Why Abortion is Immoral
Marquis (Don)
Source: Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 86, No. 4, Apr., 1989, pp. 183-202
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. The view that abortion1 is, with rare exceptions, seriously immoral has received little support in the recent philosophical literature. No doubt most philosophers affiliated with secular institutions of higher education believe that the anti-abortion2 position is either a symptom of irrational religious dogma or a conclusion generated by seriously confused philosophical argument. The purpose of this essay is to undermine this general belief. This essay sets out an argument that purports to show, as well as any argument in ethics can show, that abortion3 is, except possibly in rare cases, seriously immoral, that it is in the same moral category as killing an innocent adult human being.
  2. The argument is based on a major assumption. Many of the most insightful and careful writers on the ethics of abortion4 – such as Joel Feinberg, Michael Tooley, Mary Anne Warren, H. Tristram Engelhardt, L.W. Sumner, John T. Noonan, Jr., and Philip Devine – believe that whether or not abortion5 is morally permissible stands or falls on whether or not a fetus6 is the sort of being whose life it is seriously wrong to end. The argument of this essay will assume, but not argue, that they are correct.
  3. Also, this essay will neglect issues of great importance to a complete ethics of abortion7. Some anti-abortionists8 will allow that certain abortions9, such as abortion10 before implantation or abortion11 when the life of a woman is threatened by a pregnancy12 or abortion13 after rape, may be morally permissible. This essay will not explore the casuistry of these hard cases. The purpose of this essay is to develop a general argument for the claim that the overwhelming majority of deliberate abortions14 are seriously immoral.

Author’s Conclusion
  1. The purpose of this essay has been to set out an argument for the serious presumptive wrongness of abortion15 subject to the assumption that the moral permissibility of abortion16 stands or falls on the moral status of the fetus17. Since a fetus18 possesses a property, the possession of which in adult human beings is sufficient to make killing an adult human being wrong, abortion19 is wrong. This way of dealing with the problem of abortion20 seems superior to other approaches to the ethics of abortion21, because it rests on an ethics of killing which is close to self-evident, because the crucial morally relevant property clearly applies to fetuses22, and because the argument avoids the usual equivocations on 'human life', 'human being', or 'person'. The argument rests neither on religious claims nor on Papal dogma. It is not subject to the objection of "speciesism." Its soundness is compatible with the moral permissibility of euthanasia and contraception. It deals with our intuitions concerning young children.
  2. Finally, this analysis can be viewed as resolving a standard problem – indeed, the standard problem – concerning the ethics of abortion23. Clearly, it is wrong to kill adult human beings. Clearly, it is not wrong to end the life of some arbitrarily chosen single human cell. Fetuses24 seem to be like arbitrarily chosen human cells in some respects and like adult humans in other respects. The problem of the ethics of abortion25 is the problem of determining the fetal property that settles this moral controversy. The thesis of this essay is that the problem of the ethics of abortion26, so understood, is solvable.

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