Drawing Lines: The Ethics of Abortion, Part V Jeremy Williams

My blog series this week has introduced readers to a few notable aspects of the philosophical debate over the ethics of abortion, and the ways in which some writers have hoped that we might be able to go beyond the bitter deadlock that characterises the public controversy. Abortion is more salient to the theme of ‘saving humans’ than one might initially suppose, I have suggested, insofar as the ethics of killing and saving are closely bound up with each other. But it is also pertinent to the idea of saving humans in another respect – namely, that it focuses our attention on the question of which humans it matters morally that we save, or not kill. Some political rhetoric is suggestive of the view that all members of the human species matter equally, from a moral point of view, but this is not, on further examination, what most of us in fact believe. Moreover, as we saw in the previous post, the view that all human lives, from the earliest embryo onwards, do indeed share equally in the high moral status and rights that you and I possess carries a number of strongly counter-intuitive implications, which it is questionable that even most committed opponents of abortion would accept.

Aside from its implications, the view that all human lives, from conception onward, have the same exalted moral status, falls foul of the fact that there is no morally relevant characteristic that one can point to that we can agree all members of the human species possess, and that could account for this being so. Simply being, on a genetic level, a member of the species homo sapiens cannot, as many philosophers have emphasised, be the sought-after characteristic, since it seems an arbitrary fact about us, like skin or eye colour. And the familiar claim that all human beings are endowed at conception with a soul is unintelligible to many, and not, from a secular liberal point of view, an appropriate grounds of public policy.

In any case, rather more commonly held than the view that humans acquire the moral status of a person at conception is the view that, at some point later in pregnancy, a line is to be drawn, separating abortions that are not an especially morally serious matter from those that are. That line, however, might be drawn in any number of points in the development of the fetus. The question, then, is which point in its development marks a truly morally significant change.

Within the confines of a blog post, I can do no more than scratch the surface of an enormously rich and complex philosophical debate. Suffice it to say that there are two principal candidate answers to the question of when prenatal human life acquires a sufficient degree of moral status to render abortion a morally problematic practice, and begin to constrain the range of circumstances under which it is justifiable. The first of these, and probably the one that is most regularly cited in real-world political debate, is viability – that is, the point at which it becomes possible for the fetus to survive outside the womb, either on its own, or with mechanical aid. The second, meanwhile, is sentience – that is, the point at which the fetus becomes capable of sensory experience. These changes in the fetus occur at roughly the same time – roughly around the end of the second trimester, with 20 weeks being the most conservative estimate. But that doesn’t mean that it does not matter which line we take to be the truly significant one from a moral point of view.

Now, consider viability. The point at which the fetus becomes viable depends on the state of medical technology. Thus, advances in neonatal medicine, which allow doctors to save younger and more premature infants, are generally accompanied by calls to restrict the abortion of fetuses of the same gestational age, who now count as viable. Yet, as philosophers sometimes point out, it is highly unclear why the viability line has any moral significance. For consider: scientists are currently in the process of developing artificial uteruses, which could incubate an embryo for the full nine months until birth.  Once that technology has been perfected, all embryos and fetuses will be viable, in that however undeveloped they are, they could survive outside of a woman’s body, by being transplanted into an artificial uterus, just as premature infants are currently transferred to an incubator. But this would then mean that, as a result of a merely technological change, all embryos and fetuses, from conception onwards, would now have a moral status that they previously lacked (and thus that many abortions that had previously been entirely morally unobjectionable would now be problematic, and perhaps impermissible). This is rather difficult to believe (though for a dissenting voice, see Boonin, 2003, p. 129ff).

This suggests, as many philosophers believe, that what matters for fetal moral status is not viability but sentience. The reasons to believe that sentience matters, moreover, are not confined to the negative one that the main competing account has strange implications. It is independently plausible to suppose that it matters morally how we treat beings that are capable of experience, because we can affect them in a way that we cannot affect beings that are entirely unfeeling. If a being is capable of experience, it has a life that can go better or worse for it, from the inside, and whose continuation would be good for it. But to end the life of a being that has never acquired that capacity for consciousness seems indistinguishable, in its effects on that being, from its never having been created at all – it has not yet begun a life, in any meaningful sense, of which it is now being deprived. For that reason, it seems plausible to suppose that abortion performed prior to the onset of fetal sentience is morally on a par with contraception.

Suppose we accept what is the most conservative plausible estimate as to when the fetus acquires a rudimentary degree of consciousness – namely 20 weeks. And suppose it was also thought that abortion would always be impermissible after that point. Nonetheless, we would have succeeded in justifying the overwhelming majority of terminations that are in fact performed. In the UK, for instance, in 2011, 91% of abortions were carried out before 13 weeks.

It is important to emphasise, however, that the view that sentience matters, and marks the point of onset of a degree of human moral status, does not yet commit us to the conclusion that all abortions performed after that point would be impermissible, or even especially difficult to justify. For it is consistent with this view to hold that, while the fact that a fetus is sentient, and would benefit to a degree from continued life, gives us a reason not to cause its death, that reason is at least initially quite weak, and often outweighed by other considerations – primarily those pertaining to the needs of the pregnant woman. One grounds for thinking this (for which see especially McMahan, 2002, or, e.g., DeGrazia, 2012), which I find attractive, appeals to the fact that a fetus that has just become conscious is unaware of, and only dimly psychologically related to, the life it will have in the future if not aborted. For this reason, that future life is, from the point of view of the fetus, rather like someone else’s life rather than its own. Thus, while a fetus that has just become sentient can be said to be harmed somewhat by death, it is not harmed greatly, and certainly not to the same significant degree as you or I, given how closely psychologically related to our future selves we are. The harm to the fetus of death may, however, increase over the remainder of pregnancy, as it becomes a more robust psychological presence, as it were, in its own life. If an explanation like this is correct, it would be consistent to think that, even if the fetus starts to become conscious at, say, 20 weeks (and it is questionable that it does), abortion is often justifiable at 24 weeks, or later, and therefore the law in the UK, for example, which includes a 24 week cut-off for most abortions, ought to stay as it is.

Sadly, given the constraints of this format, I lack the space to consider the view of fetal moral status that I have been canvasing here in any further detail, or its rivals. What I hope to have shown in this series is that those whose interest is in ethical questions of saving humans have abundant reasons to be interested in the philosophical dimensions of abortion. And, of course, abortion is not merely fascinating, at a philosophical level, but also an urgent need for the many women whom it saves.


David Boonin, A Defense of Abortion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

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

David DeGrazia, Creation Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).


One Comment to “Drawing Lines: The Ethics of Abortion, Part V Jeremy Williams”

  1. I’m concerned that women are not considered much in these arguments. Does it matter if a fetus is a person if it is living inside another person against that person’s will?

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