Maternal Love and Abortion


Alexander R. Pruss


May 9, 2002


1. The argument


           Some people are opposed to abortion in general because they loved their children when these were fetuses.  While this may be a psychological explanation of why these people believe thus, and perhaps an argument for these people not to abort the children they love, it does not at first sight seem to be an argument for the prima facie wrongness of abortion in general, and especially not an argument that other people have any reason to pay attention to.  I will argue that on the contrary the phenomenon of mothers loving their unborn children gives one a significant reason to think abortion to be prima facie wrong in general.

           People talk of the blind irrationality of love with gusto.  But while the lover may indeed fail to notice some of the beloved’s faults, there are other features of the beloved of which the lover is more, not less, aware of than is a disinterested third party.  Is not the lover a keen observer of fine points of shade of hair color or of the timbre in the beloved’s voice?  Does the lover not desire to know the beloved more and more?  Augustine thought that knowledge was a pre-requisite for love.  But likewise, the lover’s love enables her to know the beloved yet more.  Some loves are indeed irrational.  We all have heard of the person who lavishes on a dog the love that most people would lavish on a child or the stalker who pines away for a celebrity who will certainly not reciprocate it.  But the very fact that some loves are tragically irrational and based on confusions alerts us to the fact that other loves are not irrational. 

           It is quite normally, sociologically speaking, for a pregnant mother, who is planning to carry her pregnancy to term, to love her unborn child.  This love is not merely a love for a future child.  On the contrary, the mother rejoices in her child’s felt movements and is happy to look at ultrasounds.  She may find it quite natural, in view of her love, to stay abed for her whole pregnancy if this is required by the child’s good.  This is a very different attitude from the attitude she might have had for a possible future child before conception.  True, she might have planned her potential child’s future before conception.  But there was no object to her love, and an individual failure to conceive while perhaps sad would be less likely to be tragic than a miscarriage.  The mother loves her unborn child as a present child.  The medical profession recognizes this.  When the mother intends to carry the pregnancy to term, the nurses do not speak of “fetuses” and the doctors do not utter the phrase “product of conception,” but rather all speak of the mother’s “baby.”

           The pregnant mother may well, thus, love her unborn fetus as if it were a child, as if it had the kind of value which an ordinary child of hers would have.  Now, if I love something as if it had a certain value and it lacks that value, my love is mistaken or confused or irrational.  The greater the discrepancy between the value placed on the beloved and that had by the beloved, the less rationally justifiable the love is, indeed the more tragic the love is.  At the very least, the mother generally loves her unborn fetus as if it had the kind of value that would make it prima facie wrong to kill it.

           If abortion were acceptable, then it would follow that the mother’s love for the fetus in such a case is irrational, confused or mistaken.  But it is highly implausible that this love is mistaken.  It seems not only a sociologically natural kind of love, but a perfectly rational love.  It would be implausible to suppose that the loving mother is in the throes of some conceptual confusion or is ignorant of some relevant fact.  But if the love is perfectly rational and not ignorant, then the object of the love has at least the kind of value that it is loved as if it had.  Therefore, plausibly, the fetus has the kind of value which justifies the mother’s love.  But the amount of value which the mother in her love predicates of the child is such as would make killing the child prima facie wrong.  Hence, abortion is prima facie wrong.  Indeed, the amount of love that is there is so great that perhaps the “prima facie” can be dropped: one will have to drop it if one thinks that maternal love for the unborn child is sufficiently similar to her love for an already born child and if one thinks that there is no “prima facie” in the latter case.

2. Five objections

           1. The most serious objection is that this argument is invalid due to an illicit generalization.  From the fact that aborting fetus X, loved by its mother, would be wrong it cannot be derived that aborting fetus Y would be wrong.  For instance, it might be that fetus Y lacks the value of fetus X because it fails to stand in as close a relation to its mother as fetus X does. 

But this objection misses something important about love.  While some of what the lover appreciates about the beloved are relational features, and so we think the stalker irrational since the beloved will never reciprocate, the lover also appreciates the beloved as intrinsically valuable.  Compliments that start with “You make me feel…” have a certain inadequate shallowness to them.  In genuine love, the beloved is loved for her own sake.  The value the mother’s love posits in her unborn child is also an intrinsic value.  She sees her unborn child as intrinsically lovable, as the sort of individual that is so lovable that it would be at least prima facie wrong to kill it.  If her love is not to be mistaken, this must be so.  But there need be no significant difference between the intrinsic features of the fetus with which the loving mother is pregnant and the features of the fetus with which a non-loving mother is pregnant.  It is true that some fetuses can be severely disabled—but they can nonetheless be loved as having great innate worth, and this love is noble, self-sacrificing and it would be most insensitive to say that it is irrational or mistaken.


2. A variant of this objection is that what bestows value on a fetus is being loved.  Thus, it is wrong to abort a loved fetus but not an unloved one. 

Several responses can be made here.  First, if being loved is what bestows value, then it is just as wrong for me to kill the dog owned by the person who overly cherishes the dog, who cherishes the dog as if it were a baby, than it would be for me to administer an abortifacient drug to the happily pregnant woman.  But clearly the latter would be much more seriously wrong, even if the dog’s owner were to cherish the dog just as much as the pregnant would cherish the baby.  Moreover, the difference between the two cases does not consist in the fact that the drug would violate the pregnant woman’s body.  For if the fetus in question happened to be out of the womb, e.g., for a temporary surgery which is not yet possible, it would still be more wrong to kill that fetus against the mother’s wishes than to kill the dog.  Being loved bestows some value, but not as much value as this objection requires.

Secondly, if the father or maybe even a stranger like Mother Teresa can love this fetus sufficiently, and if love makes something valuable, then an abortion would require the permission of all people who might be thought to love the baby.  While one could conceive of a pro-choicer arguer who holds this, it would be a rare position.

Thirdly, it just is a mistake about the nature of love, a mistake exactly the same as the one Euthyphro makes in thinking that the pious is what the gods love, to think that being loved is prior to being lovable.  While the lover creates value in the beloved, the lover also recognizes the beloved’s value, and this is true in the case of pregnancy as well.


3. Or is the fetus, maybe, not loved for what it is, but for its potential to become a valuable human being?[1]  This would let one say that the magnitude of the mother’s love for her unborn child is not irrational and not mistaken, but yet the child can still be killed.  For the potential to become a valuable human being is consequent upon her decision not to kill it, after all.

The “potentiality” objection can be filled out in two ways.  First, one might argue that the valuable property of the fetus is just that, as a matter of fact, it will become a valuable human being.  This objection, much like the first, insists that the value of the fetus is not intrinsic to the fetus as it is now, but in this case comes from the fetus’s relation to a certain future it will inhabit.  This, however, neglects the concrete here-and-now of love.  The lover thinks that the beloved is intrinsically valuable and intrinsically valuable now.  The lover, of course, hopes to lavish further value on the beloved in the future, but appreciated the value that is already there.  In fact, if it is in the contingent future properties of the fetus that the love is grounded, then it is plausible to say that the child is not loved for its own sake, but is loved on account of its future—and the true object of love is the future stage of the child.  This is phenomenologically wrong.  The mother is proud of her child’s present development—the ultrasounds, the movements, etc. 

If in fact it were the future that would ground the love’s rationality, then the difference between things before conception and after conception would not be so radical: a miscarriage would be hardly more tragic than a failure to conceive, except insofar as the miscarriage involved the subject who would have been valuable already being there.  But in fact, if it is the contingent future that grounds the love’s rationality, then the death of a miscarriage would not be a thing to mourn: a miscarriage would, rather, simply show that the love was, perhaps tragically, mistaken.  For in any possible world in which a miscarriage happens, the fetus would lack the valuable property, if this property is that it will become a valuable human being.  Therefore, a miscarriage does not cut short the life of someone who has intrinsic value, someone who has the kind of value that makes mourning appropriate.  Rather, the miscarriage would merely show that the woman was mistaken in saying the child has the value her love treated it as having.  Thus, the evil of miscarriage would be largely constituted by something bad happening to the woman rather than to her beloved.  But this is a misreading of the tragedy of miscarriage in the case of a loving mother: it is the death of the beloved child that is the tragedy.

Likewise, if it were something future that would give value to the child, then insofar as the harm to the woman’s beloved child is concerned, slipping the abortifacient into her drink would be no worse than slipping contraception into her drink. 

Or perhaps the “potentiality” is just that the child would become something valuable if let be.  But in this case the potentiality is a feature of the child as it is now.  The child has in it that which grounds its ability to become a valuable human being.  On this version of the potentiality view, the valuable feature grounding the love is already there.  Hence this feature does not depend on what will in fact befall the child.  If this feature is such as to make killing the child prima facie wrong, in the way the mother’s love would have it, then there is an intrinsic feature of the child which is such that killing it would be prima facie wrong.  But then this feature would also be had by the fetus in a woman who does not in fact love her child, and would make abortion prima facie wrong in that case, as well.


4. One might argue that if the love some women have towards their fetuses gives evidence for the wrongfulness of abortion, by the same token the lack of love that others have towards theirs is evidence for the acceptability of abortion, and hence the evidence cancels out.

But this is an argumentum ex silentio.  One person’s failure to notice something is much weaker evidence for the absence of the thing than another person’s active notice of it.  Moreover, this phenomenon is quite common in love situations.  I recognize good features in my wife than others who do not love her fail to see in her.  One might, indeed, thus say that loving someone opens one to recognizing valuable features.  It is easy to overlook things.  It is particularly easy to overlook the valuable features of something when it stands in the way of something important to one, which is presumably going to be the case whenever an otherwise sensitive mother does not love her unborn child.


6. But perhaps while the mother who loves her unborn child does notice valuable features in the child, she fails to notice other features which have disvalue.

However, the kinds of valuable features that the loving mother may note in her unborn child are kinds of features that, if the child in fact has them, make it wrong to kill the child even if the child has other features that have disvalue.  While I might fail to see some bad feature of my wife that she has, there is no plausibility to supposing that she has any such disvaluable feature which would negate her value as the individual she is to the extent that it would be acceptable to kill her.  The only plausible such disvaluable feature would be if capital punishment were acceptable, and she were guilty of a capital crime, but it is clear that the fetus is not guilty of a capital crime.


5. Finally one might bite the bullet and say that the pregnant mother is mistaken and confused in how much she loves her child.

Because of this option, I only claim the argument gives significant evidence for the wrongness of abortion.  Attributing mistake and confusion in what is surely a noble attitude is prima facie an unlikely possibility.  But people do make mistakes, and societal approval of some emotional attitude does not apodeictically demonstrate the attitude to be right.  Since it is good for one’s emotions to be in touch with reality, a person who thinks this will think that mothers should feel less love for their unborn children, and that this would be intrinsically good for them as rational beings.  Admittedly, there might be pragmatic reasons for them to feel excessive love for their unborn children, but these reasons are merely pragmatic.  Besides an unattractive separation between what is pragmatically desirable and what is rational, this approach may lead to moral scepticism.  For if such a widely shared and apparently so noble emotion as maternal love for her unborn child is irrational, mistaken or confused, then what moral intuitions can we rely on?

It is plausible that the mother’s love for her child has to be unconditional in order for the child to develop properly, feel accepted and secure.  It is of great value for the child to believe that it has and will always be loved unconditionally.  And this kind of love not only is incompatible with actually aborting the child, but is incompatible even with deliberating about aborting the child.  For mere deliberation about whether there is sufficient reason to abort the child would be an acknowledgment that there could be sufficient reason to abort the child, and hence would be incompatible with an unconditional love.  If one believes that there could be sufficient reason to abort a child, then one cannot rationally have an unconditional love for a child.  But, plausibly, the child needs such a love.[2]

It should not be strange to think that there are some things that it is wrong to deliberate about.  If one is, for instance, deliberating whether to practice cannibalism on one’s own toddlers one has already done wrong.  Some deeds are so horrendous that there is reason not to even deliberate about them, or at least deliberate in the sense of weighing considerations pro and con.

Thus, a mother who thinks that abortion is sometimes acceptable but who chooses not to abort, needs to act irrationally in order to fulfill the needs of her child.  She needs to deceive herself into thinking that there cannot be a reason to abort this child.  A moral view that requires self-deception as a pre-condition for the proper fulfillment of ordinary human functions such as motherhood will be unsatisfactory.  Leading the examined life should not be incompatible with leading a genuinely human life.

This last argument presupposes that the child in the womb is the same entity as the child after birth.  Elsewhere, I have argued for this thesis on metaphysical grounds.[3]  The nature of ordinary maternal love presupposes this as well, and for all we know might even need to do this for proper bonding with the child.

One objection to this argument is that a mother could hold that there are some children whom there would be a reason to abort, but her child is different.  This can only be a rational response to the unconditionality argument if there is some morally relevant objective feature F which the mother believes her child to have and which the other children in question lack, a feature such that her child could not have lacked F.  For if her child could have lacked F, i.e., if F were not an essential feature of her child, then her love for the child is conditional on the child’s having F.  But it is difficult to see what kind of a feature F could play this role.  For instance, the lack of physical or mental defects cannot play such a role, since one’s child could have had such defects or at least ones relevantly similar to them.[4]

One might think that not being the product of rape could be such a feature if one accepts the Kripkean intuition that one’s parentage is an essential property of one.  But, first, the Kripkean intuition is itself controversial.  Second, the mere essentiality of one’s ancestry is not sufficient to ensure that someone who is not a product of rape could not have been a product of rape: one might have had the same parents that one did and yet have been a product of rape, if the act of conception had happened differently.  Third, this argument would only work if unconditional love for an unborn child who is the product of rape were irrational, whereas it is quite plausibly rational.  And, fourth, even if it were logically impossible that one child have been the product of rape, it is epistemically possible (one cannot be certain that one hasn’t suppressed the event in one’s memory and replaced it with a pseudomemory), and the conditionality involved in loving one’s child because it is not the product of rape may well still be incompatible with the child’s being unconditionally loved.

Thus, admitting that abortion is ever acceptable is incompatible with unconditional maternal love.  If maternal love is indeed supposed to be unconditional, this last response to an objection to the main argument has turned into a new argument showing abortion, or even deliberation about abortion, to be unjustified in all cases.

[1] I am grateful to Christian Jenner for this objection.

[2] This argument is due Wilfried ver Eecke to whom my gratitude is due.

[3] “I was once a fetus”.

[4] If a defect is genetic, and if one’s genetic constitution is an essential property of one, then a being free of the defect could not have literally had it.  But certainly she could have had a relevantly similar non-genetic defect that was equally disabling.