Vol. 9 No. 7 (July 1999) pp. 291-293.

THE HOUSE OF ATREUS: ABORTION AS A HUMAN RIGHTS ISSUE by James F. Bohan. Wesport, CT: Praeger, 1999. 256 pp.

Reviewed by Ted G. Jelen, Department of Political Science, University of Nevada at Las Vegas.


The House of Atreus has a simple, controversial thesis: An unborn fetus is fully human from the moment of conception, and this assertion is a fact of biology, rather than a legal, philosophic, or theological judgment. From this, it follows that abortion is a denial of essential human rights, and should rarely, if ever, be permitted. The book is divided into two parts: the first consists of arguments about the ontological status of "the unborn," (intended to change the way we think about abortion), while the second is intended to affect the way we feel about abortion. This second section is thus explicitly and self-consciously rhetorical, in the non-pejorative sense of rhetoric as persuasive speech.

Bohanís argument is based on the assertion that the "unborn" (a term the author regards as emotionally and politically neutral) are necessarily, biologically human is based on the following argument: The definition of a species entails that two members of the same species are capable of producing fertile offspring. Since a human fetus has the potential for such biological reproduction, he/she/it is therefore human (p. 39).

It is almost too easy to criticize this argument. If the potential or actual capacity to engage in the production of human offspring is the defining characteristic of membership in homo sapiens, it is not clear why unfertilized eggs or unused sperm would also not qualify (since such entities can "potentially" engage in reproduction. Nor is it clear that infertile persons would in fact count as persons under this definition. The existence of extensive and controversial reproductive technologies is ample evidence that many such people in fact exist, and Bohanís facile definition of humanity would render their humanity problematic.

However, a detailed analysis of Bohanís brief, almost offhand definition of humanity as a biological fact is to miss what is, in my view, Bohanís larger point. Whatever the inadequacies of a simplistic biological definition of humanity, Bohan wishes to convince the reader that other definitions are even worse, in the sense that alternative definitions of humanity will entail unacceptable ethical consequences. For example, if one defines "viability" as an essential characteristic of humanity, it might follow that defective, aged, or handicapped persons could be eliminated by the same logic. A patient who requires an iron lung, artificial heart, or dialysis might well be denied the medical status of "viability," and so might be candidates for active and passive euthanasia. Similarly, definitions of humanity, "personhood," or other related concepts which involve such characteristics as the capacity to reason, to make moral judgments, or to engage in self-awareness are also subject to comparable abuses.

Bohan goes on to argue that such abuses have historically taken place, and, indeed, are part of current political and medical practice. At repeated points throughout the work, Bohan compares the "pro-choice" movement to the Nazi policies of genocide, the practice of slavery, and specifically the DRED SCOTT decision. All of these historical horrors, according to Bohan, entail the same "error" made by pro-choice proponents today: that of qualifying or limiting membership in the human species, and treating those omitted beings in a fashion inconceivable for those defined as fully human.

In general, Bohanís strategy is two-pronged. At various points in the book, he asserts the possibility of something analogous to a "slippery slope" (my term, not the authorís) in the practice of abortion. In other words, if we accept a particular rationale for permitting legal abortion, we may extend that rationale to kill other beings whose humanity is presumably not controversial. Second, as noted, Bohan engages in frequent comparisons between abortion and other practices by which both he and the reader are presumed to be revolted, such as slavery, infanticide, or genocide.

As rhetoric, Bohanís work is occasionally disturbing and powerful, and yet ultimately unpersuasive. Bohan seeks to create a hermeneutic circle, to which the reader is invited at several points. However, despite the fact that Bohan specifically eschews religious or theological arguments (asserting that humanity is a simple fact of biology) his book amounts to "preaching to the choir." That is, readers not already sympathetic with a restrictive position on abortion are unlikely to be convinced by Bohanís arguments or his rhetoric.

A couple of examples may clarify this last point. In a chapter entitled "Objections," Bohan deals with a few standard pro-choice arguments, and devotes most of his attention to the "fetus as aggressor" style of argument made by Judith Jarvis Thompson and (more recently, and uncited by Bohan) Eileen McDonagh. In so doing, Bohan utilizes another suppressed premise; namely, the morality of the sexual act which resulted in conception:

"...a pregnant woman may not take the life of the unborn in "self-defense" because the unborn did not engage in any conduct creating that threat. The unborn did not create the pregnancy; the woman and her partner did..... Similarly, it may be unfair that pregnancy affects the mother of the unborn more than the father, but that does not absolve her of her responsibility for the unborn where the pregnancy results from voluntary intercourse." (Pp. 84-85).

In this instance, it is not simply the humanity of the "unborn" which creates the moral obligation to refrain from aborting, but the womanís "responsibility" for the "foreseeable" consequences of her actions. Second, in a chapter entitled "Arbitrary," Bohan provides us with several accounts of conversions by women who had have abortions, or providers of abortion services, after experiencing the act of abortion empirically and graphically. In other words, encounters with small, mangled, but recognizable body parts, or the bodies of aborted "infants" have occasioned in abortion participants (and, perhaps, in the reader as well) a horror over the mechanics of the act of abortion. Indeed, Bohan devotes a chapter, entitled "Language," to the euphemisms used in the discourse of abortion practice and politics. Aside from the validity of this "if you try it, you wonít like it" argument, one is left with the feeling that this rhetorical method, if anything, proves too much. In a linguistic sense, the use of euphemisms to describe unpleasant realities is by no means unique to the arena of reproductive freedom; an old, sick dog may be "put to sleep," or my aged grandfather is likely to have "passed away." No one, to my knowledge, regards abortion as anything less than a tragic necessity. Moreover, direct exposure to any number of medical or economic procedures is likely to produce a sense of revulsion. I would imagine that an afternoon spent at a butcher shop has convinced more than one person to become a vegetarian, and the direct witnessing of an appendectomy might make the tenets of Christian Science seem more plausible. The horror one is likely to feel while witnessing the performance of an actual abortion is very likely genuine, but does not constitute an argument against legal abortion. Similar feelings of revulsion are likely when encountering any number of practices most of us would regard as necessary and permissible.

James Bohan has provided a powerful, passionate work which may well serve to exhort and to mobilize those who place themselves in the "pro-life" camp. However, this is (quite intentionally) a generally polemical book, which is unlikely to provide "common ground" on which the abortion issue can be resolved. Despite the authorís certainty to the contrary, "science" is unlikely to settle the moral and political issues surrounding legal abortion.

Copyright 1995