The Best Argument Against Abortion Is Incredibly Weak

Why Abortion Is Immoral” is the most celebrated pro-life piece in the literature. Marquis (M) begins by noting that few philosophers think abortion is immoral, in fact, the pro-life position has almost no contemporary philosophical support:

The view that abortion 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-abortion 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.

He assumes, but doesn’t try to prove, “that whether or not abortion is morally permissible stands or falls on whether or not a fetus is the sort of being whose life it is seriously wrong to end.”

M asks: “why is killing an adult wrong.”

Killing is wrong because of its effect on the victim—specifically because it takes away a person’s future.

This explains why: 1) killing is so bad; and 2) why premature death is particularly bad.

This view gains additional support because: 1) it shows why it would be wrong to kill other intelligent extraterrestrials; 2) it shows why it would be wrong to kill some non-human animals; 3) it does not rule out active euthanasia; and 4) it easily accounts for the wrongfulness of young children (something personhood theories have trouble with).

Since eliminating an adult’s future is what makes killing it wrong, abortion is wrong prima facie (at first glance.) And this does not rely on the fetus being a person. [According to this view, it would seem that killing a fetus is more wrong than killing a child, which is more wrong than killing an adult, etc.]

To better explain the structure of his argument he draws an analogy with an argument against animal cruelty. In both cases the wrongness is explained by the appeal to a natural property—pain and suffering or denial of a future—without resorting to personhood.

None of this shows that abortion is always wrong, just that it usually is.

And contraception is not immoral on this view. Neither sperm nor ovum can possibly be considered a person and contraception can’t be considered to deny all possible sperm and egg combinations which are possible since there are so many possible futures at the time contraception is used. (This might imply that contraception is worse, since it denies millions of possible futures. Also, at what point are we denying this future then? After the 24-48 hours of conception I would assume.)

Conclusion – Since a fetus has a future, which is what makes killing wrong, killing a fetus is wrong. This resolves the standard problem of abortion which is to determine some property that makes a fetus more like a person than a group of cells—brain waves, viability, etc. That property is its possible future.

Reflections – First of all, remember—even if you think abortion is morally wrong that does not imply that you have a right to use the coercive power of the law to prevent others ending their pregnancies. To endorse that would entail a justification of the use of legal coercion on the ground that you are preventing harm to others (fetuses). The problem is that not all share the view that fetuses are persons. (In fact granting fetuses full moral rights is a radical view that virtually no moral philosophers endorse—as Marquis admitted at the beginning of his essay.) If people disagree about whether something is a person, then what do you do if you can’t convince them of your view? Kill them? Petition the government to coerce them? Try to convince them rationally but if unsuccessful let them alone?

It is just hard to believe that this weak argument is consider the best anti-abortion argument in the literature. For a more complete account of my view on abortion, and the standard one according to most moral philosophers, see my posts here and here.

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