The Meaning of 'Life': Belief and Reason in the Abortion Debate

58 Pages Posted: 31 Aug 2008 Last revised: 28 Sep 2013

Date Written: August 30, 2008


This Article criticizes how both sides in the abortion debate have treated the concepts of "human life" and personhood. Much legal scholarship has focused on whether abortion should be permitted, but little attention has been cast on the role of rhetoric in the debate. The Article argues that appeals to "human life" are vague and deceptive, since most conservatives would not consistently treat a fetus as a legal person. Conservatives can commit only to a "thin" conception of life (an embryo or fetus is a human organism in the process of developing into a person) even as they trade on the more emotionally compelling "thick" notions that the term "life" invokes.

In response, liberals often simply assume that "life" means "personhood" and then assert that abortion must be permitted even if the fetus is a person. Alternatively, liberals sidestep the question of fetal personhood, arguing that principles of individual autonomy do not permit any single view to be imposed upon everyone. The Article criticizes both of these responses. The first does not hold up under scrutiny, and the second is disingenuous, for if any abortions remain legal, society has not sidestepped the question but rather has rejected fetal personhood. Moreover, the standard liberal responses neglect the important role women's autonomy and dignity should play in the debate.

This Article argues that liberals and conservatives must address directly the question of fetal personhood, and that, in doing so, they must seek reflective equilibrium and satisfy the requirements of public reason. Reflective equilibrium and public reason would likely lead conservative and liberal views of abortion to converge on a gradualist view of embryonic and fetal life (an embryo is intrinsically valuable but its moral weight increases with gestation). The distracting and misleading question of embryonic or fetal personhood could then be laid aside in favor of a more honest, fruitful public conversation about the morality of abortion.

Keywords: abortion, embryo, fetus, person, reflective equilibrium, liberal, conservative, Supreme Court, Roe v. Wade, Gonzales v. Carhart

Suggested Citation

Borgmann, Caitlin E., The Meaning of 'Life': Belief and Reason in the Abortion Debate (August 30, 2008). Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, Vol. 18, No. 2, 2009, Available at SSRN:

Caitlin E. Borgmann (Contact Author)

CUNY School of Law ( email )

2 Court Square
Long Island City, NY 11101
United States
718-340-4503 (Phone)


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