin goes on to make a telling distinction: While the woman is responsible for the fetus’s “existence,” she is not responsible for its “neediness.” So although the fetus, like the imaginary violinist, “stands in need of life support and will die if that support is discontinued,” she owes the fetus no life support. Boonin even declares brazenly that the fetus is no “worse off by being conceived and then aborted than it would have been had it never been conceived in the first place.”

At this point the culture of death comes into plain view, for he states that dying begins at conception: “It seems to me that the beginning of his dying cannot non-arbitrarily be located at any point other than the point when he began to exist.” Killing and letting die amount to the same thing, because “removing the fetus” only “allows the death to occur, which would have occurred in any event once conception had occurred if the women had not been sheltering the fetus,” who, after all, is only a tenant without any rights.

To the objection that the violinist story is about helping a stranger, whereas a fetus is a woman’s own offspring, Boonin responds dismissively, saying it is “utterly mysterious how the mere fact of biological relatedness could, in and of itself, generate such a difference in moral obligations.” He repeats this, saying that “the moral salience of merely genetic facts is obscure.”

Nevertheless, in his preface, he tells us that while writing this book, he found himself sometimes more concerned about being clever than right, at which point he would pull out of his drawer a sonogram image of his son and ask if what he was saying about the moral permissibility of abortion was true. The sonogram image, he admits, made his task “emotionally burdensome,” but it helped him “do justice” to his subject.

Why did he find the sonogram image emotionally burdensome? He had to apply all the things he was saying about the fetus to his own son. He had to convince himself that “biological relatedness” made no difference in the moral permissibility of abortion. Later on, he repeats that it was “no small task” to bring his theory in line with “particular judgments.” The implication is that his conscience pulled the other way.

Indeed, Boonin admits that defending abortion goes against “one’s initial moral intuition,” but one should reflect about “how one thinks one acquired the intuition in the first place and how likely it is that one would have roughly the same belief if one had, for example, been raised in a different culture or by different parents.” He reveals that he dismissed his moral intuition—meaning his conscience—by tracing it to a merely cultural origin. Little wonder, then, that he finds no fault with Peter Singer and Michael Tooley for arguing that newborn human infants have no more right to life than he will accord a fetus. He thinks their arguments “deserve to be taken seriously on their own terms,” but in this book he has refrained from doing so because he wanted to overcome the critics of abortion “on their own terms.”

One may ask, where would Dante place a learned defender of abortion? Very likely with the stonehearted crew of the Eighth Circle, in the pit of the evil counselors. For what is the point of having a brain with highly organized cortical activity recordable in EEGs if one is going to use it badly? In Dante, the heads of the evil counselors are wrapped in tongue-like flames, a parody of the Holy Spirit, to show how they misused their mental powers to deceive others, leading them from the natural to the unnatural, from the real to the unreal.

Anne Barbeau Gardiner is Professor Emerita, Department of English, John Jay College, City University of New York. She is the author of Ancient Faith and Modern Freedom in John Dryden?s The Hind and the Panther (Catholic University of America Press) and a regular reviewer for New Oxford Review.

“The Unnatural in Pursuit of the Unreal” first appeared in the July/August 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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