Thoughts on the Moral Permissibility of Abortion

An extended coffee-shop conversation with Abbi yesterday prompted the observation that I haven’t bothered to put to writing an extended treatment about the moral permissibility of abortion.

The most intriguing aspect of yesterday’s discussion was Abbi’s claim that she hasn’t encountered many substantial, thoughtful defenses of a pro-life agenda. Although she’s still a bit of a young little whippersnapper, she demonstrates clarity and charity of thought and seems, intellectually, to outrank most of her peers. So an idiot, she’s not — but smothered by an environment of hyper-reflexive progressivism at art school? Quite possibly.

But I digress.

Any solid treatment of abortion intended to apply outside of a particular faith tradition must not be rooted in explicitly sectarian terms. Thus, despite my Catholicism, I cannot appeal to formal Catholic doctrine if I wish to convince an atheist of my position. So this treatment will, by necessity, skip over the religious arguments and rely instead on pure philosophy.

First things first. The problems of rape, incest, fatal fetal deformities and maternal risk constitute special forms of the question and will be addressed later. For the bulk of this treatment, assume that the fetus is healthy and the conception was voluntary.

Now …

Continuum of Life

Human life exists as a pure and unbroken continuum, from a four-cell embryonic cluster to a 115-year-old woman on her deathbed. From conception until death, the organism is, and can only be, human. There is no point where you can draw a line and say “human here, not-human there.” At least not until cyborgs become common.

The organism is capable of varying degrees of autonomous action at certain, well-defined stages of that continuum. A 6-week-old embryo cannot survive outside the womb, for example, whereas a 30-week fetus could survive with external support. And a 40-year-old adult who suffered a traumatic brain injury in an auto accident and now exists in a persistent vegetative state would die of asphyxiation or dehydration within minutes or days without life-support equipment. A spry 90-year-old, however, might well outrun and out-think a morbidly obese teenager. The organism has periods of absolute or moderate dependence at various stages of its life cycle, and sometimes the natural arc of capability, autonomy and dependency breaks down, favorably or unfavorably, from injury, illness or life choices.

Because the organism is purely, wholly and unambiguously human from conception to death, we are logically compelled to accept the humanity of the organism at all phases of its life’s journey. And because it’s human, it enjoys basic rights — including the right to life.

Philosophers invoke a thought experiment called “The Ship of Theseus” to illustrate the point. Picture it: The Greek hero Theseus has a ship. As the ship sets sail from harbor, the crew mutinies and throws him overboard. He swims after his pirated vessel. Meanwhile a second ship, filled with lumber, accompanies his hijacked command. Every day, the crew tosses a plank from Theseus’s original ship into the water and replaces it with a new board from the supply vessel. Theseus collects these cast-offs and reassembles them. By the time everyone reaches a foreign port, every single plank in the original ship has been cast off and reassembled. The question: Which ship, of the two that arrive in the foreign port, is the original ship of Theseus? Is it the reconstructed one or the one that evolved through the voyage? It’s an interesting question because it highlights the serious philosophical problem of identity persistence over time.

Every seven years or so, every cell in the human body has been replaced. Are you the same person today that you were eight years ago? In a purely material sense, no. All the constituent pieces have been replaced, like those of the ship of Theseus. The “you” of eight years ago may be wholly gone, biologically, but your personal identity (your inner, mental Theseus, if you will) persists. Is that enough to say that you’re the same person you were eight years ago?

The question of personal identity undergirds the logic behind extending full personhood to the four-cell embryo, the full-grown adult and the senile senior. In a material sense, each phase of the organism’s life is radically different; in a mental sense, there’s an unbroken chain of memory and identity that stretch forward and backward in time, from creation to destruction.

Some philosophers — including, most notoriously, Peter Singer — argue that moral rights including a right to life apply only to whose who can act as autonomous moral agents. A person so situated is capable of making choices and responding to choices made about him, with memory and reason unaided by external support. Thus, adults and even children enjoy moral rights. Fetuses, infants younger than roughly six months old, the senile elderly and people in a persistent vegetative state cannot act as autonomous moral agents, thus they do not have the same intrinsic right to life that others enjoy. They may be, it’s argued, destroyed at will by their guardians with no moral penalty whatsoever.

Despite the efforts of many to split hairs, the pro-life argument presents as a pair of interrelated judgments:

  • Humans exist in a mental, moral and physical continuum of development from fertilized egg to elderly adult. Any attempt to deprive an embryo or fetus of the same rights one would extend to an adult must therefore plausibly argue that the pre-natal are qualitatively different (e.g., not definitively human) from post-natal people. If no such argument is forthcoming, then the moral permissibility of abortion becomes much more difficult to justify.
  • The pro-life position asserts that all humans regardless of condition obtain moral rights, including a fundamental right to life. If one concedes that there’s no qualitative difference between fetus and adult in terms of its intrinsic humanity, but nevertheless assert that some aspect of the organism’s condition at a specific point in its developmental continuum lets us deprive it of some or all of its rights at that phase, then we need to settle two questions. First, what are the specific markers that delineate that period of impaired moral status? Is it fetal viability, birth, or the onset of self-awareness as an infant? Second, what are the conditions that serve as toggle switches in a person’s moral status? Is it truly moral self-awareness? If so, then what’s the moral justification that allows abortion but not euthanasia, infanticide or the summary execution of people in a persistent vegetative or senile state?

It’s logically possible to deny that there’s an inherent right to life, for anyone. Some governments (notably, China) follow this tack. If you deny that there’s a basic human right to life, then congratulations — you’ve won the pro-abortion debate … but it’s not clear that many in the West would agree with you, and certainly this position is inconsistent with the foundational governing documents of the United States of America.

Accepting that a fetus is human but alleging that abortion is permissible because the fetus hasn’t yet been born presupposes that the condition of birth imparts moral rights upon the fetus. There’s no getting around the point that if you do believe this, then you necessarily accept that the fetus’s lack of autonomy (either its inability to act autonomously, or its dependency on some other person or device for its sustenance) is the condition that justifies its denial of basic human rights. To therefore hold that abortion is permissible for a fetus but infants, the brain damaged or the senile/infirm elderly do enjoy moral rights is to simultaneously hold two logically inconsistent beliefs. In addition, people who make this type of claim also incur a tighter logical standard for opposing the death penalty, since they’ve already opened the door to killing humans because of an aspect of condition.

Abortion, Considered

One of the most common arguments made in favor of a permissive abortion regime rests on the inconvenience of pregnancy upon the mother. You know the drill: That pregnancy is too disruptive to a woman’s body, or that bearing a child could put the woman’s economic standing in jeopardy. A woman therefore should have an absolute right to terminate any unwanted pregnancy.

If we accept the premise that human life is an unbroken continuum during which human rights always apply, then the fact that a woman is pregnant means that the woman’s not the only one with skin in the game. The child within her womb has a right to exist, and that right outweighs a mere argument from convenience.

The Sexual Revolution fundamentally altered our sexual norms and the cultural consequences of sexual behavior. Access to contraception, the disambiguation of sex from marriage and changing gender roles means that sex, today, is a fairly casual affair.

But sex, from a purely biological perspective, is an act with one purpose and one outcome: Procreation. All of the other stuff — the physical thrill, the feeling of emotional connectedness — is evolution’s way of making sex fun so we’ll have more of it and therefore expand the human population. After all, if sex were painful and boring, we would have gone extinct as a species many moons ago. It’s a serious error in judgment to confuse the purpose of sex with its side benefits — a problem not unlike the concern that people who dine on sweet, calorie-rich foods and thereby become morbidly obese have flip-flopped the purpose of eating (getting enough calories to function) with the enjoyment of taste sensations and the foodie culture.

We treat sex like a form of entertainment. Doing so entails a degree of risk: The “risk” that the biological function of copulation will, in fact, result in the biologically intended pregnancy despite all of our attempts to prevent it.

At that point of improperly prevented conception, there’s a fetus and therefore another moral being whose existence isn’t just a matter of convenience, but an actor in the moral calculus who enjoys a privileged, rights-based claim to continued existence.

A woman who seeks to avoid pregnancy should either abstain from sexual behavior or seek sterilization through tubal ligation or some other method. It’s OK to have sex for fun, even with various forms of contraception, but if recreational sex yields a fetus, then the fetus has a right to life. Period. The woman’s “choice” comes not in deciding to abort, but in deciding to procreate (i.e., to use sex for an entertainment purpose inconsistent with biology); after she assumes the risk, she must bear the consequences. Such a position isn’t a cold-hearted, patriarchal exercise in religious conservatism, but rather the conclusion of dispassionate syllogism that understands that the purpose of sex isn’t orgasm but conception.

Abortion as birth control, in other words, is motivated by a sense of entitlement that sex may be misused beyond its biological purpose without consequence even if a human life should be destroyed in the process. Such a position isn’t morally serious.

Men’s Rights

If it’s generally accepted that a woman has absolute discretion to abort a fetus, then the right of the male half to influence the decision — to “abort” his legal or financial stake in the pregnancy, or to force the woman to carry his child to term or to abort it if he doesn’t want to be a father — must be addressed. It’s fundamentally irrational to deprive fathers of the “choice” of parenthood that woman get, when the man and the woman were equal partners in assuming the risk of sexual activity that ended in pregnancy.

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

Women’s Rights

It’s supremely ironic that feminists remain the loudest proponents of unlimited abortion-on-demand, because a culture that treats pregnancy like an illness that can be cured with a pill or a brief outpatient procedure reinforces the commodification of the female body. The social role of women as mothers — a culture that enforces stability and helps rein in male behavior — erodes when motherhood itself loses its meaning.

In addition, the culture of predatory male behavior that treats women like another piece of meat to warm their beds for a night becomes significantly easier to perpetuate when sexual behavior has little or no consequence. Although “liberated” women — often wealthy white liberals — may enjoy the freedom of no-cost sex with largely non-threatening metrosexual males, the reality on the ground for minority or low-income women is markedly different. Because abortion absolves men of their fatherhood requirements, it’s more likely that men will play the field and resist commitment; they’ll mate with the women most likely to accept their sociocultural posturing. And if a woman does get pregnant and he doesn’t want it, the odds increase that she’ll be the victim of domestic violence as he tries to compel her to abort even if she doesn’t want to. The cycle of violence continues with the only clear winner being the aggressive, misogynist male.

It’s easy to pretend that contraceptive abortion will lead women to glorious, liberated lives like those on display in Sex in the City. More likely, that city is Compton and the result of carefree sex is more abuse, rape and unwanted pregnancies.


At the beginning of this essay I mentioned several special cases of the argument.

  1. Rape.  The idea of choice is a powerful one. A woman’s voluntary assent to sexual activity resulting in pregnancy is the very choice that privileges the fetal claim to life, on the grounds that pregnancy is the consequence of a choice and not a “choice” in itself. But what happens when the pregnancy was forced upon the woman involuntarily? Not just through the obvious crime of forcible rape, but through cases of “drunk sex” when the woman was not in a position to give clear-headed consent to the sexual activity? U.S. politics tends to favor abortion exceptions related to rape. Although the fetus does not suffer a diminished moral standing based merely on the circumstances of its creation, people (myself included) have a natural sympathy toward the victims of forcible rape. In a perfect world, an “unwanted” fetus conceived with an unwilling partner would nevertheless be born and perhaps given for adoption. The world being far from perfect, the prudent course may well include the routine administration of a drug to interdict uterine implantation in the first 24 hours after a forcible rape to prevent pregnancy.
  2. Incest.  The incest exception is odd; if the incest was forced, then it’s rape and the question moves along that track. If the incest was voluntary, then what characteristics about incest justify abortion that non-incestuous unions don’t enjoy? It’s true that there’s a marginally higher risk of birth defects related to close-kin interbreeding, but if those defects are serious enough, they’re treated as a special case of fetal deformity. If there aren’t any serious birth defects, then it’s not clear why incest justifies abortion. Don’t misunderstand; I am as strongly affected by the incest taboo as any, but the argument for voluntary incest as an automatic justification of abortion seems to be less a matter of reason and more a matter of “Eeew, gross.” Which, alas, isn’t sufficient in itself to override fetal right to life.
  3. Fatal Fetal Deformities. Not all fetuses are capable of natural life — e.g., anencephalic fetuses, or fetuses subject to intense trauma in the second trimester. In cases where there’s almost no chance that the fetus will survive birth, it must be recognized that nature misfired; there’s no moral duty to carry a fatally deformed fetus to term.
  4. Maternal Life. In some cases, a woman may learn that a pregnancy will put her own life at substantial risk. The classic example is the case of a woman who gets pregnant and then discovers she has serious cancer that requires a regime of radiation or chemotherapy that would kill the fetus. If she delays treatment until after the child is born, then her own survivability plummets. In situations like this, there’s a competition between two moral absolutes: The right to life of the fetus, and the right to life of the mother. In such difficult circumstances, there’s no possibility of rote guidance. Factors like fetal risk to treatment, the mother’s long-term prognosis, the odds that the mother would die in labor, etc. all complexify the situation and create a true moral dilemma that requires case-by-case adjudication. But in such a case, abortion — being the resolution to an equally strong counter-claim of maternal life — at the least becomes morally justifiable. (Note, however, that general claims about the psychological well-being of a woman do not rise to the level of a “life of the mother” exception.)

Concluding Thoughts

Abortion has ravaged American politics for two generations. The tension seems to fall ideologically; people who follow strongly feminist politics or who elevate their own convenience and sexual satisfaction above the consequences of their sexual activity tend to favor lenient abortion regimes; people who adhere to a strongly religious morality, or who remain more sensitive to duty and rights, favor restrictive abortion regimes.

From a moral perspective, abortion is difficult to justify except in rare cases if one accepts the idea that human life exists in a continuum from conception to natural death and that human rights — including a right to life — exist at all phases of that continuum. If one does accept the continuum-of-life argument, then there are very few ways to justify abortion without denying the existence of a universal human right to life. Although the continuum-of-life argument may be open to criticism, abortion-rights activists have generally not articulated a clear and convincing counter-argument rooted in biology and sound philosophy that withstands logical debate and doesn’t lead to either internal contradictions or very slippery slopes.

Alas, too many people engage the abortion debate at the level of bumper-sticker sloganeering; advocates and opponents alike, in too large of numbers, mindlessly shout pro-choice or pro-life sentiments without undertaking a logical inquiry into the arguments supporting their positions. And that’s too bad — because there are many sharp people, like Abbi, who might be open to persuasion or at least moderation if the full arguments pro et contra were thoroughly and dispassionately discussed in the public square.