Book Review: Abortion Rights: For and Against

Several times each month, we are pleased to republish a recent book review from the Canadian Law Library Review (CLLR). CLLR is the official journal of the Canadian Association of Law Libraries (CALL/ACBD), and its reviews cover both practice-oriented and academic publications related to the law.

Abortion Rights: For and Against. By Kate Greasley & Christopher Kaczor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 260 p. Includes a bibliography and index. ISBN: 9781316621851 (paperback) $33.95.

Reviewed by Sally Sax
Legal Studies Librarian
Carleton University Ottawa, ON
In CLLR 43:3

Abortion Rights: For and Against presents a philosophical approach to abortion as an ethical issue and moral right. Written by Kate Greasley from University College London and Christopher Kaczor from Loyola Marymount University, the book is structured as a dialogue, opening with Greasley’s defense of abortion rights, followed by Kaczor’s argument that abortion is a human rights violation. Each author then responds to the other’s arguments and criticisms.

Greasley and Kaczor debate the nature of personhood: how we define “person,” the combination of qualities a being must possess to be considered a person, and “whether the human fetus possesses the same moral standing we readily accord to born human beings” (p 24). Greasley and Kaczor deliberate over when a person can be said to exist, considering common benchmarks such as conception, fetal viability, and post-birth.

The central question, and the point on which Greasley and Kaczor fundamentally disagree, is whether one can consider personhood as something distinct from human species membership in order to justify abortion as a moral right. Greasley argues that “the core constitutive features of a person are developmentally acquired capacities” and “rejecting the view that pure human species membership, in the form of human genetic coding, is sufficient for the possession of personhood” (p 27), concluding that abortion can be morally justified as personhood supervenes human species membership. Kaczor argues from the position that “the pro-life view holds that all human beings—regardless of race, religion, age, disability, or birth—have the same fundamental dignity from which arise basic, equal rights” (p 87) and that any moral justification for abortion must therefore consider when humans, whether or not they meet the criteria for personhood, gain those fundamental rights.

The questions regarding the essence of personhood and humanity are considered through thought experiments such as the Embryo Rescue Case, as well as through the analysis of other philosophers’ treatments of abortion, including Don Marquis’s “future like ours” argument, and Judith Thomson’s “bodily rights” argument. Brief introductions to these thought experiments and philosophical theses provide background for readers unfamiliar with them, and the index is helpful for comparing Greasley and Kaczor’s interpretations of the various elements of each that support their differing perspectives.

One of the book’s great strengths is that the authors begin from a place of acceptance; neither expects to change the mind of the other, and the tone of the debate remains respectful throughout. Greasley and Kaczor skillfully guide the reader through their methodology and reasoning, ensuring that readers holding the opposite viewpoint can understand (without needing to agree) how each author reaches their conclusions.

Those looking for an extensive treatment of legal rights will be disappointed, as these are considered only in reference to the discussions surrounding personhood, and the consequences for abortion providers and seekers that could result if a fetus were granted full legal rights. This is not to say law students and practitioners won’t benefit from this book; as Nancy McCormack demonstrated in “When Canadian Courts Cite the Major Philosophers: Who Cites Whom in Canadian Caselaw” in 42:2 of the Canadian Law Library Review, philosophy has a significant influence in legal thought and deliberation. Abortion Rights: For and Against is an accessible introduction to modern philosophical arguments that could shape abortion law and jurisprudence.

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