Is Abortion Ethical?
The main arguments
We talked here previously about the abortion debate, but in this article, we want to go a bit deeper and look at the arguments for and against abortion itself. Since this topic (like most topics nowadays) is often discussed on the basis of beliefs, emotions and outrage rather than actual thought, let us today have a look at the classic arguments in the abortion debate.
You might also want to read the comprehensive overview of Dr Luke Roeloffs on the main arguments for and against rights for fetuses:
What sort of rights should a fetus or embryo have? A clear, comprehensive review of the arguments.
Arguments for abortion
The woman should have the right to choose what she does with her body
Those who are pro-choice believe that a woman should have the right to choose what she does with her body. They argue that the fetus is, at least in the beginning of pregnancy, nothing more than another organ of the mother. Therefore, they believe that it should be up to the woman to decide whether or not to abort the pregnancy.
On the other hand, if we believe that that human life begins at conception, then abortion might be seen as an unlawful killing of a human being. Opponents of abortion argue that the fetus is a human being with a right to life.
We will discuss the problem of when exactly the fetus becomes a human being below; but even if we assume that the fetus is human, we still have to weigh the interests of two humans (the mother and the fetus) against each other.
We also have to consider that the mother has her own life and perhaps the welfare of other, earlier-born children to consider. An unwanted pregnancy can cause the mother to be unable to finish her studies, for example, or to get a job, potentially pushing a whole family into poverty.
It is also the case that, while legal abortions are very safe, illegal abortions are not, and represent a significant health risk for the mother. According to the BBC (with 2019 data from the CDC):
- Almost 60% of persons seeking an abortion were in their 20s;
- 60% had at least one child;
- Almost half had the abortion in the first six weeks of pregnancy; and
- For 60% it was the first abortion.
So it is not true that abortions will primarily benefit irresponsible teenagers who don’t know how to prevent a pregnancy. Teenagers only account for 9% of all abortions in the US and the majority of clients seeking an abortion already have at least one child.
Judith Jarvis-Thomson’s famous “Unconscious Violinist”
Judith Jarvis Thomson’s famous “Unconscious Violinist” argument is often invoked in debates over abortion. The basic premise of the argument is that even if a fetus has a right to life, the mother’s right to her own body is stronger.
Thomson uses the analogy of a woman waking up to find herself hooked up to an unconscious violinist. The violinist will die unless he is kept hooked up to the woman for nine months. Thomson argues that the woman does not have a duty to keep the violinist alive, because she did not choose to be connected to him. In the same way, a woman does not have a duty to carry a fetus to term if she did not choose to become pregnant. This argument relies on the principle of autonomy, or the freedom to decide what happens to one’s own body. While it is true that fetuses have a right to life, Thomson argues that this right does not override the mother’s right to make decisions for herself. We don’t have to sacrifice our freedom for someone else, even if this means that the other person is going to die.
Is the fetus a person? Is abortion murder?
The definition of a person is important in the abortion debate:
- If we define a person as someone who has certain cognitive abilities, then the fetus is not a person.
- If we define a person as someone with certain biological characteristics, then a fetus may be a person.
- If we define a person as someone who is conscious and aware, then abortion is not killing a person.
- If we define a person as a biological human being who is alive, then abortion is killing a person.
There is no right answer to these questions, they depend on how we define things, and these definitions depend on many factors: our religious beliefs, the other laws of our society regarding life, death and bodily autonomy, and the value we place in particular functional abilities as markers of personhood.
Abortion: The Unconscious Violinist Argument
Is abortion ethical? Philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson created one of the most well-known thought experiments in modern ethics. In her 1971 paper “A Defense of Abortion,” she presents the thought experiment of the unconscious violinist.
If we define a person as a human being with fully developed brain function, then it is clear that the fetus is not a person until it has reached the point of viability, which is typically around 24 weeks. Therefore, abortion before the 24th week is not murder because murder requires the victim to be a person.
Note also that according to the BBC data quoted above, over 92% of abortions happen within the first trimester of pregnancy. This means that they are well within the 24-week window. So if we adopt this understanding of a human being, then 92% of abortions would not be problematic at all.
Of course, some people would argue that abortion is still murder even if the fetus is not considered a person. They may point to the fact that the fetus is alive and has its own unique DNA. Also, the fetus is going to be a person following the trajectory of its natural development. One is not only responsible for one’s actions at the moment one acts, but also for their predictable consequences in the future. If I put fire to a corner of a house and the house burns down, then I am not responsible only for the damage to that corner that I initially ignited. I am responsible for burning down the whole house. Similarly, killing a fetus that is not a person prevents a person from coming into existence. And I can argue that I should be held responsible from preventing this person from existing.
On the other hand, at 24 weeks, the fetus is still not sentient and does not have the ability to feel pain. In addition, aborting a pregnancy does not end an independent life that has already begun; rather, it simply ends the potential for life. Harming a potential life must be judged differently from harming an actual life (that of the mother). So there is some support for the idea here that the concerns of the mother should weigh for more than those of the fetus.
To summarise: While it is implausible to think of a cluster of eight or sixteen cells as a human being, things become more complicated in later stages of pregnancy. Clearly, killing a baby shortly before birth would be murdering a human being. The problem is to decide at which precise point in the development of the fetus it is plausible to see it as a separate human being, rather than as a part of the mother’s body. This decision is largely influenced by one’s culture and other political, philosophical and theological assumptions and has little to do with science.
Abortion is sometimes necessary to save the mother’s life
Abortion is sometimes necessary to save the mother’s life, causing a conflict between the most fundamental rights of the mother and the fetus.
The mother has a right to life, liberty, and security, while the fetus only potentially has these rights as a future human being. However, if the two rights conflict, we would normally think that the mother’s rights take precedence because she is already a fully developed human being, and also because others depend on her. The mother is embedded in a social environment in which she has particular roles and duties, and these must also be taken into account: she might have a job, for example, that depends on her. She might have a family that needs her to be available for them. Or she might have any number of other obligations that are important to society or to particular other people.
The fetus, on the other hand, is not yet a conscious human being and does not have any rights or responsibilities. Therefore, in the case of a conflict between the rights of the mother and the fetus, we are often justified in prioritising the mother’s life and wellbeing.
Abortion: Is it sometimes better not to be born?
Utilitarianism is the belief that the best course of action is the one that maximizes utility, or happiness. In other words, utilitarianism is all about achieving the greatest good for the greatest number of people. When applied to the question of abortion, utilitarianism would say that in some situations, it is better for the child not to be born. This is because if the child is born into a family that is too poor to provide for it, or it is born in a war zone, or the parents are ill or unable to raise the child, then the child’s life will likely be full of suffering.
Thus, in order to minimize suffering and maximize happiness, it might be better for all if the child is not born. Of course, this is only a general utilitarian perspective, and there will be many individual factors to consider in any given situation. But overall, utilitarianism would say that in some cases, it is better for a child not to be born than to be born into difficult conditions that will make a future happy life unlikely.
This thought also applies to predictable disabilities and hereditary illnesses of the child. If we can predict that the child’s life is likely to be one of particular hardships because of some genetic condition, then this would be a utilitarian argument towards not bringing this child into existence.
Of course, all these arguments have to be applied with some common sense. We can not expect every child to have a perfect genetic make-up. Some humans are taller or shorter than others, some are more beautiful or ugly according to the standards of their societies. We cannot argue that it would be right to abort all but the most perfect children. “Normal,” happy human lives are available to a wide range of human beings. If exaggerated, this argument might be used to promote eugenics, the idea that only “perfect” children should be born (or that parents or society should actively select for desirable genetic features of future children). This would not be a good thing for many reasons, related to both social justice, human dignity and value, and the biological resilience of a genetically varied population. So we have to be a little careful about how we argue this point.
Additional arguments against abortion
Does abortion cause danger to the mother?
Another argument against abortion is that it can lead to emotional and psychological distress for the woman who undergoes the procedure. This distress may be caused by feelings of guilt, regret, or sadness. Some women may also experience physical complications after an abortion.
The fact is, though, that legal and professionally conducted abortions pose very little risk to the mother. According to Amnesty International, legal abortions are actually statistically safer than childbirth. The risk comes mainly from illegal abortions that are performed by underqualified practitioners in unsuitable surroundings and with dangerous methods.
At the same time, the legality of abortion does not change the percentage of abortions performed:
And regardless of whether abortion is legal or not, people still require and regularly access abortion services. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a US-based reproductive health non-profit, the abortion rate is 37 per 1,000 people in countries that prohibit abortion altogether or allow it only in instances to save a woman’s life, and 34 per 1,000 people in countries that broadly allow for abortion, a difference that is not statistically significant. – (Amnesty International)
So the actual result of outlawing abortions is not that fewer abortions are performed, but that the same number of abortions are performed in more unsafe and dangerous way. This also shows that the argument about the psychological burdens of abortions is not a good one, since even in countries where abortions are illegal, they are still performed to the same extent, causing the same damages to the mental health of the patients. The only difference is that these issues can not be treated openly by health professionals if abortion is outlawed, making the problems worse.
Is abortion against God’s will?
Arguments against abortion often times come down to religion. It is said that abortion is against God’s will and is a sin. To be valid, though, this argument requires us to believe in God. And not only that. Religious arguments are notoriously unreliable.
First, not everyone believes in the same god, and different gods may have ordered different things regarding the same issue.
Second, even if we talk only about the Christian God, the Bible is often contradicting itself and it is sometimes hard to know what the “correct” belief is supposed to be. Over the course of their history, the Christian churches have embraced a great number of contradictory beliefs about God and his wishes for us humans. Should we dominate the other species on Earth or take care of them? Should we wage war against people who believe in other religions, or be tolerant of them? Should we take an eye for an eye or forgive our enemies? Should women be seen as subordinate to men or as equals? Is homosexuality sinful or a natural way of being? In all these points, the church has, over the millennia of its existence, proclaimed very different opinions.
Given these difficulties, and the fact that today we live in multicultural societies where we cannot assume that all citizens share the same religious beliefs, it seems safer to find non-religious arguments for one’s stance towards abortion. These can not only be easier justified rationally, but we can, in principle, all evaluate them and agree to them regardless of what religion we adhere to.
What sort of rights should a fetus or embryo have? A clear, comprehensive review of the arguments.
The ethics of abortion
Utilitarianism on abortion
So, what do the main moral theories say about abortion? Utilitarianism is a type of moral theory that holds that the right course of action is the one that maximizes utility, or happiness. Abortion would be morally permissible if it results in the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people.
We would then have to look at all stakeholders in an abortion case: the mother, the father, the fetus itself (primarily looking at its potential or likely future happiness, given the conditions of its birth), the other members of the family, society at large. For each of these, we would have to separately determine whether an abortion increases or decreases their happiness or how it affects their well-being.
For example, not-existing in itself does not seem to be morally bad for the utilitarian. A non-existent being has neither happiness nor unhappiness. Depriving someone from being born will both cut off their future happiness but also spare them all suffering. How much of each a life is expected to provide will determine whether abortion is right or wrong in respect to the child as a stakeholder.
The mother is another stakeholder. Will the child make her life better or worse? Will her situation become unbearable if she has the child? Will other people (for example, her previous children) suffer as a consequence of that latest child being born? Will the mother, given her particular circumstances in life, be able to adequately care for this child? And so on.
Utilitarianism itself is controversial as a moral theory, though, because, among other problems, it would allow us to do many things that we consider immoral. For example, with this kind of argument we could even kill an already born, healthy baby if its existence causes more hardships and suffering to others than it brings net benefit to all. Utilitarianism, by looking only at the benefit of an action, entirely disregards the rights of human beings (for example, the right of a baby to live), and therefore will often lead to wrong results.
Abortion and Kantian Ethics
Deontological (most prominently: Kantian) ethics is an ethical theory that holds that the moral worth of an action is determined by its adherence to a rule or rules. It is often contrasted with consequentialism, which holds that the moral worth of an action is determined by its outcome.
Immanuel Kant argued that our ethical duties are based on universal laws that we discover through reason. One of our most important duties, he argued, is to respect the rights of others. This duty applies even when respecting others' rights would have negative consequences for us. For example, if you know that someone will be harmed if you tell them the truth, you still have a duty to tell them the truth. This duty is based on the principle of universality: you would not want everyone to lie in such situations, so you should not lie yourself. Applying this principle to abortion, we can see that Kant would argue that abortion is morally wrong because it violates the rights of the fetus. The fetus is also potentially a human being and must not be treated as means only, but always as an end. This means that even if continuing a pregnancy would have negative consequences for the woman’s health or wellbeing, she still has a duty to carry the pregnancy to term.
Of course, like everything in philosophy, this can be disputed. One could argue that what makes human beings so special for Kant is their autonomy, their ability to freely make moral decisions, and this is the basis for their special value, which Kant calls dignity. The fetus does not have any autonomy, does not voluntarily follow (or even comprehend) the moral law, and is therefore not a being with dignity. Consequently, its rights do not have the same force as the rights of the mother.
This argument seems plausible at first sight, but if we go like this, we would also have to say the same of babies that are already born, but small enough. A one-year-old is not able to comprehend the moral law either, or to act autonomously. Should we then be free to kill one-year-old babies? Obviously, we have to be careful how we apply these rules.
Social Contract approaches to abortion
The social contract theory of ethics is based on the premise that morality is the result of an agreement between individuals, in which each person agrees to abide by certain rules in order to maintain the social order from which, in the end, all citizens profit.
This agreement is often implicit, and it is usually enforced by social pressure or government coercion. When applied to the issue of abortion, contractarianism generally takes one of two forms: either the fetus is considered a member of the social contract, and therefore has a right to life, or the mother is considered the primary member of the social contract, and her right to self-determination takes precedence.
Considering the fetus a part of the social contract is more difficult to justify. Fetuses cannot sign contracts. They don’t understand the rights and obligations that a contract entails and they cannot direct their actions so that they follow and fulfil the contract. If the social contract is an agreement between individuals in which each person agrees to give up some personal freedom in exchange for protection from physical harm, then only those individuals who are party to the social contract have obligations to one another. The fetus, because it is not yet a person, is not considered a member of the social contract and therefore does not have any rights or obligations under the contract. This means that the mother does not have an obligation to protect the fetus, and she may choose to have an abortion if she feels that it is in her best interest. Social contract theories would therefore more likely prioritise the mother’s interests.
On the other hand, social contract theories would not consider the mother and fetus in isolation, but as part of a community that has given itself a regulatory framework of laws and unwritten rules. If the society the mother lives in has decided to outlaw abortion and the mother has previously accepted the rules of this society, then she should now abide by the same rules. The point of the social contract theory is that the individual cannot unilaterally disobey the rules whenever they are not in her interest. Society can only flourish if we all follow the rules even in cases where we don’t like them or where they are against our own interests.
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Virtue Ethics and abortion
Virtue ethics is a moral theory, going back to Aristotle, that emphasizes virtue and character rather than right and wrong actions.
The theory is based on the belief that the right amount of virtue is necessary for achieving eudaimonia, or human flourishing. When making decisions, virtue ethicists focus on the character of the person making the decision, rather than the specific action being taken.
In the case of abortion, virtue ethicists would look at the virtues of the mother involved in the decision. The most important virtue for a mother is compassion, as she must be able to care for her child both physically and emotionally. The child, not having been born yet, cannot have any virtues or duties to act in particular ways. Ultimately, the decision to have an abortion should be based on what will lead to the greatest flourishing for both mother and child.
As opposed to utilitarianism, which only looks at the outcome, here the inner motivations are crucial: does the mother only want the abortion because she’s too lazy to raise a child, or because the pregnancy would interfere with her career or holiday plans? Or is her wish to have an abortion motivated by compassion and the realisation that she cannot provide a good home for the child? Would she reach her highest potential as a person if she had the abortion or not? And what about the child’s future? Would the child have good chances to live a fulfilling life and to reach eudaimonia, the state of ultimate happiness, itself? Or are the conditions of their lives such that a flourishing human life cannot be reached at all (due to disease, poverty, or living in a war zone, for instance), making the abortion the only possible or the relatively best way out?
From a societal perspective, it is important to consider what kind of world we want to live in. A world in which abortion is readily available may be seen as more compassionate, as it gives women more control over their bodies and their reproductive choices. However, some people may argue that such a world is more likely to lead to irresponsible parenting and a lack of consideration for the rights of unborn children. These thoughts are also relevant to virtue ethicists, since personal flourishing also depends on the conditions that a society provides.
Abortion is a highly controversial topic and there are many arguments for and against abortion in ethics.
In general, abortion is argued to be permissible if it meets the conditions of one or more of the four main theories in moral philosophy: consequentialism, deontology, social contract or virtue ethics.
Consequentialists argue that abortion is morally right if it leads to the most good for all involved. Deontologists argue that abortion is morally right if it does not violate any moral rights. Social contract ethicists would look at the duties of the mother due to the implicit contract that she has made with the society she lives in. Virtue ethicists argue that abortion is morally right if it leads to the most flourishing for all involved.
Ultimately, the decision of whether or not to have an abortion is a personal one and should be made based on the individual circumstances involved.
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What do you think? Is abortion morally right or wrong? Let us know in the comments below.
Cover image by GRAS GRÜN on Unsplash