Are Most Abortions Moral?
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 8 - Applied Social and Ethical Problems
Jane English, from the Canadian Journal of Philosophy
Kem Stone - 7 June 2008
One of the most difficult issues in ethics is the question of abortion.  There are just too many unanswerable
questions with regard to the issue that is impossible to make any broad determinations regarding whether it is
always or never justifiable to take the life of an unborn fetus.  Looking at the issue in terms of intentions, one may
want to resolve the issue by proclaiming that abortion is justifiable if giving birth would present a risk to the
mother's health, but unjustifiable otherwise.  Yet can we really proclaim that a woman has no right to an abortion if
giving birth to the baby would bring about disownment by her family, loss of her career, or some other devastating
consequence?  It is even more problematic to look at the issue in terms of probable consequences.  A poverty-
stricken woman might believe that her abortion is justified to spare her child a life of suffering and destitution, but
for all she knows her child, had she been born, would have become a brilliant scientist and discovered the cure for
cancer.  On the other side of the coin, a well-to-do woman who gives birth has no way of knowing that her child
will not become a psychopathic serial killer.  It seems the only way to approach the issue is from the standpoint of
abstract principles such as whether a fetus can be considered a person, and whether it should be given the same
rights and moral considerations as any citizen.  But as Jane English argues in this article, even the question of
whether a fetus is a person can not answer the moral question of abortion, as on the one hand killing a person is
not always wrong (such as in cases of self-defence), and on the other hand, even non-persons (such as animals)
should be given moral consideration.  Ultimately, English concludes that abortion is sometimes moral and
sometimes immoral, an opinion which I share because I believe it is the most reasonable attitude to adopt towards
this issue, though I disagree with some of the steps she takes to arrive at this conclusion.

English believes that both conservatives and liberals move too far to either side of this issue.  “Conservatives
maintain that a human life begins at conception and that therefore abortion must be wrong because it is murder.  
But not all killings of humans are murders….Liberals, on the other hand, are just as mistaken in their argument that
since a fetus does not become a person until birth, a woman may do whatever she pleases in and to her own
body.  First, you cannot do as you please with your own body if it affects other people adversely.  Second, if a
fetus is not a person, that does not imply that you can do to it anything you wish” (512).  The cornerstone of both
of these positions is the status of the fetus with regard to personhood.  But English will show that whether the fetus
is a person or not is actually a moot point, and can not be used to resolve the abortion controversy.

The different factions involved in this debate simply draw different lines between what does or does not constitute
a person.  Predictably, abortion foes propose conditions for personhood that a fetus satisfies, while friends of
abortion propose conditions that fetuses do not.  Yet both presuppose that the concept of a “person” can be
neatly defined with a list of necessary and/or sufficient conditions.  These include biological, psychological,
rationality, social and legal factors.  Yet any list of features will be either incomplete or plagued by counter-
instances to each point.  For example, if rationality is a necessary condition for personhood, then the mentally ill
could not be considered persons.  When we try to define a person, we find that there is no core of necessary and
sufficient conditions we can appeal to, but merely a list of features that are more or less typical.  “But rather than
falling inside a sufficient condition or outside a necessary one, a fetus lies in the penumbra region where our
concept of a person is not so simple.  For this reason I think a conclusive answer to the question whether a fetus is
a person is unattainable” (514).

Some wish to oversimplify the argument by stating that since it is a
human fetus—it is not a canine fetus or an
avian fetus—and living, it can be considered a “human being”.  Yet as English points out, this is merely the fallacy
of affirming the consequent: declaring that a fetus meets the requirements for personhood merely by satisfying a
necessary condition—not a sufficient one.  This would be akin to saying that since humans are bi-pedal and
ostriches are bi-pedal, ostriches are humans.  Some point to the ways in which fetuses resemble babies,
emphasising the similarities (ten fingers and toes) while ignoring the dissimilarities (gills and a tail), which is the
same logical error, but a slightly more effective way to argue because it shows that a fetus meets enough of the
necessary conditions for personhood to be treated as a person.  Of course, a fetus near the time of birth satisfies a
great deal more of the conditions than a fetus in the first few weeks of pregnancy, so by this reasoning the former
ought to be given more moral consideration than the latter, which justifies legal distinctions between the different
stages of pregnancy that the U.S. Supreme court already has affirmed.

But the crux of the issue is still the question of finding a firm dividing line between the time at which a fetus is a
mere cluster of cells, and when it becomes a living human being endowed with rights protected by the
constitution.  Yet this line is anything but firm.  “Historically, the time at which a person has been said to come into
existence has varied widely.  Muslims date personhood from forty days after conception for a male fetus and
eighty days for a female fetus.  In European common law since the Seventeenth Century, abortion was considered
the killing of a person only after quickening, the time when a pregnant woman first feels the fetus move on its
own….We shouldn't expect there to be any specific time or sharp dividing point when a person appears on the
scene” (515).  And this is the main reason why the concept of personhood can not be the route we take to
resolve the abortion controversy.  Attempting to do so merely obscures the issue even further.

To illustrate that even a definitive answer to the question of personhood would not resolve the abortion debate,
English considers what would follow if we grant the conservatives their position and declare unequivocally that a
fetus is a person.  Would we then be able to say that abortion is wrong in all cases because it is the killing of an
innocent person?  English points out that to do so we would need to add another proposition to the argument: that
killing an innocent person is always wrong.  But killing an innocent person is permissible in cases of self-defence,
and in some cases abortion is very much analogous to self-defence.

English introduces an analogy about a mad scientist who hypnotises innocent people to hide in bushes and attack
innocent passers-by with knives.  Although these hypnotised knife-wielders are innocent, you would be justified in
killing one to ward off an attack.  How severe an injury that may be inflicted in self-defence depends upon the
degree of the injury to be avoided, and our laws generally state that the injury inflicted in self-defence can be
somewhat but not enormously greater than the injury to be avoided: one may shoot to avoid the loss of a finger, or
blacken an eye to avoid having one’s clothes torn.  When we look at abortion in these kinds of terms, we come to
some reasonable conclusions.  “Though the fetus is itself innocent, it may pose a threat to the pregnant woman’s
well-being, life prospects or health, mental or physical.  If the pregnancy presents a slight threat to her interests, it
seems self-defence cannot justify abortion.  But if the threat is on par with a serious beating or the loss of a finger,
she may kill that fetus that poses such a threat, even if it is an innocent person” (516).

Some might object that in the case of abortion, self-defence cannot be used as a justification because it is the
doctor—not the woman who may be at risk—that performs the operation.  When presented with the above
analogy, they would claim that anyone who witnesses a person being attacked by a hypnotised attacker would not
be justified in killing either one of them.  But English argues that a doctor would be more like a bodyguard hired to
protect a frail senior citizen from the attackers.  If she is attacked, the bodyguard has every right to kill the
attacker because she has given him the responsibility to do so as her agent.  In the same respect, a doctor acts as
an agent for the woman who can not perform the abortion herself.

English admits that with modern medical technology, cases are rare that pregnancy actually presents a serious risk
of harm or death to the woman, so she must look at cases where more long-range and subtle harms are involved.  
We suppose that the mad scientist sends a hypnotized attacker to kidnap you, a doctor, so that he can hypnotise
you and block all your knowledge of medicine.  “This would automatically destroy your career which would in
turn have a serious adverse impact on your family, your personal relationships and your happiness.  It seems to me
that if the only way you can avoid this outcome is to shoot the innocent attacker, you are justified in so doing.  
You are defending yourself from a drastic injury to your life prospects” (517).  I will return to this point later, as I
consider it the most objectionable portion of her argument.

There are several other counter-arguments that English considers.  Many foes of abortion claim that abstinence is
the only acceptable way to avoid pregnancy.  This would be like saying that since the hypnotised attackers only
come out during the day-time, you would never be justified in killing one because you could simply choose never
go out at night.  English believes that this is too much of an inconvenience to reasonably ask of people, just as it is
unreasonable to expect everyone to abstain from sex unless they want children.  Others claim that since
contraception is always an option, abortion is always wrong.  This English analogises to saying that since you
could carry Mace with you when you go out, you would never be justified in killing an attacker because other
options were open to you.  But the same people will claim that abortion is wrong even in cases of contraceptive
failure, which is akin to saying that if the Mace doesn’t work, you must let the attacker assault you.

English points out that the self-defence model reveals an important distinction between abortion and infanticide,
which many foes of abortion claim go hand in hand.  But although no additional biological characteristic is gained
at the moment of birth, there is a fundamental shift in the relationship between the fetus and the woman.  “What if,
after birth, the presence of an infant or the need to support it posed a grave threat to the woman’s sanity or life
prospects?  She could escape this threat by the simple expedient of running away.  So a solution that does not
entail the death of the infant is available.  Before birth, such solutions are not available because of the biological
dependence of the fetus on the woman” (517).  This point proves that there is a key moral distinction between
abortion and infanticide.  But it raises another question that is detrimental to English’s argument, which I will
consider later on.

After concluding that abortion is not always immoral even if we grant that a fetus is a person, English asks whether
abortion is always moral if we grant that a fetus definitely is
not a person.  What is immediately apparent when
considering this question is that non-persons
do often receive moral consideration.  Mistreatment of animals is
thought to be wrong fundamentally, unless it is done for experimentation that is likely to yield beneficial results to
humans.  But to use this as a guideline for formulating moral principles regarding how to treat
all non-humans is
problematic.  “You do not want to say, for instance, that torturing dogs is all right whenever the sum of its effects
on people is good—when it doesn’t warp the sensibilities of the torturer so much that he mistreats people.  If that
were the case, it would be all right to torture dogs in private….This is an inadequate account, because whatever
moral consideration animals get, it has to be indefeasible, too.  It will have to be a general proscription of certain
actions, not merely a weighing of the impact on people on a case-by-case basis” (518).  English rejects a
Utilitarian approach to this issue and instead puts forward Rawls’ ethical theory—that in choosing the principles to
regulate society, those faced with the decisions must consider the total consequences of the various systems
involved.  Most importantly, the ethical theory must generate a set of sympathies and attitudes that reinforce its

This is why English believes it is important to consider psychological factors.  Because of our already existing
attitudes and inclinations, we are more likely to prohibit mistreatment of non-persons who are significantly person-
like; animals that are more like humans in appearance and behaviour are generally given the most consideration in
our moral scheme.  This is why the similarity of a fetus to a human is important for English.  “A fetus one week
before birth is so much like a newborn baby in our psychological space that we cannot allow any cavalier
treatment of the former while expecting full sympathy and nurturative support for the latter” (519).  On the other
hand, a fetus in the first weeks of pregnancy is not very similar to a baby at all.  “It is hard to develop these
feelings for a set of genes which doesn’t yet have a head, hands, beating heart, response to touch or the ability to
move by itself…in the early stages of pregnancy, abortion can hardly be compared to murder for psychological
reasons, but in the latest stages it is psychologically akin to murder” (519).  But in spite of this, we do recognise
the bodily continuity between the “set of genes” and an adult human, which means we give more moral
consideration to a human fetus than a human-like animal.

In order to frame her final conclusions about the morality of abortion, English objects to an argument by Michael
Tooley that is favourable to abortion.  Tooley believes that since we drown newborn kittens when their survival
would cause some hardship, abortion is permissible.  The kittens get their rights second-hand, via humans, as do
fetuses, so their interests are often overridden by the interests of full-fledged humans.  But English claims that he is
wrong because a fetus, unlike a kitten, has a morally significant resemblance to a human.  Based on this moral
framework, English draws her conclusions:  “In the early months of pregnancy when the fetus hardly resembles a
baby at all, then, abortion is permissible whenever it is in the interests of the pregnant woman and her family.  The
reasons would only need to outweigh the pain and inconvenience of the abortion itself.  In the middle months,
when the fetus comes to resemble a person, abortion would be justifiable only when the continuation of the
pregnancy or the birth of the child would cause harms—physical, psychological, economic or social—to the
woman.  In the late months of pregnancy, even on our current assumption that a fetus is not a person, abortion
seems to be wrong except to save a woman from significant injury or death” (520).  But although English feels this
way about the
morality of abortion, she believes that when it comes to legality, due to the psychological costs
already inherent in abortion, there should be no restrictions.  A woman should be allowed to choose to abort her
baby even in the last months of pregnancy, although by English’s reasoning she would be wrong to do so.

The conclusions that English comes to are highly reasonable and I fully agree with them, though I do take
objection with some of the claims she puts forward in order to arrive at them.  When it comes to the question of
deciding whether or not a fetus constitutes a person, I am in complete agreement that we must disregard this
question altogether as there can be no definitive answer, and finding one would bring us no closer to resolving the
abortion debate as it is.  We may as well declare that abortion is legal before the immortal soul enters the fetus
and illegal afterwards—no amount of science is going to provide us with the information needed to make such a
determination.  Yet even if we knew to a certainty that the soul enters the fetus precisely six weeks into
pregnancy, there would be those who would argue that abortion after the sixth week is still morally permissible.

Such an argument, however, would be highly problematic, as is English’s argument that even if a fetus is a person,
killing it is not always wrong.  She argues that since self-defence can be used to justify the killing of an innocent
person (as in the case of the hypothetical hypnotised attackers) it can also be used to justify abortion.  In cases
where the mother is at risk of serious injury or death, I would agree.  However, when we are merely discussing
threats to a woman’s
life prospects, the claim becomes much more dubious.  English believes that if a hypnotised
attacker were not trying to kill you, but to bring you before the mad scientist who will hypnotise you into losing
your knowledge of medicine, thus ruining your medical career, you would be justified in killing the innocent
attacker.  I find this absurd.  By this reasoning, we would be morally justified in killing anybody who threatens our
career.  I could kill my boss if I knew he was considering firing me.  I could kill a co-worker who had information
that would lead to my being let go.  I could kill a professor who was going to give me a bad grade, thus hurting my
chances of getting into the best graduate school in my field.  By English’s reasoning, in all of these cases my
homicide would be justified because I was protecting myself not from death, but from
things not going my way.  
This is not to say that I believe a woman has no right to an abortion if the only the only thing she stands to lose by
having the child is her career.  I believe that a woman
does have the right to make that choice, however I believe
that if a fetus is to be considered a person with all the rights that go along with that designation, abortion is the
wrong choice in these cases.

English responds inadequately to the abstinence argument as well.  In her mad scientist analogy, she states that
declaring that abstinence is the only moral way to avoid pregnancy is akin to saying that since the hypnotised
attackers only come out at night, one can avoid killing innocent people simply by staying home at night.  The only
response English has to this is that it is a “considerable inconvenience” to never go out at night.  We now have the
avoidance of
inconvenience as a justification for homicide, a claim I also find outrageous.  Perhaps I am simply
too self-righteous a person, but if I knew that going out at night presented me with the risk of having to kill an
innocent person, I would accept the inconvenience and stay home.  I would consider anyone who does go out,
particularly for
recreational reasons, to be a highly inconsiderate, immoral, and selfish person.  A woman who
knows that she can not afford to get pregnant yet continues to engage regularly in sexual intercourse knows that it
is a distinct possibility that she might have to have an abortion—that she might have to take an innocent life.  If she
does get pregnant, she absolutely
does deserve moral condemnation for having the procedure.  She is less to
blame in cases of contraceptive failure because she was actively trying to avoid that circumstance, though just as
the person who goes out carrying Mace is not as blameless as the person who stays home, the woman whose
method of birth-control fails is not as blameless as the woman who abstains altogether.

Finally, English points out that once the baby has been born, killing it is no longer justifiable in any case because
unlike a fetus, it is no longer biologically dependent on the mother.  Whatever inconvenience the presence of the
infant may present, the woman now has the option of running away.  This raises a question that does considerable
damage to the pro-abortion argument, as although English does not once use the word “adoption” in her article,
this is a very real option for any woman faced with an unwanted pregnancy that does
not present a risk to her
health.  We must now consider that these hypnotised attackers do not actually stab you with knives but merely
move into your house for nine months and cause considerable inconveniences, but then the hypnosis wears off and
you can tell them to leave.  Are you justified in killing them to prevent them from messing up your house?  Some
might claim that because you
own the house you have every right to kill an unwanted intruder, even if that intruder
is innocent and you are partially responsible for letting him in.  This position does have a certain merit and I am
willing to grant that a woman
does have the right to decide what goes on inside her own body.  Yet she is not
morally blameless if she aborts her baby when another solution—giving birth and putting the child up for
adoption—is available to her.  A woman should have the
right to reject adoption in favour of abortion, but the
former course of action is selfless and praiseworthy while the latter is inherently selfish and blameworthy.

Turning to the question of whether abortion is always morally permissible even if we consider that a fetus is
not a
person, I take issue with the foundation English uses for her ethical claims regarding treatment of non-humans.  
The idea that the more human-like something is, the more moral consideration it ought to have, is rubbish in my
opinion.  Emotional and psychological factors alone, as many prominent thinkers in the field of ethics have
correctly argued, are not an acceptable basis for a moral foundation.  If abortion is only wrong because a fetus
resembles a human, and we accept our psychological bias towards humans as the foundation for this judgment, a
great deal of less agreeable judgments can be made and justified.  Perhaps I and most members of my community
believe that the white race is supreme, and all other races derive their rights not inherently but through our good
grace.  Our own psychological bias is all the justification we need to put forward such absurd propositions as
Asians are to be given less moral consideration than Latinos, or that Blacks are the most inferior race and need be
treated no better than animals.  If we start using our own pre-existing psychological biases to justify our moral
schemes, too many moral atrocities can be considered permissible.

Abortion is wrong in most cases because there is a non-violent alternative available: namely adoption.  Whether a
fetus is a person or how closely it resembles a baby, to which we already feel an emotional attachment, are issues
beside the point.  The debate over abortion is fought with passion on both sides because both sides are just as
right as they are wrong.  Conservatives are right that a woman should not choose to have an abortion if another
option is open to her, but wrong that she does not have the
right to make that decision.  Liberals are right that a
woman ought to be free to choose whether or not to continue her own pregnancy, but wrong that the choice to
terminate a pregnancy is always morally permissible.  In spite of her flawed reasoning, English does arrive at the
most agreeable conclusions: the later in the pregnancy and the closer to an actual human being the fetus becomes,
the less justifiable the abortion is.  This is only reasonable, as the difference between killing a two-week old and an
8-month old fetus is like the difference between killing a fly and killing a puppy.  But when it comes to the issue of
legality, and whether the government has a right to make abortion
illegal, the answer can only be no.  The only
principle we need to make this determination is Mill’s liberty principle: that no law ought to be made that restricts
the freedom of action of any human being so long as it does not harm another.  Abortion in the late months of
pregnancy may harm the fetus, so the idea that late-term or partial-birth abortions ought to be illegal is not without
merit.  Yet due to the overwhelming number of possible mitigating factors and the unique circumstances that
surround every unwanted pregnancy, any law banning abortion would violate at least one woman’s rights for
every life of an unwanted fetus it saves.

On a personal note, I would not want to have been born because the law
forced my mother to give birth to me.  
If she did not want me, she could have held me up for adoption.  If she was selfish enough not to take that option,
then I must be content to not be born, though I can still rightfully condemn her from my place in the eternal limbo
of non-being.  But if I
am born it should be because of a decision consciously and deliberately made by my
mother, not one that was forced upon her by society.  If she would rather I had not been born, it is not at all
unlikely that I too will one day wish that I had never been born, that she had been allowed to have that abortion.