Public Reason and Abortion: Was Rawls Right After All?

The Journal of Ethics 23 (1):37-53 (2019)
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In ‘Public Reason and Prenatal Moral Status’ (2015), Jeremy Williams argues that the ideal of Rawlsian public reason commits its devotees to the radically permissive view that abortion ought to be available with little or no qualification throughout pregnancy. This is because the only (allegedly) political value that favours protection of the foetus for its own sake—the value of ‘respect for human life’—turns out not to be a political value at all, and so its invocation in support of considerations bearing upon the permissibility of abortion is beyond public reason’s remit. Thus, it will scarcely if ever be legitimate to restrict women’s equality and bodily autonomy for the sake of the foetus, even at full term. In this paper, I argue that Williams fails to establish that Rawlsian reasonable citizens must endorse the radically permissive stance vis-à-vis abortion. Citizens can, I claim, reasonably accord the value of respect for human life weight, and indeed converge on the claim that it outweighs other salient political values, during later stages of gestation. Nevertheless, Williams’s argument gets something right in that it reveals why the value of respect for human life is inadmissible at the bar of public reason in early stages of pregnancy. But then, far from throwing Rawlsian public reason into disrepute, Williams’s argument actually (albeit inadvertently) provides arguably more compelling grounds than any hitherto rallied for endorsing Rawls’s much maligned claim that opposition to the duly qualified right to abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy is ‘unreasonable’.

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Robbie Arrell
Monash University


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