An Analysis of Jane English's Argument on the Topic of Abortion

Categories: Abortion

The topic of abortion has been a controversial issue for over 40 years and is still seen as an important topic in today’s current events. Although, many doctors, lawyers, politicians, religious leaders, and philosophers have given their ideas on this issue, there has not been a definitive answer to the issue itself. Although each of these groups of people give a different perspective to the abortion issue, it is the philosophers that seem to have no specific motive or gain other than letting their mastery of arguments and line of thought try to help others understand why their arguments are sound.

In this paper, I will be addressing a specific argument by a philosopher in her paper regarding abortion. I will not be evaluating the whole paper’s argument but rather the argument that I find to be most relevant when abortion is discussed in an argumentative setting. Overall, the paper tries to explain that the concept of a person is not required to come to a conclusion about abortion.

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However, one argument (my paper’s focus) that this philosopher brings up while trying to arrive at that conclusion tries to answer the question: If a fetus is considered a person, is abortion still permissible? This is what I will focus my paper on and I will show that her argument is not a sound one.

The article of discussion is Jane English’s “Abortion and the concept of a person.” Her second main point in this article is the one I will be discussing and analyzing.

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Her conclusion is that “If a fetus is a person, abortion is still justifiable in many cases.” By saying this, she is trying to disprove the arguments involving people persuading others that fetuses are considered people, thus abortion would be equivalent to murder. And on the positive side, English is arguing that under certain conditions, it is allowable to have an abortion. This is an important issue to discuss, first because of its connection with the abortion issue itself and secondly because this is premise of English’s larger argument of the answer to the abortion issue should not be based on whether or not the fetus is considered a person.

Thus proving or disproving this part of her argument may cause readers to reconsider her overall argument. English proposes a scenario where there are attackers at night that are armed with knives and will attack people walking by. English (and I) agree that one would have a right to kill the attacker in self-defense, but only if that is the only way to “protect your life or save yourself from serious injury.” Next, English carries on with the idea of killing being the only way, and explores alternatives. How much harm can you do to your attacker? English concludes that the laws in the US allows one to inflict slightly greater injury to their attacker than what the injury could have been. It is after this introduction that English makes a parallel to this situation with the situations involving pregnancy. The mother is paralleled with the potential victim and the fetus is the potential threat to the mother’s “well-being, life prospects or health, mental or physical.”

Only grave enough threat to the woman’s well-being from the fetus would be to be freed from the fetus, even though that will kill it, that is the next best alternative to killing the woman’s grave threat. English admits that this is only a good analogy if it’s taken from the woman’s point of view and it makes it sound as if the woman is performing the abortion. With this reasoning, English adds another scenario involving a third party, such as a doctor. English proposes another separate situation involving the reader to imagine being a skilled surgeon and you are kidnapped by an attacker who does not intend to harm you but transfer you to a mad scientist who will give you a mental block of all knowledge relating to medicine. This would destroy your career which would negatively affect your relationships and your happiness. It would seem justifiable to kill the attacker to avoid these potential disastrous outcomes.

English parallels this to unwanted pregnancies. English then goes on to some other parallels to avoid these unwanted pregnancies, abstinence and contraceptives. This is where she ultimately arrives at her conclusion of abortion still being allowable even if the fetus is considered a person since she has given many parallel examples of where killing can be acceptable. English calls to readers’ minds many interesting scenarios that can be paralleled back to the abortion issue at hand. These scenarios are the basis for her argument in this section. So, it is crucial that these are sound and have been thoroughly depicted. In order to check if her argument is convincing, I will put it to the test by seeing if the job of the scenario makes sense as well as its corresponding parallel makes sense in regards to abortion. The first scenario that English brings up involves an attacker and the victim.

Now, the attacker is out there and the victim may or may not get attacked, but if he does, it will be unexpected. This is a good clarification that is made here, since this should imply that the soon-to-be-victim will rely on human instincts. Now the attacker has a knife and if he attacks the person, it should be quite obvious that his intent is to kill or seriously injure. English states that killing the attacker in self-defense would be an acceptable thing to do since this would be the only way to stop the attacker. She quickly adds that if there were to be another way to stop the attacker without killing, that should be done as self-defense’s purpose is not to kill. Now the parallel to this is the mother should only use self-defense if the fetus is causing grave danger to her wellbeing. English reminds us that killing the fetus of anything less of causing grave danger to the mother would not be acceptable. This is where I find some problems. What should happen if the fetus causes a problem not grave enough to be killed?

Things such as morning sickness, kicking from the fetus inside the womb, and extra weight the fetus contributes to the woman, would most likely be considered problems from the woman’s perspective. Now if these were translated over to the original scenario (since it’s still inside the parallel), the victim would be able to inflict some damage but not to the point of killing. This might include potential scrapes or bruises from a fist fight from the attacker. However, in the abortion side of the parallel the mother wouldn’t be able to “defend” herself even slightly. I find this to be a flaw in English’s argument as it shows a lack of completeness of her first parallel. Granted, she is trying to show the worst case, but to get to the worst case I think you would have to find a way to parallel even the lesser cases to show that the small examples build to the larger ones. Also, leaving out this obvious parallel (since she did mention defenses against threats lesser than death), shows an incomplete parallel overall which would make the correlation from the situation to the abortion issue weak.

English notes that this parallel of self-defense is most useful when looking at the situation from the pregnant woman’s point of view. She admits to some fault in looking at a two person scenario as this would imply that the woman is performing the abortion. This is where English brings in the doctor as the third party in the scenario. She concludes that considering a third party would tend to be more supportive of abortion, since as a passerby, one would probably help the person in the fight if they had a personal connection with or help the one who brings most value to society. She proposes both of these scenarios with aiding your husband “whether he was attacker or victim, ” and a famous violinist attacking a bum.

Both of her examples are probable yet they show that the third party would support the aggressor. I do not find anything wrong with this part of the argument as it does show her case on how people may be more supportive of an abortion if you are looking at personal relationships or if the fetus’ life is worth much to society. I think this is a fairly strong point, so I believe that English should have capitalized more on this point. Talking more about why this scenario happens and how personal feelings/thoughts puts a different perspective to the abortion issue should be more explained in being good or bad. Should this be a focus in the abortion argument or why should the weight of the argument not be too heavy on feelings and thoughts of close friends of the woman?

The next main parallel that English brings up (still roughly the same scenario) involves picturing yourself as a highly trained surgeon and then getting kidnapped by an attacker whose plan is to take you to a mad scientist where he will “hypnotize you to have a permanent mental block” which will cause you to lose all knowledge of medicine. Truly this would be an absolute detriment as your life would completely change: a loss of a career, potential loss of relationships with co-workers or family which in turn may cause a loss in happiness. English argues that this situation would have a justifiable outcome if you were to kill the attacker. English adds two more pieces of thought to this scenario.

What should happen if you knew these attackers only came out at night and you went out for a walk with or without a self-defense weapon? Now, English does not give her opinion but rather states if you go out that night even though you know there are attackers, “you have no right to defend yourself.” The second with if your self-defense weapon fails, you “are obliged to the resulting injury, no matter how severe it is.” English parallels these with the view of abstinence and the second with the view of using contraceptives is allowable yet abortion is always wrong. She finishes the analogy off with the only way abortion could be justified all the time is being only able to kill the attacker “only if he will actually kill you, not if he will only injure you.” No more, English concludes that analogy right there. I find this to be very dull and uninformative. No mention on her take of these situations, just this is a viewpoint that would fit this scenario, and so on. This doesn’t contribute to her argument.

That’s great that you can parallel a popular viewpoint out in the world to your analogy, but what does that contribute to your argument? I did not find this part of her argument to really follow through with much of her argument. The only way I see it contributing is to show how in depth her parallel can go, which I would agree with. In this paper I have analyzed Jane English’s argument from analogies for the view on if a fetus is a person, abortion is still permissible in many cases. I reveal the weakness of her analogies and thus her overall argument. There were parts of her argument I found to be false altogether. There were also parts where I found her argument to be strong and promising.

But, those parts turned into a weak argument when not enough emphasis was given to those parts, making it look like a side note to an argument. Although I found many wrongs in English’s essay, I was able to immerse myself into a unique way of thinking about the abortion issue and was able to critically analyze English’s argument which allowed me to discover more about the arguments surrounding abortion and why it is still a complicated issue to this day.

Works Cited

  1. English, Jane. “Abortion and the Concept of the Person” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 5.2 (1975): 151-160. Print.

Cite this page

An Analysis of Jane English's Argument on the Topic of Abortion. (2021, Sep 27). Retrieved from

An Analysis of Jane English's Argument on the Topic of Abortion

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