A simple argument against abortion: possible replies

A simple argument against abortion: possible replies

I recently posted a simple argument against abortion for pro-choice advocates to consider. I challenged them as to how certain they were of their conclusions, comparing this to the certainty associated with applying the death penalty, and noting the dismay most people feel when someone who is on death row is exonerated.

I’d now like to examine the most common replies to the first premise: it is morally wrong to kill innocent human beings. Rejecting this premise seems the only possible defense against this argument, unless the humanity of the fetus is denied, an extremely dubious proposition.

But how can this premise be rejected? Isn’t it always wrong to kill innocent human beings? Certainly, the onus is on pro-choice advocates to find good reasons why this may not be the case. Innocent people are sometimes killed in war, but no-one thinks this is permissible, but rather deeply regrettable: deliberately targeting the innocent in war is morally wrong. There are two general approaches, and I’ll briefly examine them both.

Bodily autonomy

The first approach is to claim that in some situations, innocent human beings can be killed. Usually, these situations involve a reference to a woman’s bodily autonomy, and come in two forms. One is to argue that a women has sovereign control over her body, and can whatever she likes with anything within her body. This doesn’t seem to be true, as it doesn’t seem permissible for a pregnant woman to deliberately ingest a drug that will result in a deformed child. More generally, having sovereign control of a space doesn’t usually confer the automatic right to kill people who enter it, say our private property.

Judith Jarvis Thomson presents the more sophisticated version of bodily autonomy in her famous article ‘A defense of abortion‘. She constructs a rather bizarre analogy about someone waking up to find a famous, unconscious violinist plugged into their body. The violinist needs the use of their body for nine months to survive, and unplugging the violinist would kill him. Thomson claims the victim would be under no obligation to keep the violinist plugged in, and likewise a pregnant woman is under no obligation to continue providing life support for the fetus.

There has been a lot of ink spilled over Thomson’s argument, and debate among philosophers continues to this day. We cannot examine it in detail here. But it’s worth noting some important points. Firstly, the argument is controversial, and not even all pro-choice advocates agree it is a valid defense for abortion in all circumstances (e.g. Kate Greasley). For example, the violinist is attached involuntarily, but some philosophers contend that voluntarily engaging in sexual intercourse implies consenting to pregnancy, should it occur. Others claim a mother has special obligations to her child. Secondly, Thomson never intended her argument to mean abortion is permissible in all circumstances, especially late-term abortions. In fact Thomson notes that she is not arguing for the death of the fetus at all, but rather its removal, which currently inevitably means its death. Artificial wombs could change this. So Thomson’s reasoning isn’t a slam-dunk argument for rejecting the first premise of our simple argument against abortion.

Persons, not human beings

The second approach is to modify the first premise to remove the reference to human beings, replacing it with ‘persons’: it is morally wrong to kill innocent persons. Here,  person is a moral term, meaning an entity with certain rights, in particular the right to life. So the modified premise is really saying it is wrong to kill human beings who have a right to life. Because it is claimed that a fetus does not meet the criteria for being a person, it does not have a right to life, and consequently it can be permissibly killed.

Defining persons also occupies a lot of space in philosophy journals, but it usually involves possessing certain rational capacities such as being conscious and self-aware. Herein lies the problem for this approach: these definitions of person invariably exclude infants. If the ‘personhood’ approach is taken, it is implicitly granting that infanticide is permissible in addition to abortion. For most people, that’s a bridge too far. And if it isn’t, there are implications beyond infanticide.


So there we have it. If the simple argument against abortion is to fail, it will have to fail at the first premise: it is morally wrong to kill innocent human beings. The two main options are rejecting it, via Thomson’s rather controversial argument, or changing the premise to refer to persons, not human beings, and all that implies for infanticide. Are these compelling enough to confidently reject the simple argument against abortion? You decide.





A simple argument against abortion

A simple argument against abortion

Arguments for and against abortion choice can get complex extremely quickly. I wouldn’t be able to do a PhD in the ethics of abortion if that wasn’t the case. But there is a simple argument against abortion that everyone who is pro-choice must face and have good reason to reject. I’ve outlined it below.

  1. It is morally wrong to kill innocent human beings.
  2. A fetus is an innocent human being.
  3. Abortion kills a fetus.
  4. Therefore abortion kills an innocent human being.
  5. Conclusion: abortion is morally wrong.

Let’s leave the first premise for a moment, and examine the second. Certainly, a fetus is innocent, more so than any other human being. It hasn’t had a chance to be otherwise – it isn’t guilty of anything, other than existing. And that’s not its fault! Some people might argue that a fetus isn’t a human being (this is in a biological sense), but that’s difficult to sustain – just check an embryology textbook. If you want something more technical, try this academic discussion on whether human organisms start existing at fertilisation.

Okay, so the second premise can’t be denied by any reasonable person. The third point is obviously true, and the fourth point follows directly from the second and third, so if you accept the second and third premises, you have to accept the fourth. It’s time to look at the first premise – if this is also accepted, the conclusion – that abortion is morally wrong – must also be accepted.

Is it always morally wrong to kill an innocent human being? The only way that abortion isn’t morally wrong is if this premise is rejected. It commits you to agreeing that sometimes, it’s not wrong to kill innocent human beings.  That’s a big step to take! You would want to have very good reasons for believing this! What if you are wrong? There can’t be many bigger moral errors you could make if you are mistaken!

So in the end, this argument comes down to a challenge. What reasons can you give that would make it okay to kill an innocent human being in some circumstances? Are you confident these are good reasons? How confident? A comparison with the death penalty is instructive. In the United States, the average time spent on death row after being given the death penalty is over ten years. Why so long? Because there is widespread agreement that every avenue should be explored to ensure that condemned prisoners are guilty. No-one wants to execute someone who is innocent. There have been 162 exonerations since 1973 at the time of writing. That’s about 1.6% of death row prisoners, but it’s enough to cause serious concern about the death penalty, as it prompts the question, how many were innocent that we don’t know about who were executed? Even a single person wrongly executed is too many.

But do we apply a similar degree of commitment towards the unborn? How certain are you that it is okay to kill innocent human beings? 99% 50%? Even philosophers disagree about this issue! Unless you are highly confident of your reasoning, prudence would suggest taking the safe option, especially since abortion takes millions of lives annually, not the hundreds taken by the death penalty. The safe option is to assume that it is morally wrong to kill innocent human beings unless a compelling case demonstrating otherwise is provided, one that is highly certain to be correct. If you do feel you have such a compelling case, I’d love to hear from you.

I’ve tried to anticipate some of the most common replies here.


Queensland’s proposed abortion laws

Queensland’s proposed abortion laws

The Termination of Pregnancy Bill 2018 has just been introduced to parliament in Queensland, a state of Australia. The bill is based on recommendations put forward by the Queensland Law Reform Commission, which published its Review of termination of pregnancy report in June. The most pertinent conclusion was to ‘alter the current law to provide that a termination is lawful if it is performed by a medical practitioner and, for terminations after 22 weeks, in accordance with the stated requirements for a lawful termination’. In short, the intention is to decriminalise abortion, making it a ‘health matter’, not a criminal matter.

Currently in Queensland, having an abortion or assisting in an abortion is technically a criminal offence under sections 224-226 of the Criminal Code, although section 282 allows for exceptions if it is ‘to preserve the mother’s life’. However a Victorian ruling by Justice Menhennit in R v Davidson (1969) declared that abortion was lawful if a doctor thought it was

necessary to preserve the woman from a serious danger to her life or physical or mental health (not being merely the normal dangers of pregnancy and childbirth) which the continuance of pregnancy would entail; and in the circumstances not out of proportion to the danger to be averted’

and the 1986 McGuire ruling in the District Court opined that this was also the case in Queensland. Since that ruling, abortion has become widely available. According to Children by Choice, it is ‘generally accepted that somewhere between 10,000 and 14,000 abortions take place each year in Queensland’. It seems obvious that most abortions in Queensland are not necessary to preserve the woman from a serious danger to her life or physical or mental health, and the law is being ignored.

According to the Queensland Law Reform Commission and the Labor Party of Queensland, the solution is to decriminalise abortion for up to 22 weeks, and with the consent of two doctors, make it permissible at any time until birth. What are the key conditions for abortions after 22 weeks? The doctors must give regard to ‘the woman’s current and future physical, psychological and social circumstances’. But of course this is less stringent that the current restriction that the abortion must be necessary to preserve from a serious danger to life or health, and which is ignored anyway! Effectively, it gives the green light to abortion up until birth, giving Queensland some of the most liberal abortion laws in the world.

It seems from the latest opinion polling that 60% of voters oppose abortion after 13 weeks, and 52% oppose abortion for any reason, putting the recommended new laws out of step with community views. Unfortunately, Queensland does not have an upper legislative house, and so there is not a check on legislation, unlike in New South Wales where the Senate voted down changes into abortion law in 2017. Hopefully, there will sufficient opposition from both the public and parliament to prevent the bill being passed. Public submissions will open in the near future, so when this is available, be sure to make a submission. Concerned Queensland voters should contact their Member of  Parliament. A summary of their personal views can be found here. Labor is permitting a conscience vote, so the result is not predetermined.

A final note: it is a scandal that abortion statistics are not officially recorded in Queensland. We do not know how many human beings have their lives ended this way – we can only guess.