Can Philosophy Resolve the Abortion Wars? The Ethics of Abortion, Part IV Jeremy Williams


In many countries, much of the time, the public debate over abortion is both fractious and fruitless, revolving primarily around the unreflective exchange of slogans between two highly polarised rival campaigning groups, who display an almost tribal mutual aversion, and largely shout past rather than really speaking to each other. Understandably, this tends to make onlookers who are concerned with civility in democratic discourse despair – particularly in the United States, where tensions over abortion run particularly high. As the great legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin memorably described the situation there:

The war between anti-abortion groups and their opponents is America’s new version of the terrible seventeenth-century European wars of religion. Opposing armies march down streets or pack themselves into abortion clinics, courthouses, and the White House, screaming at and spitting on and loathing one another. Abortion is tearing America apart (Dworkin, 1993, p. 4).

That the abortion dispute is unusually highly charged may not seem surprising, given what the protagonists on both sides claim to be at stake (preventing the wrongful killing of innocent persons on the one hand, and preventing the wrongful imposition of pregnancy and parenthood on the other). Yet it might not be inevitable that the abortion controversy must be played out as a war, and philosophers have sometimes considered how they might be able to contribute to drawing the poison out of it. One key method by which some of them have hoped to do so involves interrogating and unpicking the rhetoric used by partisans in the public dispute. In some cases, it is suggested, the rhetoric on display does not accurately encapsulate what the protagonists really believe, or does not vindicate the conclusions that those who utter it assume that it does, or has further, unnoticed implications at which they would balk, were they made aware of them. Perhaps, if the belligerents could be shown that their slogans are defective in these ways, the familiar battle lines could in time be dismantled.

Judith Thomson’s defense of abortion, discussed earlier in this series, is an excellent example of this sort of argumentative strategy in action. According to Thomson, as we have seen, opponents of abortion are mistaken if they think that their hallmark claim – that fetuses are persons from conception onwards, with full rights to life – is on its own enough to show that terminating a pregnancy is impermissible. Another prime example of the same approach at work, meanwhile, comes from Dworkin. Like Thomson, Dworkin’s focus is (primarily, though not exclusively) on the avowed commitments of pro-life advocates. Those people claim to believe that fetuses are persons, with all the rights that that status entails. But Dworkin argues, strikingly, that it can be demonstrated that they don’t really believe this at all. For most of them do not think that abortion is without exception morally prohibited. Rather, they tend to believe that there ought to be some significant exceptions to a general ban on terminating pregnancies, at least in the earlier stages of pregnancy. In particular, they tend to hold that there should be such exceptions in cases where conception was a result of rape, or incest, as well as cases in which the fetus has been found to have some devastating illness or disability. Allowing abortion in such cases, however, seems incompatible with the view that fetuses are, at all stages of their gestation, persons. For if they were, they would presumably have rights not to be treated less favourably on grounds of arbitrary factors like the circumstances of their origins, or their health and native capabilities. Nobody, after all, thinks that the right to life of a person after birth is weaker and more easily overridden just because she is, say, a product of incest, or has a serious disability.

Thus, according to Dworkin, pro-lifers have powerful reasons of consistency to moderate their opposition to abortion. Indeed, he argues, provocatively, that when pro-lifers claim that even embryos and early fetuses are persons, what they actually mean is something rather less radical – namely that early prenatal life is intrinsically valuable, in a similar way to, say, a great work of art, or a rare plant. When a thing has intrinsic value, destroying it is a sort of cosmic waste, and difficult to justify. But it is not a wrongdoing on the scale of murder, and can be permissible in cases where killing a person would not be. If the real underlying view of pro-lifers is, as Dworkin claims, not that early fetuses are persons, but rather that they are intrinsically valuable, such that destroying them is a great waste, then they can, he says, consistently believe that there are exceptions to the general rule that abortion is wrong. However, Dworkin continues, once pro-lifers accept this explanation for their pattern of beliefs, they should also accept that women have a right to choose at least an early abortion. This is because the question of what things in the universe possess intrinsic value is deeply personal – an ‘essentially religious’ matter, as Dworkin puts it – and answers to it ought not to be imposed on those who conscientiously disagree. Thus, in Dworkin’s view, the right to choose an early abortion is of a piece with the rights to freedom of conscience and religious exercise, and should be endorsed by all who endorse the latter, core commitments of liberal democracy – however sincerely they might hold, as a matter of their own personal religious or philosophical doctrine, that the waste of prenatal human life is intrinsically bad.

Like Thomson, Dworkin seeks to radically remake the traditional abortion debate – in his case, by attempting to persuade pro-life advocates that the intuitive costs of the view they outwardly profess are too high, even for them. Can his strategy succeed? To be sure, when faced with Dworkin’s challenge, a committed opponent of abortion might be drawn to the conclusion that consistency on their part requires not abandoning her commitment to fetal personhood, but rather abandoning her commitment to allowing exceptions to the prohibition of abortion. That is a harsh view indeed, and deeply unappealing, even to many ardent pro-life advocates. It does, however, have its proponents.

Pro-choice philosophers have, though, adduced further powerful grounds for anti-abortionists to reconsider their belief that fetuses are persons, whose being killed is as tragic, harmful and wrongful as the killing of a normal adult human being like you or I. Significantly for the focus of this website, these return us to the theme of saving lives. In the first post in this series, I noted that philosophical defenders of abortion choice sometimes object that, to say that embryos and fetuses are, from conception, persons, is to imply, absurdly, that in a hypothetical choice between saving the life of one adult person on the one hand, and rescuing some larger number of embryos from destruction on the other, it would be permissible, if not mandatory, to do the latter. This challenge is not purely hypothetical, however, as Jeff McMahan notes (2002, pp. 165-6). A strikingly high proportion of pregnancies  – at least two thirds, in fact – end in spontaneous abortion. One would expect that those who believe that fetuses are persons would regard this phenomenon as an ongoing tragedy of epic proportions. And one would expect, as a result, that they would also be highly vocal in demanding that a much greater proportion of our social resources be devoted to researching and deploying various medical means to minimise these deaths – diverted, perhaps, from healthcare interventions that aim at preventing or curing medical conditions in adults and children, such as HIV, that claim fewer lives overall. Yet in fact they do not do so. This seems to suggest that they apprehend a difference between the loss of prenatal life and the lives of persons after all.

Thus, Dworkin and others have attempted to demonstrate to pro-lifers that they should soften their opposition to abortion, thereby taking at least some of the heat out of the ‘abortion wars’. Notice that, in doing so, they do not typically proceed by setting out to persuade people of some grand ethical theory. Rather, they proceed by attempting to show that there are glaring inconsistencies, and high intuitive costs, in the views that people already (profess to) hold.

Philosophers also adopt a similar strategy when engaging with and evaluating more moderate views, which contend that the moral status of a fetus varies according to its level of development. What aspects of the development of a fetus are relevant to its moral status? And what are the implications of fixing on one emerging characteristic of the fetus rather than another? The final post in this series turns to these questions.


Ronald Dworkin, Life’s Dominion: An Argument About Abortion, Euthanasia, and Individual Freedom (New York: Vintage, 1994).

Jeff McMahan, The Ethics of Killing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

One Comment to “Can Philosophy Resolve the Abortion Wars? The Ethics of Abortion, Part IV Jeremy Williams”

  1. In my experience, most pro-life activists do oppose rape and disability exceptions to kill unborn babies. So, I believe your criticism of pro-lifers in this regard is wrong. Though it certainly applies to people who would allow such killings.

    As for the claim that many embryos die before birth… All people die. 100%. The fact that some people will die of natural causes doesn’t give us a right to kill those who are surviving just fine.

    Therefore, the bit about using resources to discover a cure to such miscarriages is a red herring. All pro-lifers would support such research.

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