On Abortion

Warning: this is a philosophical article which discusses abortion – a very emotional topic for many people. In this article I use language that some may find to be harsh and ruthless. This can sometimes the nature of logic and philosophy. If you are highly sensitive to this topic and unfamiliar with formal philosophy, you may wish to discontinue reading.

In this article I attempt to answer the question “Is abortion morally acceptable?” Similar questions are “is abortion murder?” and “should abortion be legal?” For the sake of this article I consider these questions to be synonymous as my conclusion will address them similarly. I will introduce two opposing arguments for the nature of abortion; one “pro-choice” argument, and one “pro-life” argument. I will critique both arguments and state my personal opinion on abortion in conclusion.

The Argument of Don Marquis

Don Marquis is a “pro-life” philosopher who believes that abortion is wrong on the grounds that every unborn fetus has a valuable future.

The Argument of Mary Warren

Marry Warren is a “pro-choice” philosopher who believes that abortion is morally acceptable based on the grounds that an unborn fetus is not yet a “person.”

I do not critique other arguments either for or against abortion because there has been sufficient literature on their flaws. The arguments of Don Marquis and Mary Warren on abortion are flawed in ways which I believe have not previously been highlighted and they are well suited to demonstrate my personal opinion.

Note that the abortion debate remains universally inconclusive.

On the Argument of Don Marquis and the Nature of the Abortion Debate

This article aims to critique the arguments of Don Marquis concerning the moral status of abortion and to present my belief of the problem.  As compelling as both Marquis’ and Mary Warren’s arguments are, in my opinion Marquis’ is weaker: firstly, because it relies on an implicit premise which is false, among other logical flaws; and secondly, because it is not in harmony with the principle of unnecessary plurality.  Warren’s argument, on the other hand, is more logical and parsimonious.  I will argue as to why this is the case and will also present an argument as to why the future of an unwanted fetus is not always valuable in terms of future gains.

Firstly, it can be logically demonstrated that the future of a fetus is not always fortunate, or “valuable” and it follows that abortion is not always morally impermissible.  According to Marquis, a person’s future is always valuable.  This is however based on the incorrect premise that a person is entitled to everything which he may come to obtain and value in his hypothetical future for the mere fact that he was, at one time, conceived.  This can be deduced from the following quote wherein he compares abortion to murder:

“What primarily makes killing wrong is neither its effect on the murderer nor its effect on the victim’s friends and relatives, but its effect on the victim.  The loss of one’s life is one of the greatest losses one can suffer.  The loss of one’s life deprives one of all the experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments which 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.” (Marquis, 1989).

Marquis later refers to these items that constitute a valuable future as “future gains”.  It must however be recognized that just because someone gains things in life which will subsequently give their life perceivable value, or value which will be perceived later, it does not necessarily follow that they have a right to those gains and therefore a valuable future.  For example, we may value our education and we may even have the “right” to obtain it by law, but not everyone has the support or circumstances necessary to go to university or college.  Any individual would, in theory, come to value many things (including “enjoyments”, etc.) that they cannot have for a variety of reasons, namely because it would either require someone else to give something up which they have a right to, or because they would be required to work for it [1]. For example: if an oracle, assuming they were credible, predicted that in my future I would make a large sum of money from working, that does not mean that at conception I am entitled to that amount of money and that any process which would prevent me from obtaining it would be immoral.  That would of course be absurd and so therefore it follows that a person’s future is not always valuable in terms of future gains.  For clarification:

1.     Things which a person will gain as a result of livelihood, desires, and effort are what make that person’s future valuable

2.     One is not entitled to anything whatsoever which they desire to have in their life and due to some circumstances, they may even be unable to obtain those things

.: 3.     A person’s future is not always valuable in terms of future gains (from 1 and 2)

Before one takes offense to the outcome of this reasoning, it must be realized that this argument does not intend to imply that a fetus to be aborted is not in some way deserving of the chance to live out their life and enjoy its possible pleasures like education and enjoyable activities, nor is it to say that this is most often the case.  Rather, it is to point out the logical flaw in Marquis’ argument.  By his logic, it can theoretically be deduced that if one never gains anything which they perceive or will ever perceive to be valuable in their future, then it is not morally wrong to kill that person.  Marquis, however, believes that to be absurd (which will be discussed later) and is thus, he is contradicting himself.

In a pragmatic sense, however, the future of an unwanted fetus is indeed not necessarily valuable due to the fact that it is actually very likely to be paved with many problems and obstacles – perhaps more than enjoyments.  The reasoning behind this is that if abortion was not permissible, it is likely, and even to be expected, that the unwanted fetus would eventually grow up in a home where it was unwanted as a person, or in some other dysfunctional situations.  These scenarios are more often associated with a life full of burdens, rather than enjoyments. To clarify:

1.     If an abortion is wanted, then the unborn fetus is unwanted

2.     If an unborn fetus is unwanted, then, when born anyway, the fetus will, likely, not place a high value on its future when it is older due to probable dysfunctional circumstances

.: , likely, 3.     If abortion is wanted, the fetus, if born anyway, will not value its future (from 1 and 2)

This is of course not always the case – it is possible that the mother, upon giving birth, would realize the value of her child and it would become wanted to her, or the child could be adopted into a stable, more ideal home where it is very much appreciated, and would therefore be more likely thrive as an individual. This is however not always the outcome in reality.  It is more reasonable to assume that in circumstances where abortions are considered, there is a dysfunctional situation at hand: i.e. the mother is not ready for the baby, the mother was raped, the child is predisposed to a terrible disease, etc.  If abortion was not permissible and the fetus was therefore forced to be born into this non-ideal situation, the life of the child would likely be associated with: low socioeconomic status, stress, burdens, severe attachment disorder due to being unwanted, abuse, neglect, etc. A low socioeconomic status especially indicates poor outcomes due to its association with lack of education, poor nutrition, less access to resources, and more, which in turn creates more stress and psychological dysfunction, notably anxiety and depression.

Depression is especially relevant as those who have it often consider their lives to be invaluable. This is further evident by the correlation between depression and suicide. That is not to say that the outcome of depression is always the case for an unwanted child when they are brought into the world – it is just to say that it is not axiomatically reasonable or logical to think that an unwanted fetus always has a valuable future, or a future which it would eventually come to value. It follows from these inferences that Marquis’ argument contains an implicit premise which is false. To clarify:

Marquis’ argument revised where the implicit premise (2) is stated explicitly:

1.     Abortion is immoral when it deprives a fetus of it’s valuable future

2.     The future of a fetus is always valuable

.: 3.     Abortion is always immoral (from 1 and 2)

Contrary to common belief, including that of Marquis, in my opinion it should also be acknowledged that those who are depressed or suicidal and do not value their futures because of their intense suffering should have the right to end their own life or request euthanasia. Marquis also touches on this in the following quote (where he disagrees):

“One problem with the desire account is that we do regard it as seriously wrong to kill persons who have little desire to live or who have no desire to live or, indeed, have a desire not to live. We believe it is seriously wrong to kill those who are tired of life and those who are suicidal.” (Marquis, 1989)

The reasons why people generally identify with this assertion are, in my opinion, emotion, stigma, and/or ignorance. The argument that a depressed or mentally suffering person has the right to decide to end their life can be justified by comparing mental illness to physical illness. Society very often regards a depressed person as a fully functional individual when compared to a person with a physical illness. It is not uncommon for a depressed person to be told things like “just cheer up”, or “stop being lazy and get out of bed”. On the other hand, no one would ever tell a person with a broken leg or a disabled person that they are fine and they just need to conjure up some more will power in order to function at their full capacity. However, by the same logic, it does not make sense to tell such things like “just look on the bright side” to a depressed person since the nature of their illness is associated with a real bio-psychological dysfunction; the only relevant difference between a psychological dysfunction and a physiological dysfunction is that the latter is directly observable by others in society, and perhaps that is why people have more sympathy for the physically suffering person, whereas they often do not have the same sympathy for those suffering from stress and mental illness. This issue is also touched on in arguments regarding the right to euthanasia and I do believe that in some cases, where depression or another psychological illness is incurable and so debilitating that the person is suffering so much to the point that they have no conceivable value for their own life, they should be treated quite the same as patients suffering from incurable and debilitating physical diseases.

Correspondingly, it cannot be argued against that the perceived value of a person’s own life is highly interrelated with their psychological wellness, which is strongly determined by their predispositions which may or may not be good – a matter that is highly dependent on the situation in which the person was brought into the world. Therefore, if Marquis’ argument is to be taken at face value, namely that the immorality of abortion is based on the valuable future of the fetus, it actually does not follow that abortion is always immoral – it must instead be decided which conditions are sufficient for abortion to be morally permissible on a case-by-case basis, i.e. if the fetus would likely suffer from severe dysfunction once born.

Worth of consideration is also the relationship between abortion and crime rate. Studies show that legalized abortion may more often be associated with a lower crime rate for two reasons: firstly, because an unaborted yet unwanted fetus would likely be forced to grow up into such a dysfunctional, or low-socioeconomic status situation which is also linked to higher crime rates (Levitt and Donohue, 2001); and secondly, because a lower population is associated with a lower crime rate (Nolan, 2004). It is subsequently reasonable to infer that if abortion were to be criminalized in a society and significantly less abortions were therefore being performed, that society would face higher crime rates (excluding the so-called “crime” of abortion). Furthermore, if abortion were to be deemed illegal, many women would end up doing it in a clandestine way, putting their own safety at high risk. Knowing these outcomes, one can also ascertain that the act of criminalizing abortion is in itself immoral in some way.

It would be appropriate now to discuss how the life of a fetus may infringe on the rights of others.  This is explained very well in arguments for the woman’s right to her own body.

Another flaw in Marquis’ argument which should also be mentioned here (as noted by him in his paper), is that, according to his reasoning, contraception is also immoral. Marquis makes a defence against this argument – namely that since one sperm and one egg have not yet joined when contraception has it’s effect, no single future or identifiable person has been created yet and therefore using contraception is not committing murder. I believe, however, that this defence is not sufficient because it does not explain the distinction between two separate cells and two conjoined cells (Beillard, 2016). Furthermore, when Marquis says that

“the immorality of contraception is not entailed by the loss of a future-like-ours argument simply because there is no nonarbitrarily identifiable subject of the loss in the case of contraception” (Marquis, 1989),

he is again contradicting himself because he concurrently points out that Warren’s argument is flawed in that personhood may not be intrinsically relevant to abortion. He firstly says that being a person does not necessarily have anything to do with a right to life, but in the aforementioned quote he is saying that contraception is acceptable because no identifiable subject (person) has been established yet. So, in essence, he is saying that personhood is not relevant for abortion to be morally permissible, however it is relevant for contraception to be morally permissible. Although, in this respect, I actually believe Marquis does well to notice this flaw in Warren’s argument, namely, that being a “person” may not necessarily have anything to do with the moral status of abortion, the logical flaw remains that by doing so, he is contradicting himself.

I also do believe, however that although Marquis does well in pointing out this flaw in  Warren’s argument, it does not follow that her argument is weaker. Healthcare, science, and technology will still progress and eventually a decision could someday be made in regards to when a fetus technically achieves “personhood.” In the meantime, Warren’s theory as it stands is at least still logically sound: i.e. there is nothing else overtly objectionable about personhood being a sufficient condition for being considered a member of the moral community.

Warren’s argument is also more parsimonious because it considers the nature of the subject which is in question, namely, whether a fetus is a person in the sense that is it a member of the moral community. Marquis’ argument, on the other hand, is not necessarily in accordance with the principle of plurality because there are many other variables which are as well indirectly attributed to fetuses other than “valuable futures” which could give reason to declare abortion to be immoral. For example, one could argue that the fetus may possibly grow up and live a life which has a valuable impact on the world and killing it is wrong because the world would not otherwise benefit from that person’s contribution. Or, one could say that killing an unborn fetus is wrong because it will grow up to someday have a child of its own and this is necessary for our future as a species. None of these variables, however, explore the nature of the thing itself which is in question, namely the characteristics of the fetus, and it is this nature that is quite possibly the only thing that can be identified for certain.

More ethical questions can also be raised if we are to say that abortion is immoral. Some questions are, for example: why is abortion immoral, but slaughtering over 56 billion innocent farm animals per year[2] for eating meat morally acceptable? And what separates the personhood of a homo sapien from that of a cow or some other species with person-like qualities?  Are there alternatives to meat, and is it even a necessary component of the human diet?  Why is a “future like ours” any more special than an animal’s future which can also be full of enjoyments, emotions, and experiences?  Beside animal ethics, other examples of moral dilemmas could be about the liceity of killing one single terrorist if we have confirming information that he is about to kill thousands of innocent people, or whether or not we should kill someone in self defence if that person has a valuable future.  The general notion that abortion is always immoral therefore seems, in my opinion, to be relying on little consideration and investigation of such questions.  Furthermore, by deeming abortion and consequently, contraception to be morally impermissible (according to Marquis’ argument before his insufficient defence against this question), you are also deeming abstinence to be morally wrong (Beillard, 2016), and if that were the case, those are all immoral criminals who are not having unprotected sex as much as they are able to in order to preserve every possible sperm and egg with the potential to create human life.  These are just some of the problems which I believe also must be sufficiently answered before abortion in itself can be deemed as immoral.  That is not to say however that abortion is always moral and that should be done recklessly — it is just to say that it is not always immoral.

It follows that the nature of the problem in general may be that the concept of morality is a false dichotomy: it assumes a bipolar form in which phenomena are either “right” or “wrong”. Many philosophical arguments suggest morality is actually quite relative, however. Thus, as a society, we could instead choose to be “pro-moderation” or “pro-informed decision” for example. The fact is that humans do have this quality of personhood which is critical thinking and in ideal situations this is used to judge a situation in order make the best, most ethical and reasonable decisions possible. If we could focus on this nature of humanity instead of ascribing to a bipolar system of morality or “black and white thinking” (which I believe to be a result of uninformed opinion), we could produce more flawless answers to such questions.

In conclusion, I both agree and disagree with both Marquis and Warren as I believe that abortion is sometimes morally wrong and sometimes permissible and therefore should be considered case by case.  I do not believe that, for example, a pregnancy in its third trimester should be terminated if there is, firstly, not a sufficient reason as to why it was not done earlier, and secondly, no justified reason as to why the child would not have a valuable future. However, I also do not believe that a 13 year old girl who was raped and is impoverished should be forced against her will to carry her unborn child to term and care for it once born — especially if the society she lives in has the technology and healthcare to help her.  The criminalization of abortion would have substantial ethical consequences on society by reinforcing the injustice highlighted by traditional pro-choice arguments, including feminist arguments such as the woman’s right to her own body, the effect of abortion on crime rate, overpopulation, and lack of sexual education.  Of course sexual education should be prioritized in society and accessible to all but the reality is that it currently is not.  In the meantime, it is therefore necessary to be flexible and critical of individual situations where abortion is in question, rather than attempting to deem the entire practice of abortion itself as being either morally permissible or strictly criminalized.

[1] It can also be explained how the life of a fetus would infringe on the rights of others in certain circumstances and this will be discussed later.

[2] This does not include fish and sea creatures, whose deaths are so great they are measured in tonnes.