The Moral Permissibility of Abortion

Sean O'Dowd

The 2004 United States Presidential election saw a major political divide within the country as a result of issues of morality. Topics ranging from gay marriage and prayer in schools to stem-cell research and abortion plagued each presidential candidate as well as the minds of every citizen as they were forced to literally choose between the issues. In fact, contemporary society is riddled with questions about morality as a whole. Greater technology and advanced scientific knowledge breed new capabilities and arguments in the fields of scientifically driven moral issues, such as abortion. Arguments about the moral permissibility of abortion precede similar moral issues like stem-cell research because abortion arguments focus directly upon the value of fetal matter. Is a fetus is a living person that deserves the same rights as a fully-fledged adult human? The most common and necessary question to ask when arguing within the realm of abortion is whether or not a fetus is a living person who deserves the same rights as a fully-fledged adult person. Questions such as these are always very personal and are met with heated debate. However, there is good reason for this debate as abortion is very necessary to discuss in order to develop a standard of practice. Advocates against abortion decree that the value of a fetal life is equal to the value of an adult person's life, and therefore, abortion is not morally permissible. Within this argument is the argument that the fetus obtains intrinsic value at some point among three stages: conception, viability, and birth. This is in order to determine exactly at which one of these stages a fetus becomes a person and is to be considered a protected being. Conception is the point where the genetic matter from both the mother and father first come into contact and the embryo is formed. Viability is the argument that once the fetus could survive outside the mother's womb that it is considered equal to that of a human adult and should be a protected being. Obviously, the third stage is birth, when the fetus is born and is a newborn infant. The subject of abortion is discussed at great length in a book written by Jonathan Glover, entitled Causing Death and Saving Lives, in which he discusses the problem with these three separate stages. He argues why it is so problematic to view a fetus as a person at each stage of pregnancy, fertilization, viability, and birth. Glover then proceeds to argue in favor of abortion in all instances where the mother wishes to have an abortion, and applies the principles that are associated with the direct wrongness of killing a human adult. There are three main principles to the direct wrongness of killing as well as countless side effects which he deems as "indirect" effects. The "direct wrongness of killing" model is based on three principles: the reduction of worth-while life, violating an autonomous desire to live, and the production of fear or pain. Glover argues that the killing of a fetus, or abortion, violates none of the direct principles associated with killing, and therefore, makes abortion morally permissible. Glover also examines the counter arguments to his claim and refutes them with creative and logical arguments. Using these arguments and counterarguments by Glover, we cannot determine at which point during the pregnancy that the fetus becomes a person, and therefore we should conclude that abortion is always morally permissible if the mother wishes to abort.

Glover begins his investigation by recognizing the problem of when a potential human being becomes an actual one. This is unclear to the principle of abortion because if it were accepted that a fetus is an actual person with the same rights as all other humans, then it would certainly be wrong to kill it. However, if it could be established that the fetus is not the same as an adult human being, then it does not receive the same rights and privileges. Typically, there are three stages during pregnancy that it is argued that a fetus obtains these human rights. The beginning of the pregnancy is called conception, and is the first time the genetic ingredients of a future human adult are together as one. This is the preliminary start to the argument against abortion because at no other time before this is there a potential person in one single mass. A sperm or an egg by itself is not a potential person unless they are coupled together. Conception has a relatively distinct beginning and is therefore easily recognized as the first time a possible human life will emerge. The first thing Glover sees wrong with this assumption is that there is a two-week period after the pregnancy where monozygotic twins can separate from the one egg. Since this twinning is not genetically determined, it is unclear during these first two weeks how many people will emerge. The principle here is that a fertilized egg is so far different from anything we would recognize as a person. As Glover states, “It is said that such an egg is no more a person than an acorn is an oak tree, a caterpillar is a butterfly or a bowl of unbaked ingredients is a cake" (124). By using the word "person" in order to describe a fertilized egg would be stretching the word beyond its boundaries. Another example Glover uses is to say that the use of some contraceptives would not be classified as birth control, but rather murder, under the conception boundary. The morning after pill or the I.U.D. (inter-uterine device) would be seen as instruments of murder rather than birth control because they take measures to prevent the fertilized egg from attaching itself to the uterine wall. Women who use these means to prevent pregnancy would have to stand trial, equivalent to murderers of fully-developed children or adults if we are to use conception as the means for determining personhood. This may sound ridiculous to some, however, this is a necessary step to take if we consider conception the point at which a fetus becomes a person. Yet, nobody would be willing to convict a user of the morning after pill in the same way they would a pre-meditated murderer.

Viability is the next stage during pregnancy that can be argued as the point at which the fetus is considered a person with the same rights as a human adult because it is the stage at which the fetus could survive independently from the womb. The argument for viability is quite obvious; that for the first time we have a potentially independent thing. One argument against viability is that it makes physical dependence a necessary condition for being a person Therefore, if an old woman with kidney problems were to attach to her husband’s kidneys in order to filter her blood she would not be considered a person since she is not viable without him. Obviously this is a completely hypothetical situation, however, with our improving technology it would not be difficult to imagine that one day we might be able to depend on others for the weaknesses in our own bodies. In this case, this person would not be considered a human being. Their physical dependence would rely on someone else and therefore would not be viable. Obviously this autonomous woman still deserves the same rights as other human adult, yet if we are to accept the viability argument she would not. Another argument against viability is that it is a shifting boundary. There is not a single age at which a fetus can survive outside the womb; some fetuses that are thought to be viable at a certain stage in pregnancy are not while others that are thought to be too young to survive. Also, with improved medical technology, the age at which a fetus can survive outside the womb is getting pushed earlier in pregnancy. It seems rather inconsistent to say that last year this fetus would not have been viable and would not have been considered a person, however, this year, since technology has improved, this fetus would be considered a person since it is viable. It is also theoretically possible to concede that one day eggs will be fertilized and children will be produced entirely outside of the womb. Glover states that if this happens then the boundary of viability will be pushed back to the boundary of conception and the same arguments against it will apply.

The third and final stage of pregnancy is when the baby is born and for the first time we have an actual independent being. The child is born into the human community and for the first time we are able to detect the first signs of a distinct personality. However, Glover argues that there is no difference in a baby three minutes after it is born and three minutes before it is born, except that after it is born we can see it and before it is born we cannot. If a mother’s womb was transparent in the later stages of pregnancy, just before birth, the baby would look no different than it would three minutes outside of the womb. Yet, in this insignificant amount of time we establish that this baby has just been given the full rights of an adult. The analogy Glover makes to describe this situation is that, “[t]his seems like the view that starvation and death matter less in a far-away country, since we are less aware of it than if it were happening here" (126). Obviously, if there is something wrong with killing an infant that is outside the womb, then certainly there should be something wrong killing the same infant while it is inside the womb.

After Glover establishes the problematic nature with making a boundary of when the fetus becomes a protected being, deserving of the same rights as an adult human, he begins to investigate the moral permissibility of killing. Glover looks into the principles directly wrong with killing and uses them to investigate the killing of a human fetus. This is the same theory that Glover applies to every instance of killing, whether it is suicide, euthanasia, or abortion, which makes his model so strong. As we know from human experience, killing in every instance is not always wrong. The example of self-defense is one area that it is acceptable for one person to kill another if that other person is trying to take your life. Glover applies the same moral code associated with the wrongness of killing to other facets of morality, in this case abortion, in order to determine the permissibility of killing a living thing. With respect to abortion, Glover makes it perfectly clear that the killing of a fetus is perfectly permissible as long as the mother wants to have an abortion. One of the principles of the direct wrongness of killing is that Glover says it is wrong to violate another's autonomous desire to live. He states that, "[e]xcept in the most extreme circumstances, it is wrong to kill someone who wants to go on living, even if there is reason to think this desire not in his own interests" (113). This means is that as long as someone wants to continue to live, then it is unacceptable and immoral to end this person's life. Now to apply this rule to a fetus as a reason to save it from abortion is inapplicable. A fetus does not have the capacity to distinguish between life and death, and therefore doesn't know what it means to live or die. It cannot differentiate between the two. It has no autonomous desire to live and therefore, aborting a fetus does not violate this direct wrongness of killing. However, this does not wholly justify abortion. If either of the two other effects of direct killing are violated, then the fetus must be viewed as a protected being. Another faculty of the direct wrongness in killing is the production of fear or pain. Glover says that, "It is wrong to kill someone where the process of being killed is frightening or painful" (113). In our society, where we mercifully kill convicted criminals of serious crimes by means of painless lethal injection, we have the technology to painlessly kill anyone, including a fetus. This is not the main premise as it would still be wrong to "painlessly" kill a human adult if it violated the other principles. Also, as mentioned in the earlier autonomous desire to live argument, a fetus has not yet developed the capacities to differentiate between life and death and cannot have fear of dying. A fetus does not know that he is being aborted, nor does he know what it means to be aborted and cannot have fear of such things. The final direct wrong of killing is perhaps the most controversial one. Glover says that it is wrong to kill an individual if in the process of killing we are shortening the length of a worthwhile life. This is where anti-abortion advocates make their stand because they believe that abortion is doing exactly this, shortening a worthwhile life. However, Glover says that by forcing a woman to bring an unwanted child into the world (rather than have the abortion) is not providing that child with the best chance to have a worthwhile life.

One criticism of Glover’s view is that based on his model, there is no difference in the abortion of a fetus, the use of birth control, or even of killing an infant, since all of these processes do not violate the direct wrongness of killing. Yet, there is a discernable difference in the killing of an infant and the use of birth control. How Glover responds to this criticism is that while there is no difference in direct effects, there is a difference in the indirect affects associated with each instance. These are the effects that are experienced by outside parties. A mother of a fetus might be sad if she chose to have an abortion, but this pain or sadness would certainly not compare to the pain or sadness she would feel if her infant was killed. Also, the sadness could be felt by a doctor or nurse that had to perform an abortion that would have been eliminated if birth control would have been used. This is why Glover concludes that the difference between each circumstance is felt in indirect effects and is therefore better to use birth control before having an abortion and having an abortion before killing an infant.

Another criticism of Glover’s model is that he believes that the unwanted child of a mother has less of chance to have a worth-while life, but how can you determine that this child’s life won’t be worthwhile. Also, an abortion is depriving this child of a life like our own, and is therefore is considered a protected being. To say a fetus is being deprived of a life like our own would mean that we are shortening a worthwhile life, and therefore killing this fetus would be morally wrong. However, a fetus does not have the same worthwhile life as a human adult, nor can it be determined that a child with an unwanted mother will have a similarly worthwhile life in the future. This can be illustrated in several thought experiments. If we have two fetuses, one from parents that will love and cherish their child, and the other from a mother who does not want the child, but is instead being forced to have it. Which of these two potential people have a better chance at having a worthwhile life? Say we were to bet on it and if we chose the correct fetus we would win an exuberant sum of money. The choice would be obvious as the unwanted child is put at a disadvantage and runs the risk of not having a worthwhile life. However, some people view life itself as having value, which says there is value within life itself and that since we are depriving a fetus of this life, it is wrong. There are flaws with this view as well as we can determine the value of an actual life is much greater than that of a potential life. What if we have a single vile of medicine to give to either a dying ten year old child or to a dying fetus. Who should be the recipient? To say that a fetus has the same worthwhile life as this ten year old child would mean that we would need to flip a coin in order to determine who receives the medicine. If the fetus won the coin toss, then we would have to be fine with the fact that he would get the medicine and the ten year old child would die. However, there is great moral difficulty with giving the fetus the medicine and letting the child die. This is the wrong action and it is moral and justified to give the ten year old child the vile of medicine and let the fetus die. The reason is because this fetus simply does not have the same worth as this child. The child has the worthwhile life and therefore is the protected being that deserves to live.

Glover establishes the fact that we cannot concede at any point during the pregnancy that a fetus has obtained the full rights of an adult, not even at birth. Viability and conception fail to give us a clear cut stage at which the fetus obtains these rights. Glover has shown through the model of the direct wrongness of killing that there is nothing directly wrong with the abortion of a fetus. There are differences in contraception, abortion, and infanticide only through indirect effects. There is no difference in the direct effects. Also, through criticisms of his argument, it is seen that fetal life does not have the same value as the life of a developed person. Therefore, it can be concluded that abortion is morally permissible as long as the mother is wanting of an abortion.

Work Cited

  • Glover, Jonathan.Causing Death and Saving Lives. London, England: Penguin Books, 1977.