Abortion: Good or Bad?

abortion procedure

In the United States, abortion is one of the most contentious political and moral issues. The split is between the pro-life movement, which wants to restrict and even outlaw abortion as much as possible, and the pro-choice movement, which views abortion is a rights issue, both human rights and women’s rights, to maintain control over their own body and destiny. Yet sometimes it seems like the two sides are arguing past each other. Do either have a good case to make?

To start, what exactly is an abortion, anyway? The Planned Parenthood website describes an in-clinic abortion this way:

During a suction abortion procedure, the doctor or nurse will:

  • examine your uterus

  • put a speculum in to see into your vagina

  • inject a numbing medication into or near your cervix

  • stretch the opening of your cervix with a series of dilating rods if you haven’t had them put in earlier

  • insert a thin tube through your cervix into your uterus

  • use a small, hand-held suction device or suction machine to gently take the pregnancy tissue out of your uterus

  • they may also use a small surgical tool called a curette to remove any tissue that’s left in your uterus, or check to make sure your uterus is totally empty.  

For abortions 16 weeks after a woman’s last period, it is done using what is called a Dilation and Evacuation (D&E) abortion, which Planned Parenthood describes this way:

During a D&E abortion, the doctor or nurse will:

  • examine your uterus

  • put a speculum in to see into your vagina

  • inject a numbing medication into or near your cervix

  • stretch the opening of your cervix with a series of dilating rods

  • insert a thin tube through your cervix into your uterus

  • use a combination of medical tools and a suction device to gently take the pregnancy tissue out of your uterus

Same as main image. Source

Most debates on the subject revolve around the pro-life right of a fetus (usually referred to as a baby by the pro-life movement to purposely humanize the fetus) to live and the pro-choice right of a woman to exercise control over her own body. If things get more technical (and philosophical), the debate will be around whether life begins at conception, whether the fetus can feel pain, whether a clump of cells is equivalent to or exactly equal to a human being, and at what point a clump of cells becomes a human being and gains human rights. These are all important points to decide on. To better understand this, lets first examine a thought experiment.

You may have heard of the trolley problem. There are five people on a track toward which a train or trolley is headed; those five people are either trapped on the track or don’t hear the oncoming locomotive. You are at a switch that can make the train switch over to another set of tracks, but there is another person there who also either is stuck or does not notice the oncoming train. Do you pull the lever, saving the five people but causing the death of the one?

Most people have an intuition that they would pull the switch. It’s better to sacrifice 1 person to save 5, right? That’s known in ethics as utilitarianism, a school of moral philosophy falling under consequentialism. What people would actually do in this situation was tested on vsauce’s show Mind Field:

It seems most people (spoiler alert for the above video), probably in fear when faced with the actual situation, just sort of freeze up and don’t actually flip the switch. While doing our armchair philosophizing, it’s much easier to think through the moral consequentialism of things. Most people come to the conclusion that they would, in the canonical trolley problem, actually flip the switch and sacrifice one person to save five. Plenty of other examples that are very similar, yet play on different moral intuitions, have been made as well: would you push someone in the way of the oncoming trolley to save five people (assuming you know that the person you push in the way will actually stop the trolley; this person is often said to be very fat)? Should a doctor kill a healthy patient and harvest their organs for five sick patients on different transplant waiting lists?

For our purposes, lets keep it similar to the canonical version. Say there is a train heading toward a medical transport vehicle carrying dozens of viable, fertilized human embryos that is stuck on the tracks; the driver has already escaped the vehicle. You can pull a switch to have the train go onto another set of tracks, but it will kill a 10-year-old girl on the other tracks. Would you pull the switch?

This version of the trolley problem is obviously supposed to get at the idea that viable, fertilized embryos, which are post-conception, are equally as human as the 10-year-old girl – that one embryo is morally equivalent, or even equal to, a person post-birth. I think most pro-life people would feel very strongly that pulling the switch is wrong, even if they wouldn’t like to admit it aloud in order to maintain philosophical consistency (especially if they can see the rhetorical trap being set up). Our empathy upon seeing the post-birth person, exhibiting consciousness and emotion as they do, would apply a very large thumb on the scales of our moral intuitions in favor of the 10-year-old girl, making such philosophical consistency difficult to maintain for even the most fervent of pro-lifers.

Of course, on the other side of the issue, we all have to realize and admit to ourselves that every one of us, to a person, was once nothing more than an embryo ourselves. Had that embryo that eventually became ourselves been aborted instead, then we would not be here. The vast majority of fetuses, at least after a certain point during pregnancy, will become humans who have hopes, dreams, emotions, love, and a consciousness as vast as your own. Thus, even if you don’t think life begins until late in the pregnancy (e.g. the third trimester, perhaps) or even at birth, one cannot escape the fact that the fetus is at least a potential human (a term I will be using throughout for all developmental stages pre-birth).

And lets think about what abortion looks like to a pro-life advocate:

A total of 629,898 abortions for 2019 were reported to CDC from 49 reporting areas. Among 48 reporting areas with data each year during 2010–2019, in 2019, a total of 625,346 abortions were reported, the abortion rate was 11.4 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15–44 years, and the abortion ratio was 195 abortions per 1,000 live births. From 2018 to 2019, the total number of abortions increased 2% (from 614,820 total abortions), the abortion rate increased 0.9% (from 11.3 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15–44 years), and the abortion ratio increased 3% (from 189 abortions per 1,000 live births). From 2010 to 2019, the total number of reported abortions, abortion rate, and abortion ratio decreased 18% (from 762,755), 21% (from 14.4 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15–44 years), and 13% (from 225 abortions per 1,000 live births), respectively.

Over half a million abortions in a single year. If you accept that fetuses (potential humans) just are (equivalent or equal to) actual human beings, wouldn’t this appear to be a holocaust of titanic proportions occurring year after year? And if you thought that such a cavalcade of preventable human death was occurring all around you, wouldn’t you feel at least some modicum of ethical duty to stop it from persisting? Most pro-life advocates do accept that potential humans are equivalent to, or even exactly equal to, actual humans, in some metaphysical and/or moral sense. And so, despite pro-choice advocates accusing pro-life advocates of misogyny and wanting to control women (and maybe this is true for some portion of them; I don’t know), it has to be understood why pro-life advocates would feel so strongly about the issue.

Yet, if we are to concern ourselves with potential humans, then isn’t every sperm and every ovum a potential human? Do teenage boys commit a veritable genocide into the crusty sock they keep beneath their bed whenever they masturbate? Do women murder a human being once a month like clockwork? I’m sure the biologically savvy will point out that gametes are haploid while embryos are diploid. The embryo contains everything that is necessary to make a person (i.e. the entire genome). Gametes do not. Yet neither contain all that is necessary. Neither a gamete nor a fertilized embryo will develop on their own into an actual (post-birth) human. The gametes are simply missing one extra necessary step: sexual intercourse. But isn’t it arbitrary to define non-potential humans and potential humans as being on either side of this one step? If its only because of the missing step of having intercourse that makes gametes not potential humans, then why not define a potential human prior to some other necessary step along the way which the embryo/fetus is unable to undergo on its own?

At this point the pro-life advocate will also likely invoke the human soul: the embryo has been ensouled while gametes have not been so endowed. I tend not to buy into spiritualist ontologies, but lets (for the sake of argument, at least) accept that there is a significant ontological, and perhaps even ethical, difference between gametes and embryos.

We also need to consider the fact that there is a biological asymmetry to reproduction. Examined from a purely biological point of view (i.e. not considering child rearing responsibilities, or resource acquisition and allocation within a family, or issues of monogamy and fidelity and so forth), all a male has to do is have an orgasm. The female has to endure the much more time and energy consuming discomforts and dangers of pregnancy and childbirth. And if we were to think about this from the point of view of some kind of asexual alien species, there is an almost Kafkaesque metamorphosis or even Cronenberg-esque body-horror element to the whole process, where all these changes are happening to a woman’s body that she has no control over as another entity gestates within her. Indeed, Judith Jarvis Thomson seems to make a similar point in her violinist thought experiment in A Defense of Abortion:

In “A Defense of Abortion”, Thomson grants for the sake of argument that the fetus has a right to life, but defends the permissibility of abortion by appealing to a thought experiment:

“You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. [If he is unplugged from you now, he will die; but] in nine months he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.”

Thomson argues that one can now permissibly unplug themself from the violinist even though this will cause his death: this is due to limits on the right to life, which does not include the right to use another person’s body, and so by unplugging the violinist, one does not violate his right to life but merely deprives him of something—the use of someone else’s body—to which he has no right. “[I]f you do allow him to go on using your kidneys, this is a kindness on your part, and not something he can claim from you as his due.”

For the same reason, Thomson says, abortion does not violate the fetus’s legitimate right to life, but merely deprives the fetus of something—the non-consensual use of the pregnant woman’s body and life-supporting functions—to which it has no right. Thus, by choosing to terminate her pregnancy, Thomson concludes that a pregnant woman does not normally violate the fetus’s right to life, but merely withdraws its use of her own body, which usually causes the fetus to die.

The pro-life advocate will object here and say that, unlike in the violinist thought experiment, the woman did in fact have control over whether she would have to share her body with the developing fetus: that she chose to have sex, even knowing that pregnancy was a potential consequence. Setting aside pregnancies that result from rape, which is a whole other prickly ethical issue unto itself (suffice to say that most pro-choice advocates are not pro-choice just in the case of rape), and the issue of how much control people actually have over their sexual urges, the pro-life advocate will argue that the woman could have remained abstinent, or that she could have used protection.

There are two issues with this argument that come immediately to my mind. The first is that this argument seems to hold an attitude that pregnancy, childbirth, and then being saddled with an unwanted child for decades to come is the woman’s just desserts, as if saying “this is what you get for having sex that one time, you harlot.” Not only is this unfair the woman, but also to the child whose reason for coming into existence is to teach someone a lesson. This, however, is not a defeater to the principle that people do have a choice in whether to have sex or not (assuming we’re talking about consensual sex, and that people have full control over sexual urges “in the heat of the moment”, and that the parties involved really were adequately informed on the risk and consequences of pregnancy), but it does make one wonder if the consequences fit the “crime” of having sexual intercourse.

The second issue is that forcing a woman to carry a pregnancy to term may be bringing more misery and suffering into the world than had the woman gotten an abortion. The woman herself will have to undergo the discomfort and dangers of pregnancy and childbirth, only then to have to take care of the child, which may bring her more suffering. But lets consider the child itself and look at what happens with a person who goes from potential human to actual human using Dave Benatar’s asymmetry argument:

One of my arguments for the conclusion that coming into existence is always a harm appeals to an asymmetry between pleasures and pains (and between benefits and harms more generally):

1) The presence of pain is bad; and
2) The presence of pleasure is good.
3) The absence of pain is good (even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone); but
4) The absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation.
We can employ this asymmetry, which I shall call the basic asymmetry, in order to compare existing and never existing

We find that (3) is a real advantage over (1). However, while (2) is good for X in scenario A, it is not an advantage over (4) in scenario B. There are thus no net benefits of coming into existence compared to never existing.

Thus, if the potential human never becomes an actual human, they do not have pain nor pleasure, but there is no actual human there to desire the pleasure. As a result, if we accept this argument, the amount of suffering in the world is actually reduced by more women choosing to get abortions. One could also argue (if we accept a purely hedonistic view of pleasure) that this increases the pleasure of those who are already unfortunate enough to exist by reducing the potential consequences of having sex, thereby freeing more people to have sex more often.

There is also the Malthusian argument that it would be better to have fewer people in the world. The average carbon footprint of a single person globally is 4 tons; for an average American it’s 16 tons (source). The average American produces between 4 and 5 pounds of solid waste (municipal solid waste or MSW) every single day (source). And that’s not including all the pharmaceuticals we excrete and throw away ending up in the environment. The point being that human activity makes things worse for all life on earth, including humans. Thus, having fewer humans would at least slow this process. There is even the controversial theory that the legalization of abortion in the U.S. led to the drop in crime rates seen in the 1990’s and beyond (source).

The above argument could easily be a conflation of antinatalism insofar as people are encouraged to not even conceive children in the first place vs. a type of antinatalism that would encourage abortion. We would also need to consider whether fetuses (potential humans) can experience suffering. If performing abortions is, in fact, causing pain (e.g. if the fetus exists in the first column of the above figure), then that would have to be taken into our ethical calculus.

Pro-life advocates often make this argument. Pro-choice advocates seem to take it as self-evident that since a fetus cannot verbally report pain, or give clear behavioral indications of pain, that the fetus must not feel pain. It’s of course difficult to determine whether a fetus can actually feel pain or not if we do not have any verbal or behavioral indicators. Being able to acquire neural correlates would be a possible solution to this – using an fMRI, perhaps, to scan the neural tissue of a fetus in utero at different points during a pregnancy to determine whether there are signs of neural activity that correlates with the type of neural activity we know to be indicative of pain. We could then obtain a stage of development in utero where a fetus can experience pain.

All this, of course, is very consequentialist thinking. Is there a deontological reason why abortion is wrong (especially if we don’t buy into spiritualist ontologies as is the case for me)? There is, obviously, the argument I touched on before: that we were all once an embryo, and the vast majority of people would likely say that they prefer existing to having never existed (i.e. antinatalism is a pretty radical position within the current scope of our Overton window).

And besides this inward looking argument, most people would likely agree that there is some inherent moral value to all human beings. We are to be judged on more than just whatever way we benefit society (economically, socially, etc.). Even if we cannot articulate some supreme principle on what makes a human life intrinsically valuable, most typical average people have a moral intuition that this is the case. And so the pro-life advocate wants to show the following:

Pa: all potential humans are actual humans
Pb: all actual humans have intrinsic moral value
C: therefore all potential humans have intrinsic moral value

But it is precisely the first premise Pa that they need to prove to the pro-choice advocates. To try doing this lets use the following syllogism, which I will call the First Formulation:

P1: all actual humans were at one point in their development potential humans
P2: all actual humans have intrinsic moral value
C: therefore potential humans have intrinsic moral value

This way of formulating the syllogism runs afoul of what is called the illicit minor premise. If all actual humans are contained within (distributed in) the concept of all things that were once potential humans, that does not necessarily mean that all potential humans are contained within (distributed in) the concept of all things that have intrinsic moral value. It could be that all things that have intrinsic moral value is contained within (distributed in) the concept of all the things that are potential humans, thus excluding some potential humans from the category of all things that have intrinsic moral value.

Given that the First Formulation is invalid we could instead use what I will call the Second Formulation:

P1*: all potential humans will become actual humans
P2: all actual humans have intrinsic moral value
C: therefore potential humans have intrinsic moral value

P1* essentially flips P1 so that all potential humans are distributed in all actual humans.

The first thing to assess is whether either of these formulations are valid (validity being whether the conclusion follows from the premises, regardless of whether the premises are true or not). We already discovered that the First Formulation is invalid due to running afoul of the illicit minor premise. Additionally, P1 does not take the comfortable form of “All X is A” but the somewhat trickier form of “All X is A at time t1” (where we’ll say that time = a point along the prescribed progression in the existence of the particular thing X) which brings temporal considerations into this, since human beings are dynamic entities. Saying that “All X is A at time t1” does not entail that “All X is A at time t2“. For instance, saying that “my body is composed of the set of atoms A at time t1” does not entail that “my body is composed of the set of atoms A at time t2” or “all humans live in utero at 10 weeks following conception” (i.e. X=humans, A=living in utero, t=10 weeks following conception) does not entail that “all humans live in utero at 60 weeks following conception.” Thus, this First Formulation is not valid.

If we ignore the illicit minor premise (for the sake of argument), one way to address this issue of temporal relations is to sneak in a third premise, such as

P3: a potential human is morally equivalent or equal to an actual human

But this begs the question because what we are attempting to prove is that potential humans have equivalent or exactly equal intrinsic moral value to actual humans. So, we might instead try:

P3`: the moral value of a person at time t1 will be unchanged at any past time t0 or any future time t2

This then gets into tricky issues of how a person’s actions (i.e. who they actually are as a person) affect their moral value and how a person’s consciousness can evolve over the course of their life. Yet, if we are taking a deontological view, then the consequentialist notion of a person’s actions ought not influence how we determine the person’s moral value. I think most people would be hard pressed to say that actions don’t matter: to say, for instance, that Hitler had the same moral value as Gandhi, but this would have to be the position they take if they are to accept what P3` says while remaining philosophically consistent. Nevertheless, just because humans don’t abide by this premise in practice does not make it untrue (nor are we yet determining if the premise is sound), and so we could say that the first formulation using P3` is valid.

But, the pro-choice advocate will object, birth is a tremendously significant event. Are we warranted in saying that if we put t0 to a time prior to birth that P3` is still true? And if it is true, does it need to be specified in another premise:

P4: the moral value of a person is equal before and after their birth

This is again begging the question since the issue of someone pre-birth possessing the same moral value as someone post-birth is exactly the conclusion we’re interested in proving.

The First Formulation clearly fails. Lets examine the Second Formulation.

The P1* in the second formulation obviously has the caveat that some embryos/fetuses (potential humans) are not destined to become actual humans but instead will be lost through natural miscarriages (e.g. for different trisomy conditions). But we’ll bracket that for the sake of argument. Lets assess whether this Second Formulation is valid.

Once again we run into a tricky issue of temporal concerns. In this case, however, instead of having to accept that X being A at time t2 means that X is A at time t1, we are now saying that X being A at time t1 means that X is A at time t2 (i.e. a human X has moral value A at time t1 when they are in the state “potential human” means that human X has moral value A at time t2 when they are in the state “actual human”). But something becoming valuable later on after it has undergone changes does not mean that the thing had value prior to those changes. A blank canvas doesn’t have artistic value until someone has actually painted on it – the potential painting has no artistic nor monetary value. Similarly, a potential human, just because it will have moral value later, does not entail that the potential human has value.

The pro-life advocate will object and say that the potential painting has just as much, if not more potential to never be a painting and that is why it’s not valuable. The potential human, however, if not aborted, will almost certainly become an actual human. A better analogy than the paining might be money, which is only potential value. One cannot eat money (or at least not with any intention of being nutritionally sustained); money doesn’t by itself provide shelter or protection from harm or even entertainment. Money itself is only potential. Yet we value money anyway because of its potential. Analogously, we ought to value potential humans because they are the only source of the real intrinsic value of actual humans.

This doesn’t give the potential humans any moral value above and beyond the function they serve in becoming things that do have value. This is fine for money since money will never value itself in any way. Money is pure functionality and never itself gains any intrinsic value. It’s value is merely transactional, where we would not think of a fetus as a transaction. Besides, viewing potential humans this way runs us back into the problem of how we even define potential humans. If we say that anything that could potentially be a human has value due to its high likelihood of developing into something with intrinsic value, then shouldn’t all humans be procreating as often as possible in order to actualize as much of that intrinsic value as possible?

What might work better in trying to prove that potential humans have equivalent or equal intrinsic moral value to actual humans is if we could think of humanity, a timeless concept, instead of concrete humans. For this we would need to come up with a different syllogism. I propose the following:

Pα: all potential humans possess equivalent or equal humanity to actual humans
Pβ: all things possessing humanity have intrinsic moral value
C: therefore all potential humans have intrinsic moral value

In this case we don’t have that messy idea of “becomes” to worry about. But once again we are begging the question. What we want to prove is that potential humans are morally equivalent or equal to actual humans, but we’ve already stated this in the first premise Pα. Saying that potential humans have equivalent or equal humanity to actual humans is, broadly speaking, just another way of saying that potential humans have equivalent or equal moral value to actual humans, and if we want to prove that a fetus has the same moral and legal rights as anyone post-birth then we can’t just state the conclusion as a premise using synonymous words.

These considerations of moral value through time are likely much more complex than the treatment I’ve given them here. The persistence of self-identity through time is an enormous lingering philosophical issue with many real world implications, such as in criminal justice, and is made all the more complicated when considering the personhood and moral value of potential humans.

Additionally, each of the premises in the above syllogisms could be disputed (i.e. a person could be skeptical of their soundness – with soundness being the idea in logic that the premises are actually true). Do all humans really have intrinsic moral value? Is a person’s moral value really unchanging in time? These are not issues of mundane fact, easily and uncontroversially verified by all parties, but open philosophical questions.

This post could easily be much, much longer. Especially if we get into other fraught areas, such as sexual education philosophies (e.g. abstinence only vs comprehensive), adoption, custody (mother, father, the state, etc.), pregnancies that result from rape, whether abortion to stop a disabled child (e.g. trisomy 21 or severe autism) from being born is ethical, and so many other thorny issues. But this post is already long enough, and likely to anger both the pro-life and pro-choice advocates alike, so I think I will stop here.

My own position on abortion is pretty much exactly what you see in this post: I understand, and even agree with the arguments from both sides, at least as far as validity. As to the soundness of the premises, primarily whether a fetus is morally equivalent, or exactly equal to, a person post-birth, I remain agnostic. I’m sure that’s a position that will please absolutely nobody, but it’s one I find difficult to escape.