I welcome constructive feedback; I'd like to improve this essay and my understanding of the topic. The analysis of utilitarian defenses of abortion should probably be tighter.

The Morality of Abortion: A Critique

B. Sharvy | Other Topics

In this essay I will canvass the main arguments of the abortion debate, with the hope of sharpening that debate. The goal is to clarify ideas, rather than to defend a political position. Only the central ground of the debate is considered: the morality of "convenience" abortion stemming from consensual, adult sex. The conclusions this essay demands are: 1) the morality of abortion is a complex topic with reasonable arguments available to both sides; 2) greater respect than is typically found in public forums is due to both sides; 3) it is impossible to hold a standard pro-choice or pro-life position without contradicting some other widely held, intuitive belief. Those who enjoy intellectual challenges in life will find this last conclusion particularly exciting.

The abortion debate begins with the moral status of the fetus. If the fetus has no rights, then abortion is a non-issue--it is as easy to justify as an appendectomy. But, if the fetus has rights, then abortion doesn't solely concern the freedom of women, since personal freedom is constrained by the rights of others. The most prevalent argument that the fetus has a moral status disallowing abortion is:

However, there are some widely granted exceptions to the rule that to destroy a human being deliberately is unethical. (In this essay "human being" refers strictly to an animal of the species homo sapiens; it has no intrinsic sense of being a member of a society, or person with rights--using the term in those senses, in this particular discussion, tends to produce circular arguments.)

A popular justification for intentionally destroying a human being is self-defense, and the principle of self-defense is widey advanced on behalf of abortion. But it doesn't justify abortion. A claim of self-defense doesn't defend against a criminal charge when it comes from the party who brought about the conflict. For example, parents can't invoke self-defense and treat their (minor) children as trespassers, because parents bring it about that there are children needing shelter. Parents also bring about pregnancy, so self-defense can't justify ending pregnancy in ways that are normally criminal, such as killing a human being. An occasional rebuttal here is that parents aren't responsible for the pregnancy if they didn't intend it. But, responsibility for the consequences of one's actions isn't limited to intended consequences. Causing accidents and gambling are two examples of how we can be responsible for unintended consequences. Unintended, unwanted pregnancy due to consensual sex is merely a lost gamble (or maybe an accident, if the possibility of pregnancy was poorly understood). So in general, when liberties are in conflict the rights of the party that brought about the conflict--intentionally or not--give way. If it is granted that fetuses have the "basic human rights", then the rights of the mother must defer to those of the fetus, and the principle of self-defense doesn't justify abortion.

Murder is sometimes defended on utilitarian grounds; for example, in the case of war. To wage war is to bring about the death of innocents knowingly; such deaths are unavoidable as a practical matter. Nonetheless, many believe that war can be justified, if the good outweighs the evil. So perhaps abortion could be defended as a moral choice, even if it were murder, on the same grounds. This approach has a number of problems. It is difficult to see how utilitarian principles could justify a rights violation as serious as murder in order to avoid an outcome which is merely burdensome (childbearing) and which can be avoided with peaceful methods (refraining from intercourse). Most utilitarian defenses of abortion seem also to work as defenses of infanticide: both might reduce the number of unwanted children (and attendant social problems), and increase the freedom and autonomy of women (by reducing their obligations). A utilitarian approach requires that competing outcomes be valued (in order to compare them), and that valuing seems arbitrary when the competing outcomes are of different types. For example, in war, one might weigh the number of murders that will result if no war is waged against the number of murders that will result from waging war; the value assigned to murder isn't an issue in such a comparison as long as it is consistent. In the case of abortion, however, the possible outcomes are of different types, e.g., the increased freedom of women vs. death of human beings innocent of wrongdoing. The value of each outcome relative to the other is an extra issue that is subjective and complex (possibly involving many outside factors, such as the availability of adoption), and perhaps can only be settled by expedient means such as "majority rule." Finally, overriding individual rights on utilitarian grounds may not serve the pro-choice movement well, since the pro-choice movement is typically rights-based. For example, to make the utilitarian argument outlined above is to allow, in principle, the possibility that abortion may be coerced by the state, if it can be shown that the abortion benefits the society more than permitting the birth would. Regardless of whether such a thing could actually be shown, even to allow the principle--to legitimize an inquiry into whether such a thing can be shown--is inconsistent with a pro-choice position grounded in women's rights (which seems to be the mainstream pro-choice position). In summary, using utilitarianism to defend against the charge that abortion is murder is probably a mistake and certainly problematic. It seems to require that a life be valued less than personal convenience, or that abortion be no different morally from infanticide. It also seems to entail a complex and subjective weighting of outcomes. Utilitarianism itself is controversial and rejected by many (it has a "commie" flavor), although it seems necessary in some form to justify war (also pollution).

Implicit in the claim that it is unethical to kill a human being deliberately is the idea that we have rights because we are human beings. Therefore, the reasoning goes, a fetus has rights, since a fetus is a human being. This idea has been rejected by some philosophers (especially Michael Tooley, in Abortion and Infanticide). The alternative view is that membership in a biological species is not morally significant in itself; that is, if most human beings have rights, it isn't because they belong to a biological species that is innately morally privileged, but because of some other feature or features that human beings typically possess. Such features are usually held to be mental: self-awareness, self-determination, etc. Exactly which features, and to what degree, a being needs in order to have rights seems very complex, but it is reasonable to attach them to a capacity for self-determination, on the grounds that self-determination is the individual right from which others (such as the right not to be murdered) derive. Such features would be mental then, e.g., a capacity for acting by choice (as opposed to reflex), for sustained interests and thought, for having goals, and so on. In any case, the collective of mental capacities needed to endow a being with rights is typically called "personhood"; the position that mental capacities rather than biological specieshood determine an entity's rights is sometimes called the "personhood" argument. We are thought to have rights not because of our biological species, but because we are persons. The personhood argument has some results that are intuitively appealing to many:

So according to the personhood view, the morality of abortion depends on the mental capacities of the fetus. In normal human beings, none of the mental capacities generally referred to as "higher" capacities, e.g., thought, are detectable until after birth. So it is unlikely that a fetus or a neonate is a person, even granting considerable uncertainty over which capacities, exactly, personhood requires. Pro-life advocates make the point that brain activity occurs in fetuses, but their point has problems. The conventional pro-life view needs to account for the zygote, not the fetus, and there is no brain activity in zygotes; in fact, there is no brain in zygotes. So the conventional pro-life view can't incorporate personhood criteria at all. More importantly, brain activity is not in itself relevant. Brain activity--EEGs, REM, reflexive functioning, etc.--occurs in many animals that aren't persons. The "higher" capacities in humans have been located in the upper layers of the cerebral cortex, which is physically incapable of significant functioning until after birth. So, it appears that fetuses are not persons, and if the personhood view is correct, that they have no rights and that abortion is moral in any term. However, if the personhood view is correct, neonates have the same moral status as fetuses, and infanticide is equally moral, since the event of birth doesn't correspond to the event of attaining personhood (significant psychological plateaus seem to occur at two to three months and one year). Birth determines where the human is, not what he or she is. In summary, the personhood view has much intuitive support, and results in a justification of abortion, but by the same token it justifies infanticide of neonates. Yet infanticide is a practice which most people are intuitively and emotionally unwilling to accept.

Conclusion: it is not easy for most people to reject the standard pro-life argument without rejecting other beliefs they have, such as the belief that infanticide is wrong, or murder isn't justified to serve society. Most people cannot disprove the pro-life position without also disproving some other strongly held belief.

The same problem exists in the pro-life camp. More than half of conceptions are naturally aborted within a month. If the loss of zygote life is equivalent to the loss of a person's life, then the spontaneous abortion of zygotes is an enormous natural disaster, the numbers dwarfing death from any other natural cause. Yet the activism on behalf of medical research to reduce such abortions is nil, and dead zygotes (when noticed) conventionally don't receive standard ceremony. In their practices, people don't seem to care about zygotes as they do people. Additionally, according to the pro-life argument presented, which I think is the most representative, a woman who has an abortion is a murderer. Criminal treatment is therefore required, in the harshest acceptable form, since abortion is premeditated and predicated on a philosophy denying the rights of a group of people: it fits the definition of hate-crime. Yet most pro-lifers are intuitively and emotionally unwilling to endorse treatment of such women as murderers in our justice system. The pro-life movement largely distances itself from "extremists" who resort to violence to stop abortion, and yet such violent methods are justified in order to prevent bona fide murder (not to mention genocide). Pro-lifers sometimes explain the forgiveness of women who have abortions by depicting them as hapless victims, brainwashed by profiteering doctors--a sweeping theory for which there seems to be zero research. Nor is the theory consistent even if true: We do not usually excuse hate-crimes because the perpetrator was swayed by the prejudice of others (unless the perpetrator is a child or insane, which presumably does not describe the average woman).

Pro-life sometimes counters the personhood argument by arguing that having the potential for personhood endows the fetus with the same rights as having personhood. The argument doesn't work. The general situation is that there are some properties a thing may have that make it unethical to destroy that thing--that give it "human" rights." Such properties could be personhood, or membership in homo sapiens--it doesn't matter. The proposal, then, is that the potential to possess such a property is, in itself, such a property. But that proposal leads to infinite regress, since it implies that the potential for the potential to possess a certain property endows one with rights as well, and so on. It only takes a few iterations of that principle to get the result that amino acids have rights. To say that the potential for X is an example of actual X renders the distinction between potential and actual meaningless. (Potential differs from capacity: a person in deep sleep has a capacity for thought and other mental feats definitive of personhood, even though those feats are not being performed; a fetus lacks those capacities, although it has the potential for them.)

In any case, the upshot is that the morality of abortion is not a simple topic. It is less simple than many people with opinions on it will acknowledge, not only in public, but, it seems, to themselves. One of the most exciting features of this topic, intellectually, is that it has something to violate the intuitions of everyone. Neither pro-life nor pro-choice can generate a logically consistent position on abortion without abandoning other beliefs which are strongly and widely held. Perhaps less self-righteousness from both sides is in order, then.

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B. Sharvy | Other Topics