The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly

Volume 16, Issue 4, Winter 2016

Gerard V. Bradley
Pages 633-653

The Future of Abortion Law in the United States

In 1971, Judith Jarvis Thomson published what was then and still often is regarded as a trailblazing philosophical defense of a woman’s right to have a lawful abortion. It is time to revisit Thomson’s paper. The aim here is not to engage Thomson’s pro-choice conclusions, which are indeed mistaken, but to show that her question—to what extent can abortion be morally justified, assuming that it is the deliberate killing of one person by his or her mother—is the question today in American law concerning abortion. Pro-life people and groups argue among themselves about the prudence of political efforts to roll back Roe v. Wade by personhood initiatives, that is, by seeking to enact laws expressly recognizing that a human being with an equal right not to killed comes to be at fertilization, thereafter to pursue abortion restrictions as a matter of equal protection for all against unjustified uses of lethal force. Many if not most pro-life activists and bodies oppose such efforts as precipitous and almost certainly politically counterproductive. This article argues that, on the contrary, the unborn are already recognized as persons with a right not to be killed, and that the constitutional question of equal protection of unborn persons is already in the courts. Thomson’s question is, in other words, ripe and urgent, and it has been brought to the fore not by direct attack upon abortion rights, but indirectly by and through the many feticide laws enacted across the country since around the year 2000.