With the Irish abortion referendum planned to be held during the coming year, the ethics of abortion have become increasingly discussed in mainstream media.
Abortion has been one of the most controversial topics of the modern era with religion, morality and the law always struggling to find a compromise where the majority of the population is content. In the last century, many modern ethicists wrote papers on the morality pfabortion such as Judith Jarvis Thomson’s A Defence of Abortion and Don Marquis’ An Argument that Abortion is Wrong. Despite the clashing theses’ of these academic articles, the strongest premises are all in favour of abortion; allowing the mother autonomy over her own body and the right to a decision over whether she is ready to raise a child to the best of her ability. In her article ‘A Defense of Abortion’ Judith Jarvis Thomson contends that abortion is ethically allowed even if the fetus is considered to have the same value as a person. Thomson herself does not believe that very early on the fetus has the same status as a person but accepts this for the sake of her argument.
Not all defenders of abortion have accepted this premise as it can make abortion difficult to differentiate from murder. For example, Mary Ann Warren in her paper On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion argues that personhood requires one to have qualities of consciousness, reasoning, self-motivated activity, capacity to communicate or self-awareness. So Thomson’s acceptance of the idea that a fetus is considered a person from the moment of conception initially seems to make abortion a challenge to defend as all persons have the right to life and it is wrong to kill any person.
However, Thomson does not try to dispute this universal maxim and but instead disputes the premise that someone’s right to life is stronger than another person’s autonomy and that the only conflict with a fetus’s right to life is a mother’s right to autonomy. If these premises were true, it would make abortion unacceptable. Thomson then begins to contradict this argument, using violinist argument wherein a hypothetical world the dying violinist must be plugged into one’s own body in order to save his life; this is the only way to keep him alive and unplugging him, even for a moment would result in his death. The violinist is a person, so he has a right to life and as a person’s right to life outweighs your own right to decide what happens in and to your body, you can never unplug yourself from him. This is a seemingly far-fetched situation to imagine, but it portrays Thomson’s point well; a mother will be essentially attached to a child that she does not wish to have for 18 years of her life, making a huge sacrifice in her own life against her will, which does not seem morally permissible. Thomson continues her argument stating there are different cases in which one should consider the choice for an abortion: pregnancy due to rape, pregnancy when woman’s life is threatened, pregnancy due to failed contraception and other cases. Thomson states that the woman did nothing to make the fetus dependent on her for life and then uses her violinist argument comparing that a pregnancy due to rape is like being involuntarily hooked up to the famous violinist; you’re entitled to your own autonomy and have the right to unplug yourself from the violinist, even if it causes his death and therefore, a woman is entitled to an abortion after rape.
The second case, to refuse an abortion even to save the mother’s life is very extreme as it states that the fetus’ right to life is more important than the mother’s own, and not equal. Thomson compares this to two men, Jones and Smith, who will freeze to death without a coat but only have one coat between them which belongs to Smith. Therefore, Smith puts on the coat and just because Jones will now freeze to death is not a reason to deny aid to Smith. However, in these two examples, the mother’s life is at risk or she has undergone an unimaginably traumatic experience, consequently, it could be more difficult to defend abortion when it is purely the mother’s choice; one may argue that the child’s life outweighs everything other than the mother’s own life. Nonetheless, Thomson argues that pregnancy due to failed contraception is also grounds for abortion. She compares a pregnancy in these circumstances to opening a window on a hot night and a burglar breaking in despite the burglar bars you installed on your windows; you did not consent to the robbery so, therefore, cannot be held accountable for the outcome.
So just like a burglar has no right to enter a room, even if one opens the windows, a fetus entering uterus, despite contraception, has no right to remain in the uterus. Margaret Olivia Little also explores this idea in her paper Moral Permissibility of Abortion viewing that in some circumstances abortion can actually be the honorable decision to make. Thomson fully understands the severity of an abortion despite her liberal views. She states in her paper that abortion is only morally permissible when done during the early stages of the pregnancy and also due to the 9-month long gestation of human beings. Don Marquis conversely argues that abortion is wrong because it deprives the embryo of a valuable future.
He accepts that many anti-abortion literatures have been the result of irrational religious doctrine or seriously confused and poorly assessed philosophical reasoning, but says there is a rational argument to be made against abortion. Marquis’ main premise is that what makes the act of killing an adult human being, presuming he is a normal innocent man, is the fact that the killing is the biggest harm you can inflict upon a fellow being. The harm consists of the idea that when someone’s life is taken from them prematurely, they are deprived of all of the value their future would otherwise have had. Thus, if a being has a highly valuable future ahead of it, which Marquis calls a ‘future like ours’ in his paper, then killing a being robs it of its potential future and accordingly the action seriously wrong. Hence, as Maquis argues that the embryo does have a highly valuable future, aborting it at any stage is deemed as wrong. So, Maquis concludes that the vast majority of deliberate abortions are seriously immoral as they rob the fetus of a future that it could have otherwise had and goes as far as to claim that they are in the same moral category as murdering an innocent adult human being.
Henceforth, Maquis claims that just because the mother may not care, love or even want the child she gives birth to, this is not reason enough to morally allow abortion as we do not take it to be acceptable to kill a three-year-old just because their future involves being raised by an unloving family. Maquis does acknowledge that killing a child or adult may be permissible in exceptional circumstances such as self-defense or capital punishment, but these are irrelevant factors in the majority of abortions carried out.Of course, both the arguments of Thomson and Marquis have their own merit and weaknesses.
Marquis’s argument, due to its controversial nature, has prompted several objections. The main objection many critics have noted he addresses in his paper is the ‘contraception objection’ which claims that if Marquis’ argument is correct, then, since the male and female gametes the potential to have a ‘future like ours’, contraception would be as wrong as murder. However, a rational person would consider this conclusion to be irrational to the point of absurdity; even those who believe contraception is wrong for religious or ethical reasons, do not believe it is as wrong as murder. This means that the premises of Marquis’ argument, therefore, must be unsound. Marquis, however, does not claim in his paper that contraception is immoral as neither the sperm, the egg, or any combination of the two, will ever itself, as an entity, live out a valuable future. He goes on to argue that, unlike in the case of abortion, there is no identifiable subject of harm in the case of contraception, so therefore abortion is immoral and contraception is ethically allowed. The embryo will later have the potential to gain valuable experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments as a new being, which, according to Marquis, comes into existence at or very near conception.
It is this being, not the sperm or egg or any sperm-egg combination, that has a future like ours, therefore this, arguably, does not disprove his argument. One of the main arguments against Thomson’s paper is that to consent to sex is the consent to the possibility of pregnancy; it is almost impossible to have heterosexual sex with no possibility of a resulting pregnancy. In history, sex was an act carried out only to result in pregnancy, especially before the invention of widely available birth control pills. This argument, of course, does not allow for victims of rape, and to say that a woman who cannot carry a child to term without risking her own life should never have sex, even with birth control, for risk of pregnancy seems extreme and unrealistic. Often, as in the case of this counter-argument, anti-abortion campaigners claim that the only natural or traditional reason for having sex is pregnancy but to claim this in the modern era is naive; humans have intercourse for pleasure and enjoyment and to claim otherwise is old-fashioned to the point of absurdity. It is true that there will always be a risk of pregnancy when you have intercourse, yet, if a woman is adamant she never wants children, surely that shouldn’t mean she should never have sex with her husband or partner, to never do so would seem more unnatural than any premise relating sex and pregnancy which appeals to nature.
Another premise that has been criticised in Thomson’s essay is the violinist argument which she uses to argue that a fetus cannot use the pregnant women as a ‘life-support system’ against her will. Critics of this argument would have to be forced, for the sake of autonomy, to agree that unplugging the violinist is permissible, but they claim that there contrasts between the violinist scenario and normal cases of abortion that have morally relevant in the abortion debate. The most common objection to the violinist scenario is that the analogy is only relevant to abortions which are the result of rape as in both cases there is no consent of being attached to another being.
In most cases of abortion, the pregnant woman was not raped but has had sex voluntarily, and therefore has indirectly consented to the possibility of allowing the embryo to grow inside her womb. Other common objections turn on the claim that the embryo is the pregnant woman’s unborn child whereas the violinist is a stranger which she has no connection to. The other is that abortion kills the embryo whereas unplugging the violinist merely lets him die; abortion intentionally kills a fellow being whereas simply unplugging the violinist causes death as a predicted but inadvertent outcome.Many defenders of Thomson’s argument have argued adamantly against these claims.
Most notably is ethicist David Boonin, who replies to critics of the argument that the alleged disanalogies between the violinist scenario and typical cases of abortion are completely irrelevant in the morality discussion. In his paper A Defense of Abortion, factors that critics appeal to are simply not at all morally relevant; it should not matter if the embryo is the pregnant woman’s child whereas the violinist is a stranger; all killings should always be deemed as equally wrong. He goes on to claim that even the factors that are morally relevant, they cannot be applied to Thomson’s argument in the way that the critics have claimed; to say the violinist argument is only a premise for pregnancy involving rape does not hold as many women have intercourse without the intention of pregnancy, just like a person would go to listen to classical violin music at a music hall but not wish to be plugged into the professional violinist. Marquis’ paper also has more criticisms, most damning is the ‘equality objection’ which claims that Marquis’s argument leads to immoral inequalities between murders depending on the value of the victims’ life. If killing is wrong because it deprives the victim of a valuable future then the future of a young child would appear to contain much more value than the future of a man with only 5 years left to live or the future of a wealthy businessman has much less pain and suffering than a beggar living in extreme poverty, and so, therefore, some killings, according to the application of Marquis’ argument, are deemed more wrong than others. Therefore it is possible to draw the conclusion that the violation of killing arises not from the harm it causes the victim but instead of the killing’s violation of the intrinsic worth of the victim’s future. This claim is, of course, immoral and contradictory; all killings are equally wrong, and so, therefore, Marquis’s argument is flawed.
Furthermore, Marquis’ main thesis that the embryo has a right to a future like ours is flawed, the potential future of an aborted fetus is often troubled and bleak. There is strong evidence to show that abortion is an effective way to reduce crime rates. In America, abortion was made legal following the Supreme Court of the United States’ 1973 landmark decision in Roe v. Wade, that abortion is legal but may be restricted by the states to varying degrees. Women, from that year on, were able to abort their child and so, therefore, women who were too young, were to be unfit mothers or were to abandon their child at homes never gave birth.
Around 20 years later in 1993, the crime rate in America dropped rapidly, which would have been the time in which these fetuses, had they not been aborted, would have been at the prime age for committing violent crime having grown up unloved, unwanted and subsequently damaged by their resentful mothers. By not bringing into the world a generation of unwanted children, less crime is committed and a better, safer society is established which is more morally permissible. Thomson’s premises have fewer flaws than Maquis’.
His main thesis can be used as a premise in an argument to why killing a homeless person is less bad than killing a middle-class man, which any rational person would dispute. Thomson’s arguments are more sound and the counter-arguments against her premises proposed by critics of her work are often confused, applied poorly or irrelevant to the abortion debate. Overall, it is clear that allowing women autonomy over their own body as well as the right to be able to assess their own ability to raise a child to the best of their ability is more important than the potential life of the fetus. As long as abortion is not used merely as a means of contraception there are few sound arguments to dispute the moral permissibility of abortion.
Though Marquis’ constructs a well-reasoned argument compared to that of Thomson’s it seems flawed and too easily contested. The potential mother will always be the person who can best judge her own abilities to raise a child well, and if the child is unwanted, in the long term, it is more damaging to society to raise the child in a neglectful environment than the potential mother taking a pill that removes the embryo in the early weeks of gestation.