A Moderate Position on Abortion

Revised: August 14, 2002

This discussion of a moderate position is presented here without "equal time" for its more familiar opponents -- the strictly "prolife" and strictly "prochoice" positions -- because the opponents are more familiar. I present this view because I want to show that a middle view in this often polarized debate is possible, not because I have any stake in your accepting it. -- J. G.

It can be admitted up front that this moderate position will not satisfy the strict opponents of abortion, for the reason that a moderate position must deny the view that abortion is never morally permissible. If that denial is accepted, then it logically follows that abortion is sometimes morally permissible.

However, this moderate position will also not satisfy those who make an absolute value of the freedom of choice that persons are supposed to have over the use of their own bodies. So the moderate position is genuinely a middle position.

1. The right to liberty or autonomy is a key (non-interference or negative) right in most rights theories, whether libertarian or mixed. From this right, or from a strong duty to respect the freedom of others, the woman's right to choice with respect to abortion receives strong support.

2. The denial of abortion rights is not merely an individual rights issue. It is a social rights issue. Denial of abortion rights is almost unavoidably a part of the politics of women's oppression: denial of abortion rights restricts women's autonomy, limits their freedom in a way in which a man's freedom is not limited. Thus the struggle to protect abortion rights is part of the struggle for women's equality.

3. The right of the woman to select abortion can be defended on Rule Utilitarian grounds:

A society that recognizes the rule that permits women to choose abortions is likelier to be a happier society than one that does not recognize this rule.

Two partial justifications of this claim are:

A. Denial of the legal right to abortion encourages amateurish, unsafe, illegal abortions.

B. Denial of the legal right to abortion causes great psychological anguish to women who are victims of rape or incest and thus are forced to carry the pregnancy to term.

4. A human conceptus is biologically human and biologically alive. The opponents of abortion are right that this is not a negligible consideration in the realm of value.

5. Yet in spite of the point made in #4, there is no good reason to consider it to have a full set of human rights until after birth. Human rights is another name for moral rights, and moral rights are linked primarily with persons, not biological types. Personhood develops among humans after birth, with self-consciousness, an ability to interact with others, use language, etc. The absolutist antiabortion view fails to make the distinction between personhood and biological humanity.

6. The opponents of abortion rights state that human life, from conception on, is a continuum.

7. This is true, but it is a continuum of development, of change from less to more in many dimensions. Developmental studies show that the conceptus only gradually develops the physical basis for personhood. As these physical features develop during pregnancy, abortion of the conceptus becomes a more serious moral issue. This means that, other things equal, an early abortion is less serious from the moral point of view than a late one.

8. When moral choices made in the best way possible force chosers to give up or sacrifice significant values in order to promote other significant values which are greater, all things considered, the proper description for such choices is "tragic." The moderate view is that this term is sometimes appropriately used to describe abortion choices. A choice can be correct, or at least not morally wrong, and yet tragic.

9. The strict pro-choice view, which reasons from the assumption of the woman's absolute liberty of control over her own body, would deny that there are any circumstances in which it would be morally wrong for the woman to terminate her pregnancy.

10. Against this, the moderate view holds that the right to control one's own body is only a strong prima facie right. (As in the case of prima facie duties, "prima facie" means usually valid or binding unless other moral considerations override.) There might be circumstances in which it would be concretely wrong for a woman to terminate her pregnancy. For example, suppose most or all these conditions are met:

there is no unusual danger to the life or health of the mother

it is late in pregnancy

the fetus is healthy

there is no rape or incest

good adoptive homes are waiting

the human species needs more members if it is not to die out

11. Finally, the moderate view insists that we should separate two issues: whether it is morally right for a woman to terminate a pregnancy, and whether it is right for the state to deny her access to abortion if she chooses to seek it. Not all moral errors call for legal prohibition. Perhaps moral errors regarding reproductive choice fall into the category of moral errors that should be addressed by education and not by law.