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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.