The Real Problem with Abortion

Mark A. McNeil



When engaging in culturally and ethically controversial topics like abortion, I have found that most people latch onto a specific idea and use it to counter every argument offered against their view.  For example, one in favor of abortion might be unwilling to question the fact that a woman has a right to her own body, (which means that a fetus has no such rights).  On the other hand, one who is against abortion might be unwilling to go beyond the claim that abortion is simply murder.  It may well be that abortion is murder, but the debate will not be won by simply asserting that such is the case.  The reason for much of the confusion on the issue is our human tendency to accept or reject basic moral principles without adequate examination.  Failure to conduct such an examination means that we improperly accept or reject principles that ultimately determine the direction of life.

Laymen are not alone in holding unexamined and untested positions.  Scholars do it particularly well.  Unfortunately, shoddy thinking abounds in scholarly literature on abortion.  Rather than helping to clarify the matter, it appears that scholarship only muddies the water in too many cases.  It is the purpose of this article to look in a critical fashion at a few contemporary attempts to express views on the abortion matter.  My goal is to point out the inadequacies of these treatments as a sample of the kind of reasoning that is being used in our situation to defend the varying sides of this question.  My primary concern is to show that the most important questions are usually not seriously contemplated or expressed.  Without such a clear presentation, it is possible for both ethicists and common people to go on holding positions without understanding the clear implications that follow from whatever position one chooses to adopt.

Focus on Persons

In an article entitled, The Moral and Legal Status of Abortion, [1]Mary Anne Warren attempts to move beyond the stalemate in the debate over who is a human.  The typical argument against abortion, she claims, begins with the universal truism of moral consideration that it is wrong to kill innocent human beings.  The pro-life advocate then develops a simple syllogism based on this first major premise.  The second premise being, Fetuses are innocent human beings.  These two premises together force the intellect to conclude that it is wrong to kill a fetus.

Warren's next move is not to deny the first premise.  To the contrary, she allows that it is a self-evident moral truth.  Her tactic in casting doubt on the conclusion is to allow premise one but to suggest that the second premise switches the meaning of the term human being and the syllogism is then a case of equivocation.  If the terms change meaning, one can no longer have confidence in the conclusion drawn from their use.  She suggests that there are really two senses in which the term human is used.  The first sense is with regard to those who are full fledged members of the moral community.  [2] This is, she claims, the moral sense of the term.  The second is the mere genetic sense of the term.  If one is then simply saying that a fetus genetically moves towards becoming a human in the moral sense, then Warren has no particular problem.  Her problem, however, is with regard to the applicability of the first premise to those who are only genetically human.  Who are members of that community of humans to whom the premise, It is wrong to kill innocent human beings, applies?

The question that then remains for Warren concerns how one will define this moral community for which the first premise of the argument has meaning and relevance.  Her conclusion is simple and, she claims, self-evident.  [3] Only people belong to the moral community.  In order to see the truth of this claim, we are then directed to a consideration of what a person actually is.  A good starting point, she suggests, is that we consider what elements we might look for in an alien form of life as evidences of personhood.  Five distinct criteria are listed.  [4]

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(1) Consciousness of internal and external objects, especially the ability to feel pain.

(2) Reasoning.  Here she emphasizes the true sense of the term as she intends it to be understood: the developed capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems.

(3) Self-motivated activity.

(4) Capacity to communicate.  This criterion is also elaborated as a complex and indefinitely varied ability.

(5) Presence of self-concepts and self-awareness.

Conceding that much debate could be brought forth regarding these criteria, both with respect to what is found here and what is not, Warren is willing to accept criteria 1-3 as a sufficient basis for her theory.  However, she says that if an entity is unable to fulfill any of these five criteria, it should be self-evident that it is not a person.  Her conclusion, then, is quite clear.  Genetic Humanity, the second sense of the term human, is simply insufficient as a basis for including one in the moral community of persons to whom the moral maxim, It is wrong to kill innocent human life, applies.  

Interestingly, Warren goes on to draw out some of the implications of her theory.  For one, people of the future should begin preparing themselves for the possibility of computer intelligence.  The clear implication is that if there is a computer that can be genuinely described as having the criteria of personhood listed above, it should be included in the moral community.  Although this conclusion is considered the product of reason, it is irrational and, to use her word, absurd to apply such rights to non-persons, which, of course, would include fetuses.  [5] Consider that!  A day may come when a computer is part of our moral world and fetuses are, a priori, excluded from the rights associated with involvement in such a world.

But that is not all.  To make her point more clear, Warren distinguishes between an immoral action and one considered indecent by some.  (Note that she does not define indecency, but says that she is uncertain about what such a term might mean.) For example, she says that though possibly considered indecent, it would not be immoral for a woman seven months pregnant to have an abortion just to avoid having to postpone a trip to Europe.  [6] Nor, she says, should one think that her view of abortion at any stage in pregnancy will erode the level of respect for human life and lead to other unwanted actions (e.g. unjustified euthanasia).  She is confident that educating persons in the moral principles she has suggested in her article will safeguard the world from such unwanted actions, if, she adds, such actions are to be considered a threat.  [7]


One might wish to argue that Warren has already presented a view of human life that is so significantly eroded that not much more shocking could be suggested.  With respect to her definition of aperson, for example, one can quickly think of many adults, not to mention children, who would simply fail the test.  Many retarded persons would clearly be lacking.  How many adults go through life without serious self-awareness, or developing complex problem-solving and communicating skills?  If we wished to press the point even further, we would have to contemplate whether or not we remain persons while in sleeping states or other involuntary states of suspending our intellectual powers.  Do we cease to be persons while not actually engaging in the activities that mark persons?

This points to the basic problem of defining a person.  The great medieval theologians were fond of quoting Boethius' definition: A person is an individual substance of a rational nature.  This highly condensed definition is actually quite interesting.  Notice that it does not limit personhood to humans but rather to substances having a rational nature.  Notice also that the possession of a rational nature does not imply in any way that such a nature has been exercised or realized but only that it is present.  Monkeys or dogs are then not persons because they do not have the rational nature that is here spoken of.  Fetuses do, however, because they have the substantial form of humanness and that, of course, includes rationality.

When the fetus is born and then develops in various ways culminating in the exercise of the rational capacity,no essential organ or natural power is givenor added to the human.  To the contrary, everything that the child will become is included in the nature of the child, at least so far as the capacity for normal human development is concerned.  We must make at least one clarification, however.  Although it is true that the fetus is potentially a lawyer or doctor, it is not equally true that the child is potentially a person.  Unless seriously defected or damaged, the child's nature moves inevitably towards a rational function that must flow from what the child is by nature.

Additionally, consistency requires that the same criteria for personhood be applied to all humans, including those born twenty minutes ago.  What substantial difference exists between the fetus in the womb and the newborn?  One may say that it is less dependent on the mother in such a case but that reply seems, to my mind at least, to be an insult to our intelligence and moral sense.  First, this newborn utterly fails Warren's test for personhood.  Have we now changed the basis of right to life from personhood to dependence?  Second, what of the older child that becomes physically incapacitated due to some disease or accident?  Third, as Hadley Arkes has pointed out, the inability of the fetus to sustain itself is more a basis of special concern and protection than for contempt.  8 Laws are designed to specially protect the weaker against the aggression of the stronger.  The self-evident nature of this fact is seen if we were to imagine someone like heavyweight boxer, Mike Tyson, striking an eighty-year-old woman as opposed to him striking a man of similar size and skill.  The former act is especially deplorable because of the disproportionality between the parties involved.  With respect to abortion, it seems odd to argue that because the fetus depends on the mother for its nourishment, etc., it can be terminated with no moral qualms.

The Real Issue

The problem is really much deeper than Warren has suggested, and can be stated as follows.  Are we going to decide who is human in the moral sense, meaning by this that the moral right to life is extended to the subject in view, based on some function of an individual?  Or, are we going to make such a determination based on the intrinsic worth and value of the nature present in each instance of the human substance?

The difference is massive and the implications are incredible.  It is my discovery that any attempt to define a human based on some function that is actualized in the subject at the present, is ultimately an arbitrary selection from among countless other possibilities.  One will say that a fetus is not human in the moral sense until quickening, heartbeat, brain waves, certain development of features, self-consciousness, etc.  All suppose their view is the self-evident and compelling one.  Such a selective process based on second-level functions is doomed to failure and results in defining away the very principle that is considered self-evident, viz., It is wrong to take innocent human life.  The only other alternative is to conclude that human life has intrinsic worth and that evaluation is given to the presence of the first-level act of the human substance.

Warren has shown the slippery slope of her theory by her illustrations of artificial intelligence, convenience abortions, etc.  One struggles to find a real ground for morality itself, let alone a ground for specific moral injunctions.  Are we to envisage computers acting morally towards each other?  When the computer's plug is pulled, do we then discontinue considering it a moral agent?  When humans are sleeping do we consider them less than human?  Is it because they can or most likely will wake up and begin to exercise their human powers that we do not consider it morally acceptable to murder people in their sleep?  If so, the same kind of argumentation can be applied to the fetus in the womb.

Besides these basic inconsistencies and problems, my own problem with Warren's argumentation is quite basic.  I want to know why she accepts the first premise of the foundational syllogism of her article.  Why is it wrong to kill innocent human life?  The way one answers this question determines the way the abortion question will be answered.  Warren wants us to accept this as a given of moral discourse and so is unhelpful.

A Second Argument

Don Marquis offers an argument against abortion seeking to address the very question that most concerns me.  9 It is in seeking to answer the question of why it is wrong to kill us that Marquis thinks he can then bring fresh light to the abortion controversy.  For him, it is not the effect of abortion on the one aborting, the mother, the relatives, friends, etc., that is of major concern here.  It is the effect on the one being aborted just as a similar line of reasoning should be used to consider why it is wrong to kill us.

The major concern, Marquis argues, is that abortion destroys one's possible future. It is for this very reason that it is morally wrong to take our lives.  All our activities, enjoyments, etc., are suddenly non-realizable because someone has taken our lives.  This is, he says, the natural property that explains why it is wrong to kill humans.  10 Although interesting and, in some ways, compelling as a reason against abortion, problems continue to surface.  Why, in principle, should it be considered immoral for others to take my life if they consider it expedient for their well-being?  How does my desire to live out a future become a good reason for others to honor such a desire?  What about people who wish to live a future that does not include me init?  Is the realization of my future the only factor others should consider in whether or not to take my life?

We might also wonder about those who are not able to contemplate their futures.  A fetus cannot contemplate philosophically the possibilities of the future and therefore the question and its answer arising from the subjective consciousness of the person is nonexistent in the case of the fetus.  If we are simply offering an argument for why we should not be killed it seems that the argument is only meaningful for those who are consciously experiencing the annihilation of future hope.  Presumably one would not say that the death of a chicken is immoral simply because a pleasurable future has been eliminated.  There must be something to do with the uniquely human kind of future that would make its loss so grievous.  It appears, though, that something more basic must undergird the argument from the loss of future hope in order to make it a specifically moral and compelling argument.

Why is Human Life Valuable?


We have seen two distinct approaches to the abortion question from modern literature on the topic.  If the reports of such authors as these are accurate, the bulk of writing done in the scholarly community sides with the pro-choice position.  The arguments seen in Warren's article, however, were found to be more troublesome than helpful.  The primary premise making her presentation ethical was left unexplained.  We saw an arbitrary definition of person following, what appeared to be an arbitrary limiting of the moral community to those who fit her definition(s).  Be that as it may, at the root of her argument was found a functional definition of human persons rather than an intrinsic and substantial one.

Marquis, although arguing a radically different position, was found to be equally disappointing.  One still wonders what exactly makes such presentations ethical.  One must wonder what imperative can be derived from the fact that I don't want my future to be eliminated in the face of a person that finds some good reason to end my life.  It may be true that we don't want to have our futures destroyed and that such a fact can be applied to fetuses that have not yet developed their nature to the point of consciously seeing that fact.  In my opinion, such a truth does not provide sufficient grounds for the intrinsic worth of human life, certainly not sufficient enough for us consider such issues as human potentiality and future and see them as deeply meaningful.

Perhaps we are begging the question, though, because it is very well possible that neither of our authors wish to affirm any kind of intrinsic value to human life at all.  Human life is only valuable subjectively and pragmatically.  If such is the case, the only ethics that remains is one that ends in reason, but not in an ontological grounds for reason that would guarantee human value in a transcendent way.  Taking away the ontological grounds reduces the worth of human life to a utilitarian measure.  Life that does not fit into a mental pattern or criteria is worthless.  Hence, to be valuable, life must be justified, i.e., its value is commensurate with the strength of its justifying argument.  A consequence of this argument is personal and affects each one of us.  Especially as we age, a time may come when we are no longer considered to be contributors to society.  As non-contributors, our lives would be not be justified, making us expendable, and no longer truly human or a member of the moral community.  This observation should not be seen as a fear tactic or an application of the Slippery Slope Fallacy.  To the contrary, I simply cannot see how such a conclusion can be avoided without rejecting the principles espoused by such thinkers as those mentioned above.

What remains is a return to the more basic question of why human life is valuable or, negatively, why it is wrong to take innocent human life.  If we cannot answer this question in a moral or ethical way focusing on functions, we must return to human nature or substance as the most basic grounds of the right itself.  In this vein, the case for abortion is then found to be fundamentally amoraland intrinsically flawed.  It is not only weak in itself and in its further implications, but it is fundamentally destructive to the notion of personhood and humanity.  It compromises the basic principle discussed in this article and ultimately leads to its destruction.  There seems to be no remaining wall to stop the movement towards viewing humans as in no way more valuable than any other creatures, including robots or computers.

Ethicists concerned with answering the challenges from supporters of abortion must certainly lay to rest the collection of bad arguments that are frequently used to spread smoke or confuse the subject.  It is not a matter of the mother's choice.  We do not allow people to choose to do intrinsically immoral acts.  We put such people in prison and punish them accordingly.  We allow choice on matters that are not intrinsically harmful and that do not destroy humans and societal structure and fabric.  The folly of the choice argument is made clear as soon as one considers the absurd implications entailed by it.

What is of utmost importance, in addition to answering such arguments, is that ethicists in this tradition give more penetrating attention to the defense of the intrinsic worth of human life.  What is it about human nature that makes it so valuable?  What is it that makes the death of a human so different from that of a dog?  If it is in fact so different, it must be because human life has an intrinsically transcendent capacity that is seen in the intellectual or rational capacity of human persons.  This capacity allows the person to go beyond merely sensory existence and functions to contemplate the highest truths possible.  A human can think about thought itself and about reality itself.  If such thinkers as Aquinas were right, this suggests a potential openness to everything. If, further, this capacity is ultimately the obediential potenialis or the potential for the vision of the very source of all meaning and value, one is strangely led to affirm that humans are not merely animals but God-like insofar as they are made for something far transcending this world.11 Since the world itself is beyond monetary estimation, what would keep us from concluding that the individual soul is worth more than the mind can fathom?  If so, to take the life of one such soul of infinite worth is to incur an infinite debt impossible to repay. 12

Although not the purpose of this article, it seems that the discussion has led to what can be termed the mystery of the human person.  What humans are and what is of utmost concern to them is a vital question upon which all that follows pivots.  One need only look at the radically different presentations regarding human nature found in Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, Freud, Marx, Hegel, Hume, Sartre, Kierkegaard, and a host of others to see the importance of this issue.  Out task has been merely to point to this fact and suggest an area for further development.  It has further been our effort to establish a warning sign in a direction that is deemed unhelpful and even destructive in such a quest.

-September 1999


[1] Mary Anne Warren, On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion, 1973.  The Monist, LaSalle, llinois, Vol. 53, 1973.  Page numbers correspond to the reproduction of this article in James Rachels' The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings in Moral Philosophy (2nd Ed., McGraw-Hill College, 1999).

[2] 100.

[3] 101.

[4] 102.

[5] 104.

[6] 106.

[7] 105.

[8] Hadley Arkes, First Things: An Inquiry into the First Principles of Morals and Justice, 363.

[9] Don Marquis, Why Abortion is Immoral, Journal of Philosophy, vol. 86 (1989).  Page numbers correspond with previously cited reader by James Rachels.

[10] 112.

[11] Through internal reflection we each can see that our very life far exceeds any dollar amount at least for ourselves.  Granting the same for others is the beginning of an ethic that does not reduce the field to mere arbitrariness.  The basic question, "Who and what are we?" is the question upon which turns the future of the human family.

[12] This article has purposely avoided raising strictly theological positions.  It has been argued, quite eloquently by some, that the meaning of the human person is beyond discovery apart from a theological answer.  Although this may turn out to be true, philosophers of faith may look to the resources of reason to see if there is data to support such faith.  If so, this may say something about the relationship between faith and reason.  If not, one might rightly wonder if such a faith can truly communicate to the pressing questions of our day. © 2000 Mark McNeil.

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