|Way to be moral agents! Just, you know, try not to kill anybody.|
It’s a claim that’s cropped up before, but most recently in a leaked video from the National Abortion Federation conference: the claim that pro-lifers do not believe women are moral agents.
That’s just silly. Of course women are moral agents.
Moral agency isn’t an easily defined, tangible thing. But in broad strokes, I think a fair definition of a “moral agent” (or, a similar term used by the NAF panelist, “moral decision-maker”) is someone who is generally capable of prospectively considering how their actions might affect others, as opposed to impulsively following the commands of the id.
Using that definition, the vast majority of adults, teenagers, and older children are moral agents. And using that definition, it should be obvious that a moral agent is not the same thing as a person whose decisions are always moral. Nobody acts morally 100% of the time. That’s why we have laws in the first place! To say that abortion is wrong and should be criminal says nothing about the moral agency of those who commit it.
The abortionist on the NAF panel cites informed consent legislation to make the case that pro-lifers don’t believe women are moral agents. In fact, the opposite is true. If I thought women weren’t moral agents, informed consent legislation would make no sense at all. What would be the point of educating someone about the death of a human being, risks to future pregnancies, and so on if we thought she couldn’t appreciate those harms? You can’t persuade someone who has no moral agency.
As a lawyer, my mind goes to the insanity defense. Criminal defendants are legally insane if, at the time of their crime, they lacked the capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of their actions. That is a lack of moral agency.
But a successful insanity defense is quite rare. Our legal system recognizes that in most cases, crimes are committed by people who generally know right from wrong, but do wrong anyway. The reasons for the disconnect abound. In a few cases, yes, it may be pure selfishness. But if you ask me, the reasons are usually more systemic: Poverty. Fear. Lack of education. Coercion.
And so it is with abortion.