Abortion is the ending of a pregnancy so birth does not result. Miscarriages can be considered spontaneous abortions.

Debate on intentional abortion is often polarised. On one end, there are ‘pro-choice’ individuals who believe a woman’s right over their own body overrides the right for the foetus to live. On the other end is ‘pro-life’ which considers it wrong to kill a human being, and that human beings exist from conception. In practice, individuals may adopt a ‘gradualist’ view which lie between these viewpoints. However, a gradualist view, though flexible, may nevertheless be incapable of setting up rigid laws that regulate abortion.

Consequentialist considerations

  • Egoism
    • If abortion was legalised, individuals may just treat it as just another form of contraception and forego contraceptives like condoms and the pill.
    • Legal abortion would prevent women from seeking unsafe illegal abortions.
    • Abortion may allow individuals to select the children they want.
  • Utilitarianism
    • The birth of an unwanted child would bring unhappiness to the family. However, some argue that the child bring happiness if they are adopted by a family who is struggling to have a child.
    • The birth of an unwanted child would take away resources from the family, especially if this family is already struggling socioeconomically.

Deontological considerations

There are several competing rights and interests which affect the morality of abortion. Hope (2003) describes them as:

  1. Procreative autonomy: Dworkin (1993) defines procreative autonomy as the “right to control their own role in procreation unless the state has a compelling reason for denying them that control”.
  2. Interests of the state: The future child may require significant resources in its care from the state. Allowing couples choice (e.g. the baby’s sex) could have undesirable consequences for the population as a whole.
  3. Interests of the future child: Some argue that since the state already has the right to interfere in the interest of the future child in matters of assisted reproduction so they should have the right to interfere in decisions regarding that future child’s life.
  4. Duty not to kill: This is the pro-life stance where procreative autonomy cannot extend to the killing of an existing foetus because life is sacred and killing is inherently wrong.

Moral status of the embryo/foetus

In abortion arguments, the competing interests of female autonomy and the foetus’s right to life is often evaluated by the moral status of the embryo/foetus: whether the foetus should have the same rights as an adult human being. There are four main perspectives on this (Hope, 2003):

  1. Identity as a human organism: The moral status of a human organism at different stages of development are the same as the embryo is the same physical entity as the child it will develop into. Some supporters believe the embryo achieves full moral status at conception, while others say it cannot be achieved until the potential for twinning is lost at around day 14 (Warnock Committee, 1984).
  2. Identity as a person: The moral status of an embryo/foetus should be determined by their current status. Most proponents hold personhood requires consciousness. Some entities (e.g. Nebraska) designate this as perception of pain, thought to develop at ~24 weeks (Anand and Hickey, 1987). Others argue personhood requires self-consciousness. Singer (1993) holds that foetuses lack self-consciousness as they do not have preferences, which require rationality and autonomy. Singer also finds newborns lacking self-consciousness so “killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person…a being who wants to go on living”.
  3. Potential to be a person: Abortion from conception onwards is wrong because of their potential to be a person. Singer (1985) argues this view is absurd as every egg and sperm carries this potential if fertilised and we would find that contraception is also immoral.
  4. The value given to human organisms by others: Strong (1999) argues that moral status need not be based solely on intrinsic properties of the organism, but can be conferred by others. Feinberg (1984) contends we confer moral status on infants symbolically as they are very similar to persons. Engelhardt (1973) asserts that infants have moral status at birth as they take on an important social role. This viewpoint also means if no one is upset by the death of an infant, killing would be moral.

Other considerations

  • Judith Jarvis Thompson (1971) uses a thought experiment to argue for abortion: If you wake up one day with your circulatory system connected to that of a famous violinist, is it not your right decide if you unplug yourself and kill the violinist or not? Similar to the euthanasia action/omission differentiation, Thompson argues that abortion withdraws the right for a foetus/embryo to use the pregnant woman’s body instead of violating the foetus/embryo’s right to life.
  • Eva Feder Kittay (2011), through her own experiences in raising a disabled daughter, argues against abortion based on how it goes against valuing relationships and care which are the fundamental tenants of the ethics of care (see ethical theories).
  • There is a need to consider unwanted pregnancies which result from rape or result despite using high quality contraception as well as pregnancies in which the mother or child may have severe health complications.

Case studies

  • Joanna Jepsen, UK: An anglican priest, she challenged an 28 week ‘late’ abortion based on a cleft lip and palate of the foetus. She argued that it did not constitute a serious handicap which justified abortion under the 1967 UK Abortion Act. A judicial review found doctors had acted in “good faith”.
  • Roe v. Wade (1973), USA: Norma McCorvey, under the alias Jane Roe, had been pregnant with a third child at 21 and sought abortion, although she ultimately gave birth and put the child up for adoption. She filed a lawsuit against the existing law on abortion in Texas. The Supreme Court ruled that the US constitution protects a pregnant woman’s liberty to chose to have an abortion. This overturned several state laws banning abortion at the time.

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