This month Oxford University Press published my first book, Ethics at the Beginning of Life. This piece of work started out as my PhD thesis and, at £60, is an absolute bargain. (You can even buy it on amazon.)
But in the unlikely event that you decide not to purchase it, I have tried to distil the main argument of the book into a two-page article, published by Standpoint magazine this month. You can read that here –http://standpointmag.co.uk/features-july-august-the-flawed-logic-of-our-abortion-laws-james-mumford – or on the ‘Articles’ page of this site.
Many PhD theses, because of the premium put upon originality, end up being pretty obscure. ‘New trends in heraldry in 1314’, ‘selective breeding in the domestic chick’, the use of the word ‘frui’ in Augustine’s middle period – just some of the themes graduates embark on. For my subject, by contrast, I chose a controversial subject, what President Obama would call a ‘third rail issue’ – the debate about abortion.
As I set out on the research I quickly became acutely aware of how unqualified I was to write about this subject, having never experienced firsthand the trauma of an unplanned pregnancy. Despite spending a good deal of time interviewing women, and men, who had experienced it; and despite drawing comfort from Lionel Shriver’s achievement in We Need to Talk About Kevin – in which Shriver, a childless author, dedicates the first one hundred pages to an amazingly vivid, unsentimental treatment of pregnancy – it soon became clear to me that anything I wrote would be very much said, as Kierkegaard put it, ‘without authority.’
The reason I wrote the book goes back to a class I took at Yale Law School ten years ago. Taught by the incomparably clever Bruce Ackerman, Sterling Boyd Professor of Law, the class was entitled ‘Justice101’. It was about political theory and social justice and jurisprudence.
Describing himself as the ‘high-priest of liberalism’, during the course of the semester I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable about, deeply disconcerted by, what we were being taught about human rights.
The basic question was this: Did human rights come with the territory of being human? Or did they apply only to some human beings who could prove they were ‘persons’, ‘persons’ variously defined as those beings who were rational, or autonomous, or self-conscious?
Ackerman – with iron logic – followed the notorious ethicist Peter Singer in defended that latter view, with what I viscerally felt was alarming consequences. Chief among them was the justification of infanticide. For if a human being becomes a person worthy of protection from harm only when they become self-conscious, and self-consciousness first occurs after birth, it therefore follows that pre-self-conscious newborn babies should not necessarily be protected from harm.
Aged 22, and intellectually intimidated, at that time I didn’t have the arguments to mount against his position. I only had instincts, and curiosity. So ten years later, five of which were spent on this book, this is what it is about. And I intend to hand in the homework to Ackerman.
Writing the book was all too often an experience of feeling overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the quantity of what has been written on the subject. Overwhelmed by how much is at stake. By how the issue potentially disrupts the historical narratives we tell ourselves about the nature of civilization and the progress of history. Overwhelmed by the pitch of the debate and its fateful politicization. By how much smarter and more logical other thinkers were, even if they lacked what G.K. Chesterton famously termed ‘sanity.’
Playwright David Hare writes beautifully about the experience of being intellectually overwhelmed:
‘Up to now I had been wading in the coral reefs of these argument… [but now] I realized my feet no longer touched the bottom.’
That’s what writing this book has felt like on many occasions.
And the argument which eventually emerged? It is that the entire approach of English-speaking moral and political philosophy to debates about the beginning of life – all that I was taught back in Justice 101 – fails to take into account the way human beings first appear in the world, in particular their initial state of radical weakness, vulnerability and dependence. And that a commitment to human rights for the most vulnerable dictates that upon the fetus coming forth in sometimes difficult circumstances our gaze ‘[should fall] as they say love should, like an enormous yes.’