I agree with Ned Resnikoff that the issue of abortion hinges on the question of personhood, but I am not sure the question of personhood as related to nascent human life has to be answered definitively before one may have an ethical basis to avoid (or morally permit) lethal violence against it. We may not, for example, have to settle the debate over whether this life is a potential person or a person at the early stages of development before covering any ethical ground.
In the history of philosophy, ontology has usually preceded ethics: what something is, metaphysically speaking, sets the basis for how one ought to treat it. I have no moral qualms about the insects that splatter upon my car windshield, but I would feel terrible if I ran into a dog or a cat, and the thought of hitting a human person is unbearable. My reactions to these imagined scenarios presuppose a hierarchy of being, an ontological framework.
Some postmodern philosophers, Levinas and Derrida among them, questioned this foundational arrangement of ontology before ethics. If ethics can precede ontology, then perhaps the morality of abortion may be discussed apart from the question of personhood. Derrida spoke of pure and unconditional hospitality, which, though never fully realized, “opens or is in advance open to someone who is neither expected nor invited, to whomever arrives as an absolutely foreign visitor, as a new arrival, nonidentifiable and unforeseeable, in short, wholly other.” He called this a hospitality of visitation rather than invitation.
Hospitality pertains to place—to making one’s place open to another who may arrive as expected or unexpectedly. In practice, of course, we prudently place conditions on who we allow into our space, in effect placing conditions on hospitality. This is why pure hospitality is an impossible ethical disposition. I don’t welcome strangers into my home without a reasonable sense that they mean me and my family no harm. My hospitality always retains an aspect of being inhospitable. Sometimes this may be for good, if the stranger was a murderer or thief, but it may be for the bad if he simply needed food and shelter and I left him to the elements and an empty stomach. If the latter, it may be fair to say that I have wronged him, even if it was not my intention to do so. He needed my help, and I refused because of my uncertainty concerning his intentions.
When we begin with ethics, we do not have the benefit of trying to place others into categories before having to make a choice for or against some action related to them, but I suggest that this absence does not get us off the hook for what we decide. Without a sure ontology, we’re situated in a state of uncertainty about who or what may come before us; but obligations can happen, with or without an ontology. Justice may be due to some other even if we cannot be sure who or what this other is.
Descriptively speaking, we have a great deal of uncertainty about the ontological status of the zygote and the fetus. Abortion remains controversial because there is no consensus about the ontological status of nascent life and therefore no consensus about the justice due to it. While some advocates on both sides of the debate claim certainty about their position, neither side has succeeded in convincing the other or even the general populace to embrace their particular certainty. Instead, these respective certainties have become hermeneutic lenses through which advocates (mis)interpret the motivations, perspectives, and positions of their opponents. If the unborn is clearly a human baby due the rights of persons, then advocates of abortion would clearly be advocates of killing babies. If the zygote and fetus are clearly not human persons, then their advocates clearly have ulterior motivations related to controlling women. So the thinking goes, and so dialogue ends.
At this stage, I would suggest that an approach accepting of ontological uncertainty related to the embryo and fetus may be more ethically promising—not because such an approach would guarantee to settle the debate, but because it may open a path for discussion about this very serious matter that does not get trapped in the inescapable pitfalls into which the current certainty-ridden debate seems destined to fall.
We might ask what, if anything, this ethic of hospitality says is due to the fetus or zygote. We might inquire into whether the very presence of this defenseless other obligates one to avoid lethal violence against it in some or all circumstances. Note, however, that these questions place me imaginatively and pregnant women quite literally in the uncertain position of not knowing who or what this other is. It is also uncertain what carrying a fetus to term will demand precisely from any pregnant woman, although we can be sure it will demand quite a lot on her part. And so, in this line of inquiry, the demands of hospitality may not be universal. They also have to be weighed ethically against the principles of bodily autonomy and personal freedom. This would seem to be relevant if we’re crafting laws. We would indeed have to ask if laws can justly be written and enforced in respect to an ethic of hospitality and a situation of uncertainty.
My own thinking on this begins with the principle that violence and killing ought to be avoided wherever possible and unless there is a morally compelling reason to use one or both of them. My uncertainty about when nascent human life becomes a human person inclines me to oppose violence against it because I do not know its ontological status and I could be very wrong about it. I readily admit that this alone does not establish a justification for a coercive legal framework that prohibits abortion, but I lean towards the possibility of it laying some initial groundwork for that end.