0. This is a very heated issue. Many women who have abortions are in great distress and those who think that abortion is morally acceptable tend to think that it is badly wrong to deny them the right to try to use abortion to get out of this distress. Thus, people who think abortion is acceptable, tend to feel strongly on the issue, since they see those who are opposed to abortion as forcing women to stay in distressing situations. At the same time, most people who think abortion is wrong think an abortion is morally equivalent to killing an adult human being. There are about 1.3 million abortions per year, and so these people believe that 1.3 million people are being killed every year with the governmentís permission. If they are right that abortion is morally equivalent to a homicide, then this is indeed a moral evil in the history of this country comparable to or worse than slavery, and so it is not surprising that people who are opposed to abortion have hot feelings about this. Though generally they will acknowledge that even if abortion is very bad, the person committing the abortion need not be a bad person: even if abortion does involve killing a person, if one does not know that one is killing a person, then one might not be morally guilty.
are not going to talk much about cases where the pregnancy threatens the
motherís life. Cases where there is a genuine threat to the motherís
life and there is no way of saving the motherís life other than by
directly and intentionally inducing an abortion are very rare in this day
and age of medical progress, and also complicated issues arise as to what
exactly counts as an abortionówhether a medical treatment that has a
miscarriage as a side-effect is really an abortion.
I put data up online on
the most common reasons for abortion.
1. Public opinion is closely divided on the issue, both among men and women. A moderate majority of Americans (about 56% versus 42%) thinks that abortion should either be illegal or legal only in cases of rape, incest or danger to motherís life. The present abortion laws, after Roe v. Wade, allow abortion before viability for any reasonóthough there might be parental notification laws or waiting periods tacked on. Viability is when the child would be able to survive outside the womb. (One notes a difficulty here: Whether someone would survive outside the womb clearly changes with the advance of medicine. But surely oneís moral status should not depend on the current status of medical science. So there is something philosophically fishy about this cut-off.)
∑ The history of the issue is interesting. Abortion was controversial among the ancient Greeks. The Hippocratic oath that many people still take when they become physicians forbade giving potions to promote abortion. Platoís Republic advocates killing newborns in some cases, and so it would be unlikely that he would be categorically opposed to abortion. Aristotle thought that at first after conception in the womanís womb there was just an unformed bunch of matter. Probably, then, he would allow early abortions, though perhaps not late ones. The Stoics thought that the fetus was like a plant and only became an animal at birth, so that abortion was acceptable. The ancient Romans generally seem to have had little objection to abortion. But like the ancient Greeks, they also did not object to killing newborn babies when these babies didnít match up to their standards. In fact, generally, the Romans thought that the father owned his children and could do with them as he saw fit.
∑ Christianity, from the beginning, always categorically opposed both the infanticide and the abortion practiced by the Romans.
∑ In the 19th and 20th centuries, science showed that the only radical transition within the life-history of fetus and embryo is at conception, and this was seen by many as a disproof of the old Aristotelian theory that there was first unformed matter. After conception, there is gradual development, but it is organized by DNA from the beginning. There is no scientific reason to say that some point there is a change between a plant and an animal, or an animal and a human being: there is the constant biological development of a single organism. There not being any such a transition, Catholic thinkers, at least, have tended therefore to accept that all through the development of the organism we are dealing with a human being, from conception. There is no unformed mass early on: from conception, we have a new developing organism with its own goals and activities.
∑ At the same time, however, a movement to legalize abortion started around the beginning of the twentieth century. The motivation was to relieve the suffering of women in poverty and in other dire conditions. Finally, in 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that laws prohibiting abortion before viability interfere unduly with the privacy of women.
On an emotionally heated issue like abortion it is difficult for all of us to
listen to arguments on the other side. But this is important: we need to
understand the arguments on the other side to understand our own position
better. Also, it happens to many of us that we have some pet argument that
we use, which we do not examine critically, and so we think we donít need to
listen to the other side. Our pet argument makes us feel good about
holding on to our position, but perhaps we need to examine it. The pet
argument might be no more than a slogan: ďMy bodyómy choiceĒ or ďFetuses
have human DNA.Ē Both are insufficient. Just because we own
something, e.g., our house, that does not give us a right to do in it whatever
we like in itóI have the ability but not the right to choose whether to kill a
house-guest. And whenever I wash my hands, I presumably destroy a whole
bunch of skin cells, each with human DNA. Philosophers,
however, have taken such slogans and expanded them into arguments.
We now have two arguments that claim that the personhood issue does not need to
be settled to come up with an answer to the question of whether abortion is
4. Judith Jarvis Thomson. Thomson argues that even if the fetus is a person, it is still acceptable to have an abortion for a good enough reason. She doesnít say what exactly counts as a good enough reason, but says that it would be indecent (though apparently not wrong) to have an abortion if the pregnancy merely interfered with oneís travel plans. She also thinks one doesnít have a right to a dead fetus: one only has a right to push the fetus out of oneís body, and should keep the fetus alive if one can. Thomsonís strategy is to give several cases which she thinks are similar to abortion, and which deal with persons, and to argue based on how we can act in these cases that abortion is acceptable. I am going to focus on two cases.