Last week Ryan Anderson called our attention to a new kind of moral analysis developed by Elizabeth Harman of Princeton University and announced at a conference recently held there. This is how Harman formulated her new discovery:

“Things have moral status throughout their existence, just in case there’s any time in their existence at which they are conscious.”

Ryan helpfully translates this out of academic-speak into plain language: “If a fetus one day develops to maturity, then it has been valuable all along, since conception. But if we will abort the fetus, then it was never valuable.” Ryan reports that when Harman was asked whether fetuses have moral status, she replied, “Some do, some don’t, and it depends on what’s going to happen to them.” In other words, as Ryan explains, “if we kill them, then they have no moral status, but if we don’t, they do. So two intrinsically identical unborn human beings could have radically different moral statuses.”

Robert T. Miller yesterday pointed out some of the strange conclusions to which Harman’s principle logically leads. I would like to point out another: Harman’s principle justifies both performing abortions and preventing them.

If Abortionist Smith successfully performs an abortion and kills Baby Doe before the child attains consciousness, then baby Doe has (according to Harman) no moral status—and thus Smith’s act is morally justifiable. But suppose that Rescuer Jones successfully prevents Smith from performing the abortion, and therefore Baby Doe does survive to become conscious. It then follows from Harman’s principle that Baby Doe always had moral status—even when Smith was trying to kill her and before Jones rescued her. And therefore it follows that what Abortionist Smith was doing was wrong , and what Rescuer Jones did was not only morally permissible but morally obligatory.

One is thus left with the apparent contradiction that it is morally permissible (and perhaps at times morally obligatory) to abort preconscious children but also morally obligatory to stop them from being aborted. In fact, one can go further: Suppose a third person successfully prevents Rescuer Jones from preventing the abortion, and Baby Doe thus dies before achieving consciousness. That would result in Baby Doe’s never having had moral value in the first place and render what Rescuer Jones did wrong, and what Abortionist Smith did right again.

So, according to Harman, it is right to do an abortion, right to stop an abortion, right to stop someone from stopping an abortion, right to stop someone from stopping someone from stopping an abortion, and so on. Calling Lewis Carroll!

What a wonderful principle! Even if everyone ended up completely agreeing with Harman’s moral analysis, it would not resolve the fight over abortion but actually intensify it.