Under what conditions, if any, is abortion morally acceptable?

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The debate surrounding abortion has been a part of public policy discourse for more than half a century now. Despite widespread exposure to the issue and passionate presentation of views there is no generally accepted consensus. Apart from universally recognized pros and cons for legally permitting abortion, there are also localized cultural sensibilities to contend with. For example, regions of the country with a large religious demographic tend to oppose abortion even when it is practically unreasonable. On the other extreme, in the more liberal states region, there is the danger of abuse of the right to abortion by reckless, indulgent teenagers. This essay will argue that abortion must be exercised only under exceptional circumstances. Four key readings related to the topic are perused for constructing arguments.

Dan Marquis’ essay “Why Abortion is Immoral” clearly suggests that the author looks cannot see any genuine moral grounds for permitting abortion. A central part of his essay is the idea of ‘potentiality’ of a developing fetus. Drawing analogy from the criminal justice system, he explains how the same moral justifications for condemning killing an adult should also apply for the fetus (irrespective of the period of gestation). This is so, Marquis argues, as terminating a fetus deprives it of all potential experience of life and happiness – the same rationale applied for sentencing those committing homicide. As Marquis poignantly asks “A necessary condition of resolving the abortion controversy is a …theoretical account of the wrongness of killing. After all, if we merely believe, but do not understand, why killing adult human beings as ourselves is wrong, how could we conceivably show that abortion is either immoral or permissible” (Marquis, p.400) Marquis’ point is well taken, especially since he does not dogmatically cling to all the demands of the conservative camp. Marquis has no qualms about use of contraceptives, as it stands outside the concern with ‘killing’. Use of contraceptives is a preemptive act and does not interfere with the future (with all its potentialities) of a developing fetus. In contrast, what makes ‘killing’ wrong “is its effect on the victim. The loss of one’s life is one of the greatest losses one can suffer. The loss of one’s life deprives one of all the experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments that would otherwise have constituted one’s future…” (Marquis, p.401) This is a meritorious argument and unless convincingly proved false, it should serve as a primary clause for forbidding abortions. Hence, Marquis makes a persuasive case for abstaining from abortion.

Mary Anne Warren’s article “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion” attempts to counter some of the claims made by Dan Marquis. She criticizes the ‘genetic code argument’, which states that since the genetic code or (DNA) of a fetus is the same as a fully formed human, the moral considerations in dealing with its termination will have be the same as those applied to adults. Though this argument is accurate from a biological viewpoint, it is too esoteric and removed from immediate factors governing an abortion decision. Warren then gives a brief treatise on the nature of personhood, an understanding of which is central to the topic of abortion. She argues that a fetus never acquires mature characteristics that would lead it to be thought of as a person in the legal and moral sense. To this point I would add that a fetus does not have the training, experience and mental development to conceive of its own future, thereby weakening claims of potential loss. According to Warren, the traits that are central to the concept of personhood (and by extension the applicability of moral considerations) are the following: “consciousness, reasoning, self-motivated activity, the capacity to communicate, the presence of self-concepts and self-awareness”. (Warren, p.385) Since a fetus of any stage of gestation only either minimally or not at all possess these traits, the assignation of personhood to it is incorrect. While there is truth to this argument, it still doesn’t validate the concept of abortion. A fetus may not qualify as a person, but it still has the capacity to feel pain, especially further down the gestation period. The lack of personhood status doesn’t translate to a license to inflict pain – a grave and fatal one at that. Hence, Warren’s argument should not be construed as an advocacy for abortion, as it is an exposition of the moral evaluation of this action. I would add that since there is a constitutional vacuum with respect to seeking legal answers to the issue, placing emphasis on the moral domain is a prudent approach. And under the moral domain, the odds are heavily stacked against the pro-choice stance.

Amid passionate viewpoints from both sides of the abortion debate, L.W. Sumner offers a refreshingly moderate view. His article titled A Moderate View points out the logical flaws in the arguments of conservatives and liberals alike. A particular criticism is with respect to the unchanging moral status of a fetus throughout pregnancy. He explains,

“the common source of these defects lies in their uniform accounts of the moral status of the fetus. First, they require that all abortions be accorded the same moral status regardless of the stage of pregnancy at which they are performed. Thus, liberals must hold that late abortions are as morally innocuous as early ones, and conservatives must hold that early abortions are as morally serious as late ones. Neither view is able to support the common conviction that late abortions are more serious than early ones.” (Sumner, p.406)

Sumner then proposes a middle path approach to the debate, under which, early term abortions are generally morally sound. And later term abortions are only permitted after thorough deliberation of various factors. A general rule of thumb that Sumner seems to recommend is one of deterrence to abortion commensurate with the maturity of the fetus. Of all the various views studied in the readings, Sumner’s seems the most workable and fair solution to the debate surrounding abortion. While not siding with either sides of the debate completely, Sumner offers a moderated protocol for arriving at abortion decisions, where a nuanced understanding of the moral status is brought to bear on the decision. This moderate approach has much going for it, for there are clear flaws in both pro-choice and pro-life framework of analysis.

In criticism of Sumner, one should note that the moral rightness or wrongness of any particular instance of abortion is not a black and white situation. Instead, each individual case can be evaluated and placed in a gradient of moral correctness. Hence to cite the lack of personhood and a fully developed consciousness on the part of a nascent fetus is not a sound rationale for committing abortion (even at an early stage).

To the various authors’ perspectives discussed above, the following comments can be added. Late term abortions can be permitted in exceptional circumstances such as risk to mother, incest pregnancies, age and maturity of the carrying mother, drug addictions, etc. In particular, pregnancy through rape or incest challenges pro-lifers’ stance. Similarly, when continued pregnancy poses a threat to the life and wellbeing of the mother, abortion has to be considered. On the other hand, while a mother’s rights on her body are recognized, it is not a license to reckless sexual behavior that leads to pregnancy. Those women, who voluntarily indulge in sexual intercourse, knowing that this could lead to pregnancy, bear certain responsibilities for consequences thereafter. In this scenario, aborting is akin to depriving the fetus of its innate rights and thus constituting an injustice. With due respect to the rights of women over their bodies, a developing fetus is much more than an appendage to the woman carrying it.

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