Is abortion ever justified?

It is not unreasonable to suggest that the vast majority of people consider it morally wrong to kill other persons. There may be examples of situations where the killing of a person may be justifiable, although they are by no means universally consented to, such as killing in self defence or as a form of capital punishment, but taken in isolation it is generally accepted that to kill is wrong. Therefore in the debate between pro and anti abortionists must centre around two essential questions: whether a foetus is a person, and if so when a foetus becomes a person; and whether abortion can be said to be self defence.

Possibly the deepest dilemma for an anti abortionist concerns the stage at which a foetus can be said to be alive, in the sense in which we would refer to a child after it is born. It seems absurd to think that in the relatively short time which the birth takes, the baby’s status will be so radically altered yet an almost mystical store is set by birth as for the first time we can distinguish a distinct personality, and directly interact with the infant . However, it is a largely unfounded significance in ethical terms as birth is often governed by contingent factors and the time of birth can be manipulated.Also to be considered is the fact that if the baby is ready to emerge from the womb, then surely it possesses enough properties for us to consider it in some sense a person.

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For example, if not than an eight month old foetus would not have the same claim to personhood as a two-month-old baby born prematurely at six months even though they are of similar developmental stages. Thus other stages of pregnancy are more commonly cited as the point in which personhood begins. John Grigg adopts the stance that there is a life that comes into existence as soon as conception occurs:”To my mind life begins at the moment of conception… Conception is the magic moment.” John Grigg, in the Guardian, 29 October 1973This view may be problematic if we consider that life does not necessarily imply personhood.

We may claim that the foetus is a human being but this merely implies that it is a member of our species, and not that of another. Yet it is at least true to say that a foetus, even in the earliest stages of pregnancy has the potential to be a person.This is slightly different to saying that a foetus is a human being, merely a member of our species, and asserting that due to this it has a right to life. When we talk about a foetus’ potential to become a person we talk very much in the same way as we do about the mixing of a cake.

As Jonathan Glover puts it, “it is equally a pity if the ingredients were thrown away before being mixed or afterwards”. However, what if we consider the case in which not all the important ingredients to a person are present; for example anencephalic babies could be argued as missing the ingredient that binds all the others, for personality must surely be essential to personhood.Do these foetuses have a right to life, or rather the right not to be killed? Without relying on religious arguments concerning the sanctity of human life, there is relatively little argument for according these foetuses with the rights of persons, as there seems little to distinguish them, aside from the sentimental significance they may hold for existing persons, from other animals with no hope of achieving a qualitative life experience.However, these cases are rare and when the quality of life a foetus can expect is introduced it is accompanied by issues concerning whether one person, or persons, can make any judgement about the quality of another’s life experience.

It also raises important questions concerning the problem of where to draw the line between a quality worth having and a quality that is not worth having, when does disability become unbearable and how and who should make the decision?However, even in the case of a foetus that could be argued as possessing all the correct genetic material that could produce a healthy person, conception is a poor point to identify as the point personhood, or potential personhood begins. This is due to the fact that during the first fourteen days after conception it is quite common for a zygote to split to form twins, and sometimes for the monozygotic twins to rejoin after a split.This raises many issues of identity, as the changes could result in entirely different potential persons. This objection can be overcome with a redefinition of the term “conception”, veering away from traditional biological understandings of the word, and restating it as the point at which at least one person emerges.

Despite this, conception as the beginning of personhood can still be rejected:”A fertilised egg is so different from anything we normally recognise as a person. It is said that such an egg is no more a person than an acorn is an oak tree.” Jonathan Glover – Causing death and saving livesTo use the term “person” in this context is surely only a morally motivated piece of conceptual revision. In other words, ordinarily we would not refer to an embryo as a person, and those who do are only using it as they already believe that the thing should not be aborted.

All these problems suggest that conception is in fact not the time at which personhood is acquired.Therefore, it seems that there must be a point sometime between conception and birth when the foetus attains personhood, or at least the right not to be killed. Presently, it is illegal for a foetus to be aborted after it has reached the age of twenty-four weeks; this isbecause it has apparently reached viability and for the first time could survive independently of the mother. Glover argues at this point that the implication that a person must be physically independent has difficulties when we consider that a person towards the end of their natural life may not be physically independent and yet we would think of them as a person.

Apart from the intuitive truth this example holds, as we will see it is also important to think of some persons as being physically dependant for the sake of analogy when Judith Jarvis Thomson’s violinist is considered.However, like birth, viability is determined by contingent factors that change with medical and technological advances. The law has already been adapted, changing viability from 28 weeks to 24 weeks. It is not absurd to suppose that one-day viability may be reduced further to a matter of hours after conception thereby failing to solve the problem, and merely sidestepping the issue for a short time.

Mary Ann Warren has suggested that instead of considering potential or possible independence, the important stages in pregnancy, the development of the foetus should the focus of discussion. There is some evidence to suggest a foetus can feel pain whilst in the uterus in the third trimester but not the first, a foetus aborted at viability might be painfully killed, whereas in an earlier abortion the foetus may not be sentient and pass unaware out of existence.However, at this time so little is known about the foetus in the uterus that it is still impractical to know when the first of her criterion of personhood is met. In fact only her first and third criterion can be proved to be possessed by a foetus, this leads to the conclusion that there is no one point in which personhood is achieved rather it is achieved gradually over time.

Although this idea intuitively makes a lot of sense it does seem to suggest that infanticide is sometimes permissible.Ethicists like Ruth Bennedict who have adopted a culturally relative view on morality may wish to condone infanticide in certain circumstances, however if we wish to accept Mary Ann Warren’s theory of the development of personhood and also reject infanticide as immoral than the link between achieved personhood and the right not to be killed must be severed. It would be possible to talk in terms of a parent’s right not to have their child killed until the infant achieves personhood.However, not all infants have parents, for example Marianne Ploche’s child would have been parentless , and it could be argued that in the case of abandoned babies their parents have given up the right for their child not to be killed by their apparent indifference.

Perhaps a stop on the road to achieved personhood could instead be identified as the time when it is appropriate to accord a foetus with the right not to be killed.A combination of Warren’s criterion of personhood will eventuate in a description of a human being that is generally consented to as having a right not to be killed, yet if one criterion is removed will describe a human being whose individual development and circumstance may have to be accounted for. However, as soon as we begin to talk in terms of stages of development as making a difference, we begin to talk of actuality instead of potential.In this essay much has been made of rights, the right to life, the right not to be killed, however, the rights that have been considered so far have only been in the context of the foetus.

The woman carrying the foetus may be considered to have other rights that may effect the question of abortion: “I see it as unarguably a basic human right for a woman to decide whether she will have an abortion or not…our children’s children will look back on the present situation with horror – you mean in those days a stranger could decide whether you had a baby or not? Jane Tweedie in the Guardian, 1972 The mother is in most situations a person and thus has the same rights that might be accorded to the foetus, however, mother and foetus are not comparable in the sense that the foetus is being supported by the mother, the foetus is inside her body and will not only effect most of the systems in her body but also the choices she makes about it and her life in general. At the risk of sounding sexist, the case for men and women in relation to abortion are radically different.Due to the nature of our procreative system if an unexpected or unwanted pregnancy occurs than it is much easier for a man to walk away, but the foetus may be considered an intrusion in a woman’s body. In this situation the rights of the various interested parties must be prioritised, and even though we increasingly hear of the rights of the father for a woman to keep or abort a foetus he has fathered, in the end he will not perform the action of sustaining the foetus.

The diminished role of the rights of the father compared to the mother’s is reflected in the Roe versus Wade case in California, which set a legal precedence. This was due to the mother’s right as a person to control her fertility and her body. Judith Jarvis Thomson draws attention to the importance of the right to control our own bodies in an analogy between an unexpected birth and the case of a he violinist famous violinist with kidney failure. In the story the moral agent is abducted by the Society of Music Lovers and wakes to find themselves connected to the famous violinist.

The famous violinist will die unless he depends upon another constantly for nine months, the moral agent can disconnect themselves at any time, but they know that if they do the violinist has no chance of survival. In this case intuitively most people will concede that it is indeed an intrusion on the moral agent, however, nine months is a comparatively short time in life and to save the life of the violinist would be a noble and moral thing, after all this was not the choice of the violinist either.However, imagine the moral agent is asked to sustain the life of the violinist for the rest of their life. It is easy to reply that the mother is not asked for so much, she can easily give up the infant for adoption.

Anyone who makes this claim that it is often very hard to give a child up for adoption and that for the rest of your life you will live knowing there is a child of yours somewhere in the world.It is equally arguable that if the moral agent disconnects themselves they will always live with the knowledge that they have caused the death of another, even though they may have been within their rights. In the case that the foetus is endangering the health of the woman carrying it is easy to see that an abortion would be an act of self defence, even though the foetus has no intention to harm the woman, it is a sad situation in which both parties might be thought of as morally blameless. However, can any abortion said to be self-defence?The reaction to an intrusion in the home may be said to be defence, yet a house is worth far less than your own body.

The title question of this essay and the questions raised within it remain unconcluded. The problem is not that there are no answers, rather there are too many. The issue is complicated further by the fact that every single situation is different. Abortion is a very personal issue that effects many people in the world, the average Russian woman has twelve abortions in her life, it is also an especially emotional subject.

Abortion is justified everyday, however whether it is a practice that can be morally justified with any universal consent is another issue. The only way I can see that abortion might receive the most moral acceptance, is that if it is presented on the grounds that we must all step back and respect that other moral agents have a right to make autonomous decisions, regardless of what we think about the way they choose to assert their autonomy.

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Is abortion ever justified?. (2018, Jun 10). Retrieved from