• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Partisan For Life

Life’s Dominion: An Argument about Abortion, Euthanasia, and Individual Freedom

by Ronald Dworkin
Knopf, 273 pp., $23.00

Ronald Dworkin is our leading public philosopher. Over the past twenty-five years, mainly in these pages, he has taken up some of the most difficult issues facing us as a nation: military conscription and civil disobedience, affirmative action and the meaning of equality, the scope and meaning of the First Amendment, the case for public funding of the arts, the question of abortion, and the nature of constitutional interpretation. Since Dworkin is a lawyer and legal theorist as well as a philosopher, and in view of our well-known national tendency to turn difficult questions of politics and value into legal questions, it is not surprising that most of these topics have obvious legal implications, and that the issue of constitutional interpretation lurks in the background of almost all of the others. But Dworkin has not addressed these issues as technical questions of law. Indeed, in his view, fundamental constitutional issues are rarely technical and usually pose questions of political morality. Accordingly, his articles are probing and reflective inquiries into how the values at stake in these controversies can best be understood.

These articles are partisan: each defends a distinctive position, usually a controversial one. But they do this by means of a Socratic inquiry into the reasons that might be offered for Dworkin’s own position and for positions he opposes, carefully formulating and reformulating these reasons and checking each formulation to see if its implications are acceptable, much as Socrates did in his famous dialogue with Euthyphro on the nature of piety. In Life’s Dominion Dworkin applies this Socratic method with characteristic brilliance and subtlety to the values at stake in the agonizing problems of abortion and euthanasia. The result is an exciting, thought-provoking, and potentially very constructive book.

The book divides into three parts. In the first, Dworkin argues that we misunderstand both sides of the abortion debate which so troubles the country if we take that debate to be about whether the fetus is, from the very early stages of pregnancy, a creature with rights and interests that abortion would violate. In order to make sense of what most people on both sides of the debate actually believe, Dworkin says, we must see them as taking seriously a quite different moral idea, which he calls the sanctity of life. The disagreement about the moral status of abortion is, fundamentally, a disagreement about how this essentially religious idea should be understood. The second part of Life’s Dominion is devoted to the constitutional jurisprudence of abortion, specifically to the argument that, given what the abortion debate is really about, something very close to the position taken in Roe v. Wade is the correct constitutional standard for laws regulating abortion. Finally, in the last two chapters of the book, Dworkin applies the distinctions he has drawn between rights, interests, and the intrinsic sacredness of life to the difficult case of euthanasia.

The book is consistently clear and a pleasure to read, despite the fact that each of its three parts makes a complex argument which would repay, and will no doubt receive, much careful study. In this review I will concentrate on the central claim of each part, and attempt to make clear why these claims are both exciting and controversial.


The rhetoric of anti-abortion activists suggests that they are fighting to prevent murder. Dworkin argues, however, that the views of most of those who oppose abortion, as revealed in opinion polls, public statements, and the writings of religious leaders, cannot be coherently understood in these terms. Most of those who oppose abortion believe that it should not be illegal in cases where pregnancy is the result of rape or where abortion is necessary to save the life of the mother. But it is difficult1 to square these beliefs with the belief that a fetus is, from the moment of conception, a creature with rights and interests on a par with those of an infant. Nor are the beliefs of most of those who favor legalization of abortion adequately represented by the views, first, that the rights and interests of the fetus are the only ground for moral reservations about abortion and, second, that at least in the first twenty weeks of pregnancy, say, the fetus has no such rights. For this leads to the view that a fetus is a “mere blob of tissue” with no distinctive moral importance, and that a decision to have an abortion during this period is morally no more serious than a decision not to conceive in the first place. But, as Dworkin argues, in a part of the book that recently appeared in these pages,2 very few people on the “pro-choice” side actually take this view.

So we cannot account for the views of those on either side of the abortion debate if we suppose that individual rights and interests are the only moral values at stake. To explain what most people seem to believe we must recognize the existence of a further moral value, just as astronomers, in order to explain the observed motions of the heavenly bodies, must posit the existence of a new and so far unobserved planet. This further value is what Dworkin calls the intrinsic value or sacredness of human life. “The great majority of people who have strong views about abortion—liberal as well as conservative—believe, at least intuitively,” Dworkin writes,

that the life of a human organism has intrinsic value in any form it takes, even in the extremely undeveloped form of a very early, just-implanted embryo. I say “at least intuitively” because many people have not related their views about abortion or euthanasia to the idea that human life has intrinsic value. For them, that idea is the undiscovered planet that explains otherwise inexplicable convictions.

But while the intrinsic value or sacredness of all human life is a value that is recognized by liberals and conservatives alike, Dworkin argues, there is wide disagreement about how exactly this notion is to be understood. Some believe that respect for human life rules out abortion in almost all circumstances. Others hold that a regard for this value—as manifested in the fetus’s life and in the mother’s—is compatible with allowing abortion in many cases, and sometimes even speaks in favor it, such as when the fetus would develop into a horribly deformed child or when the birth of a child would have grave consequences for the mother’s life. This is where the central disagreement about the morality of abortion lies, according to Dworkin.

It is slightly misleading to say, as Dworkin does in the passage quoted above, that “many people have not related their views about abortion or euthanasia to the idea that human life has intrinsic value.” A great many people might well use the phrase “human life is intrinsically valuable” in explaining why they think that abortion and euthanasia present moral problems. But perhaps few of them make a clear distinction, as Dworkin does, between the idea that “human life, even fetal life, is intrinsically valuable” and the claim that “a fetus has a right not to be killed.” Indeed, they might well regard such a distinction as mere wordplay or dialectical trickery, the sort of thing only a meddlesome (or even devious) Socrates would propose. But there is in fact an important distinction here, one with serious consequences.

Rights and interests belong to that part of morality which has to do with what we owe to other individuals. By contrast, what Dworkin calls the sanctity of life is a form of impersonal value whose demands are independent of the claims of other people. Consider, for example, the question of whether to terminate life support for a patient who is brain dead and has previously expressed a desire not to be kept alive in a vegetative state. Some maintain that respect for the value of life requires us to continue life support in such cases even when doing so is contrary to both the rights and the expressed interests of the person in question.3 The value they are appealing to must be an impersonal one, not grounded in “what we owe to” the person. Dworkin calls such values “detached” to indicate that they do not, as other “derivative” values do, “depend on or presuppose any particular rights or interests.”

In this respect, the sanctity of life is like other forms of intrinsic value, such as the value attributed to great works of nature and art. To carve my initials in the Pietá or cut down an ancient redwood just to see how my new chain saw works might violate my obligations to other human beings, whose enjoyment and wealth would thereby be decreased. But these acts of desecration can also be seen as objectionable for a further reason: they fail to respect (Dworkin uses the term “insult”) the intrinsic value of the tree and the statue. He suggests that in a similar way abortion, when not supported by the proper reasons, “insults” the intrinsic value of human life.

Exactly what respect for the intrinsic value of human life demands of us is, Dworkin says, a matter of dispute. It is quite plausible to claim, however, that these demands vary with the stage of development of the life in question. Cutting down an ancient redwood is a more serious matter than uprooting a seedling. Similarly, the idea of the “sanctity of life” can explain why there is a stronger moral objection to abortion in the twentieth week than in the first. Dworkin suggests this is so because of the greater “investment” of human and nonhuman creative potential in the life in question. He writes,

Fetal development is a continuing creative process, a process that has barely begun at the instant of conception. Indeed, since generic individuation is not yet complete at that point, we might say that the development of a unique human being has not started until approximately fourteen days later, at implantation. But after implantation, as fetal growth continues, the natural investment that would be wasted in an abortion grows steadily larger and more significant.

By contrast, it is difficult to see how the idea that the fetus has rights and interests could account for the widely shared view that there is a significant moral difference between earlier and later abortions even before the stage at which fetal consciousness might begin.

The main tendencies of recent moral philosophy have concentrated almost exclusively on notions such as rights, interests, duties, and obligations.4 At least within the academy, then, it is a significant departure to give impersonal intrinsic values such an important place. This is especially true for Dworkin, who has been a leading exponent of the approach emphasizing rights and interests. But, as he recognizes in this book, there is a wide gulf here between academic moral philosophy and conventional moral thought. Consider for example sexual morality, which has such a central place in the moral views of many Americans. If, as most contemporary moral philosophy suggests, morality can be simply identified with the sphere of rights, interests, duties, and obligations (i.e., with “what we owe to others”)5 then there is no distinctive morality of sex. Sexual activity is judged to be right or wrong by the same categories that apply to every other sphere of life, categories such as deception, coercion, consent, and (physical and psychological) injury. In this view, rape is morally odious but there is no basis for the idea that masturbation, consensual sodomy, and the use of contraception might be in themselves morally objectionable; and the sex of the participants is totally irrelevant to the moral status of an act of intercourse. As we are painfully reminded by the current furor over the issue of gays and lesbians in the military, these views are sharply at odds with what many Americans believe. But they are more or less immediate consequences of the way morality is understood in most contemporary moral philosophy.

  1. 1

    Difficult does not mean impossible. For a penetrating discussion of these issues that takes as its starting point-the idea that the fetus is a person with rights and interests see F. M. Kamm, Creation and Abortion: A Study in Moral and Legal Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 1992).

  2. 2

    See “Feminism and Abortion,” The New York Review, June 10, 1993.

  3. 3

    Both Justice Scalia and Chief Justice Rehnquist cite such a value as a possible ground for state regulation in their opinions in the case of Nancy Cruzan.

  4. 4

    One leading exception is Charles Taylor. See his Sources of the Self (Harvard University Press, 1989), especially Part I, in which he criticizes what he takes to be the prevailing view in moral philosophy in large part because it neglects what I am here calling impersonal intrinsic values.

  5. 5

    Kant famously included sexual morality of the kind I have mentioned within the sphere of what he called “duties to oneself.” (See Metaphysics of Morals [Ak. 424–426].) In this respect his views differ sharply from those of most contemporary philosophers, including many whose work is in some respects “Kantian” in inspiration. For us, the idea of a duty to oneself is almost an oxymoron. For him, on the other hand, the ethics of duty and obligation was not separate from, and even depended on, the ethics of self-perfection and proper regard for the distinctive value of human (rational) life. (Ak. 417–418.)

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print