This chapter deals with several ethical issues that are pre­sently especially controversial.  It attempts to illumi­nate these issues and, at the same time, to explain the theory presented in Chapters 1 through 5 by applying that theory to concrete prob­lems.  Each prob­lem or issue is analyzed in terms of abili­ties, well-being, and doing good.  In each case the suggested resolu­tion involves generating public awareness and public discourse concerning such an analysis.  Thus the ethical issue is gradually resolved through public awareness and public discourse by build­ing know­ledge of consequences and thereby enhanc­ing individual and col­lective abilities to make good decisions.

Resolv­ing ethical issues is only one of the benefits to be gained through a “Shared Consciousness of the Devel­opment of Abilities­,” the title of the first section of Chapter 7 (pages 112 ff).  Some rather specific courses of action for particular segments of society that can be expected to emerge from this shared consciousness are to be outlined in the section following that (“The Trans­forma­tion of Society”, page 120).


The controversy over voluntary abortion rages most strongly in countries in which there is a significantly large population with a strong religiously based anti-abor­tion tradition and another significantly large population not held by such a tradition.  In these countries the con­troversy has obviously become highly emotional, producing animosity and a hardening of attitudes.  This polarization is occurring in newly “liberated” eastern European coun­tries, where ethnically based pre-industrial peoples find themselves in conflict with efforts to build industrialized market economies on the western European model.  In the United States the Catholic Church has been very active politically, making clear to Catholic churchgo­ers and the general public its doc­trine that abortion is a serious sin and also saying that the abortion question is not just one for private conscience.  The Catholic Church is insisting that the state has an obligation to protect the unborn by placing restrictions–if not a total prohibition–on abor­tions.

A different set of issues is raised by China’s program of compul­sory abortion which limits each woman to only one child.  This program has caused little public response in the rest of the world.  In private conversation many people deplore the use of force to make women submit to abortions.  Few people publicly or privately are willing to discuss the trade-offs between compulsory abortion and effectiveness in the control of the birth rate.

A topic which some find quite frightening is the pos­sibility of widespread use abortion as well as birth control as means of greatly influencing if not “controlling” the genetic composition of the totality of offspring.  There are already means of detecting some types of defects before birth.  Today women who are at risk of having defective offspring are routinely tested and advised of the test results by many physicians.  Certain harmful recessive genes can be identified in youngsters and adults, and those people can be advised not to have children.

In our investigation of abortion it seems appropriate to first examine the various positions and the principles put forth, then to identify the goals and values that are ad­vanced to support those positions, and then finally to put together an approach to resolving the problems and conflicts encoun­tered in light of the theory presented in Chapters 1 through 5.

Conflicting Positions and Principles

We shall investigate the question of voluntary abortion first.  Although the conflict between the pro-choice and the pro-life positions has captured center stage, other disputes also need to be examined.

The pro-choice advocates claim that women have: (1) a right to have an abortion, (2) a right to make that choice without receiv­ing any unsolicited advice, and (3) a right to confidentiality of information related to their being preg­nant and related to their choosing to have an abortion.  These rights are seen as demanded by moral principle and as upheld by their advocates’ moral sen­sibilities.  Much of the force of this moral stance comes from indignation against the oppression and subjugation of women by men.  Women are seen as having the same right to control over their bodies that men have.  Thus, women should not be forced by the state to continue their pregnancies and to give birth to children that they do not want to give birth to.

The pro-choice advocates see it not only as a woman’s right but also in the best interest of society that the woman make the decision as to whether or not she would be able to give the child an adequate home and proper care and nurturing.  Each woman knows her own capacities, her own moral strengths and weaknesses, her own goals and plans better than anyone else could.  Hence she is in the best position to decide.

Carol Gilligan and Mary F. Belenky[i] have conducted inter­views of women considering having abortions and have con­cluded that women tend to take these decisions quite seri­ously and to be concerned not only about themsel­ves.  In­stead, they are, in most cases, deeply concerned about the quality of life of the children they may bear in their lifetime (any already born and those that might result from present and future pregnancies).  Thus, there is no reason to assume that women contemplating abortion are unmindful of the welfare of the life growing within them.  The woman will ask what kind of life the fetus will have if it is born and how that birth will affect the possibilities for a good life for others of her children.

The pro-life position is that abortion is tantamount to murder of an innocent and defenseless human being.  Although society rightly or wrongly sanctions killing of certain categories of criminals, killing in self-defense, and kill­ing in war time, it does not sanction the deliberate killing of innocent individuals.  This is perhaps the oldest and the most nearly universal of all moral prohibitions.

These two positions are in direct opposition to each other.  The pro-choice claim that women have an unfettered right to have an abortion if they choose to is implicitly a claim that the fetus does not have any right to have its life protected by the state.  Their claim that women have a right to have control over their own bodies is tantamount to claiming that a pregnant woman has a right to instigate the destruction of the body of the fetus.[1]

On the other hand, what are the grounds for thinking that the prohibition against killing other human beings should apply to fetuses?  The main difference between what is called a fetus and what is called an infant is that one is inside its mother receiving nourishment and oxygen through the umbilical cord and the other is outside able to interact with a world of air, milk and caregivers.  Although we have the names “embryo,” “fetus,” and “infant” to denote dif­ferent time periods of the development of a child before and after birth, the development itself is continuous.  The fetus before birth has periods of sleeping and periods of being awake.  Once the structure of the inner ear is fully developed it can hear sounds.  The cognitive faculties, including the sensory capacities, are the same just before birth as they are just after.  Whatever sensation a newborn infant has of its own kicking motions must exist for some period of time prior to birth also.

However, this picture of the fetus shortly before birth is not at all descriptive of the early stages of its life.  It should perhaps first be noted that only one-third to

one-half of the eggs that are fertilized successfully reach the uterus.  Between the seventh and the fourteenth day a fertilized egg may divide in two and become twins.  Around the fourth week the heart begins to beat.  The cerebral part of the brain begins to develop around the twenty-eighth week.  In the U.S. only 0.9 percent of all abortions are performed after twenty weeks (Emmens 3-10).

Biologically the mother’s body provides marvelously elaborate protection for the fetus.  Until the development of the “dilation and curettage” technique and methods of sterilization of instruments there were no effective ways of interfering with development of the fetus without grave dangers to the mother.  In this situation, society did not need to assume responsibility for the protection of the fetus: the fetus was already well protected.

Today we have invasive surgical techniques that can break through the protective barriers and destroy the fetus with­out grave risk to the pregnant woman.  This situation forces upon society the decision as to the protection to be given to the fetus and the limitations to be placed on the availa­bility of abortion.  All nations have laws against murder and robbery, because these laws are rather obviously for the good of society.  Is protection of the fetus also needed for the good of society?

There are several possible arguments as to why

anti-abortion laws are needed for the good of society.  One relies upon what we may call the “sanctity of life prin­ciple.”  This principle holds that human life is sacred and that human beings should not take any positive action to bring about the termination of life.  This is the principle upheld by the Catholic Church.  It is consistent with this principle that governments should do away with capital punishment and should go to war only in self-defense and only when all means short of war have been exhausted.

A second argument in favor of anti-abortion laws looks at the relationship that should exist between man and woman who conceived the fetus rather than at the fetus.  According to this argument the man and woman should know each other quite well and there should be a mutual commitment between them.  Pregnancy should not be risked unless there is a willingness to accept the consequences without having an abortion.

In rather direct opposition to the “sanctity of life” principle is the pragmatic view that some lives are good and some are not, and that our concern should not be with life regardless of its quality but rather precisely with the quality of life.  The principal thesis of this book is that the quality of life is at its highest in a society dedicated to achieving the highest self-sustained expansion of abili­ties.

A third argument favoring restrictions on abortion is provided by the fact that approximately 1.5 million abor­tions are performed in the United States every year (Emmens 8).  This statistic suggests that many of the men and women involved are not making a thoughtful and conscientious effort to avoid pregnancy.

The opposition between the “sanctity of life” principle and a concern only for the quality of life brings to our attention the opposition between theism or supportiveness toward spirituality on one hand and utili­tarianism or natur­alism on the other.  In line with the doctrine that what is good is what promotes the expansion and appropriate exercise of abilities, any writing or speaking on theological or spiritual subjects must be regarded as legitimate until such time as there is good evidence that certain theologically or spirituality based activities are harmful or that certain theological beliefs are mistaken.  Abilities to do good by applying theological doctrines must be weighed against abilities to do good by apply­ing contrary doctrines.  Abili­ties to argue for must be weighed against abilities to argue against.  Our thesis of doing the most good is not opposed to spiritual pursuits.  It only wants to adopt the teaching that “by their fruits you will know them.”

As hinted above, part of the abortion controversy is or seems to be a conflict between feminists and anti-feminists.  As seen by the feminists this is a conflict between those who oppose the oppression of women and those who favor it, primarily the oppres­sors themselves.  There are those, however, who see easy access to abortion as one of several factors that give men free reign in their sexual exploita­tion of women.

The abortion question also seems to be a conflict between liber­als and conservatives.  The liberals traditionally like to see themselves as standing on the side of the oppressed.  The liberals tend to align themselves with those feminists who see anti-abortion legislation and the enforcement of such legislation as means of oppression.

There is a somewhat different conflict operating between what might be called traditionalists and modernists.  The traditional­ists want to uphold family values and the sancti­ty of womanhood.  The modernists see this as a pretext for a continuation of the unequal status of women.  They believe that the rising status of women in the work place represents progress, and they see new attitudes about sex and abortion as part of that progress.

Another area of conflict has to do with the use of public funds to pay for abortion and informative counseling about abortion.  Such use of public funds flies in the face of the position that abortion is murder and that the fetus has a right to protection by the state.  Opposed to this are the arguments that: (1) denying abortions to the poor is oppres­sive to them, and (2) abortions are cheaper than the welfare payments, the anti-drug programs, and the law enforcement and penal system costs induced by children growing up in poverty.

A final area of conflict has to do with national birth control programs and the unmentionable possibility of

state-sponsored eugenic measures.  First we may ask, what is the legitimacy of compulsory abortion programs such as that in China which limits each woman to only one child?  In contrast to sterilization and condom dispensing programs in other countries, China’s program seems to have been effec­tive not only in limiting the birth rate but in actually greatly reducing it.  A major negative aspect of this pro­gram is that it has led to the widespread killing of girl babies.  Many Chinese married couples have said by their actions that if they can have only one child they want it to be a male.

Second, what of the possibility of state-sponsored pro­grams for influencing the genetic composition of the popula­tion of new-born babies?  The argument given above about social costs of not using public funds to pay for abortions for the poor might be seen as thinly veiled eugenicism.  There is clearly a danger that racist elements could enter into the political process of defining any eugenic program.  In the minds of many, the likelihood of doing enormous harm through any kind of eugenic program or policy seems to far outweigh any possibility of producing benefit.  The arguments devaluing eugenics are seen as so overwhelming that any mention of it is regarded as symptomatic of an inferior intel­ligence.

However, there may come a day when much better assess­ments of each person’s genetic makeup can be made, when much more reliable predictions of the genetic characteristics of offspring can be made, and when there is much fuller know­ledge of how the genetic composition of the population affects the well-being of a soci­ety.  If that day ever comes, eugenic measures may seem more reasonable.  Aside from what the future may bring, it is at least a useful thought-experiment to ask whether abortion could ever legit­imately be used in public policy for eugenic purposes.

    [1]The Roe v Wade decision, which many pro-choice advocates in the U.S. regard as reasonable and want to see upheld, grants women an unfettered right to an abortion only during the first trimester.  The Supreme Court gave the states the right to “place increasing restrictions on abortion as the period of pregnancy lengthens” during the second trimester and to forbid abortions during the third trimester except to save the life or protect the health of the mother.  These and other details of Roe v Wade and Doe v Bolton are given in Chapter Four of The Abortion Controver­sy by Carol Emmens.

    [i].Carol Gilligan and Mary F. Belenky.  “A Naturalistic Study of Abortion Decisions.”  Clinical-Developmental Psychology.  Ed. R. Selman and R. Yando.  New Directions for Child Development, No. 7.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1980.


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