In his insightful book The Ethics of Killing, Jeff McMahan deals with many aspects of abortion: the unborn child’s development, the balance of interest between mother and unborn child, social consequences, human rights. He also gives a tremendous amount of border cases that seem to make it impossible to hold a coherent position. Abortion morality leads to tricky choices, as is also shown by an impressively complex legislative and judicial history worldwide.
Just like in the euthanasia debate, the abortion debate is made complex by awarding to human life a special position among life as a whole. There is no reason to make human life or human dignity special in any way. On one hand we all respect life as such, on the other hand we know that killing, also of humans, is sometimes necessary. But this is no matter of decision at will between life and death.
With at will abortion, this need for justification has lost attention. When is killing justified? Who is to decide on it? What does this responsibility involve?
Killing is allowed only if inevitable. Avoiding killing may range from catching spiders and set them free outside to police officers shooting fleeing suspects in the legs first. Animals we may kill to feed us or to protect ourselves and our property, but not randomly. As life starts with conception, abortion is killing; stage of pregnancy, possible future, consciousness or personhood of the unborn child are irrelevant. Therefore, killing an unborn child needs to be justified as inevitable.
Humans share a common responsibility for life as a whole, a principle from which they themselves profit in the form of protection by the communities they live in. Therefore, mentally competent persons must bear the consequences of irresponsible actions that harm others. There is no fundamental difference between risky driving, playing with fire and unprotected sex not serving reproduction. It also makes no principal difference if the victim of an irresponsible action is a neighbor, a complete stranger, an unborn child, an animal or any other living being.
Morality is mutual; to benefit from a moral order demands taking responsibility for that very same order and for all who are part of it. However, this mutuality also demands that the community take responsibility for the individual, providing the necessary means that enable her to behave responsibly.
Abortion happens when the mother does not want her child to be born. This statement may look trivial, but it isn’t. In many cases, mothers claim to be compelled to not give birth to their child, suggesting they had no choice. Though maybe true in the practical sense, fundamentally, such claims cannot count as moral justification, since they show that the mother missed two possibilities of preventing abortion: first, to not have sex, second, to have protected sex. The first possibility is unrealistic, since having sex is an integral part of the lives of adults.
The second possibility assumes that means to prevent pregnancy are known and easily available, which is often not the case as a result of poverty, bad education and inaccessibility of care services.
Abortion is a matter of balancing the interests of the mother and the unborn child. In the case of mentally competent mothers, the responsibility principle holds against any second thoughts about pregnancy. Getting pregnant is a choice that cannot be made undone at will in a morally acceptable way. As for the child, it might be unjust to make it bear the consequences of unwantedness. But since we just cannot know what a child will be, we have nothing to go on in terms of necessary killing. If an average child becomes unwanted only after being born, nobody would justify killing it.
The defenders of the interests of mother and child are classically, but not very clearly divided between the ‘pro-choice’ and the ‘pro-life’ camps. These we might also call the “practically inevitable” and “morally unacceptable” camps respectively. But neither of these positions is tenable in the absolute sense. The “inevitable” camp admits that abortion is basically immoral in the last stages of pregnancy, while the “immoral” camp needs to make exceptions for cases of danger for the life of the mother, of mentally incompetent or underage mothers or of forced sex, in short, for cases where the responsibility argument does not hold.
The issue of abortions in cases of aberrations will be discussed in a later article.
A pregnancy endangering the mother’s life is an almost generally accepted motive for abortion. Clearly, the life of the mother and the interests of the father and other children have to prevail. For underage and mentally incompetent mothers, parents or guardians are responsible, but just like for most criminal offenses of minors, they cannot be held responsible for an unwanted pregnancy. Since there is no responsible party, there neither is a moral obligation to give birth to an unwanted child.
In many countries, women suffer from sexual violence. In cases where sex was forced upon them, they cannot be held responsible. Every community is morally obligated to act against sexual violence, but many communities largely neglect this obligation. At the same time, they uphold strict abortion laws and deprive women of possibilities to defend their cases, as well as of safety and support. The unwillingness of a community to really reduce violence against women violates sufficient protection by the moral order; hence, the mutuality principle becomes invalid and these women are no longer morally obliged to support that order by giving birth.
Protection by the law of the unborn child against at-will abortions is only possible if communities act against sexual violence, promote sexual education, and make means to prevent pregnancy generally accessible. But this does not absolve communities from the obligation to protect the lives of unborn children. States with legal abortion take responsibility to prevent pregnancies and offer abortion facilities, but essentially, they trade off morality against the advantage of avoiding tedious judicial procedures.