Abortion, Value and the Sanctity of Life

Belshaw, Christopher (1997). Abortion, Value and the Sanctity of Life. Bioethics, 11(2) pp. 130–150.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8519.00050


In Life's Dominion Dworkin argues that the debate about abortion is habitually misconstrued. Substantial areas of agreement are overlooked, while areas of disagreement are, mistakenly, seen as central. If we uncover a truer picture, then hope of a certain accord may no longer seem vain. I dispute many of these claims. Dworkin argues that both sides in the debate are united in believing that life is sacred, or intrinsically valuable. I disagree. I maintain that only in a very attenuated sense of intrinsic value will this be agreed upon. I consider how an account of such value might be further fleshed out, but suggest, if this is done on any plausible lines, agreement will fall away. Dworkin argues, also, that the issue of personhood, does not, contrary to widespread belief, keep the parties apart. Again I disagree. We need to distinguish the question of whether there is in fact dispute over this issue from that of whether there is, in truth, good reason for dispute. And I argue that, rightly or wrongly, the issue of personhood remains central. Dworkin suggests that the purported proximity between the two sides offers some hope of an eventual reconciliation. At least, they will agree to differ, accepting that in this area freedom of choice is paramount. I am sceptical. Even this measure of reconciliation depends upon conservatives giving up positions which, I argue, they will continue to maintain. There is a further point. Dworkin appears to be, in many ways, cautiously optimistic. I appear, in contrast, to be pessimistic. I argue, however, that only so long as we do disagree over matters of substance is there much hope that our differences might be resolved.

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