An Analysis of the Justifiable Abortion and the Debate on the Rights of Woman

Categories: AbortionSociology


(3) Under what conditions do you think abortion is morally justifiable? Include discussion on the status of the fetus and arguments from both sides of the debate.


I believe in the right of a woman to terminate a pregnancy before fetal viability and later if it is of harm to the life of the mother. In this essay I will argue that in some cases it is in the best interest of the mother and fetus if a pregnancy is terminated.

Various factors such as medical complications, fetal abnormalities, tragic events such as rape or incest, lack of money and teenage pregnancy are valid reasons for a woman to choose to have an abortion. I believe that third trimester abortions should be limited to cases of severe fetal abnormalities or when the life or health of the pregnant woman is seriously threatened. I will argue that the well being and freedom of the individual includes the personal control of one s own body.

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In this essay I will endeavor to expose the views of both the pro-life/anti abortionists the pro-choice abortionists and identify the most plausible. I will also explore the moral status of the fetus during the various stages of development and discuss how this impacts on the morality of abortion.

Pro-life arguments

Most anti-abortion arguments focus on defining the fetus as a human being, and consequently, since killing any human being is murder, abortion is murder because it involves killing the fetus. One well known form of such an argument is given by Robert E.

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Joyce in Personhood and the Conception Event . Joyce focuses his pro-life argument on the definition of personhood and its application to the fetus. A brief summary of his argument goes as follows:

  1. Any living individual being with the natural potential, as a whole, for knowing, willing, desiring, and relating to others in a self reflective manner is a person.
  2. A conceptus (the zygote) has the natural potential, as a whole, for knowing, willing, desiring, and relating to others in a self reflective manner is a person.
  3. A conceptus is a person.
  4. Every person as a right to life.
  5. A conceptus has a right to life.
  6. To take away a person s right to life is murder.
  7. Abortion is the killing of the fetus and is therefore the taking away of a person s right to life.
  8. Abortion is murder.
  9. Murder is immoral.
  10. Abortion is immoral.

Crucial to this anti-abortion argument is the definition of personhood on which Joyce bases his first premise. He defines the fetus as a human being because it has the potential for knowing, willing, desiring, and relating to others in a self reflective way… He claims the importance of natural potentiality in the definition of personhood because leaving it out would imply that the comatose, senile, and retarded – even the sleeping – would not necessarily be regarded as persons. His assumption is ambiguous as the belief that a mass of cells is a potential human is ambiguous. Every cell in the human body contains the genetic makeup of the whole and through science, has the potential to become a self reflective individual. I will return to this critique of Joyce s argument later in the essay.(1)

Perhaps a less problematic argument against abortion is put by Professor Donald Marquis in his book entitled Why Abortion Is Immoral (2). To begin Marquis starts from what he terms an unproblematic assumption that it is wrong to kill. The loss of one s life is the greatest loss we can suffer. It deprives us of all the experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments that we would have had. Marquis argues with a hint of cynicism that killing someone is wrong because it inflicts a great loss on that person. The argument is as follows:

  1. We recognize that A will have a future similar to our own, containing all of life s experiences.
  2. To deprive A of this potentially full future by cutting its life short is morally wrong.
  3. Abortion is morally wrong.

This theory is not about the sanctity of life, but about a future and potential enjoyment lost due to a life cut short and prevented from occurring. It is shown that Marquis criterion may apply to animals as well as humans. In keeping with the intuitions of defenders of mercy-killing, his criterion does not rule out euthanasia and unlike many pro-choice criteria, his criterion makes infanticide wrong. Having established his general criterion of wrongful killing, Marquis concludes that abortion is clearly wrong since it deprives a fetus of a value-filled future, which would be a future similar to our own and a concept that most people can appreciate as being fundamentally important. He cautions that his argument establishes only the prima facie incorrectness of abortion, thereby allowing that there may be overriding circumstances. Marquis again notes that his criterion of wrongful killing will succeed only if rival criteria fail. Turning to the rival criteria, he begins by criticizing a view he calls the desire account: killing is wrong since it deprives us of our innate and natural desire to live. For Marquis, this criterion fails since it implies that it is permissible to kill people who have lost their desire to live. Also, this criteria fails to recognize that the goodness of life rests in our valuable experiences, not in the desire itself. He also finds problems with a view he calls the discontinuation account: killing is wrong since it discontinues the experiences of the victim. This criterion fails, though, since if A s life right now is bad (although his future will be good), then killing A right now would be permissible, a clause Marfqus rejects.

Critics of Marquis might argue that it is not enough for the fetus to merely have a value-filled future. It must have an interest in its future before it can have a right to it. For example, some might argue that the fetus must be able to value its future. Marquis responds that this condition fails since it would make it permissible to kill someone in despair who no longer valued their life. It has been suggested that a being must have the capacity to care about its continued existence. (3) Marquis argues that, even when we are unconscious and unable to care about anything, we still retain certain rights. Finally, Marquis addresses a possible counter-example which the issue of contraception might pose to his criterion. For, if killing is wrong because it deprives a future, then contraception would also be wrong since it deprives a future. This counter example fails, though, since it would be arbitrary to select a single victim from among an egg and millions of sperm. (2)

The religious argument against abortion from a Judeo/Christian perspective is unwavering and dogmatic in its verdict on the issue of abortion. According to orthodox Christian, Moslem law, abortion is not allowed. Under Jewish law (which I am more familiar with) abortion is forbidden unless the case falls under Sinaitic Jewish law, whereby if the mother s life is under threat it is permissible. So strict and unanimous are the issues relating to sex and reproduction within the observant echelons of organized religion that is improbable that God or his many voices here on earth will change their minds any time soon on such issues. The Jewish Talmud, compiled around 600 BCE, holds that an embryo is a limb of its mother and for the first forty days after conception, the embryo is simply water. A fetus s life is of equal importance to that of the mother s only once its head has emerged (from her body).(4) Somehow this information was taken, interpreted and distorted by both Jewish and more severely, by Catholic Christians who label abortion murder. Interestingly while researching this topic it became clear that the many anti-abortion books and essays were written by openly and proud religious people while none of the pro-choice literature that I read was written by people claiming to be religious. Perhaps the acceptance of abortion in the community is partly a result of free-thinkers rejecting the strict doctrines of organized religion and embracing the rise of feminism and new ideas.

There are certain constructive areas that can be encouraged that are non-controversial alternatives to abortion. An obvious one is adoption. Certainly, the pro-life side has been warmly supportive of this as a possible abortion prevention tool. It is possibly the only alternative for women who are already too far into their pregnancy term for an abortion and an alternative that prevents any physical pain to the unborn child. It can be argued that abortion is a better alternative to adoption and bringing an unwanted child into the world as it causes less duress both for the child and mother. This argument is unfounded and would seem absurd to the many happily adopted children in the world. Any exception to that argument is enough to nullify its main thrust. Some pro-lifers would argue that there is no excuse for an abortion with adoption available as an option and although I support early termination, would argue that it seems to be a better option than abortion.

Pro-choice arguments

Pro-choice campaigners say that a necessary condition for a living organism to become a human being is for mental activity which is associated with thought and mind. One way to officially proclaim a person dead (or at least brain-dead), is for an electroencephalogram (EEG) line to be flat, indicating an absence of mental activity, even though the heart may still be beating. A person in a deep coma still has mental activity, and so their EEG is not flat. The early fetus has no central nervous system or brain, hence no mental activity. It develops after the fourth or fifth month of pregnancy. Some would say a child s thoughts, feelings, emotions, and self-consciousness begin after birth and exposure to the elements. Unfortunately we cannot yet specify the exact date that an embryo becomes human nor, it seems, will we ever be able to unequivocally pinpoint the exact location in time at which an embryo begins to feel and think. Those who support abortion say that the early embryo is only a potential human being, not an actual one. Things may be done to it which may not be done to an actual human being such as remove half of its cells, save for lipo-suction (which seems cruel anyway) this is impossible in a developed human. (5)

Abortions have been available for centuries and are certainly mentioned in classic works from ancient Rome where they were stated to be common-place. Historically, attitudes about abortion and the moral status of a fetus have fluctuated. Aristotle endorsed abortion when writing that when couples have children in excess, let abortion be procured before sense and life have begun; what may or may not be lawfully done in these cases depends on the question of life and sensation (6) The Hippocratic Oath states Nor will I give a woman a pessary to procure abortion. (7) Prior to abortion being legal in Australia it was possible to have one performed by either one of the many clandestine groups of doctors or the more sinister back alley practitioners. Making abortion illegal has little effect on the number of abortions, as history and present-day evidence from all over the world show. But illegal abortion is much more dangerous than its legal practice. In 1930s America, there was an epidemic of criminal abortion. The number of births dropped by about half, as women who refused to bring children into a depressed economy resorted to illegal abortion to end their pregnancies. As a result, about 2500 women died each year from abortion complications, accounting for nearly one in four maternal deaths. From 1950 to 1965 in the US, there were 200 to 250 abortion-related deaths reported each year, a number that is acknowledged to be lower than the true death count. But even using these statistics, and assuming that illegal abortion was two or three times as dangerous as legal abortion at that time, a simple calculation shows that there were at least 500,000 illegal abortions each year. Thanks to changes in the law, today the mortality rate from legal abortion is 0.006 percent (similar in Australia), and abortion accounts for only 3% of maternal deaths.(8) (9) Banning abortions will drive the practice underground once more. Like the prohibition of any popular substance or service, the demand will ensure its availability through other channels. Criminalising such an important medical procedure leaves it open to a dangerous level of exploitation and we must ensure that such procedures remain legal and controlled by clinics with trained personnel. There is a strong case here for anti-abortionists to support abortion on demand clinics in Australia based on these figures and the inevitable nature of abortion practices.

In the case of rape and incest conceptions, interesting views emerge. Here some abortionists and anti-abortionists agree and argue that if, for example, a young girl is sexually assaulted and falls pregnant as a result, that abortion is justified as no consent for intercourse was granted and the pregnancy is the result of a crime. This argument presents us with an interesting problem as it suggests that the fetuses resulting from different forms of intercourse have different rights. It would seem that anti-abortionists who hold this belief do not approve of abortion for strange reasons, perhaps as a kind of punishment for the woman who fell pregnant rather than an innate belief in the right to life of a potential human. If people who hold this belief see abortion as murder yet approve of the practice under certain circumstances, then they must hold that murdering an innocent child is sometimes permissible. Strangely, this is a commonly held view in the United States (no figures available for Australia but I hope that they are vastly different) with a 45.5% of Catholics and Protestant rejecting abortion and 25% of those respondents make concessions for victims of incest and rape. (10)

If, for arguments sake, we assume that a fetus is a person, there is a problem with the assumption made in Robert E. Joyce s argument which deals with the definition of murder. In her publication, A Defense of Abortion , Judith Javis Thompson claims that the right to life consists not in the right not to be killed, but rather in the right to not be killed unjustly In doing so, the question of Is abortion morally impermissible? has been replaced by another question, Does the fetus right to life outweigh that of the mother s? Thompson illustrates her answer to this question with her famous violinist analogy:

You wake up in the morning and find yourself back in bed with an unconscious violinist. He as been found to have a fatal kidney ailment …and you alone have the right blood type to help, and they [the Society of Music Lovers] have therefore kidnapped you… To unplug yourself would be to kill him…

Would unplugging yourself from the violinist constitute murder? It would be nice if you liked classical music but ultimately as an individual one has the right to unplug themselves. Thompson argues as follows:

  1. A conceptus has a right to life
  2. A woman has an equal right to life
  3. A woman has an equal right to her body

Because a woman has an additional right to her body, her rights together outweigh the fetus right to life. Some will argue that the above analogy is wrong, because it has significant moral differences when compared to abortion. Pro-life activists will claim that a woman has annulled her right to her body when she consented to intercourse, thus abortion is morally impermissible except in the case of rape. However, to this Thompson offers another analogy. It is stuffy, and a woman opens up a window. It just so happens a burglar crawls in. Would it not be absurd to say that the woman has relinquished the right to her house because she opens the windows in full knowledge of the risks involved, and so she is partially responsible for the burglar s presence in her house? Thus even when not in the case of rape, a woman still has the right to abortion because even though she has engaged in intercourse, she has not explicitly agreed to having the fetus in her body.(11)


I have argued that the point at which an embryo becomes a fetus should be the point of no return regarding abortions, as at this point I feel that the fetus would suffer physically as a result of being aborted. I believe that it is reasonable to assume that a woman can tell if she is pregnant within in the first trimester and that if she wishes to have an abortion it must be done it that time to prevent undue harm from being exacted to the fetus. As mentioned, I hold that in problematic circumstances in which giving birth may result in the mothers death, abortion is certainly justified. To see women as incubators for a fetuses is to fail to recognize their status of person, not only as a means to the baby s end. All women are people and ends in themselves, therefore they should be given the right to decide for themselves early in the pregnancy. The most common anti-abortion arguments are based in outdated religious dogma, requiring a leap of faith belief in a cell s intrinsic value as an immortal soul. Views on abortion that exist outside of the indoctrination of religions and laws millennia old hold more weight and attempt to be based in fact and opinion rather than the human interpretation of the will of God through inconsistent scriptures. It seems that as long as conservative religions remain a powerful force in the moral debates of the West opinions on this issue will never find common ground.



  1. Robert E. Joyce in Personhood and the Conception Event.
  2. Donald Marquis in his book entitled Why Abortion Is Immoral.
  3. Michael Tooley Causation: A Realist Approach.
  4. Rabbi Aaron Ben Shimon: Liberating the Mishna From the Future (In Hebrew).
  11. A Defense of Abortion , Judith Javis Thompson.

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An Analysis of the Justifiable Abortion and the Debate on the Rights of Woman. (2021, Oct 10). Retrieved from

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