Abortion can never be justified as it involves the taking of an innocent person's life: an evaluation

The debate of abortion is a heated and passionate one. Views are divided, from the 'conservative' pro-life stance to the 'liberal' pro-choice, and everything in between. The title of this node “abortion can never be justified as it involves the taking of an innocent person's life” expresses a fairly strong conservative viewpoint, and that which is most commonly employed as the principal argument against abortion. In this writeup, I aim to examine this claim. It rests on the idea that it is in fact an “innocent person” whose life is being destroyed when abortion takes place. In order to evaluate the strength of this claim, this idea must be considered,and furthermore the idea that this innocent person's life overrides any other justifications involved in the abortion debate.

The idea that “life” is being taken during an abortion is indisputable – as Glover says “Abortion is the destruction of life after conception and before birth”. From a scientific viewpoint life begins at conception, but whether this life is of moral value depends on the living thing's status as a 'person'. There is a taboo on taking human life as opposed to another's: drowning a kitten is a common occurence, whereas drowning an infant would not be acceptable. This sanctity rests upon many ideas, but can be summed up in the idea that killing a 'person' is wrong. In this way, much of the debate on issues surrounding abortion center on if and when a fetus becomes a person. Many cite this at different stages, mostly conception, viability and birth. If it was possible to prove that a fetus is not a person at one point, and is at another, it would mean that abortion is, according to the claim in the node title, justifiable at one point and not at another: at one point it would not be a person's life that is being taken. This would mean that “abortion can never be justified...” is untrue, as abortion is justified at a point in the pregnancy, or a certain situation. This however is inherently accepting the claim in the title that when a life is being taken it cannot be justified, and finding a way of evading it. It must now be considered therefore, whether abortion can be considered in spite of it taking a person's life – i.e. whether this claim is really valid.

Wertheimer outlines the strength of the conservative argument: “A human fetus is a human being, not a partial or potential one, but a full fledged, actualized human life. Given that premise, the entire conservative position unfolds with a simple, relentless logic.” This logic rests on the widely held assumption that killing an innocent is wrong:

1.A fetus is an innocent person.
2.Killing innocent people is not morally justifiable.
3.Abortion is killing a fetus.
Therefore abortion is not morally justifiable.
This, coming from a mostly Judeo-Christian ethical background, does not take into account the ideas of the utilitarian, where killing an innocent may be morally permissible if it were to create greater happiness than pain. This line of argument is often cited as the “woman's rights” argument: perhaps, although unpleasant, an abortion of an unwanted child would be beneficial to the mother and other parties to the extent that it outweighs the pain of abortion. Sadly, it is a great difficulty with the utilitarian concept that it is virtually impossible to measure 'happiness' or 'displeasure' in an attempt to balance these out. Wertheimer points out also “...The precise scientific tabulations of grief do not add up to an argument here, for some pain, no matter how considerable and undesirable, may not be avoidable.” These opposing positions are difficult to reconcile, applying as they do totally different ethical systems. This argument between the greater happiness or 'greater good' is in this case unresolvable, as the concepts on one side of the argument simply do not apply to the other.

It is then necessary to consider the way in which the first premise affects the debate: that the fetus is an innocent person, and this implies they have a right to life – a right not to be killed. This is separate from the issue of whether is fetus is a person before or after a certain point in its development, as that is simply altering that first premise and in turn the claim made in the title. To consider whether the fetus is a person and consequently has the right to life is evaluating an assumption implicit in the claim. Thus, once more, whether the fetus actually is a person or not is virtually irrelevant.

Glover defines having a right to life as such: “To say that people have a right to life is to say that it is never morally justifiable to kill them, and that the wrongness of killing is independent of any claim about the undesirability of the consequences.” This does not demonstrate that being a person necessarily entails a right to life – more that when someone has a right to life, they have a right to life. In contrast, Tooley gives a circular argument that “'X is a person' will be synonymous with 'X has a (serious) moral right to life'.” In this case, the fetus as a person, as the claim implies, has a full right to life. Granting this right to life implicitly grants this to the mother, as she is indeed also a person: “...Women are persons. They should not be treated as something different when they are pregnant.” This can then lead to a somewhat contradictory situation in which two 'rights to life' coincide: were the mother's life threatened by the pregnancy such that she would surely die, whose right to life would perish? In such an instance, several arguments can be employed in making the decision of one 'right to life' over another. Firstly, the simple issue of strength of particular rights: Thomson argues that a woman has a particular right to decide what goes on in her own body. Arguably, in a situation where the mother's life is not threatened, the fetus' right to life overrides what right over her womb the mother has. However, when her life is threatened, her right to life coupled with her right to decide what goes on in her own body overrides the fetus' simple right to life. (This presents a dilemma in abortion issues as scientific evidence of a nobility study shows that childbearing shortens a mother's life – as to whether shortening of life is equal to threatened life is another story). Secondly, and furthermore, there is the idea of a woman's right of self defense against another person who is going to kill her, in the same way she has the right of self defense against someone who is going to kill her in the street.

In this way, superior justification is presented in favor of the child being aborted. This presents a problem for the idea that the fetus, as a person, has a right to life – i.e. Has a right not to be killed. Dworkin explains “...Abortion should be permitted when necessary to save a mother's life. Yet this exception is inconsistent with any belief that a fetus is a person with a right to live.” Accordingly, the fetus does not always have the right to life, so the basic argument is altered to

1.A fetus is an innocent person.
2.Killing innocent people is sometimes morally unjustifiable.
3.Abortion is killing a fetus.
Therefore abortion is sometimes morally justifiable.

Through this analysis of the link between premises 1 and 2 – that 2 is part of the right to life as implied in 1 – it can be seen that abortion is on occasions morally justifiable. This therefore means that the claim “abortion can never be justified as it involves the taking of an innocent person's life” cannot stand as “taking of an innocent person's life” is not always morally wrong therefore cannot be used as justification against abortion. This is not a claim that abortion is right nor is it one that abortion is wrong: simply it states that the claim made in the node title is not a valid argument in this debate. This perhaps demonstrates the limits of the philosophical approach to a subject which so deeply motivates emotion.

Dworkin, R. Life's Dominion: an argument about abortion and euthanasia Harper Collins 1993 London
Glover, J. Causing Death and Saving Lives Penguin 1977, 1987 London
ed. Singer, P. A companion to Ethics Blackwell 1991, 1993 Oxford
Williams, B. Ethics and the limits of Philosophy Harper Collins 1985, 1993 London

Philosophy and Public Affairs:
Princeton University Press, New Jersey.
Thomson, J. “A Defense of Abortion” Vol. 1, Iss. 1, 1971
Tooley, M. “Abortion and Infanticide” Vol. 2, Iss. 1, 1972.
Wertheimer, R. “Understanding the Abortion Argument” Vol. 1, Iss. 1, 1971.
Zaitchik, A. “Viability and the Morality of Abortion” Vol. 10, Iss. 1, 1981.