Is Abortion Immoral?

This post is a reflection upon the essays highlighted in my last post (Gender Neutrality), “Why Abortion is Immoral” by Don Marquis and “Abortion and the Concept of a Person” by Jane English. Marquis, obviously, is against abortion, and English is somewhat for it.

Marquis’ position can be paraphrased as such:

  • A fetus is the sort of being whose life it is wrong to end
  • Killing anyone is wrong because it deprives them of a future
  • The value of the future is what makes killing wrong (hence why killing children and infants is considered particularly evil)

He goes to great length at the beginning of his essay to outline the painstaking “personhood” debate that usually encompasses the abortion debate – people for abortion tend to claim that a fetus is less than a person and people against it tend to claim that a fetus is a person, more or less. According to Marquis, it is easy to fall into a sort of trap, where you advocate killing a fetus on the basis that it is less than a person, but you become hard pressed to explain why you should also not kill children, infants, babies, or the severely retarded. Those that attempt to extend the definition of person or human-being to children, infants, babies and the severely retarded but NOT to fetuses seems to be arbitrary – Marquis points out that there are no hard and fast criteria that compose a person, and questions, furthermore, “why pyschological characteristics should make a moral difference” (his emphasis).

In order to sidestep the quagmire that is the personhood debate, Marquis instead presents a more general theory of why killing is wrong, period. “…This suggests that a necessary condition of resolving the abortion controversy is a more theoretical account of the wrongness of killing.” To him, the loss of one’s life is the ultimate loss: “The loss of one’s life deprives one of all the experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments that would otherwise have constituted one’s future. Therefore, killing someone is wrong, primarily because the killing inflicts (one of) the greatest possible losses on the victim…what makes killing wrong is the loss of the victim’s future.” He goes on to say that “the claim that the loss of one’s future is the wrong-making feature of one’s being killed does not entail…that active euthanasia is wrong. Persons who are severely and incurably ill, who face a future of pain and despair, and who wish to die will not have suffered a loss if they are killed. It is, strictly speaking, the value of a human’s future which makes killing wrong.”

Ultimately, Marquis concludes: “Since a fetus possesses a property [a valuable future], the possession of which in adult human beings is sufficient to make killing an adult human being wrong, abortion is wrong.”

To rightly accept his conclusion (abortion is wrong), you would also have to accept these propisitions:

  • (1) Killing a human being is wrong because it deprives them of a future
  • (2) The value of one’s future is what makes killing wrong
  • (3) A fetus is a thing which has a future valuable enough to render killing it wrong
  • Therefore, abortion (the killing of a fetus) is wrong

Marquis’ position is, in my estimation, unsound on several fronts. His first proposition is easily refuted. There are several instances where it can be shown that killing is generally considered to be moral – for example, in the line of duty (police officer, CIA, FBI, as a military service member, and so on) or, as Jane English points out in her own essay, in self-defense. In all of these instances, one person (the killer) is depriving another person of their future, yet most ethical and moral theorists would agree that such killing is ethical/moral. These counterexamples seriously undermine the effectiveness of Marquis’ first propisition, and thus all inferences that rely upon it.

Furthermore, the propisition that what makes killing wrong is the deprivation of the victim’s future has hidden assumptions – as Marquis later admits in what I have labeled as his second proposition, it is the value of the future that matters in this theorm. It could be argued that Marquis assumes the reader to understand that killing an innocent victim is wrong (in order to remedy his disconnect with the self-defense and in the line of duty examples), and assumes that the reader understands the fetus to be an innocent victim. However, that’s two more propositions he hasn’t stated and that might not necessarily be true – for example, there are times where even killing innocents is thought to be moral (if, in self-defense, you felt your life threatened at the time, or in the line of duty under similar circumstances). There are also arguments that suggest that the fetus should not necessarily be assumed to be entirely innocent, either (as in “not causing physical or moral injury; harmless”) which will be outlined later. So, here too, the second propisition (and related hidden assumptions) don’t seem to hold up well to scrutiny.

The third propisition also has compelling counterexamples. The author endorses euthanasia in cases where the person faces a future “of pain and despair.” There are several medical conditions that a fetus could be diagnosed with that could lead to such a life – ancephalic fetuses are just one such example. Additionally, Marquis fails to examine the significance of a child raised in a home where it was not wanted – or the impact of a child being given up for adoption instead of abortion. According to research I did for my class, adults who grew up as children in orphanages or as adopted children have much higher rates of both suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts – when they became old enough to make the choice for themselves, they tried to end their own lives. They decided that life had not been and would continue to be not worth living, so why should we force life in scenarios where the potential child will grow up unwanted? One might argue that “everyone deserves a chance to live,” and while this sounds nice and makes everyone feel good, the person arguing this point doesn’t have to grow up with all of the proposed disadvantages (not being wanted, having serious medical conditions that would reduce quality of life, and so on).

Lastly, such thinking tends to elevate the perceived interests of the fetus (as no one can yet communicate directly with a fetus and ask it if it wants to live, or to be adopted, and so on) above the combined interests of the parents and even the family. If the parents have legitimate reasons to not want a child – for example, being unable to provide sufficient resources for the child, or in the case of children born with certain medical conditions or “diasabilities,” being unwilling or unable to provide for the child’s special needs (which can irrevocably and drastically alter the course of the parents’ lives) – why are we forcing them to bring these children to terms? Examined from another angle – if contraceptives are considered okay (meaning, it is okay to determine when and how you want to have a child through the use of contraceptives) why then is it wrong to determine when and how you want to have a child through the use of an abortion? Contraceptives are not 100% effective and accidents can happen – additionally, not everyone has the same level of education and so not everyone has an equal understanding of the importance of contraceptives. Hence, pregnancies will “slip through the cracks,” so to speak. Does it really make sense to condemn a teenage mother, for instance, who decides it would be more responsible to get an abortion rather than to try and raise a child on a meager income and potentially with no outside support (a father, and/or a strong extended family)? One might argue that the mother could put the child up for adoption, but again, that seems to condem the child to a worse fate than the ideal of being wanted and loved by its own biological parents. I suppose I have a hidden value here, in that I believe every human has the right to have parents that want and love them – irregardless, even, of the parents’ financial situation. If, however, a parent’s/family’s financial situation causes them to no longer want a child, why are we forcing children into a world where they will be unwanted?

Perhaps the assertion that every human has a right to be born to loving parents that want them is one you, the reader, would disagree with.
Jane English emphasizes the importance of a gradient scale of personhood – essentially, you cannot say that a fetus is or is not a person, but you can say that a fetus is less of a person than a baby is, and a baby is less of a person than a child is, who is less of a person than an adult is and so on. This is the reasoning that the Supreme Court used when they divided up the stages of a fetus’s development into trimesters, and essentially said it was more permissible to abort a fetus in an earlier trimester, as it was less of a person at this point.
English also emphasizes that just because fetuses have less moral consideration than adults, that doesn’t permit us to treat them any which way we please. We can’t, for instance, wantonly kill animals. There is still a baseline for ethical treatment, even of nonhumans. As fetuses become more development, English argues they deserve more and more moral concern; it becomes less justifiable and the needs must be greater to abort a fetus the longer into the pregnancy the woman is. English emphasizes the potential harm the fetus can cause the woman, including financial and emotional harms.
For the most part, I find English’s position to be fairly reasonable. I would stress the importance of the male consideration of the problem (doesn’t the other parent deserve to have some say in the process?), and also emphasize the importance of autonomy and complexity. It may be possible that a certain important complication happens only late in pregnancy, or detection for a complication happens late in the pregnancy. Maybe the woman is unaware of her pregnancy until much later on. In these cases, after the first detection of a potential problem (that could create significant financial strain and so on), the family deserves some time to think about the decision and make one – whether to abort the child or not, regardless of the stage of the pregnancy. Forcing someone to take responsibility for something they do not want is a surefire recipe for disaster, so why would we want to force the responsibility of someone’s life onto parents that don’t want that responsibility? It’s unfair to the parents and unfair to the potential life.
Some of what I have said is vague and perhaps needs more precise defining – but this is a rough argument meant to cause the reader to think about abortion from a different context. “Significant financial strain” isn’t the thrust of the argument – forced life is. If it is wrong to force death on someone, why is it right to force life on them? We can all sit back in the comfort of our own homes and feel better for protecting the “sanctity of life,” but that’s because we aren’t dealing with the extremely reduced quality of life. If we were truly sympathetic, we would allow the people immediately impacted by the decision make the decision for themselves, and not force their hands – one way or the other. Merely giving people the choice is not condemning every fetus to death – and, in fact, abortion rates have been on the decline over the last two decades. Making abortion legal hasn’t increased the rate of abortion at all, so it doesn’t make sense to argue that extending the right to choose abortion in more situations will increase the rate of abortion (or any other slippery slope fallacy that might follow).

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