Arguments For and Against Abortion

Life has been held precious since the outset of human existence. The communitarian aspect of human existence made respect for the right to life an important, integral part of human civilization. It is this perception of human life and its worth that leads one to investigate the issue of abortion which has been a contentious issue across civilizations, religious outlooks and cultures. As with so much of the highly controversial debates in politics, the argument over terminology and conceptual analysis. Much of the debate centers around when does a fetus become “a human being”, and whether or not the fetus has the same rights as an individual. However, as you’ll see in the arguments, two of the most famous arguments (one for and the other against) will make you question both of these premises. 

An All Too Brief History of Abortion

The historical roots of abortion (as we currently think of abortion) and highlights how in the Greco-Roman world, the practice was socially acceptable to limit family. However, the practice encountered vehement opposition by Christian theologians. It was in the 19th century that the practice was officially criminalized (“Abortion”, 2019) and thus setting off the beginning of one of the world’s longest lasting political struggles.

James Mohr writes about the history of the practice in the United States and states that no statutes existed in the United States regarding abortion and American women who intended to seek an abortion could do so. It was in the 19th century that most of the jurisdictions had criminalized most forms of practice (Mohr, 1979, p. vii). Mohr has described that the practice had no state interference until the physicians saw abortion as a means to distinguish themselves from other practitioners and were successful in having legislation that allowed licensed professionals to perform an abortion. It was not until the late 1940s and early 1950s when clergy, physicians and activists demanded of the state legislators to repeal abortion laws and succeeded in achieving their objective. The perception of the issue changed in the 1960s due to two cases in which public attention shifted to women’s authority in making decisions regarding abortion. The first case is that of Finkbine and the second is that of a rubella measles epidemic that could lead to fetal malfunction. It was the second that sparked a new debate which highlighted that seeking an abortion was a woman’s constitutional right. It was Roe Vs. Wade’s case in which the Supreme Court decided that seeking an abortion was a constitutional right of a woman (Rohlinger, 2014, pp. 43-44). It is since then that the abortion issue has drawn pro-life and pro-choice movements against each other.

Arguments For Legal Abortion (Pro-Choice)

The academic literature on abortion is vast and fascinating (if you’re into that kind of thing). However we’ll focus on just one famous argument for the ethical permissibility of abortion and one against it. Arguably the most influential argument for abortion, and the one we’ll discuss in detail here, comes by way of Philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson and her famous argument A Defense of Abortion otherwise known as the “violinist” argument.

Judith Jarvis Thomson asks one to consider the following scenario:

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. The director of the hospital now tells you, “Look, we’re sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you–we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.” Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. “Tough luck. I agree. but now you’ve got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person’s right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him.” I imagine you would regard this as outrageous, which suggests that something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago.

One of the pieces that makes this argument both interesting and compelling, is that it begins a series of arguments whereby the fetus is given all the rights of a fully grown adult. This thereby avoids the claim that abortion is a type of agism and opens up a series of related arguments. For example: assume your kidney is failing and you’ve located a match, however the match refuses to give their kidney to you. Should the law require the match to donate their kidney?

Arguments Against Abortion (Pro-Life)

As one might expect, the other side of the abortion literature is filled with similarly intuitively compelling arguments. However there is one argument that has, by far, been the most cited and debated argument in the sub-field and among the most debated articles in contemporary philosophy. The paper, titled Why Abortion is Immoral, was written by philosopher Don Marquis and published in The Journal of Philosophy on April of 1989 . Now known as the “fetal potential” argument or the “argument from fetal potential”, the main thrust of the argument is that the reason we find the death of a an infant more tragic than an elderly person is because the potential for the life that they could’ve lived is ripped away from them. This is reflected in numerous examples in the criminal justice system, such as Jack Kevorkian getting released from prison after 8 years despite a murder conviction. 

However it’s also reflected in this way: 

 Newborn infants lack the psychological maturity to possess goals, aims, beliefs, or purposes. This does not, however, exclude them from the moral community. The reason why it does not is because we realize that infants have the potential to develop these conscious goods, and it is this potential that, as Jim Stone argues, grounds the infant’s interest in growing up and realizing that potential.

The argument has had it’s critics which have helped refine and adjust the argument. For example, the extremely influential philosopher Peter Singer was incensed at the very notion. “There is no rule that says that a potential X has the same value as an [actual] X, or has all the rights of an X. There are many examples that show just the contrary. Pulling out a sprouting acorn is not the same as cutting down a venerable oak. To drop a live chicken into a pot of boiling water would be much worse than doing the same to an egg. Prince Charles is the potential King of England, but he does not now have the rights of a king.”

Current Status of Abortion Debate

Abortion remains a furiously debatable issue in contemporary American political life. Contentiousness has turned to such an extent that the issue and policies are often debated along party lines. Edward Carmines and James Wood describe the issue of abortion and the latter’s impact on political outlook, “Previous research indicates that party elites—specifically members of Congress—and partisans in the mass public have become more differentiated in their abortion attitudes during the last several decades with Democrats becoming more pro-choice and Republicans becoming increasingly pro-life” (Carmines & Woods, 2002, p. 361). The state that issue continues to divide the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. George W. Bush’s vow to nominate constructionist judges to the Supreme Court strengthened the impression of undermining a woman’s right to an abortion. Gore, on the other hand, promised to appoint pro-choice judges. Carmines and Woods argue that the issue of abortion has become a cardinal point of difference. They sum it up, “Democratic party elites are just as pro-choice as Republicans are pro-life” (Carmines & Woods, 2002, p. 362).

Not only has the issue of abortion impacted the socio-political life in the United States, but it has also exerted its influence on other developed countries such as Denmark, Israel, the UK and the US. Michael Gross states that these countries differ in their approach to the issue of abortion in spite of sharing the same political system. Gross sums the treatment of the issue in these words, “The same moderately malformed 25-week old fetus might be aborted in Israel, delivered but not necessarily resuscitated in Denmark, resuscitated but not always treated aggressively in the UK and treated aggressively in the US” (Gross, 2002, p. 203).  Gross then highlights the reasons for such different treatment and states that it is how each nation defines fetus differently, has different religious traditions and different cultural practices. Each of these nations views the sanctity of life, feticide and use of life-sustaining treatment in a different manner (Gross, 2002, p. 203). It is this difference in social, religious, cultural and political outlook that impacts the treatment of a fetus and thus the issue of abortion in these countries.

Selected Opinions on Abortion:

Joe Biden on Abortion

Read Joe Biden’s complicated history in regards to Abortion, his opinion on Roe v. Wade and his plan for how his administration will tackle the issue. 

Sam Harris on Abortion

Sam Harris has always attempted to take the rationalistic approach to current issues in American politics. Read his measured stance here. 

Jordan Peterson on Abortion

Jordan Peterson was asked at a Q&A to give his opinion on the subject of abortion and he had a rather complex answer to the question. 

Ben Shapiro on Abortion

Abortion has been one of the central issues for the conservative commentator and his pro-life stance. We’ve attempted to catalogue them and provide context. 

Christopher Hitchens on Abortion

Christopher Hitchens’ views on abortion have been well documented throughout his career and, though his views are fairly consistent, his opinions on the subject have been modified as societal opinion has changed. We’ll go through some of his most famous quotes over time and provide further context along the way.

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