Abortion and Ethical Theory
Abortion is the premature termination of a foetus from the womb, legal up to 24 weeks with the agreement of two doctors
Central to one’s views on abortion is the concept of personhood. This explores what constitutes a person and at what point during foetal development a person becomes a person. This is fundamental to one’s system of belief and their views on abortion; if a foetus is terminated after the point at which it can be considered a person, such an action can be deemed murderous.
Glover argued that determining the point at which a person becomes a person is not logically possible – to attempt to do so would be the same as trying to define the point at which a cake mix becomes a cake:
When does a cake become a cake?
When does a person become a person?
However, various different views of personhood have developed giving rise to a range of different ideas about the point at which a person becomes a person:
THE RIGHT TO LIFE
Once we have considered the point at which a foetus can be considered as a person with rights, we must further question what exactly what rights the foetus is deserving of, or, perhaps more importantly, what rights the mother has over a growing foetus. This is a much debated area of medical ethics. A key contributor to the pro-choice movement (in favour of the right of the mother to choose to have a termination) is J.J. Thompson.
J.J. THOMPSON (PRO-CHOICE, SUPPORTS FEMINIST ETHICS)
Thompson uses an analogy of a violinist to support the right of the mother to decide to have an abortion:
A man is kidnapped and wired up to a famous violist in a hospital in order to save the violinist. He wakes up and is given the choice of staying attached to the violinist for nine months and saving him, or leaving the hospital and letting the violinist die.
VIOLINIST = FOETUS
PERSON = MOTHER
HOSPITALISATION = PREGNANCY
The violinist (foetus) has the right to life. However this right is not greater than the person’s right to freedom. The violinist has no right over the person’s body, and therefore the person is morally justified in reversing his hospitalisation by leaving – just as a mother has the right to terminate her pregnancy.
Peter Singer develops the analogy of the violinist:
You visit a friend in hospital but accidentally get off the elevator on the wrong floor where doctors are waiting to rig you up to someone.
This represents the situation in which a woman (the friend) has accidentally become pregnant. Her mistake (getting off on the wrong floor) permits her to have an abortion (to leave the floor) if she so desires.
The feminist, J.J. Thompson, uses a second analogy to support the rights of the mother over the right to life of the foetus:
Imagine a world in which pregnancy occurs when little pollen seeds take root in soft furnishings. A woman likes having the window open so she takes precautions by putting up a fine wire mesh to stop the pollen seeds. However one seed still ends up on the rug and she becomes pregnant.
Therefore, a woman who doesn’t want to get pregnant has only two options:
1. CLOSE THE WINDOW COMPLETELY – Never have sex
2. HAVE ALL HER FURNISHINGS REMOVED – Have womb removed
Thompson thus argued that if a woman takes reasonable steps to avoid pregnancy she should not be held responsible for the pregnancy, and has the right to choose to have an abortion. J.J. Thompson cites another analogy to illustrate the absurdity of the claim that a woman does not have the right to terminate an accidental pregnancy:
An intruder enters a house because a window is left open and is asked to leave. However the intruder refuses to leave because he has the right to stay since he was able to get in.
This is absurd – an intruder (foetus) has no right to your property (body)
CRITICISMS OF THOMPSON’S ANALOGIES
• The examples are not relevant – a foetus is innocent and did not choose to come into existence, whilst a intruder is guilty of freely choosing to climb into someone else’s property
• Thompson also fails to take emotions into account
• She talks of a baby as if it were a possession or object
APPLYING ETHICAL THEORY TO ABORTION
In this module you will be required to apply an understanding of Kantian Ethics, Utilitarianism, Relativism, Virtue Ethics, Natural Law and Christian Ethics to the issues raised by abortion; namely personhood and the right to life. You should look to the notes on ethical theory in the first section of this module and the foundation module (2760) and apply them to the issue of abortion, taking the following points into consideration:
The division of the Christian church has lead to the development of three main traditions, each turning to a different source for moral teaching:
1. Authority – Roman Catholic (the encyclicals or papal teachings and the belief that the pope is infallible)
2. Bible – Protestant (belief that the bible is the literal word of God)
3. Conscience – Orthodox (belief that the conscience is the literal voice of God)
The sanctity of life is a key theme running throughout the bible:
• God created Humans in his image
So God created man in his own image
• Humans are purposefully called into existence
God blessed them and said to them, be fruitful and increase in number
• Human life has intrinsic value because it has been made in God’s image
‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made them.’
• Life is divinely and uniquely ordained from conception
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb
? From this we can deduce that humans have intrinsic as opposed to instrumental value because they were purposely and uniquely designed in the loving image of their creator and therefore should not be treated as a means to an end but as ends in themselves (Kant).
Killing a foetus to reach the end that is for the benefit of the mother is not treating the foetus as a means to an end.
Furthermore, if abortion takes place after the point at which the foetus is considered a person with a right to life, it goes against the Old Testament commandment not to murder:
‘Thou shall not murder’
NATURAL LAW (ABSOLUTE, DEONTOLOGICAL)
Aquinas postulated that humans have the ability to reason which leads to a knowledge of five primary precepts. From these five primary precepts, secondary precepts can be deduced.
It could be argued that abortion goes against two of Aquinas’ primary precepts:
1. Continuation of the human species through reproduction:
Secondary precept: No contraception, no abortion, no homosexuality
2. Self-preservation and preservation of the innocent:
Secondary precept: No abortion, no euthanasia
Real & Apparent Goods
Aquinas’ Natural Law is routed in Aristotelian thought. Aristotle distinguished between real and apparent goods:
Real goods lead to flourishing – a real good might involve avoiding abortion
Apparent goods appear to be good but don’t lead to flourishing – having an abortion might appear to be a real good but in reality it is an apparent good and does not lead to human flourishing
However, abortion could be justified by the doctrine of double affect:
DOCTRINE OF DOUBLE EFFECT
The doctrine of double effect could be used to justify abortion if it is a secondary consequence of a primary intention e.g. the removal of the mother’s womb with the primary intention to save her life but the secondary consequence of terminating the pregnancy.
SITUATION ETHICS (RELATIVIST, TELEOLOGICAL)
According to Fletcher’s Situation Ethics, the morality of abortion depends on the situation. Situation Ethics is based on the single maxim – agape love. Abortion could be seen to be:
1) LOVING – if the mother’s life is in danger (abortion is morally permissible)
2) NOT LOVING – if the mother does not want to have a child (abortion is immoral)
VIRTUE ETHICS (AGENT-CENTRED)
• About the person rather than the action
• Derived from the thinking of Aristotle who devised a list of twelve moral virtues:
VICE OF DIFFICIENCY GOLDEN MEAN VICE OF EXCESS
Cowardness Courage Rashness
Courage is one of Aristotle’s twelve virtues. It could be argued that abortion is a cowardly or rash action, in which case it will not help the progression towards Eudaimonia. However, abortion could be seen as a virtuous action if it demonstrates the golden mean that is courage, leading to human flourishing.
ACT UTILITARIANISM (RELATIVE, TELEOLOGICAL)
Act Utilitarian theories start with specific cases from which general principles can be deduced. Bentham’s Hedonic Calculus weighs up the following measures of the consequential pleasure/pain:
Situation 1 – Abortion is morally right when the mother’s life is in danger. The duration of the pain of the loss of the mother will be ongoing, the extent of its effects will be widespread as many family and friends will suffer from the loss, and the intensity of the pain of the death of a mother with a family to support is high.
Situation 2 – Abortion is morally wrong if the mother simply wants a promotion at work. The duration of pleasure brought by the baby is greater than the duration of pleasure brought by the promotion, the extent of the effects is widespread because the family want the baby, and the pleasure is more intense to those who want the baby than the mother’s promotion.
RULE UTILITARIANISM (DEONTOLOGICAL, TELEOLOGICAL)
Rule Utilitarianism starts with general principles from which specific acts can be prohibited without exception to the rule. It follows rules that promote the greatest happiness, for example the rule:
Allow abortion up to 24 weeks if desired
This rule can be seen as promoting the greatest net utility
PREFERENCE UTILITARIANISM (RELATIVE, TELEOLOGICAL)
For Preference Utilitarians such as Peter Singer, the moral course of action is the one that results in the most preference satisfaction. It could be argued that foetuses don’t have preferences but women do; thus abortion is morally permissible in any situation.
KANTIAN ETHICS (ABSOULUTE, DONTOLOGICAL SINCE DEON = DUTY)
Applying Kant’s Categorical Imperative to abortion:
1) The Universal Law
All moral statements should be both universalisable (applied to all people in a situations) and willed to be universalised. If they are not universalisable then they are contradictions in the Law of Nature, and if they cannot be willed to be universalised they are contradictions in the Law of the Will.
“So act that the maxim of your will could always hold at the same time as a principle establishing universal law”
If you were to universalise abortion the human race would become extinct and there would be no one left to have an abortion, thus abortion is a contradiction in the Law of Nature. Furthermore, one may not will abortion to be universalised in all circumstances, e.g. a mother has an abortion simply because she wants to go on holiday, and therefore can also be seen as a contradiction in the Law of the Will.
2) Treat humans as ends in themselves
People should always be treated as ends in themselves and not as a means to an end
Kant argued that people and foetuses have intrinsic value and not instrumental value – they cannot be disposed of for the benefits of others.
Therefore, according to the Categorical Imperative, abortion is morally wrong in all circumstances. However, this is only the case if ethical status and moral worth can be extended to a pre-mature being such as a foetus. Kant did not make his view on this clear and did not deal with potentiality (the potential of a foetus to become a human).
Kant distinguished between three types of beings:
1) People – rational Agents
2) People with partial rights – people who lack rights e.g. children, mentally disabled
3) Things – animals, plants etc (things can be treated as a means to an end)
Kant did not make it clear where he classified foetuses. If they are classified as things, Kant might justify abortion on the basis that they can be treated as a means to an end.