Why a Liberal View on Abortion Is Correct


Abortion is one of the most controversial ethical disputes in both moral philosophy and everyday life. On the one hand, pro-life advocates insist that most if not all abortions involve the unjust killing of an innocent person and should thus be illegal. Call this the “conservative” view. On the other hand, pro-choice advocates believe that abortion restrictions are unjustifiable infringements on the autonomy and humanity of pregnant women. Women have a fundamental right to get an abortion, in part, because embryos and fetuses lack significant moral status. Call this the “liberal view”.

In this post, I will offer an extended defense of the liberal view on abortion. I will critically analyze the main defenses of the conservative view as well as offer my own positive case for the liberal view. I hope to show that ethical considerations support the liberal view over the conservative view.

The Typical Pro-life Argument

The standard pro-life argument goes something like this:

  • (1). All living members of the human species have a right to life
  • (2). Embryos and fetuses are living members of the human species
  • (3). Abortion procedures involve the intentional killing of embryos and fetuses
  • (4). So, abortion violates the right to life of embryos and fetuses
  • (5). In most real-world cases, the interests a woman may have in getting an abortion are insufficient to justify violating the right to life of an innocent person
  • (6). Therefore, in most real-world cases, abortion is morally wrong

This post will offer an extensive refutation of (1) in all its forms.

Basic and Derived Moral Principles

In Abortion: Three Perspectives, philosopher Michael Tooley draws a distinction between basic moral principles and derived moral principles. A basic moral principle is a moral proposition that expresses a necessary truth. A derived moral principle is a moral proposition that is not itself a basic moral truth, but that is true in the actual world because it is entailed by the combination of some basic moral truth N together with some non-moral proposition that is contingently true.

To foster an intuitive grasp of this distinction, Tooley asks us to consider the moral principle: “it is prima facie wrong to pull a cat’s tail”. Suppose a person, call him Henry, accepts this principle and is asked to explain why he accepts this principle. He will no doubt respond that he accepts the principle because it follows from two other claims he accepts: (1). It is prima facie wrong to cause pain and (2). pulling a cat’s tail causes them pain. In this case, “it is prima facie wrong to pull a cat’s tail” is a derived moral principle, and “It is prima facie wrong to cause pain” is a basic moral principle. We can now ask whether the core premise of the pro-life argument, all living members of the human species have a serious right to life(HS), is a basic moral principle or a derived moral principle.

Against the view that the core claim of the pro-life argument is a basic moral principle, suppose that intelligent aliens, such as those depicted in the movie E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial really did exist. These aliens would have their own language, self-consciousness, and the capacity to form deep emotional attachments. Suppose further that an enterprising businessperson decides to open up a new fast food chain—the Kentucky Fried E.T. chain. Everyone would recognize this as a moral outrage. As such, the pro-life advocate would be hard-pressed to deny the following moral principle: “All living members of the E.T. species have a serious right to life” (ET).

The advocate of HS as a basic moral principle, on pain of inconsistency, must also think that ET is also a basic moral principle. However, Tooley as argues, “given two moral principles, M and N that, intuitively, seem closely related in content, one should try to find some more general principle G from which both M and N can be derived”(Tooley, 2013). In other words, we should not posit more basic moral principles than is necessary. Given that HS and ET are parallel to one another(and so extremely similar in their content), we should aim to find a more general moral principle that can explain the truth of both, and, importantly, why other similar and parallel moral principles are not true. For instance: “All innocent carrots have a serious right to life”.

But what could the more general principle be that underlies both HS and ET? Presumably, it will have to focus on something that would be common to members of both the human species and intelligent alien species, but that is not shared by carrots, and that is also a morally relevant property. Surely, any plausible property proposal must be related to the kind of conscious experience and mental states both human beings and intelligent aliens are capable of. In this regard, there are three general approaches that one could take:

  • (1). All individuals that have the potential for a certain kind of mental life have a serious right to life
  • (2). All individuals that actually possess a certain kind of mental life(or conscious future) have a serious right to life
  • (3). All individuals for which it is part of their essential nature to develop a certain kind of mental life have a serious right to life

The important point here is that consideration of other possible species strongly supports the claim that HS, rather than expressing a basic moral principle, must be derived from some general principle that does not refer to any particular species, and which explains why it is typically wrong to kill human beings, and why it would also be typically wrong to kill non-human beings comparable to E.T.

The upshot is that, If pro-life advocates wish to defend HS, they must defend one of the above general moral principles; otherwise, there is nothing from which HS can be derived. So, if it can be shown that none of the above principles can be used to derived HS, then the pro-life position falls apart. The pro-life view would lack a conceptual foundation. Hence, the reminder of this post is dedicated to ruling out each one of the above general moral principles as candidates for a derivation of HS, starting with (1).

There is a Wide Chasm Between Potential Rights and Actual Right

The first general moral principle, all individuals that have the potential for a certain kind of mental life have a serious right to life(1), immediately raises a good question: Why should we take potential properties to be morally relevant? As Nathan Nobis and Kristina Grob note, “in general, potential things of a kind don’t have the rights of actual things of that kind”. Michael Jordan is potentially the president of the United States, but this is no basis for awarding him the rights of an actual president. Moreover, a 12 year old child is potentially a 25 year old adult, but this does not mean the child actually has the right to consent to sex. Why are fetuses the exception to the rule? Why does potential consciousness and self-awareness give a creature the same rights as an actual subject of conscious experience?

Further, why would the pregnant women have a moral obligation to donate her bodily resources to help the fetus realize its potential? If my child is potentially an elite skier, do I have an obligation to drive her to the mountains for practice? Surely not. So, why should a pregnant woman be obligated to provide what’s necessary to bring about a fetus’ potential, especially when doing so involves an incredibly invasive biological process?

The trend should be obvious at this point. Appealing to (1) as a general moral principle requires adopting a seemingly arbitrary interpretation of what potential entails, ethically speaking. It is much simpler to posit that moral status is hashed out in terms of the actual properties that people have. This is a significant mark against the argument.

What Kind of Potential?

Another problem with (1) relates to the kind of potential under discussion. Should we care about potential in terms of theoretical capacity or in terms of yet-to-be-realized ability? Both answers lead to difficulties.

If we understand potential in terms of the mere theoretical capacity to become a person, then the potentiality argument proves too much. Michael Tooley gives an example of a magic serum that, when administered to kittens, turns those kittens in talking, reasoning persons(Abortion and Infanticide, 60). The moment this serum is discovered, then, all cats have the latent potential to become persons. If the potentiality argument holds that the right to life is grounded in the theoretical capacity to become a person, then all ordinary kittens, even if they never receive this serum, will have a right to life.

But this is certainly absurd. The actual interests and properties of kittens are left entirely unaffected by the discovery of the magic serum. If kittens did not possess a right to life prior to the discovery of the serum, then surely they do not suddenly gain a right to life after the magic serum is discovered.

Alternatively, we could understand the concept of potential in the potentiality argument to be about potentials that will be realized. This option holds that only creatures that will in fact become persons have a right to life. Such a modification still falls prey to the magic serum case. It implies, for example, that whether a particular kitten has a right to life depends on if someone will, in the future, decide to inject said kitten with the magic serum. Two kittens that are the same in terms of all their other properties will stand oceans apart in terms of their moral status simply because luck has it that one of them will receive the magic serum. This result is clearly unacceptable.

One might wonder whether an appeal to innate or active potentiality can save the day for the pro-life advocate. That is, can the pro-life advocate claim that potential that matters morally is the current and active progression towards consciousness and self-awareness as a consequence of a being’s very nature? Again, Michael Tooley shows why this is not a viable option.

Consider the case of a temporarily comatose adult. There is no doubt that such an adult has a right to life. It must be emphasized that the adult have a right to life even if some medical intervention was required to end the comatose state. To quote Tooley himself, “The fact, for example, that the person could emerge from the coma only if an operation were performed to relieve pressure on the person’s brain would not make it permissible to kill the person”(Abortion: Three Perspectives, 39). The key takeaway is this: to the extent that potentialities are relevant to an entity’s right to life, purely passive potentialities are just as relevant as fully active potentialities.

If that’s right, then it is not available to the pro-life advocate to limit the scope of potentiality to active potentialities. If only active potentialities mattered, then the temporality comatose patient from before would lack a right to life, a clearly mistaken deduction. However, it is also not open to the pro-life advocate to embrace both active and passive potentiality as being morally relevant, for then their view is vulnerable to the aforementioned magic serum case.

Even more damming, if passive potentiality matters just as much as active potentiality, then every one of the trillion-plus somatic cells that make up a human organism would have a right to life, for, given human cloning by somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), every one of them has the passive potential for consciousness and self-awareness.

In short, there is no type of potentiality that can do the philosophical work necessary to derive the pro-life conclusion without falling victim to clear-cut counterexamples.

Potentiality arguments against abortion suffer form two main problems: the decision as to when potentialities matter morally is arbitrary, and there is no interpretation of potentiality that can support the pro-life position while circumnavigating deeply counterintuitive implications. Until these problems are defused, (1) remains unable to ground the immorality of abortion.

Conscious Experience and The ‘Future-Like-Ours’ Argument

With (1) thoroughly addressed, I will now analysis (2). The pro-life advocate who appeals to general moral principle (2) believes that embryos and fetuses are morally valuable because of either their actual possession of a certain kind mental life or their actual possession of a certain kind of conscious future. Is this a viable way to derive HS? As I hope to show, it is not.

We can immediately dismiss the idea that embryos and fetuses are morally valuable because they possess a certain kind of mental life. The reason being that, at least during the timeframe when most abortions occur, embryos and fetuses don’t have any kind of mental life at all. They completely lack thoughts, feelings, awareness, knowledge, happiness, sadness, goals, hopes, and dreams. Therefore, if the pro-life advocate hopes to advance (2) as a way of deriving HS, they must argue that embryos and fetuses are valuable because they possess a conscious future.

The most philosophically robust form of this kind of argument, known as the ‘future-like-ours’ argument, was developed by Atheist philosopher Don Marquis. The basic idea is that since the typical fetus has a conscious future full of rich memories and experiences, killing the fetus through abortion robs them of this future. However, there are many reasons to doubt the soundness of this argument.

First, never-conscious fetuses don’t have a future like ours since they aren’t psychologically connected to any future experience. That is, there is no chain of experiences connecting the fetus at one point in time to that future person’s conscious experience at a later point in time. Psychological connections include things like intentions, desires, and memories that obtain at different times in the life of a mental subject.

Specific examples of such psychological connections include the relation between an experience and a memory of it, the relation between the formation of a desire and the experience of the satisfaction or frustration of that desire, and the relation between an earlier and a later manifestation of a belief, value, intention, or character trait. Since never conscious fetuses aren’t psychologically connected to any conscious experience, they don’t have a conscious future.

This point can be illustrated by considering a thought experiment involving reincarnation. The religious doctrine of reincarnation is, roughly, the belief that some essential part of a living being survives death to be reborn in a new body. For human beings, this translates to saying that whatever makes us us survives death to be reborn in a new body, whether it be the body of a fly, a cat, a chimpanzee, or even another human.

In his paper Futures of Value and the Destruction of Human Embryos, philosopher Rob Lovering observes that reflecting on reincarnation can reveal how vital psychological connections are in determining our conscious future . Lovering gets to the heart of the issue when he states, “So, in some cases of reincarnation, numerical identity is preserved but psychological continuity is not. And it is with such cases in mind that a common criticism of the doctrine of reincarnation is raised: ‘Okay, so in my next life I may be, say, a fly with no beliefs, values, attitudes, intentions, personality traits, or memories that are connected to the beliefs, values, attitudes, intentions, personality traits, and memories I currently have. If this will indeed be the case, the question I have is: why should I care about my future self? That is, what egoistic reason do I have for taking an interest in my future self? As far as I can tell, I have none whatsoever. Even if I’m numerically identical with that future fly, for all practical purposes, I’m dead’ “

If you resonate with this sentiment, then you should accept the claim that having psychological connections to a conscious future is necessary in order to have a conscious future. There is no meaningful sense in which my conscious future could include ‘my’ reincarnations. But if you accept that claim, then you should reject the claim that fetuses have a conscious future. And if fetuses lack a conscious future, then they don’t have a future-like-ours. Therefore, (2) is also unable to ground the immorality of abortion.

The Rational Nature of the Fetus

That leaves only (3) remaining—all individuals for which it is part of their essential nature to develop a certain kind of mental life have a serious right to life. (3) is the most popular approach to grounding the immorality of abortion among pro-life philosophers(Beckwith 2009, Kaczor 2012, etc).

There are different ways of wording the viewpoint, but the idea is that, even though the fetus lacks immediately exercisable rational capacities, the fetus nonetheless is the kind of being that does have rational capacities. The fetus is a member of a rational kind, regardless of whether it currently has high levels of rationality or whether it will develop rational capacities. The very nature of the fetus is rational even if this rationality never comes to fruition. This concept is sometimes expressed in terms of natural ends. The natural end of the fetus is to develop rationality even though contingent factors(mental disability, etc) might prevent rational faculties from fully forming. On this view, sometimes called the substance view of personhood, all human organisms are members of a rational kind and thus have a serious right to life.

Natural Evil

The central entailment of the substance view—that all human organisms are persons and so have a right to life—has implications that are prima facie extremely implausible. If human species membership is sufficient to give an entity significant moral rights and value, then these moral properties would extend to human organisms in their zygotic, embryonic, and fetal stages. This attribution of intrinsic moral status to prenatal human beings has many problematic results even if we ignore the ethics of abortion.

For example, if zygotes and embryos have fundamental moral rights in virtue of belonging to the human species, then spontaneous miscarriage must be the greatest natural evil afflicting the human race. it’s estimated that 60% of pregnancies spontaneously abort. To give some perspective, 2009 saw little over 4 million infants were born in the United States; that means that, in that same year, roughly 6 million zygotes and embryos died as a result of spontaneous miscarriage. Keep in mind, that’s just in a single year in a single country. Worldwide, roughly 138 million infants were born in 2009, which means that roughly 230 million human zygotes and embryos died as a result of spontaneous miscarriage.

This makes spontaneous miscarriage the biggest killer of human organisms—outpacing cancer, malnutrition, and natural disasters by a huge margin. If zygotes and embryos have inherent moral value by virtue of being members of the human species, then there is seemingly a moral imperative to devote far more resources to preventing natural miscarriage than to anything else. But this, clearly, is absurd. The idea that we should direct resources away from research that actually reduces human suffering, in the interest of stopping natural miscarriages that largely go unnoticed, is morally outrageous. Yet this is precisely what the substance view entails. Hence, we should reject the substance view.


Another major problem for the substance view lies in its seemingly inconsistent assessment as to what ‘counts’ when considering the essential nature of an entity. Simplified, the substance view is the following: We have rights ultimately because we have a rational nature. Anything with a rational nature has rights.

But consider two similar proposals:

  • We make moral decisions ultimately because we have a rational nature. Anything with a rational nature makes moral decisions.
  • We are sometimes morally culpable for our actions ultimately because we have a rational nature. Anything with a rational nature is sometimes morally culpable for their actions

As philosopher Nathan Nobis points out, facts about fetuses show that the prior two proposals are false: fetuses only have the potential for decision-making and moral culpability. Why are some moral properties constitutive of a being’s essential nature while others aren’t? This glaring inconsistency calls out for an explanation as to why actual rights, not just potential rights, would result from fetuses’ natures. Nobis summarizes the issue nicely when he states, “Fetuses’ natures involve many potentials and radical capacities, most of which make no difference to their current, actual properties. So, what current properties do fetuses get from their natures and which do they don’t?”

Recall the earlier example of the right to consent to sex that I appealed to when discussing potentiality arguments. Is it not true that children are of the kind of being that can, at some stage of development, consent to sex? The natural end of children is to develop rationality, and rationality is constitutive of the formation of intimate interpersonal relationships. Yet, clearly, children do not have the right to consent to sex. Children do not have the right to consent to sex even though their natural end is to have the rational capacities that are sufficient for consensual sexual relationships. Again, there is an inconsistency as to what moral rights follow from having a rational nature and which one’s don’t.

It is much less ad hoc to assert that moral rights are grounded in the mental properties that an entity currently and actually possesses. To quote a post from Defending Feminism, “What matters is that children don’t currently have the mental capacity to make consent meaningful, not whether they are of the kind of being that would at some point have it”. In the same way, what matters is that fetuses don’t currently have a mental life that is characterized by rationality, not whether they are of the kind of being that would at some point have it.

The substance view is also seemingly committed to the view that having a “rational nature” is a property that supervenes on all and only(as far as we know) members of the human species.This appears to presuppose that taxonomic categories such as human, or more precisely, the genus Homo, are objectively real, but this is doubtful.

There is good reason to believe that such taxonomic categories are but mental constructions introduced by humans for the purpose of conveniently describing the world. One indication of this is that all modern lifeforms have all evolved by gradual, almost continuous transitions, and thus do not fall into naturally distinct groups. So, it’s a mysterious how the ‘all or nothing’ property of “having a rational nature” could have entered the scene. Especially since the property of “having a rational nature” can’t be grounded in the causal powers of genes(e.g. the genes of infants with profound congenital disabilities don’t have the causal power to develop rational faculties).

Kate Greasley, a legal scholar and moral philosopher, makes a similar point when she asks why the group membership that determines moral status is species in particular instead of genus, family, or kingdom(In Defense of Abortion Rights, 57-58). Why don’t chimpanzees count as being members of a rational kind? If the answer is “because they lack the natural end of rationality”, then how do we determine the natural ends of an entity? Why do we analysis natural ends from the perspective of the typical outcomes of the species of an entity rather than some other taxonomic category? This is an other area of apparent inconsistency.

The Transgenic Spectrum

Even if pro-life advocates are able to resolve the taxonomic issues discussed in the previous section, the central claim of (3) that the right to life supervenes on all members of the human species remains implausible. A thought experiment known as the transgenic spectrum can help demonstrate this.

The transgenic spectrum is a thought experiment devised by Jeff McMahan in his book The Ethics of Killing. It forces the reader to reflect on the real phenomena of transgenic animals in order to challenge the belief that human species membership is inherently valuable.

Consider the following: “The Spectrum begins with a chimpanzee with an unaltered genome. In the next case, a single human gene is inserted in a chimpanzee zygote. In the third case, two human genes are inserted. In each case further along in the spectrum, one more human gene is inserted while the corresponding chimpanzee gene is deleted, if necessary. Thus at the other end of the spectrum is a case in which all of the chimpanzee genes are replaced by corresponding genes from a human source. In all cases the genetically altered zygote is implanted in a natural or artificial uterus and thereafter allowed to grow to adulthood…Individuals at one end of the spectrum with only a tiny proportion of human genes are unambiguously chimpanzees; those at the other end with only a tiny proportion of chimpanzee genes are unambiguously human beings”(McMahan 2007)

The point of this thought experiment is to show that moral status can’t depend on having a sufficiently high proportion of human genes to count as a member of the human species. First, consider the case of an individual on the spectrum whose genes have given it the brain of a dull chimpanzee, yet a sufficient proportion of its other genes are human. It is truly hard to fathom why such an individual should gain strong moral protection simply because it has enough genes to count as a member of the human species.

On other hand, consider a case of an individual on the spectrum whose proportion of human genes just fell short of making it overall human, even though its brain functions more like that of a human than that of a chimpanzee. The pro-life theory of personhood implies that such an individual is morally equal to the prior individual who got by with just enough genes to qualify as human. This result is absurd on its face.

The humanity of the transgenic creatures will clearly vary if it attaches to their brute proportion of human genes, yet this does not appear to be the basis on which we should morally distinguish between them. The creatures that are more valuable than others along the spectrum will be so in virtue of their enhanced cognitive capacities, not their pure number of human genes relative to chimp ones. In other words, human species membership is wholly irrelevant to how we should treat individuals along the transgenic spectrum. If that’s true, then the substance view is false.

It appears, then, that (3) is unable to ground the immorality of abortion. That means that general moral principles (1), (2), and (3) have all been eliminated as candidates for the derivation of HS—all living members of the human species have a serious right to life. Since HS is the crucial principle in the standard pro-life argument, the pro-life position is seriously lacking in justification. There is simply no workable pathway to the conclusion that abortion is immoral.

However, I won’t leave it at that. For the reminder of this post, I will develop a positive account of what grounds the moral status of human beings and any intelligent aliens that may exist. Now that the pro-life position has been torn down, I will build a solid foundation for the pro-choice view.

The Importance of Interests

Moral status requires that a being have interests. For an entity to possess interests means that it has a welfare — it is capable of being harmed or benefited by what happens to it. To have moral rights and standing is to be the sort of being whose interests must be considered from the moral point of view.

In other words, when we give entities moral consideration, we give consideration to how our actions can harm or benefit them. Having interests entails “having a stake” in how one is treated so to say. Hence, the only logical conclusion is that a being must have interests to be morally considerable. Further, only beings that are morally considerable can have significant moral status so as to have a right to life

All of this is to say that having a right to life presupposes the possession of interests. If a being does not have interests, it does not have a right to life. If a being does have interests, then they are fair candidates for the sort of being that has a right to life

Consciousness Forms the Basis of Interests

What is necessary and sufficient for a being to have interests? I favor the answer given by Aaron Simmons: consciousness.

We should start with the observation that Interests are inherently evaluative. For a being to have interests means that certain things have value for that being, certain things are good for that being. For example, a being having an interest in life implies that life has value for that being.

So then, what explains the nature of this value, where this value comes from, and why certain things have value for some beings? I think a being’s capacity for desires provides the most reasonable explanation for the idea that certain things are of value to certain beings.

To start with, it seems clear that there is a basic link between desiring and valuing . When we desire a thing, we regard that thing as good to some degree, meaning simply that we have some positive feeling toward that thing.

It is unclear where that value is meant to come from if not, in some sense, from an entity’s capacity to desire or care about things — that is, if not from an entity’s capacity to have positive feelings toward certain things, to regard things as good. If an entity completely lacks the capacity to desire or care about things, then it is perplexing how things could have value for it.

Hence, the best explanation for the value imbued in interests is the presence of mental states such as desires and goals that relate to intrinsically motivating qualitative states like joy and suffering. In other words, consciousness is both necessary and sufficient for the possession of interests.

The Right to Life and Psychological Continuity

Any theory of moral status must ground and explain the right to life. For the purposes of this post, we can define a “right” as follows: a being has a moral right to x if and only if it is prima facie very wrong to deprive that being of x. To say that a being has a right to life, then, is to say that killing said being is prima facie very wrong.

On my account of personhood, a being can only have a right to life if they have an interest in continued living. That is, they must be harmed by dying. The central question becomes what desires, goals, and aims can be thwarted by death.

The most straightforward answer would be any future-oriented mental state. If a being has desires, hopes, and dreams about the future, then killing said being deprives them of a future that is valuable to them. It annihilates everything they take to be important about their conscious lives. To a being that cares deeply about their conscious future, their continued existence or untimely death makes a difference to their lives as experienced.

This is true for both conscious and dispositional desires. You have dispositional desires even when you aren’t currently focused on them. For example, If you love your children, you don’t stop loving them the moment you focus your attention on something else, like a football game. Other desires can be dispositional too. Consider how the various long-term desires or projects that many people have such as a desire to get an education in college, or a desire to find romantic love. A person does not actively experience these desires perpetually, yet they still exist.

On my view, the right to life can be grounded in dispositional desires relating to the various enjoyments present in one’s conscious life. To enjoy something entails that one experiences a feeling of satisfaction or mental pleasure (distinct from a purely physical, bodily pleasure) upon having or experiencing that thing. Moreover, it entails that one likes the thing that one enjoys, meaning that one has and experiences a positive feeling or attitude of approval or favorability toward that thing.

In this way, one’s enjoyment of a thing entails that one desires that thing. One has a feeling of care toward the thing one enjoys, in such a way that one is disposed or motivated in one’s behavior to pursue that thing. In this sense, a being’s enjoyments count as desires (and thus, are the kinds of things which can be satisfied or thwarted). In many cases, enjoyments should be viewed not just as temporary experiences but rather, like many desires, as dispositional.

As long as a being has dispositional desires about various enjoyments in life, such as those relating to family and other social relationships, forms of play, hobbies, exploring the environment, physical activity (e.g., running, swimming), learning, etc then they can have a right to life. Death can be bad for any of us if dying denies us a future of activities, relationships, experiences, projects and pleasures that we are disposed to cherish and care about. The right kind of psychological identity over time to accommodate dispositional desires is the only thing required.

In particular, a being must have conscious states at different points times that are psychologically connected by such things as memories, desires and intentions. If there were no psychological connections, there would be nothing to explain the persisting beliefs and desires that encompass one’s conscious enjoyments in life.

We now have a plausible account of moral status from which we can justify the pro-choice view. Fetuses lack moral consideration because their lack of consciousness prevents them from having interests. Fetuses have no thoughts, feelings, awareness, knowledge, happiness, sadness, goals, hopes, and dreams. Even later on in pregnancy, it’s unlikely that fetuses have the kind of psychological connections necessary to support the kind of enduring dispositional desires that would render killing wrong. This directly entails that fetuses lack a right to life, meaning that abortion doesn’t infringe on their rights.

In contrast, pregnant women have thoughts, feelings, awareness, knowledge, happiness, sadness, goals, hopes, and dreams. These mental states give pregnant women strong interests in how they are treated. It is to these interests that I now turn. If abortion does not violate the moral rights of the fetus(as this entire post up until now has argued), and women have extremely powerful interests in obtaining abortion, then abortion rights should be upheld in society as a matter of justice. The liberal view of abortion ethics will have been established.

Women Have a Strong Interest in Reproductive Control

In the book Abortion Rights: For and Against by Christopher Kaczor(pro-life) and Kate Greasley(pro-choice), Greasley, a lecturer in Law at University College London, gives three strong interests that women have in obtaining abortion. First, women have a strong interest in in reproductive control. Second, women have a strong interest in avoiding the bodily burdens of pregnancy. Finally, women have a strong interest in sex equality in regards to social relationships. Let’s start with the interest in reproductive control.

Procreation is one of the most intimate and personal aspects of human life. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a more vulnerable activity on a physical, emotional, and social level. As Greasley puts it, “Becoming a parent, with everything that entails, goes to the heart of one’s personal identity and life story—it changes who one is in potentially transformative ways”(11).

Given the above, if abortion does not entail the killing of an innocent person with significant moral status, we should allow people to exhibit sovereignty over this deeply meaningful dimension of their lives. That means allowing women to decide against parenthood by getting an abortion. Only the most powerful counter-considerations can justify the nullification of reproductive control.

Crucially, the possibility of adoption is not enough to satisfy the interest of reproductive control. The interest in reproductive control applies to both social parenthood and biological parenthood. As Greasley herself notes, “Becoming a biological parent to a child from whom one is then separated, even through choice, is not without its emotional costs and its ramifications for one’s personal identity and self conception”(12). Empirical research verifies Greasley’s point. Women who must carry an unwanted pregnancy to term and who then give up the child for adoption often experience regret and poor mental health years after the adoption. Abortion provides a way for women to avoid two undesirable outcomes: being forced into social parenthood and being estranged from a biological child that is known to exist. Reproductive control requires abortion rights.

Women Have a Strong Interest in Avoiding the Bodily Burdens of Pregnancy

This bring us to the second compelling interest: the interest in avoiding the physiological burdens of pregnancy. Pregnancy and childbirth are physically demanding processes and this fact cannot be overstated. It is much too common for the pain of pregnant women to be glossed over in favor of a romanticized myth

Women often experience bodily suffering as a result of pregnancy. Even if the pregnancy is perfectly healthy, women can experience nausea, vomiting, fatigue, back pain, labored breathing, and water retention. Of every ten women who experience pregnancy and childbirth, 6 need treatment for some medical complication, and 3 need treatment for major complications(Estrich and Sullivan 1989, 126) Furthermore, labour and delivery impose extraordinary physical demands, whether over the 6-12 hours or longer course of vaginal delivery, or during the highly invasive surgery involved in a Caesarean section(ibid)

By banning or restricting abortion, governments impose these serious physical burdens on women, albeit indirectly. At least prima facie, this is grotesquely immoral by virtue of the flagrant disregard for the bodily integrity and health of women. A very powerful reason is needed to justify forcing such bodily burdens on unwilling participants.

In light of this, if the fetus lacks significant moral status(as I have argued), abortion restrictions cannot be defended except insofar as they are themselves necessary to protect the wellbeing of pregnant women.

Women Have a Strong Interest in Sex Equality With Respect to Social Relationships

The last compelling interest relates to sex equality. Specifically, the fact that abortion restrictions harm women as a class. The female-exclusive nature of pregnancy and childbirth has profound implications for the social standing of women and their equality with men.

Women without abortion access can find themselves unable to work or to progress in their career, precluded from getting an education, kept financially dependent on men, and stuck in a situation of domestic violence. Things are especially bad in developing countries where women have less legal rights and protections. These life-altering consequences of unwanted pregnancy are not equally experienced by men who procreate.

This obvious sex inequality greatly affects the social dynamics between men and women surrounding reproduction. As feminist scholar Catherine McKinnon states, “Although reproduction has a major impact on both sexes, men are not generally fired from their jobs, excluded from public life, beaten, patronized, confined, or made into pornography for making babies…women, because of their sex, are subjected to social inequality at each step in the process of procreation”(Mackinnon 1991, 1311-1312)

Abortion access allows women to have sexual relationships on the same terms as men. That is, abortion access allows women to form social relationships with men without fear of unwanted pregnancy and all the suffering that entails.


To conclude, it is worth reiterating what I brought attention to in previous sections: unlike fetuses, women have thoughts, feelings, awareness, knowledge, happiness, sadness, goals, hopes, and dreams. It is in virtue of these capacities that pregnant women have a personal stake in what happens to them.

All of the attempts to defend the crucial premise in the standard pro-life argument fall short on multiple fronts. There is simply no good reason to think that all members of the human species have a serious right to life. As such, there is no good reason to think that abortion is morally wrong. Far more plausible accounts of moral status exist, and these accounts fall squarely on the pro-choice side of things. Taking everything into account, justice demands that women have the right to abortion


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