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26 Better (Philosophical) Arguments about Abortion

Kristina Grob and Nathan Nobis

Nathan Nobis is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Morehouse College, Atlanta GA. He is the author of many articles and chapters on bioethics and other ethical and philosophical issues. He is the author of the open-access book Animals & Ethics 101: Thinking Critically About Animal Rights, and is an editor of the open-access 1000-Word Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology. www.NathanNobis.com. Kristina Grob is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of South Carolina, Sumter. This work released under a CC-BY license.

Introduction

We argue that abortion should not be illegal because most abortions are not morally wrong (and so they are not seriously or extremely wrong). So, states are making bad moral and legal moves, to say the least, in trying to criminalize abortions, at least when they are done early in pregnancy, as they usually are.

Arguments Against Abortion

We will begin with arguments for the conclusion that abortion is generally wrong, perhaps nearly always wrong. These can be seen as reasons to believe fetuses have the “right to life” or are otherwise seriously wrong to kill.

Fetuses are human

First, there is the claim that fetuses are “human” and so abortion is wrong. People sometimes debate whether fetuses are human, but fetuses found in (human) women clearly are biologically human: they aren’t cats or dogs! And so we have this argument, with a clearly true first premise:

  1. Fetuses are biologically human.
  2. All things that are biologically human are wrong to kill.
  3. Therefore, fetuses are wrong to kill.

The second premise, however, is false, as easy counterexamples show. Consider a blob of random living biologically human cells or tissues in a petri dish. It wouldn’t be wrong at all to wash those cells or tissues down the drain, killing them; scratching yourself or shaving might kill some biologically human skin cells, but that’s not wrong; a tumor might be biologically human, but not wrong to kill. So just because something is biologically human, that doesn’t at all mean it’s wrong to kill that thing.

A different meaning of “human” will be discussed below: people who insist that (biologically human) fetuses aren’t “human” might mean “person” or human person.

Fetuses are “human beings”

Some respond to this argument by observing that fetuses aren’t just random biologically human cells, but are organized in ways that makes them beings or organisms. (A kidney is part of a “being,” but the “being” is the whole organism). That suggests this argument:

  1. Fetuses are human beings or organisms.
  2. All human beings or organisms are wrong to kill.
  3. Therefore, fetuses are wrong to kill, so abortion is wrong.

The first premise is true. About the second premise, clearly many human beings or organisms are wrong to kill. Why is this though? What makes us wrong to kill?

It is generally argued that this is because we, these human beings, are conscious and feeling: we are aware of the world, have feelings and our perspectives can go better or worse for us – we can be harmed – and that’s what makes killing us wrong. (It may also be not wrong to let us die, and perhaps even kill, if we come to be completely and permanently lacking any consciousness, however, say from major brain damage or a coma, since we can’t be harmed by death anymore.[1]) So, on this explanation, human beings are wrong to kill, when they are wrong to kill, not because they are human beings (a circular explanation), but because we have these psychological or mental (or emotional) characteristics: this explains why we have rights in a simple, common-sense way.

The challenge then is explaining why fetuses that have never been conscious or had any feeling or awareness would be wrong to kill. How can the second premise above, general to all human organisms, be supported, especially when applied to early fetuses?

One attempt is argue that early fetuses are wrong to kill because there is continuous development from fetuses to us, and since we are wrong to kill now, fetuses are also wrong to kill, since we’ve been the “same being” all along. But this can’t be good reasoning, since we have many physical, cognitive, emotional and moral characteristics now that we lacked as fetuses (and as children). So even if we are the “same being” over time, even if we were once early fetuses, that doesn’t show that fetuses have the moral rights that babies, children and adults have: we, our bodies and our rights sometimes change.

A second attempt proposes that rights are essential to human organisms: they have them whenever they exist. This perspective sees having rights, or the characteristic(s) that makes someone have rights, as essential to human bodies: “having rights” is an essential property of human beings or organisms: so whenever there’s a living human organism, there’s someone with rights, even if that organism totally lacks consciousness, like an early fetus. (In contrast, our proposal about what makes us have rights understands rights as “accidental” to our bodies, since our bodies haven’t always “contained” a conscious being.) Such a view supports the premise above; maybe it just is that premise above.

But why believe it? Why believe that rights are essential to human organisms? Some argue this because of what “kind” of beings we are, which is often presumed to be “rational beings.” The reasoning is, first, that rights come from being a rational being. And, second, that all human organisms, including fetuses, are the “kind” of being that is a “rational being,” so every being of the “kind” rational being has rights.

This explanation is, at least, abstract. It might seem to involve thinking that rights somehow “trickle down” from later rationality to our embryonic origins, and so what we have later we also have earlier, because we are the same being or same “kind” of being. But this idea is, in general, doubtful: we are now responsible beings, in part because we are rational beings, but fetuses aren’t responsible for anything: we are now able to engage in moral reasoning since we are rational beings, but fetuses don’t have the “rights” that uniquely depend on moral reasoning abilities. Even if fetuses and us are the same “kind” of beings, that often doesn’t tell us much about what rights fetuses would have, if any. And we might even reasonably think that, despite our being the same kind of beings as fetuses, we are also importantly different kinds of beings.

In sum, the abstract view that all human organisms have rights essentially needs to be plausibly explained and defended. We need to understand how it really works. We need to be shown why it’s a better explanation, all things considered, than a consciousness and feelings-based theory of rights that explains why we, and babies, have rights, why racism, sexism and other forms of wrongful discrimination are wrong, and, importantly, how we might lose rights in irreversible coma cases (if people always retained the right to life in these circumstances, presumably it would be wrong to let anyone die), and more.

Fetuses are persons

Finally, we get to what some see as the core issue here, namely whether fetuses are persons, and an argument like this:

  1. Fetuses are persons, perhaps from conception.
  2. Persons have the right to life and are wrong to kill.
  3. Therefore, abortion is wrong, as it involves killing persons.

The second premise seems very plausible, but there are some important complications about it that will be discussed later. So let’s focus on the idea of personhood and whether fetuses are persons. What is it to be a person? One answer that everyone can agree on is that persons are beings with rights and value. That’s a fine answer, but it takes us back to the initial question: OK, who or what has the rights and value of persons? What makes someone or something a person?

Answers here are often merely asserted, but these answers need to be tested: definitions can be judged in terms of whether they fit how a word is used. We might begin by thinking about what makes us persons. Consider this:

We are persons now. Either we will always be persons or we will cease being persons. If we will cease to be persons, what can end our personhood? If we will always be persons, how could that be?

Both options yield insight into personhood. Many people think that their personhood ends at death or if they were to go into a permanent coma: their body is (biologically) alive but the person is gone: that is why other people are sad (we hope!). And if we continue to exist after the death of our bodies, as some religions maintain, what continues to exist? The person, perhaps even without a body! Both responses suggest that personhood is defined by a rough and vague set of psychological or mental, rational and emotional characteristics: consciousness, knowledge, memories, and ways of communicating, all psychologically unified by a unique personality.

A second activity supports this understanding:

Make a list of things that are definitely not persons. Make a list of individuals who definitely are persons. Make a list of imaginary or fictional personified beings which, if existed, would be persons: these beings that fit or display the concept of person, even if they don’t exist. What explains the patterns of the lists?

Rocks, carrots, cups and dead gnats are clearly not persons. We are persons. Science fiction gives us ideas of personified beings: to give something the traits of a person is to indicate what the traits of persons are. Even though the non-human characters from Star Wars don’t exist, they fit the concept of person: we can befriend them, work with them, and so on, and we could only do that with persons. A common idea of God is that of an immaterial person who has exceptional power, knowledge, and goodness: you couldn’t pray to a rock and hope that rock would respond: you could only pray to a person. Are conscious and feeling animals, like chimpanzees, dolphins, cats, dogs, chickens, pigs, and cows more relevantly like us, as persons, or are they more like rocks and cabbages, non-persons? Conscious and feeling animals seem to be closer to persons than not. So, this classificatory activity further supports a psychological understanding of personhood: persons are, at root, conscious, aware and feeling beings.

Concerning abortion, early fetuses would not be persons on this account: they are not yet conscious or aware since their brains and nervous systems are either non-existent or insufficiently developed. Consciousness emerges in fetuses much later in pregnancy, likely after the first trimester. This is after when most abortions occur. Most abortions, then, do not involve killing a person, since the fetus has not developed the characteristics for personhood. We will briefly discuss later abortions, that potentially affect fetuses who are persons, below.

It is perhaps worthwhile to notice though that if someone believed that fetuses are persons and thought this makes abortion wrong, it’s unclear why a pregnancy resulting from rape or incest would be a morally justified abortion. Some people who oppose abortion argue that, since you are a person, it would be wrong to kill you now even if you were conceived because of a rape, and so it’s wrong to kill any fetus who is a person, even if they exist because of a rape: whether someone is a person or not doesn’t depend on their origins: it would make no sense to think that, for two otherwise identical fetuses, one is a person but the other isn’t, because that one was conceived by rape. Therefore, those who accept a “personhood argument” against abortion, yet think that abortions in cases of rape are acceptable, seem to have an inconsistent view.

Fetuses are potential persons

If fetuses aren’t persons, they are at least potential persons, meaning they could and would become persons. This is true. This, however, doesn’t mean that they currently have the rights of persons because, in general, potential things of a kind don’t have the rights of actual things of that kind: potential doctors, lawyers, judges, presidents, voters, veterans, adults, parents, spouses, graduates, moral reasoners and more don’t have the rights of actual individuals of those kinds.

Some respond to that that potential gives the right to at least try to become something. But that trying sometimes involves the cooperation of others: if your friend is a potential medical student, but only if you tutor her for many hours a day, are you obligated to tutor her? If my child is a potential NASCAR champion, am I am obligated to buy her a racecar to practice? ‘No’ to both and so it is unclear that a pregnant woman would be obligated to provide what’s necessary to bring about a fetus’s potential.

Abortion prevents fetuses from experiencing their valuable futures

The argument against abortion that is likely most-discussed by philosophers comes from Don Marquis.[2] He argues that it is wrong to kill “normal” adults and children because it deprives us from experiencing their (expected to be) valuable futures. He argues that since fetuses also have valuable futures also (“futures like ours” he calls them), they are also wrong to kill. His argument has much to recommend it, but there are reasons to doubt it as well.

First, fetuses don’t seem to have futures like our futures, since – as they are pre-conscious – they are entirely psychologically disconnected from any future experiences: there is no (even broken) chain of experiences from the fetus to that future person’s experiences. Babies are, at least, aware of the current moment, which leads to the next moment; children and adults think about and plan for their futures, but fetuses cannot do these things, being completely mindless and unconscious. This fact might even mean that the early fetus doesn’t literally have a future: if your future couldn’t include you being a merely physical, non-conscious object (e.g., you couldn’t be a corpse: if there’s a corpse, you are gone), then perhaps non-conscious physical objects, like a fetus, couldn’t be a future person.[3] If this is correct, early fetuses don’t even have futures, much less futures like ours.

A third objection is more abstract. It begins with the observation that there are single objects with parts with space between them. Indeed almost everything is like that, if you could look close enough, not just single dinette sets: there is some space between the parts of normal physical objects. From this, it follows that there seem to be single objects such as an-egg-and-the-sperm-that-would-fertilize-it. And these would also seem to have a future of value, given how Marquis describes this concept. (It should be made clear that sperm and eggs alone do not have futures of value: this is not the objection). But contraception, even by abstinence, prevents that thing’s future of value from materializing, and so seems to be wrong on Marquis’s argument. Since contraception isn’t wrong, it seems that preventing something from experiencing its valuable future isn’t always wrong and so Marquis’s argument appears to be unsound.

In sum, these are some of the most influential arguments against abortion. Our discussion was brief, but these arguments do not appear to be successful: they do not show that abortion is wrong, much less make it clear and obvious that abortion is wrong.

Arguments that abortion is often not wrong

Finally, we turn to arguments that abortion is generally not wrong.

No good arguments that it is wrong

A first argument depends on the discussion so far. If you are familiar with the most important arguments given to believe that abortion is wrong, and believe with good reason that they are unsound, then that gives a reason to think that abortion is not wrong. In general, a good reason to think that an action is permissible is that there is no good reason to think it’s wrong. How this general strategy is applied to this issue depends on your evaluation of the arguments discussed above, and any other arguments against abortion that you think are worth critically evaluating.

Early fetuses aren’t conscious & feeling: personhood and harm

The next positive argument in defense of abortion depends on the scientific facts about early fetuses that we have emphasized over and over: they are not conscious, are not aware of anything, cannot feel anything, and so on: they are and have been entirely mindless so far. The proposal is that beings like this are very different from beings like us and babies and children, who are conscious: despite being the same kind of beings, we are also different kinds of beings.

These observations motivate these principles:

If a being is and has always been completely unconscious, it’s definitely not a person. And if something is definitely not a person, then it’s not wrong to kill it.

This proposal is supported by, among other sources, the idea that if someone permanently ceases to be a person, it can be OK to bring about their death, perhaps even by killing their body, since their being alive is doing them no good. This is related to this proposal:

If a being is and has always been completely unconscious, it really cannot be harmed, which requires some “turn for the worse” for that being. There is no “for that being,” yet, so things can’t get worse for it. So killing doesn’t harm it.

Given the fundamental moral significance of consciousness and all that results from that, that early fetuses lack it is highly relevant to how they can be treated.

The right to life & the right to someone else’s body

Finally, suppose much of the above is mistaken and that fetuses indeed are persons with the right to life. Some think that this clearly shows that abortion is wrong. Philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson famously argued in 1971 that this isn’t the case. She observes that people often have a naive understanding of what the right to life is a right to. She makes her case with a number of clever examples. First, the violinist:

You wake up in a hospital, “plugged in” to a famous violinist, who needs to use your kidneys to stay alive. You were kidnapped for this purpose. If you unplug, she will die. But it’s only for nine months.

Does the violinist have a right to your kidneys? Do you violate her right to life if you unplug, and she dies? Most would say ‘no’, which suggests that the right to life is not a right to anyone else’s body, even if that body is necessary for your life to continue. This suggests that fetuses, even if they were persons with the right to life, would not have a right to the pregnant woman’s body. So until there is a way to remove fetuses and place them in other wombs, women have a right to abortion. This even suggests another definition:

Abortion is the intentional withholding of what a fetus needs to live, to end a pregnancy.

Some respond the violinist case is somewhat like a pregnancy that results from rape, since there’s no consent involved, but that pregnancies that don’t result from rape do give fetuses the right to the woman’s body because, they argue, the woman has done something that she knows might result in someone existing who is dependent on her.

While Thompson had cases to address this type of concern – if someone falls in your house because you opened a window, they don’t have the right to be there, even though you did something that contributed to their being there – we should notice that the response appears to be question-begging. Compare doing something that results in the existence of a new plant that is dependent on you: you wouldn’t be obligated to provide for that plant. To assume that things are different with fetuses is, well, to assume what can’t be merely assumed, especially if we don’t already believe that early fetuses are persons with the right to life.

It should be made clear that even if the fetus doesn’t have a right to the pregnant woman’s body, there could be other rights or other obligations that could make abortion wrong nevertheless: e.g., if pregnancy were just 9 hours perhaps women would be obligated to be Good Samaritans towards them, even if fetuses didn’t have a right to the woman’s resources and assistance. What’s important though is the right to life and personhood are not the “slam dunk” against abortion that people often think they are.

“What ifs”: Rape and later-term abortions

We are now in a good position to address some of the “what if” situations regarding abortions.

First, rape: if early abortions are generally not wrong, then abortions due to rape are especially not wrong. While people sometimes consider rape a special excuse that justifies abortion, if abortions generally aren’t wrong, no special excuse is needed. (It is worthwhile to notice that those who think that all fetuses are persons and so argue that abortion is wrong should think abortion is wrong in cases of rape also, since a person is a person, irrespective of their origins).

Second, later-term abortions: these might affect conscious and feeling fetuses badly, but fortunately these abortions are rare and evidence suggest that they are done only for justifying medical reasons (Google for harrowing personal stories of women having later abortions, due to medical difficulties, including fetal abnormalities incompatible with life). But if any far later abortions are done for frivolous reasons, they could be morally wrong, since it’s wrong to cause serious pain for no good reason.

Should laws be created to ban any potential later abortions done for trivial reasons? Again, not all wrongdoing should be illegal, but – most importantly – a ban on these potential abortions would surely have a negative impact on actual later abortions done for legitimate medical reasons. If the justifiability of any later abortions had to be proven in court, or people had to go through the criminal justice system to approve an emergency medical procedure, that would have very bad effects, given the speed, inefficiency and occasional incompetence of courts. Involving the police and the legal system in private medical decisions would also be very bad for all, especially vulnerable groups: people of color, immigrants, and poor people.

Conclusion

For important issues, we need well-developed reasons or arguments to decide what to believe and do about the issues. The purpose of this essay has been to provide some of that training so you can better develop an informed and well-reasoned moral perspective on abortion. Many people say they “feel” that abortion is wrong or they “feel” that it’s OK. But complex issues require fair and honest critical thinking, not just uniformed “feelings” or “opinions,” and we hope this paper has displayed this.

We have focused on disagreements about the issue, but we want to end on an agreement: everyone agrees there should be fewer abortions. Even people who think abortions are generally not wrong don’t think that having an abortion is just a great way to spend time and resources. So everyone could agree that we, as a society, should do more to reduce the “demand” for abortions. Some other countries don’t have as many abortions as the US does, and this is because of deliberate choices they have made to make their country more supportive of all of its citizens and make it easier for them to meet their economic, medical and familial needs. We too could be like Good Samaritans, which would be good not just for this issue, but many others, as well as who we are, as people, together.

For Review and Discussion:

  1. Do the reasons that people get abortions matter for its moral permissibility? Why or why not?
  1. Describe the arguments against abortion and assess them. Are they good or bad arguments? Do they make assumptions or claims that are problematic? Do the reasons provided actually provide evidence and reasons to oppose abortion?
  2. Describe the arguments for abortion and assess them. Are they good or bad arguments? Do they make assumptions or claims that are problematic? Do the reasons provided actually give evidence and reasons to support abortion?

Notes and Additional Readings


  1. See the essay “Euthanasia, or Mercy Killing” by Nathan Nobis (Chapter 9) in this volume. For a shorter version of that essay, see Euthanasia, or Mercy Killing by Nathan Nobis at 1000-Word Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology.
  2. Marquis, Don. “Why abortion is immoral.” The Journal of Philosophy 86.4 (1989): 183-202.
  3. For discussion of this question of what you could and could not become, see Chad Vance’s “Origin Essentialism: What Could Have Been Different about You?” at 1000-Word Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology at https://1000wordphilosophy.com/2014/04/28/origin-essentialism/

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Phronesis by Kristina Grob and Nathan Nobis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.