Archive for March 14th, 2014

March, 2014

Drawing Lines: The Ethics of Abortion, Part V Jeremy Williams

My blog series this week has introduced readers to a few notable aspects of the philosophical debate over the ethics of abortion, and the ways in which some writers have hoped that we might be able to go beyond the bitter deadlock that characterises the public controversy. Abortion is more salient to the theme of ‘saving humans’ than one might initially suppose, I have suggested, insofar as the ethics of killing and saving are closely bound up with each other. But it is also pertinent to the idea of saving humans in another respect – namely, that it focuses our attention on the question of which humans it matters morally that we save, or not kill. Some political rhetoric is suggestive of the view that all members of the human species matter equally, from a moral point of view, but this is not, on further examination, what most of us in fact believe. Moreover, as we saw in the previous post, the view that all human lives, from the earliest embryo onwards, do indeed share equally in the high moral status and rights that you and I possess carries a number of strongly counter-intuitive implications, which it is questionable that even most committed opponents of abortion would accept.

Aside from its implications, the view that all human lives, from conception onward, have the same exalted moral status, falls foul of the fact that there is no morally relevant characteristic that one can point to that we can agree all members of the human species possess, and that could account for this being so. Simply being, on a genetic level, a member of the species homo sapiens cannot, as many philosophers have emphasised, be the sought-after characteristic, since it seems an arbitrary fact about us, like skin or eye colour. And the familiar claim that all human beings are endowed at conception with a soul is unintelligible to many, and not, from a secular liberal point of view, an appropriate grounds of public policy.

In any case, rather more commonly held than the view that humans acquire the moral status of a person at conception is the view that, at some point later in pregnancy, a line is to be drawn, separating abortions that are not an especially morally serious matter from those that are. That line, however, might be drawn in any number of points in the development of the fetus. The question, then, is which point in its development marks a truly morally significant change.

Within the confines of a blog post, I can do no more than scratch the surface of an enormously rich and complex philosophical debate. Suffice it to say that there are two principal candidate answers to the question of when prenatal human life acquires a sufficient degree of moral status to render abortion a morally problematic practice, and begin to constrain the range of circumstances under which it is justifiable. The first of these, and probably the one that is most regularly cited in real-world political debate, is viability – that is, the point at which it becomes possible for the fetus to survive outside the womb, either on its own, or with mechanical aid. The second, meanwhile, is sentience – that is, the point at which the fetus becomes capable of sensory experience. These changes in the fetus occur at roughly the same time – roughly around the end of the second trimester, with 20 weeks being the most conservative estimate. But that doesn’t mean that it does not matter which line we take to be the truly significant one from a moral point of view.

Now, consider viability. The point at which the fetus becomes viable depends on the state of medical technology. Thus, advances in neonatal medicine, which allow doctors to save younger and more premature infants, are generally accompanied by calls to restrict the abortion of fetuses of the same gestational age, who now count as viable. Yet, as philosophers sometimes point out, it is highly unclear why the viability line has any moral significance. For consider: scientists are currently in the process of developing artificial uteruses, which could incubate an embryo for the full nine months until birth.  Once that technology has been perfected, all embryos and fetuses will be viable, in that however undeveloped they are, they could survive outside of a woman’s body, by being transplanted into an artificial uterus, just as premature infants are currently transferred to an incubator. But this would then mean that, as a result of a merely technological change, all embryos and fetuses, from conception onwards, would now have a moral status that they previously lacked (and thus that many abortions that had previously been entirely morally unobjectionable would now be problematic, and perhaps impermissible). This is rather difficult to believe (though for a dissenting voice, see Boonin, 2003, p. 129ff).

This suggests, as many philosophers believe, that what matters for fetal moral status is not viability but sentience. The reasons to believe that sentience matters, moreover, are not confined to the negative one that the main competing account has strange implications. It is independently plausible to suppose that it matters morally how we treat beings that are capable of experience, because we can affect them in a way that we cannot affect beings that are entirely unfeeling. If a being is capable of experience, it has a life that can go better or worse for it, from the inside, and whose continuation would be good for it. But to end the life of a being that has never acquired that capacity for consciousness seems indistinguishable, in its effects on that being, from its never having been created at all – it has not yet begun a life, in any meaningful sense, of which it is now being deprived. For that reason, it seems plausible to suppose that abortion performed prior to the onset of fetal sentience is morally on a par with contraception.

Suppose we accept what is the most conservative plausible estimate as to when the fetus acquires a rudimentary degree of consciousness – namely 20 weeks. And suppose it was also thought that abortion would always be impermissible after that point. Nonetheless, we would have succeeded in justifying the overwhelming majority of terminations that are in fact performed. In the UK, for instance, in 2011, 91% of abortions were carried out before 13 weeks.

It is important to emphasise, however, that the view that sentience matters, and marks the point of onset of a degree of human moral status, does not yet commit us to the conclusion that all abortions performed after that point would be impermissible, or even especially difficult to justify. For it is consistent with this view to hold that, while the fact that a fetus is sentient, and would benefit to a degree from continued life, gives us a reason not to cause its death, that reason is at least initially quite weak, and often outweighed by other considerations – primarily those pertaining to the needs of the pregnant woman. One grounds for thinking this (for which see especially McMahan, 2002, or, e.g., DeGrazia, 2012), which I find attractive, appeals to the fact that a fetus that has just become conscious is unaware of, and only dimly psychologically related to, the life it will have in the future if not aborted. For this reason, that future life is, from the point of view of the fetus, rather like someone else’s life rather than its own. Thus, while a fetus that has just become sentient can be said to be harmed somewhat by death, it is not harmed greatly, and certainly not to the same significant degree as you or I, given how closely psychologically related to our future selves we are. The harm to the fetus of death may, however, increase over the remainder of pregnancy, as it becomes a more robust psychological presence, as it were, in its own life. If an explanation like this is correct, it would be consistent to think that, even if the fetus starts to become conscious at, say, 20 weeks (and it is questionable that it does), abortion is often justifiable at 24 weeks, or later, and therefore the law in the UK, for example, which includes a 24 week cut-off for most abortions, ought to stay as it is.

Sadly, given the constraints of this format, I lack the space to consider the view of fetal moral status that I have been canvasing here in any further detail, or its rivals. What I hope to have shown in this series is that those whose interest is in ethical questions of saving humans have abundant reasons to be interested in the philosophical dimensions of abortion. And, of course, abortion is not merely fascinating, at a philosophical level, but also an urgent need for the many women whom it saves.


David Boonin, A Defense of Abortion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Jeff McMahan, The Ethics of Killing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

David DeGrazia, Creation Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

March, 2014

Can Philosophy Resolve the Abortion Wars? The Ethics of Abortion, Part IV Jeremy Williams


In many countries, much of the time, the public debate over abortion is both fractious and fruitless, revolving primarily around the unreflective exchange of slogans between two highly polarised rival campaigning groups, who display an almost tribal mutual aversion, and largely shout past rather than really speaking to each other. Understandably, this tends to make onlookers who are concerned with civility in democratic discourse despair – particularly in the United States, where tensions over abortion run particularly high. As the great legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin memorably described the situation there:

The war between anti-abortion groups and their opponents is America’s new version of the terrible seventeenth-century European wars of religion. Opposing armies march down streets or pack themselves into abortion clinics, courthouses, and the White House, screaming at and spitting on and loathing one another. Abortion is tearing America apart (Dworkin, 1993, p. 4).

That the abortion dispute is unusually highly charged may not seem surprising, given what the protagonists on both sides claim to be at stake (preventing the wrongful killing of innocent persons on the one hand, and preventing the wrongful imposition of pregnancy and parenthood on the other). Yet it might not be inevitable that the abortion controversy must be played out as a war, and philosophers have sometimes considered how they might be able to contribute to drawing the poison out of it. One key method by which some of them have hoped to do so involves interrogating and unpicking the rhetoric used by partisans in the public dispute. In some cases, it is suggested, the rhetoric on display does not accurately encapsulate what the protagonists really believe, or does not vindicate the conclusions that those who utter it assume that it does, or has further, unnoticed implications at which they would balk, were they made aware of them. Perhaps, if the belligerents could be shown that their slogans are defective in these ways, the familiar battle lines could in time be dismantled.

Judith Thomson’s defense of abortion, discussed earlier in this series, is an excellent example of this sort of argumentative strategy in action. According to Thomson, as we have seen, opponents of abortion are mistaken if they think that their hallmark claim – that fetuses are persons from conception onwards, with full rights to life – is on its own enough to show that terminating a pregnancy is impermissible. Another prime example of the same approach at work, meanwhile, comes from Dworkin. Like Thomson, Dworkin’s focus is (primarily, though not exclusively) on the avowed commitments of pro-life advocates. Those people claim to believe that fetuses are persons, with all the rights that that status entails. But Dworkin argues, strikingly, that it can be demonstrated that they don’t really believe this at all. For most of them do not think that abortion is without exception morally prohibited. Rather, they tend to believe that there ought to be some significant exceptions to a general ban on terminating pregnancies, at least in the earlier stages of pregnancy. In particular, they tend to hold that there should be such exceptions in cases where conception was a result of rape, or incest, as well as cases in which the fetus has been found to have some devastating illness or disability. Allowing abortion in such cases, however, seems incompatible with the view that fetuses are, at all stages of their gestation, persons. For if they were, they would presumably have rights not to be treated less favourably on grounds of arbitrary factors like the circumstances of their origins, or their health and native capabilities. Nobody, after all, thinks that the right to life of a person after birth is weaker and more easily overridden just because she is, say, a product of incest, or has a serious disability.

Thus, according to Dworkin, pro-lifers have powerful reasons of consistency to moderate their opposition to abortion. Indeed, he argues, provocatively, that when pro-lifers claim that even embryos and early fetuses are persons, what they actually mean is something rather less radical – namely that early prenatal life is intrinsically valuable, in a similar way to, say, a great work of art, or a rare plant. When a thing has intrinsic value, destroying it is a sort of cosmic waste, and difficult to justify. But it is not a wrongdoing on the scale of murder, and can be permissible in cases where killing a person would not be. If the real underlying view of pro-lifers is, as Dworkin claims, not that early fetuses are persons, but rather that they are intrinsically valuable, such that destroying them is a great waste, then they can, he says, consistently believe that there are exceptions to the general rule that abortion is wrong. However, Dworkin continues, once pro-lifers accept this explanation for their pattern of beliefs, they should also accept that women have a right to choose at least an early abortion. This is because the question of what things in the universe possess intrinsic value is deeply personal – an ‘essentially religious’ matter, as Dworkin puts it – and answers to it ought not to be imposed on those who conscientiously disagree. Thus, in Dworkin’s view, the right to choose an early abortion is of a piece with the rights to freedom of conscience and religious exercise, and should be endorsed by all who endorse the latter, core commitments of liberal democracy – however sincerely they might hold, as a matter of their own personal religious or philosophical doctrine, that the waste of prenatal human life is intrinsically bad.

Like Thomson, Dworkin seeks to radically remake the traditional abortion debate – in his case, by attempting to persuade pro-life advocates that the intuitive costs of the view they outwardly profess are too high, even for them. Can his strategy succeed? To be sure, when faced with Dworkin’s challenge, a committed opponent of abortion might be drawn to the conclusion that consistency on their part requires not abandoning her commitment to fetal personhood, but rather abandoning her commitment to allowing exceptions to the prohibition of abortion. That is a harsh view indeed, and deeply unappealing, even to many ardent pro-life advocates. It does, however, have its proponents.

Pro-choice philosophers have, though, adduced further powerful grounds for anti-abortionists to reconsider their belief that fetuses are persons, whose being killed is as tragic, harmful and wrongful as the killing of a normal adult human being like you or I. Significantly for the focus of this website, these return us to the theme of saving lives. In the first post in this series, I noted that philosophical defenders of abortion choice sometimes object that, to say that embryos and fetuses are, from conception, persons, is to imply, absurdly, that in a hypothetical choice between saving the life of one adult person on the one hand, and rescuing some larger number of embryos from destruction on the other, it would be permissible, if not mandatory, to do the latter. This challenge is not purely hypothetical, however, as Jeff McMahan notes (2002, pp. 165-6). A strikingly high proportion of pregnancies  – at least two thirds, in fact – end in spontaneous abortion. One would expect that those who believe that fetuses are persons would regard this phenomenon as an ongoing tragedy of epic proportions. And one would expect, as a result, that they would also be highly vocal in demanding that a much greater proportion of our social resources be devoted to researching and deploying various medical means to minimise these deaths – diverted, perhaps, from healthcare interventions that aim at preventing or curing medical conditions in adults and children, such as HIV, that claim fewer lives overall. Yet in fact they do not do so. This seems to suggest that they apprehend a difference between the loss of prenatal life and the lives of persons after all.

Thus, Dworkin and others have attempted to demonstrate to pro-lifers that they should soften their opposition to abortion, thereby taking at least some of the heat out of the ‘abortion wars’. Notice that, in doing so, they do not typically proceed by setting out to persuade people of some grand ethical theory. Rather, they proceed by attempting to show that there are glaring inconsistencies, and high intuitive costs, in the views that people already (profess to) hold.

Philosophers also adopt a similar strategy when engaging with and evaluating more moderate views, which contend that the moral status of a fetus varies according to its level of development. What aspects of the development of a fetus are relevant to its moral status? And what are the implications of fixing on one emerging characteristic of the fetus rather than another? The final post in this series turns to these questions.


Ronald Dworkin, Life’s Dominion: An Argument About Abortion, Euthanasia, and Individual Freedom (New York: Vintage, 1994).

Jeff McMahan, The Ethics of Killing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).


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