Abortion From An Ethical Point Of View

Essay, Research Paper “ Describe and evaluate any two contrasting theoretical approaches to the moral debate of abortion.” It is widely accepted that the fact of abortion has been a subject of conversation and controversy for many decades. Since the proportion of people who accept abortion as a ‘normal’ procedure is equal to the proportion of those who think of abortion as a ‘crime’, through time a lot of measurements have been taken against abortion but concerning it’s defense as well.

Essay, Research Paper

“ Describe and evaluate any two contrasting theoretical approaches to the moral debate of abortion.”

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It is widely accepted that the fact of abortion has been a subject of conversation and controversy for many decades. Since the proportion of people who accept abortion as a ‘normal’ procedure is equal to the proportion of those who think of abortion as a ‘crime’, through time a lot of measurements have been taken against abortion but concerning it’s defense as well. Although the fact of abortion has been examined through it’s scientific and religious side, in this assignment we will try and examine abortion from an ethical point of view.

The best way for someone to refer to abortion on an ethical basis would probably be through the description and evaluation of the subject based on two of the most known theoretical approaches: those of Kant’s and of Utilitarianism (Act and Rule).

Beginning with the approach of Utilitarianism, we must say that Utilitarianism, is concerned basically with pleasure and with pain. Therefore someone should be concerned with the amounts of pleasure and pain in situations where abortion is permitted as contrasted with the amounts of pleasure and pain where abortion is forbidden.

It might be suggested that the main consideration would be the interests of the fetus: not only can its future life be expectedly happy (or at least having a balance of happiness over suffering) it might also be the case that the abortion itself is painful, particularly if it occurs later in the pregnancy. However this focus on the fetus is unwarranted since any suffering involved in the abortion itself can be avoided by simply aborting the pregnancy sooner (before the fetus has even developed the capability of suffering), or with painless techniques. The direct suffering of the fetus can therefore be no argument against abortion generally, only the bad practice of it.

A more significant consideration exists if we hypothesize that the future life of the fetus involves a probable balance of happiness over suffering for the fetus. This would seem to be a definite point against abortion, though not, a dominant one.

The second party that we should consider are the parents and other family, and guardians if the alternative to abortion is adoption. According to some studies, having a baby appears to decrease the happiness in a relationship – even in those cases where the pregnancy is desired. But again, this need not be considered too much, it is not a dominant consideration.

As is the case with many issues in a utilitarian system, the rightness or wrongness of the act in question turns mainly not on the effects of the act on the agent, nor on the beings directly affected by the act, but on the less direct effects on the community at large. That means that the issue of abortion actually becomes one of the desirability of increasing or decreasing the population.

Given that there must be some population size that can be regarded as the “perfect” size, if we are allowed to place it this way for a society, it is clear that Utility will ban new births above this amount while below this population size Utility will prescribe reproduction.

So the utilitarian, who suggests that the future happiness of the child, combined with the estimated value of the effects on others, is such that Utility opposes abortion, must admit that this would imply that Utility prescribes an increase in population and that this would apply to anyone capable of producing a child. So Utility is generally against abortion only when it is generally for raising the population. In terms of utility, the actual act of abortion is not a particularly significant one.

A brief mention must be made of why it is that the relative effects on the community at large are dominant in this issue, and why the other considerations are not. It must be remembered that the raising of a child in a modern developed country has a very large cost in financial terms, which is highly significant. It is well known that the amount required to raise one child in a developed country could probably raise many more in a poorer part of the world. So if increasing the human population is the aim, this can be achieved more effectively elsewhere. However in these days of increasing environmental pressure and terrible inequality, increasing the human population is not what we should be aiming for. Of course at this point someone could ask him/herself “If everybody became a utilitarian, would the human race become extinct?” The answer would be in this case no, because, if everybody were utilitarian, these problems would not exist to the same degree.

In utilitarian terms, a general prescription either for or against reproduction is very hard to justify because each case would have its own relevant and specific features. However, we come to the assumption that reproduction is the cheapest method of recruiting moral agents, even granting that it has a high cost in time and effort and of course this would require empirical support.

Someone should not of course forget to refer to the distinctions within the Utilitarian approach in Act and Rule Utilitarianism. Rule utilitarianism is a formulation utilitarianism, which maintains that a behavioural code or rule is morally right if the consequences of adopting that rule are more favourable than unfavourable to everyone.

The above is contrasted with act utilitarianism, which maintains that the morality of each action is to be determined in relation to the favourable or unfavourable consequences that emerge from that action. The principle of rule-utilitarianism is a test only for the morality of moral rules, such as “stealing is wrong” and not a test for particular actions. Adopting a rule against theft clearly has more favourable consequences than unfavourable consequences for everyone. The same is true for moral rules against lying or murdering. Rule-utilitarianism, then, offers a method for judging behaviour.

More general speaking, act utilitarianism regards each individual action as the fundamental unit of moral evaluation while rule utilitarianism applies the principle of utility not to individuals actions but to general rules under which those actions fall.

Continuing with Kant’s approach, even though we know that he does not addresses the issue of abortion as topic directly, we could search into his second critique of his discussions and that is about the moral agent and how we should treat people. By this formulation Kant is arguing that human beings are not simply of subjective importance to them, but are of objective importance to all others as ends in themselves. Therefore, in making moral decisions we should act in a way that recognizes the objective importance of every other individual.

The above could probably be used for a pro-life position. The pro-life arguments, which are against abortion, are the following:

1. It is a murder to kill an innocent human being

2. A human fetus is an innocent human being

3. Therefore the conclusion is that it is a crime to kill a human fetus

On the other side, we have perhaps a stronger argument and a more philosophical which is that although the fetus has some future rights to self-freedom, if it was the case that the child would be severely handicapped to the point where self-consciousness would be impossible or their freedom to take control of their being was nil, then perhaps Kant would argue pro-choice. Pro-choice suggests that a fetus is not a human being until it:

? Becomes conscious (sentient)

? Is viable

? Is born

Although pro-life suggests that a fetus is just an earlier stage of a human being, knowing the scientific stages of a pregnancy where from 0-18 weeks the fetus is in a vegetative state and furthermore is not a moral patient since it does not have self-consciousness, abortion can be justified. Like Singer suggests: “If ‘human’ is taken as equivalent to ‘person’ which asserts that the fetus is a human being is clearly false because one cannot plausibly argue that a fetus is either rational or self-conscious. If on the other hand, ‘human’ is taken to mean no more than ‘member of the species Homo sapiens’, then the conservative defence of the life of the fetus is based on a characteristic lacking moral significance.” My suggestion, then, is that we accord the life of a fetus no greater value than the life of a nonhuman animal at a similar level of rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, capacity to feel, etc. Since no fetus is a person, no fetus has the same claim to life as a person.”

The applied ethical issue of abortion involves a consideration of the reasons for or against terminating the life of a fetus. Much has been written on the issue of abortion both in the popular press and in the philosophical literature. The debate focuses on two distinct issues: (1) whether a human fetus has a right to life, and, if so, (2) whether the rights of the mother ever override the fetus’s right. Often the issues are discussed independently of each other.

Discussion of the first issue, regarding a fetus’s right to life, usually draws on the concept of moral personhood. A being is a morally significant person when it is a rights holder, and we are under moral obligation to that being. For example, I am a morally significant person and am entitled to the right to life, which others have a moral duty to acknowledge. The problem for moral theorists is to establish a criterion that explains why I am a morally significant person, and a fly is not a morally significant person.

Some religious philosophers suggest that we are morally significant persons at the moment of conception. Non-religious criteria include, when we first take the human form (in the fourth month of pregnancy), when our organs become differentiated, and when the fetus can survive outside the womb (both around the seventh month of pregnancy). Some philosophers suggest more general criteria such as when a being is self-aware or rational. These criteria are not exhibited until an infant is one or two years old.

The reason of personhood selected has important implications on the morality of abortion. If personhood is conferred on a being at the moment of conception, then, all things considered, aborting a fetus is immoral. On the other hand, if we select a reason such as self-awareness, then, all things considered, aborting a fetus is not immoral. The challenge is in providing reasons in support of one reason over another.

But even if we all could agree on a reason of personhood, such as the moment of conception, the abortion debate would not be over. After that point, questions arise about whether the mother’s right of self-determination overrides the rights of the fetus. It is the mother’s body that is affected by the pregnancy, and it is her emotional and social life that will be drastically altered for at least the next nine months and beyond. These factors carry at least some weight. Other potentially overriding factors complicate the rights of the fetus, such as whether the pregnancy resulted from rape, or contraception failure.

Whatever the decision of a woman will be, it is a fact that she should be aware of all the elements mentioned above. I personally believe what John Locke implies in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) that “it is part of the worship of God, not to kill another man, not to procure abortion, not to expose their children, not”

1. Sterba, J.P.(ed) (1998) – Ethics: The Big Questions Blackwell

2. Singer P. (ed) (1991) – Ethics Blackwell


1. Almond P. (ed) (1995) – Introducing Applied Ethics Blackwell

2. Smart J.J.C & Williams B. (1973) – Utilitarianism: For and Against Cambridge