liveonearth (liveonearth) wrote,


I'm going to begin here to collect ethical arguments pertaining to the issue of abortion in the US. These notes will be the backdrop of a paper that I will write later.


There are two main questions concerning abortion:

Whether abortion is a moral decision for a woman, given her specific situation. This might include consideration of her religious beliefs, age, marital status, health, economic status, available support systems, genetic makeup, etc.
If, after a woman has consulted with her physician and perhaps her spiritual advisor and has decided to seek an abortion, whether the government should veto her decision.
The first question is a very personal decision. The second question generates intense levels of debate and occasional violence, particularly in the U.S. The abortion controversy continues at a much lower level in Canada.

There are two answers to the second question -- that of abortion access:

Those promoting a pro-life position say that the government should intrude on the woman's decision, prevent her from having an abortion in some, many, or all cases, and requiring her to continue her pregnancy.

Most pro-lifers base their stance on the belief that human life, in the form of an ovum and spermatozoon, becomes a human person at the time of conception. Thus, a human pre-embryo, embryo and fetus are all persons entitled to fundamental human rights, including the most basic right: to be allowed to live. The lives of two humans are being considered here: that of the woman and her embryo or fetus.
Those promoting a pro-choice position say that the government should not interfere with the woman's decision, or should do so only under rare circumstances. She should be able to have an abortion in most or all cases.

Most pro-choicers base their stance on the belief that human life becomes a human person at some time after conception -- perhaps when the embryo's heart starts beating, or when the fetus first looks human, or it becomes sentient, or it has half emerged from its mother's body, or is born, or is severed from its mother and is functioning independently. They feel that a woman should not be forced to go through a pregnancy and childbirth if she does not choose to do so. She should be allowed to have an abortion if it is done before her embryo or fetus attains personhood.

It is important to realize that both the pro-life or pro-choice positions cover a range of beliefs and advocacy. Most of the media are wrong: there is no single pro-life position and no single pro-choice position.

This section of our web site is different from essentially all other web sites. We attempt to present a balanced picture of all aspects of abortion.

Our essays thus compare and contrast all viewpoints. Because of this, you will probably find some parts of our essays infuriating even as you will affirm the accuracy of other parts.

Three key terms used throughout this section are:

Human life: This is "any living cell or collection of living cells that contains DNA from the species homo sapiens." 1 This includes an ovum, a spermatozoon, zygote, embryo, fetus, newborn. It also includes an infant, child, adult, elder. It also includes a breast cancer cell, a living hair follicle, and a recent skin scraping. Some forms of human life, like an individual ovum or spermatozoon, are rarely considered to be of value, except by couples having difficulty conceiving. Other forms of human life, like a newborn or infant, are priceless; medical professionals go to great lengths to preserve their life.
Human person: A human life that is granted civil rights, including the right to live. People have different opinions about the point at which human life becomes a human person. There is a societal consensus that a newborn is a human person. However, people disagree about whether a zygote, embryo, or fetus is also a human person. This is the main point of disagreement that causes conflicts over abortion access.
Start of pregnancy: Pro-lifers typically define pregnancy as starting at conception. Pro-choicers and the medical profession usually define it as starting when the zygote is fully implanted in the wall of the uterus. We use the medical definition in this section.
Abortion: We define abortion as the "purposeful termination of pregnancy with intention other than to produce a live born infant or to remove a dead fetus." 3 This is one of many conflicting definitions in common use.

We use the popular meaning of "life" here to include ova and spermatozoa. Some scientists use a very strict definition of the word "life" which does not include ova and spermatozoa because they cannot, by themselves, reproduce.
An interesting and unbiased article titled "The Abortion Debate" is available on QuickOverview at:
"Pregnancy: Definitions and associated formulas," Division of Biostatistics and Health GIS, Government of South Carolina, at:

The Abortion Debate

Throughout history, induced abortions have been a source of considerable debate and controversy. An individual's personal stance on the complex ethical, moral, and legal issues has a strong relationship with the given individual's value system. A person's position on abortion may be described as a combination of their personal beliefs on the morality of induced abortion and their beliefs on the ethical limit of the government's legitimate authority.


Abortion debates, especially pertaining to the legal ramifications of abortion laws, are often spearheaded by advocacy groups. These groups tend to fall into one of two camps, with people in favor of legal abortion describing themselves as pro-choice, while those against legal abortion call themselves pro-life. Both "pro-choice" and "pro-life" are loaded terms designed to make the opposition unappealing (anti-choice and anti-life). Individuals are also usually classified as either pro-choice or pro-life, thus reducing what may be complex views to slogans.

In reality, both pro-choice and pro-life are too simplistic to encompass the full complexity of the debate. A person may be personally uncomfortable with, and morally opposed to, abortion (thus being pro-life) while believing the option of abortion should remain legal (thus being pro-choice as well). Furthermore, individuals often place different value on the lives of zygotes, embryos and fetuses at different points in gestation, putting different methods of abortion in different moral lights.

Underlying this debate is another debate, over the proper role of the state: to what extent should a government be allowed to interfere with a woman's reproduction? This is a major issue in a number of countries, such as India and China, which have tried to enforce types of birth control (including forced sterilization), and in the United States, which has historically limited access to birth control. A parallel question also runs through the debate over legalized abortion: to what extent is the right to life a basic human right that the state has an interest in protecting?

The debate also touches upon such related (and themselves controversial) issues as contraception, feminism, gender roles, teen pregnancy, and sexual morality. Some opponents of abortion are social conservatives, and are motivated not only by concerns about embryonic life but also by unease with, and opposition to, the modern lifestyle choices that they see the procedure as facilitating. Other opponents of abortion, such as the progressive activist Nat Hentoff, see the protection of unborn life as an essential element in the campaign for universal human rights.

The abortion debate has a prominent place in political campaigning in many countries. In the United States, the Democratic Party tends to campaign in support of the legal right to an abortion, while the Republican Party tends to campaign against legal abortion. These positions are often part of a more general "culture of life" stance regarding such related subjects as sex education, birth control, stem-cell research, euthanasia, and (though less uniformly) capital punishment.

The debate is generally heated but nonviolent, though there have been a small number of cases where violence has been used.

Significant issues

Some of the most significant and common issues treated in the abortion debate are:

The beginning of personhood (sometimes phrased ambiguously as "the beginning of life"): When is the embryo or fetus considered a person?
Universal human rights: Is aborting a zygote, embryo, or fetus a violation of human rights? What about fetuses with genetic disabilities? On the other hand, is not allowing a woman to terminate her unwanted pregnancy a violation of the woman's human rights?
Circumstances of conception: How important are the circumstances of conception to the ultimate fate of the embryo or fetus? Does pregnancy induced by rape or incest, or by poor or non-existent birth control use change the permissibility of abortion?
Alternatives to abortion: Is adoption a viable and fair alternative to abortion? Are there resources available to aid mothers who are unprepared for parenthood, but who may wish to keep their child?
Limit of government authority: Are laws controlling abortion violations of privacy and/or other personal liberty rights?


The central dilemma in the abortion debate is the clash of presumed and perceived rights. On one hand is the embryo or fetus's presumed right to life, and on the other is a woman's presumed right to control her body (though the debate over the issue has become so complex that each of these terms has itself been extensively debated). One aspect of the issue involves defining at what point an embryo or fetus qualifies as a person, and gains the legal and/or moral right to life. Even if that could be agreed upon, that right would still need to be weighed against the rights of the woman. Yet another debate is the use of fetal and embryonic remains, such as in stem cell research, the chickenpox vaccine, and even the treatment of patients with Alzheimer's disease.

There is also controversy over the rights of individuals other than the pregnant woman and the embryo or fetus. Debate focuses on whether a pregnant woman should have to notify and/or have the consent of others in the following distinct cases: a minor her parents; a legally married or common-law wife her husband; or a pregnant woman the biological father. In a 2003 Gallup poll in the United States, 72% of respondents were in favor of enforced spousal notification, with 26% opposed; of those polled, 79% of males and 67% of females responded in favor.


There are a variety of positions regarding the timing of abortions. These include:

Abortion should always be legal.
Abortion up to the start of the third trimester should be legal; abortion in the third trimester (so-called late-term abortion) should generally be illegal.
Abortion should be legal until the fetus is viable outside the womb.
Abortion in the first trimester should be legal, but thereafter generally illegal.
Abortion of an embryo should be legal, but abortion of a fetus should generally be illegal.
Abortion should generally be illegal at all stages.
Abortion should generally be illegal at all stages, and so should other forms of birth control and contraception.
For each of these timing alternatives (except the first), there may be exceptions in some special circumstances—for example, when the woman's long-term health or life is at stake, when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, or when the infant has no long-term viability, or is likely to be born severely disabled.


While both sides have sought to influence public opinion (pregnant women, doctors, lawmakers, voters) the main concern has been with influencing the law, and hence attaining legal support for their positions. Both have likewise drawn their rhetorical arguments from various domains, such as religion, philosophy, law morality and social pragmatism. Every aspect is controversial — the lethal nature and personal, social, and moral effects of the procedure are compared against the social burdens, and sometimes physiological dangers, of carrying the fetus to term.

Many of the terms used in the debate are controversial and often seen as incomplete or dishonest. For example, the word "choice" glosses over which specific choice is being considered, and opponents sometimes argue that the usage of this term negates any consideration of the developing embryo or fetus. Likewise, the word "life" doesn't specify what sort of life is being talked about, whether living cells or a living person. For pro-life activists, the implication is that the fetus is "alive" as a separate individual, and therefore deserving of culturally-determined personhood. Pro-choice activists, on the other hand, often disagree with the usage of the term because in such a context it does not take into consideration the life of the pregnant woman herself. Furthermore, the terms used by both sides to designate the embryo or fetus can cause heated debate: the clinical term "fetus" is seen by some as a dehumanization tactic, whereas the term "unborn baby" goes in the opposite direction, equating a fertilized cell with a newborn. Similarly others feel that calling a pregnant woman a "mother", adds emotionalism to the debate.

In the case of the murder of a pregnant woman, some U.S. states have passed laws which respect the status of fetal being as a living person — charging separate counts for woman and fetus. Note that there are people who agree that killing a woman who is known to be pregnant qualifies as a two counts of murder but also support the choice to abort. However, due to polarization, pro-choice advocates who might otherwise support these laws often feel the need to oppose them due to the precedent they create, which might then be turned against abortion rights.

Official positions


Pro-Life advocates make a silent complaint in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.
The "pro-life" argument is that an embryo (or, in later stages of development, a fetus) is a human being entitled to protection from the moment of either conception or implantation and therefore has a right to life that must be respected. According to this argument, abortion is homicide. Many take it a step further and say that, unless this homicide is somehow justified, perhaps because it is necessary to save the life of the woman, then abortion is murder.

Some Pro-life advocates argue against comprehensive sexual education on the grounds that it encourages extramarital sex and thus sends mixed signals to teens, especially girls. Some pro-life advocates also say that there is a positive correlation between widespread comprehensive sex education in schools and an increase in teen sexual activity. Claims that sex education results in a rising rate of teen pregnancies, abortions, and sexually transmitted diseases are not supported by empirical evidence. Some Pro-life advocates can also promote other issues such as maintaining strong families and community advocacy of abstinence until marriage.

Because a large percentage of the women who seek and obtain abortions in developed nations such as the U.S. are poor and/or members of racial minority groups, it is also sometimes argued that abortion (and by extension contraception) are intended or unintended tools for the genocide of racial or demographic "undesirables". Pro-life advocates sometimes point to Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger's involvement in the eugenics movement to buttress this argument.

Pro-life advocates sometimes claim that many women, particularly adolescent females, are pressured by boyfriends, husbands, family members, or counselors at abortion clinics to go through with an abortion about which they are ambivalent or opposed to. This claim, which suggests that women are often offered too few practical alternatives to abortion, is perhaps meant to undermine the "pro-choice" label adopted by supporters of legalized abortion.


Pro-choice activists on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, to rally for abortion rights on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Pro-choice activists on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, to rally for abortion rights on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

The "pro-choice" argument is that a woman's right to control her pregnancy outweighs any right claimed for the embryo or fetus, which pro-choice advocates see as not yet having the full rights of a person. The pro-choice side sees abortion as a private medical decision that must not be made by the government. This was the essential holding in the landmark Supreme Court of the United States 1973 decision, Roe v. Wade, and it is accepted by most in the pro-choice community.

Pro-choice advocates regularly argue in favor of comprehensive sex education in high school, contraceptive use, and greater involvement by parents in the lives of their teens as the three best ways to reduce unintended pregnancies and therefore the need for abortions. (Many pro-choice advocates draw the line, however, at parents having a legal right to be notified when their minor daughters are about to obtain an abortion. Some pro-choice advocates view parental involvement in this decision as an abridgement of the minor's right to obtain an abortion. See the separate article about parental notification.) They may not necessarily endorse teen sexuality, but pragmatically recognize that it will exist even under "abstinence-only" sex education. They also note that teens taught abstinence-only education are less likely to use forms of contraception should they have sex, and therefore are more likely to become pregnant and develop STIs.

Religious groups

Some religious groups oppose abortion; some support access to medically supervised abortion; some oppose government restrictions on abortion; and some have no opinion.

Christians, including both the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical Christian churches, usually oppose abortion. Some Christian churches that have become more theologically liberal in the last century hold a pro-choice stance.
Buddhists also usually take an anti-abortion stance, citing the Pali Canon which states that life begins at conception. Moreover, in Buddhism killing of, say, a mosquito, would be a direct breach of the precept which forbids destruction of life. However, since killing a mosquito is not as serious as killing a person, ending the potential life of a fetus may not equate to murder. In addition, they consider that abortion is preferable if the woman's life is at risk.
Islam generally has the stance that if the woman's life is at stake, abortion is permissible under the principle of Shari`ah, the lesser of two evils. Moreover, there are a number of traditional scholars which state that quickening is a sign that the soul has entered the fetus. Otherwise, there is a wide range of positions within Islam. Abortions are usually not prohibited through the fourth month.
Judaism traditionally holds the life of a fetus as sacred, and does not permit abortion on demand. However, it sanctions (or mandates) abortion under some circumstances, namely when the woman's life is threatened or when the woman is under significant stress from pregnancy. Some distinguish between Judaism's view of what's wrong and a Jew's view of what should be legislated as wrong. Many Jews, including Orthodox Jews, believe in separation of state and church (e.g., because Jews historically fared better in the societies whose political views were not influenced by religious views), and believe that unless something that is prohibited by Judaism can be logically proven to a non-believer in Judaism, it cannot be legislated -- otherwise, eating non-kosher food, violating of Shabbat, masturbation, homosexuality and the rest of prohibited activities should be lobbied to be illegal. A middle view says that although all Jewish laws cannot practically be lobbied to be legislated, those that can be (due to an already existing strong public opinion, such as in case of abortion) should be lobbied thus promoting Torah's view when practically possible.
A number of churches and religious groups in the United States of America support the limited right of women to obtain a safe, legal, medically supervised abortion. A partial list of those organizations.


Historically, it is unclear how often the ethics of induced abortion were discussed, since few ancient writers wrote about childbirth. Abortion and infanticide are thought to have been commonplace. Among ancient writers opposed to abortion are Hippocrates of Cos and the Roman Emperor Augustus. The early Christian churches generally opposed abortion, drawing upon early Christian writings such as the Didache (circa 100 A.D.). Since ignorance about pre-natal development prevailed, bans against abortion were in many western countries directed only to the period after "quickening" (the time when fetal movement begins to be felt, approximately the second trimester). By the mid 19th century, abortion was illegal in the US and much of Europe. In the 1960s and 1970s laws against abortion changed in some parts of the world. In South American and Central American countries and most of Africa, elective abortion is not legal. Abortion is legal, and even sometimes encouraged in China and India. In a few countries, such as China, the government sometimes forces women to have abortions.

History of the debate in the United States

The signing of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act was seen as a major political victory for the pro-life movement, though it was soon declared unconstitutional by some federal courts and has yet to be considered by the Supreme Court. The signing of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act was seen as a major political victory for the pro-life movement, though it was soon declared unconstitutional by some federal courts and has yet to be considered by the Supreme Court.

In the United States, as in many countries, the scientific, religious, and philosophical communities have remained polarized on most of these issues.

During the early part of the twentieth century, illegal abortions in the U.S. were commonplace often with the knowledge and tacit sanction of officials. The general rule had been that an abortion would not be performed if the child was "quick" or perceptibly moving within the womb which generally happens after about four and a half months of gestation. In the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, limits on abortion were established according to gestational trimester periods, establishing a cutoff at the third trimester unless the woman's health was at risk. In subsequent rulings, the Court rejected the trimester framework altogether in favor of a cutoff at the point of fetal viability (Cf. Planned Parenthood v. Casey).

The political debate tends to center on questions of legality, though such debates are often based on moral questions. In the United States today, the political debate centers on two questions:

1. Should "partial-birth abortions" (or "Intact dilation and extraction") for medical reasons related to the woman's health continue to be legal? 2. Should parental notification be required before a minor can have an abortion?
There are also those who believe that all abortion should be illegal. This most likely could only be accomplished by a constitutional amendment. Despite widespread belief to the contrary, the Supreme Court reversing itself by overturning Roe v. Wade would not outlaw abortion, but rather make the issue a province of the individual states, likely resulting in a patchwork of laws varying from a complete ban in some states to a full guarantee of abortion rights in others.

On November 5, 2003, United States President George W. Bush signed into law the "Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act" which makes it illegal for anyone to perform partial-birth abortion. However, members of the pro-choice community, represented by the ACLU, filed a lawsuit protesting the law, noting in part that the law does not make clear what acts it is criminalizing, and the act has been blocked. At present, the matter is unresolved; however, on February 21, 2006, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

At this time, it is uncertain if Roe v. Wade would be overturned, but opinion polls consistently show that most Americans accept the court decision as necessary to protect a woman's rights. However, recent shifts in the composition of the high court may change things, especially regarding partial-birth abortion, which was previously reaffirmed via Stenberg v. Carhart. That decision struck down a Nebraska law which banned all partial-birth abortions. The vote was 5-4, with Justice Kennedy dissenting though he otherwise supports abortion rights. Justice O'Connor (who voted with the majority to strike down the law) has been replaced by Justice Alito (who some believe will uphold laws banning the practice).

Related issues, such as requiring parental consent for minors, waiting periods, education, and the "Unborn Victims of Violence Act" are also in contention in some states.

On February 22, 2006, the South Dakota State Senate voted 23 to 12 to ban all abortions in the state except in cases where the woman's life is endangered. The proposal was signed by the governor on March 6, 2006. The South Dakota law is viewed by some to be a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade. If it goes to the high court, Roe v. Wade could be overturned by new, conservative Justices. However a statewide referendum to repeal the bill was passed by voters by a 55-45 margin, resulting in this law being repealed.

Modern arguments


The central arguments in the abortion debate are deontological or rights-based. The view that all or almost all abortion should be illegal generally rests on the claims: (1) that the existence and moral right to life of human beings (human organisms) begins at or near conception-fertilisation; (2) that induced abortion is the deliberate and unjust killing of the fetus in violation of its right to life; and (3) that the law should prohibit unjust violations of the right to life. The view that abortion should in most or all circumstances be legal generally rests on the claims: (1) that women have a right to control what happens in and to their own bodies; (2) that abortion is a just exercise of this right; and (3) that the law should not criminalise just exercises of the right to control one’s own body. Both sides of the debate would grant premise (3) of the central pro-life argument and premises (1) and (3) of the central pro-choice argument.

Although both sides are likely to see the rights-based considerations as paramount, some popular arguments appeal to consequentialist or utilitarian considerations. For example, pro-life advocacy groups (see the list below) sometimes draw attention to the abortion-breast cancer hypothesis, post-abortion syndrome, and other alleged medical and psychological risks of abortion. On the other side, some pro-choice groups (see the list below) claim that criminalizing abortion will lead to the deaths of many women through ‘back-alley abortions’; that unwanted children have a negative social impact (or conversely that abortion lowers the crime rate); or that reproductive rights are necessary to achieve the full and equal participation of women in society and the workforce. Consequentialist arguments on both sides tend to be vigorously disputed, though are not widely discussed in the philosophical literature.

Philosophical argumentation on the moral issue

Contemporary philosophical literature contains two kinds of arguments concerning the morality of abortion. One family of arguments (see the following three sections) relates to the moral status of the fetus—the question of whether the fetus has a right to life, is the sort of being it would be seriously wrong to kill, or in other words is a 'person' in the moral sense. An affirmative answer would support claim (1) in the central pro-life argument, while a negative answer would support claim (2) in the central pro-choice argument.

Another family of arguments (see the section on Thomson, below) relates to bodily rights the question of whether the woman's bodily rights justify abortion even if the fetus has a right to life. A negative answer would support claim (2) in the central pro-life argument, while an affirmative answer would support claim (2) in the central pro-choice argument.

Arguments based on criteria for personhood

Mary Anne Warren, in her famous article arguing for the permissibility of abortion, holds that moral opposition to abortion is based on the following argument:

1. It is wrong to kill innocent human beings. 2. The fetus is an innocent human being. 3. Hence it is wrong to kill the fetus.
Warren, however, thinks that 'human being' is used in different senses in (1) and (2). In (1), 'human being' is used in a moral sense to mean a 'person', a 'full-fledged member of the moral community'. In (2), 'human being' means 'biological human'. That the fetus is a biologically human organism or animal is uncontroversial, Warren holds. But it does not follow that the fetus is a person, and it is persons that have rights, such as the right to life.

To help make a distinction between 'person' and 'biological human', Warren notes that we should respect the lives of highly intelligent aliens, even if they are not biological humans. She thinks there is a cluster of properties that characterize persons:

1. consciousness (of objects and events external and/or internal to the being), and in particular the capacity to feel pain 2. reasoning (the developed capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems) 3. self-motivated activity (activity which is relatively independent of either genetic or direct external control) 4. the capacity to communicate, by whatever means, messages of an indefinite variety of types, that is, not just with an indefinite number of possible contents, but on indefinitely many possible topics 5. the presence of self-concepts, and self-awareness, either individual or racial, or both
A person does not have to have each of these, but if something has all five then it definitely is a person whether it is biologically human or not, while if it has none or perhaps only one then it is not a person, again whether it is biologically human or not. The fetus has at most one, consciousness (and this only after it becomes susceptible to pain—the timing of which is disputed), and hence is not a person.

Other writers apply similar criteria, concluding that the fetus lacks a right to life because it lacks self-consciousness, or rationality and self-consciousness, or 'certain higher psychological capacities' including 'autonomy'. These writers disagree on precisely which features confer a right to life, but agree those features must be certain developed psychological features which the fetus lacks.

Arguments of this sort face two main objections. The comatose patient objection claims that as patients in a reversible coma do not satisfy Warren's (or other) criteria—they are not conscious, do not communicate, and so on—therefore they would lack a right to life on her view. One response is that 'although the reversibly comatose lack any conscious mental states, they do retain all their unconscious [or dispositional] mental states, since the appropriate neurological configurations are preserved in the brain.' This may allow them to satisfy some of Warren's criteria.

The infanticide objection points out that infants (indeed up to about one year of age, since it is only around then that they begin to outstrip the abilities of non-human animals) have only one of Warren's characteristics consciousness and hence would have to be accounted non-persons on her view; thus her view would permit not only abortion but infanticide. Warren agrees that infants are non-persons (and so killing them is not strictly murder), but denies that infanticide is generally permissible. For, Warren claims, once a human being is born, there is no longer a conflict between it and the woman's rights, since the human being can be given up for adoption. Killing such a human being would be wrong, not because it is a person, but because it would go against the desires of people willing to adopt the infant and to pay to keep the infant alive.

Nonetheless, Warren grants that her argument entails that infanticide would be morally acceptable under some circumstances, such as those of a desert island. Philosopher Peter Singer similarly concludes that infanticide, particularly of severely disabled infants, is justifiable under certain conditions. And Jeff McMahan grants that under very limited circumstances it may be permissible to kill one infant to save the lives of several others. Opponents may see these concessions as a reductio ad absurdum of these writers' views; while supporters may see them merely as examples of unpleasant acts being justified in unusual cases.

The natural capacities view

Some opponents of Warren's view believe that what matters morally is not that one be actually exhibiting complex mental qualities of the sort she identifies, but rather that one have in oneself a self-directed genetic propensity or natural capacity to develop such qualities. In other words, what is crucial is that one be the kind of entity or substance that, under the right conditions, actively develops itself to the point of exhibiting Warren's qualities at some point in its life, even if it does not actually exhibit them because of not having developed them yet (fetus, infant) or having lost them (severe Alzheimer's). Because human beings do have this natural capacity and indeed have it essentially therefore (on this view) they essentially have a right to life: they could not possibly fail to have a right to life. Further, since modern embryology shows (it is said) that the fetus begins to exist at conception and has a natural capacity for complex mental qualities, therefore the right to life begins at conception.

Grounding the right to life in essential natural capacities rather than accidental developed capacities is said to have several advantages. As developed capacities are on a continuum, admitting of greater and lesser degrees some, for example, are more rational and self-conscious than others therefore: (1) the 'developed capacities view must arbitrarily select some particular degree of development as the cut-off point for the right to life whereas the 'natural capacities' view is non-arbitrary; (2) those whose capacities are more developed would have more of a right to life on the 'developed capacities' view whereas the 'natural capacities' view entails we all have an equal right to life; and (3) the continuum of developed capacities makes the exact point at which personhood ensues vague, and human beings around that point, say between one and two years of age, will have a shadowy or indeterminate moral status—whereas there is no such indeterminacy on the 'natural capacities' view.

Some defenders of Warren-style arguments grant that these problems have not yet been fully solved, but reply that the 'natural capacities' view fares no better. It is argued, for example, that as human beings vary significantly in their natural cognitive capacities (some are naturally more intelligent than others), and as one can imagine a series or spectrum of species with gradually diminishing natural capacities (for example, a series from humans down to amoebae with only the slightest differences in natural capacities between each successive species), therefore the problems of arbitrariness and inequality will apply equally to the 'natural capacities' view. In other words, there is a continuum not only of developed but of natural capacities, and so the 'natural capacities' view will inevitably face these problems as well.

These problems aside, some critics reject the 'natural capacities' view on the basis that it takes mere species membership or genetic potential as a basis for respect (in essence a charge of speciesism), or because it entails that anencephalic infants and the irreversibly comatose have a full right to life. Moreover, as with Marquis’s argument (see below), some theories of personal identity would support the view that the fetus will never itself develop complex mental qualities (rather, it will simply give rise to a distinct substance or entity that will have these qualities), in which case the 'natural capacities' argument would fail.

The deprivation argument

A seminal essay by Don Marquis argues that abortion is wrong because it deprives the fetus of a valuable future. Marquis begins by arguing that what makes it wrong to kill a normal adult human being is the fact that the killing inflicts a terrible harm on the victim. The harm consists in the fact that ‘when I die, I am deprived of all of the value of my future’: I am deprived of all the valuable ‘experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments’ that I would otherwise have had. Thus, if a being has a highly valuable future ahead of it—a ‘future like ours’—then killing that being would be seriously harmful and hence seriously wrong. But then, as a standard fetus does have a highly valuable future, killing a standard fetus is seriously wrong. And so ‘the overwhelming majority of deliberate abortions are seriously immoral’—‘in the same moral category as killing an innocent adult human being’.

A consequence of this argument is that abortion is wrong in all the cases where killing a child or adult with the same sort of future as the fetus would be wrong. So for example, if involuntary euthanasia of patients with a future filled with intense physical pain is morally acceptable, aborting fetuses whose future is filled with intense physical pain will also be morally acceptable. But it would not do, for example, to invoke the fact that some fetus's future would involve such things as being raised by an unloving family, since we do not take it to be acceptable to kill a five-year-old just because her future involves being raised by an unloving family. Similarly, killing a child or adult may be permissible in exceptional circumstances such as self-defense or (perhaps) capital punishment; but these are irrelevant to standard abortions.

Marquis’s argument has prompted several objections. The contraception objection claims that if Marquis’s argument is correct, then, since sperm and ova (or perhaps a sperm and ovum jointly) have a future like ours, contraception would be as wrong as murder; but as this conclusion is (it is said) absurd—even those who believe contraception is wrong do not believe it is as wrong as murder—the argument must be unsound. One response is that neither the sperm, nor the egg, nor any particular sperm-egg combination, will ever itself live out a valuable future: what will later have valuable experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments is a new entity, a new organism, that will come into existence at or near conception; and it is this entity, not the sperm or egg or any sperm-egg combination, that has a future like ours.

As this response makes clear, Marquis's argument requires that what will later have valuable experiences and activities is the same entity, the same biological organism, as the fetus. The identity objection rejects this assumption. On certain theories of personal identity (generally motivated by thought experiments involving brain or cerebrum transplants), each of us is not a biological organism but rather an embodied mind or a person (in John Locke’s sense) that comes into existence when the brain gives rise to certain developed psychological capacities. If either of these views is correct, Marquis’s argument will fail; for the fetus (at least the early fetus, lacking the relevant psychological capacities) would not itself have a future of value, but would merely have the potential to give rise to a different entity, an embodied mind or a person, that would have a future of value. The success of Marquis’s argument thus depends on one’s favored account of personal identity.

The interests objection claims that what makes murder wrong is not just the deprivation of a valuable future, but the deprivation of a future that one has an interest in. The fetus has no conscious interest in its future, and so (the objection concludes) to kill it is not wrong. The defender of Marquis-style arguments may, however, give the counterexample of the suicidal teenager who takes no interest in his or her future, but killing whom is nonetheless wrong and murder. If the opponent responds that one can have an interest in one's future without taking an interest in it, then the defender of the Marquis-style argument can claim that this applies to the fetus. Similarly, if an opponent claims that what is crucial is having a valuable future which one would, under ideal conditions, desire to preserve (whether or not one does in fact desire to preserve it), then the defender may ask why the fetus would not, under ideal conditions, desire to preserve its future.

The equality objection claims that Marquis’s argument leads to unacceptable inequalities. If, as Marquis claims, killing is wrong because it deprives the victim of a valuable future, then, since some futures appear to contain much more value than others—a 9 year old has a much longer future than a 90 year old, a middle class person’s future has much less gratuitous pain and suffering than someone in extreme poverty—some killings would turn out to be much more wrong than others. But as this is strongly counterintuitive (most people believe all killings are equally wrong, other things being equal), Marquis’s argument must be mistaken. Some writers have concluded that the wrongness of killing arises not from the harm it causes the victim (since this varies greatly among killings), but from the killing’s violation of the intrinsic worth or personhood of the victim. However, such accounts may themselves face problems of equality, and so the equality objection may not be decisive against Marquis's argument.

Finally, the psychological connectedness objection claims that a being can be seriously harmed by being deprived of a valuable future only if there are sufficient psychological connections—sufficient correlations or continuations of memory, belief, desire and the like—between the being as it is now and the being as it will be when it lives out the valuable future. As there are few psychological connections between the fetus and its later self, it is concluded that depriving the fetus of its future does not seriously harm it (and hence is not seriously wrong). A defence of this objection is likely to rest, as with certain views of personal identity, on thought experiments involving brain or cerebrum swaps; and this may render it implausible to some readers.

The bodily rights argument

In her well-known article A Defense of Abortion, Judith Jarvis Thomson argues that abortion is in some circumstances permissible even if the fetus has a right to life. Her central argument involves a thought experiment. Imagine, Thomson says, that you wake up in bed next to a famous violinist. He is unconscious with a fatal kidney ailment; and because only you happen to have the right blood type to help, the Society of Music Lovers has kidnapped you and plugged your circulatory system into his so that your kidneys can filter poisons from his blood as well as your own. If he is disconnected from you now, he will die; but in nine months he will recover and can be safely disconnected. Thomson takes it that you may permissibly unplug yourself from the violinist even though this will kill him. The right to life, Thomson says, does not entail the right to use another person's body, and so in disconnecting the violinist you do not violate his right to life but merely deprive him of something—the use of your body—to which he has no right. Similarly, even if the fetus has a right to life, it does not have a right to use the pregnant woman's body; and so aborting the fetus is permissible in at least some circumstances. However, Thomson notes that the woman's right to abortion does not include the right to directly insist upon the death of the child, should the fetus happen to be viable, that is, capable of surviving outside the womb.

Critics of this argument generally agree that unplugging the violinist is permissible, but claim there are morally relevant disanalogies between the violinist scenario and typical cases of abortion. The most common objection is that the violinist scenario, involving a kidnapping, is analogous only to abortion after rape. In most cases of abortion, it is said, the pregnant woman was not raped but had intercourse voluntarily, and thus has either tacitly consented to allowing the fetus to use her body (the tacit consent objection), or else has a duty to sustain the fetus because the woman herself caused the fetus to stand in need of her body (the responsibility objection). Other common objections turn on the claim that the fetus is the pregnant woman's child whereas the violinist is a stranger (the stranger versus offspring objection); that abortion kills the fetus whereas unplugging the violinist merely lets him die (the killing versus letting die objection); or, similarly, that abortion intentionally causes the fetus's death whereas unplugging the violinist merely causes death as a foreseen but unintended side-effect (the intending versus foreseeing objection; cf the doctrine of double effect).

Defenders of Thomson's argument—most notably David Boonin—reply that the alleged disanalogies between the violinist scenario and typical cases of abortion do not hold, either because the factors that critics appeal to are not genuinely morally relevant, or because those factors are morally relevant but do not apply to abortion in the way that critics have claimed. Critics have in turn responded to Boonin's arguments. Thomson's argument thus remains highly controversial; but arguably it does at least show that the moral impermissibility of abortion does not obviously and necessarily follow from the claim that the fetus has a right to life.
Tags: abortion, ethics, euthanasia, pregnancy

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