What Do Philosophers Think About Abortion?

International status of abortion law UN 2013 report on abortion law. (Blue is legal.)

Philosophers and Abortion

I have never addressed an applied ethics issue in this blog, although I have taught approximately 100 sections of university ethics courses. However, a recent reader’s comment that included abortion in a list of great moral wrongs prompts this brief response.

Let me say first that among professional philosophers it is quite rare to find a so-called pro-lifer. I can’t find statistics online on applied ethics issues, While statistics can be found about professional philosophers’ theoretical positions—for example, that less than 15% of professional philosophers are theists—I can’t find statistics about their views on applied ethics issues. But my educated guess is that no more than 5%-15% of professional philosophers defend the so-called pro-life position. I base this on the fact that in my entire teaching career at multiple universities I have never personally known a single non-religious philosopher who defended the pro-life view, but I have known many religious philosophers who rejected the pro-life view. For further support about how rare the anti-abortion sentiment is among professional philosophers consider the opening lines of the most celebrated anti-abortion piece in the literature, Don Marquis’ “Why Abortion Is Immoral.”

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.1

The pro-life position among professional philosophers is rare indeed, as even the abortion opponent Marquis admits. The fact is that among professional philosophers with the exception of the overtly religious, the view that abortion is seriously wrong is practically non-existent, despite the fact that killing, torture, lying, cheating, stealing, and more are nearly universally condemned by secular and non-secular philosophers alike. Now, why is there such unanimity regarding the abortion issue among professional philosophers? The reason is that professional philosophers generally find the anti-abortion arguments philosophically suspect if not entirely worthless. 

Anyone interested in the topic can read a sampling of the philosophical literature to find the devastating critiques of the conservative view—the one that grants the fetus full moral rights from conception. (There actually is no “moment” of conception, but that’s a different issue.) At best a philosopher might grant that, while it may be morally praiseworthy to continue an unwanted pregnancy, it is in no way morally obligatory. You are not morally required to be a good Samaritan in Judith Jarvis Thomson’s language, nor are you required to be held captive by aliens so as to bring about other lives in Mary Anne Warren’s thought experiment. And I unequivocally support the contemporary philosophical consensus–abortion is almost never morally problematic.

The primary reason for this is that the evidence and rational arguments are nearly definitive—the fetus is not a person with full moral rights. However, as Jane English has pointed out, even if the fetus were a person killing it is not always wrong.  And that’s because we often morally justify killing actual people, in cases of self-defense for example. There is a lot more to say about this, but I have neither the time nor inclination to discourse further on the issue. Again for those interested, the philosophical literature on the topic is easy to find. 

1. Don Marquis. “Why Abortion is Immoral,” Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 86 (April 1989), pp. 183-202.

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7 thoughts on “What Do Philosophers Think About Abortion?

  1. As I always say, abortion is the ultimate birth control.

    It seems to be that abortion is precisely the kind of ambiguous moral question that, according to the federalist design of our constitution, should be left to the states to decide. New York and California can have abortion; Texas can outlaw them. I think that’s a fair way to resolve ambiguous moral questions.

    I certainly don’t think you can establish the propriety of abortion by counting philosophers. Philosophers generally share the same left-leaning political orientation of the entire academy. If their consensus could justify policy, you would essentially abolish the conservative and libertarian wings of the American voting public, including the strains of individualism that trace their roots to the Revolution. You can’t just listen to philosophers without also listening to the millions and millions of people in the heartland who voted for Romney.

  2. As for me, I unequivocally support the contemporary philosophical consensus–abortion is almost never morally problematic. The primary reason for this is that the evidence and rational arguments are nearly definitive–the fetus is not a person with full moral rights……… Most philosophers (support) this claim because the necessary or sufficient conditions of personhood are notoriously difficult to ascertain and, at any rate, the fetus does not satisfy many of the conditions.

    It would seem this has been put forward with different groups which do not meet the philosophical definition of personhood many times over the years. In the last 200 years for instance, many philosophers of the time (and others) have argued that they did not have a problem with extermination of entire races since “savages” like the Native Americans did not meet the philosophical definition of a person. Many philosophers in Germany did not have a problem with killing Jews and Gypsies since they were degenerate species, inferior, and did not meet the definition of a person. Even in our own country many philosophers and others did not have a problem with treating African people the way we did since they only met 3/5 the definition of a persons. Today, many argue that humans with disabilities do not meet the philosophical definition of a full person, should not reproduce, etc. Even this past month we don’t hear of “people” crossing the boarder but rather illegals or aliens with many fox news “philosophers” not having a problem denying them basic human rights.

  3. This is not the philosophical analysis I was hoping for. Your appeal is simply to a greater support of numbers in philosophy for abortion being morally permissible with a vague hand gesture toward ‘most pro-lifers are religious’ (and can therefore be discounted without serious reflection).

    But, everyone knows, that among the academy, professors tend to be highly left wing (80% or more). And abortion just comes with the left wing territory. So by your own nod toward the genetic fallacy I would also just suggest its part of the leftwing (and therefore academic) MO to support abortion.

    I just don’t find the philosophical arguments for the permissibility of abortion to pass muster.

  4. Partial-birth abortion is not an accepted medical term, and is not used by abortion practitioners or the medical community at large. It is just a campaign slogan to throw red meat to a conservative audience.

    Roe vs Wade ruled that during the last trimester, and after the fetus was considered “viable”, state laws were permitted to restrict and prohibit abortion except when an abortion would be necessary to preserve the health of the mother.

  5. Buddhism:
    Phramaha Vudhijaya Vajiramedhi, a leading thai Buddhist scholar and teacher, is unequivocal: “In [the] Buddhist view, both having an abortion and performing an abortion amount to murder. Those involved in abortions will face distress in both this life and the next because their sins will follow them.”

    The first government in history to legalize abortion was atheistic, communistic Russia.
    The Soviet government was the first government in all of history to legalize abortion. In October 1920 the Communists made abortion legal throughout Russia. This was the same Russian government that starved 10 million people during the 1930s. See the “Holodomor.”

  6. That article is nonsense. The conception of Personhood is an artificial construct used to dehumanise another human group. The Nazis did the same thing

  7. It’s hard to find a professional philosopher who believes abortion can be problematic at any stage of gestation, that it’s an issue that remains open for moral consideration, let alone one who believes abortion is always or usually immoral. Even moderately liberal views—any sympathy at all for the pro-life perspective—draws suspicion, and student bodies today are more radical and less tolerant than their professors. The morality of abortion is as settled and obvious as the immorality of African slavery; opponents of restrictionless, conditionless abortion are met with the same shock and moral disgust that an advocate for reopening the Trans-Atlantic slave trade would be. Either conservative kids aren’t attending colleges, or they are keeping their views private.

    Despite very little in the way of actual argumentation being offered, with notable exceptions such as JJT’s overrated defense of abortion for a particular set of edge cases, the matter is professionally settled (which is remarkably rare for philosophy, so well done, guys), and only kooky religious philosophers masquerading as serious philosophers of religion pretend it isn’t. Same is true for assisted suicide and active voluntary euthanasia. The left-wing bubble agrees, so the Academy has moved on to other topics, such as justifications for euthanasia as a “cure” for non-terminal and psychological illnesses (including in children) and medical neglect for the born survivors of botched abortions, whether newborns meet the criteria for personhood, etc. One of the most prominent ethicists in the world and godfather of utilitarian bioethics, Peter Singer, has been justifying postnatal infanticide for decades.

    That’s where we are now.

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