Abortion is often in the news. In the course of writing this essay in early 2019, Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio, Georgia, Alabama, Missouri and Louisiana passed legislation to outlaw and criminalize abortions starting at six to eight weeks in pregnancy, with more states likely following. Federal law, however, generally permits abortions, so it is unclear what the legal outcome here will be.
Abortion is a political issue—with different political parties tending to have different perspectives on the issue—because abortion is a moral or ethical issue. (These two words, “moral” and “ethical,” mean the same thing.)
Some believe that abortions are typically morally permissible, or not wrong, and so believe that abortions should be legal. If doing something isn’t wrong, it shouldn’t be illegal: criminalizing actions that aren’t wrong is a form of injustice.
Others believe that abortion is morally wrong, that it’s often wrong, maybe nearly always or even always.
Some people argue that even though they believe abortion is wrong, it should remain legal: after all, if every morally wrong action was illegal, we would all be in jail! Seriously though, there are many actions that are morally wrong, even really hurtful, that the government shouldn’t try to prevent or punish. (You can supply the potential examples to make the point.1) People who think abortion is wrong might also think that, for a variety of other reasons, their personal moral views on the issues shouldn’t be made into law for all.
Others argue that abortions are wrong and should be illegal. What types of wrongdoing should be illegal? This question isn’t easy to answer: it’s abstract and general. One answer is that seriously, extremely wrong actions should be illegal. This might seem plausible, since many illegal actions are seriously wrong. But since there are other very wrong actions that shouldn’t be illegal, this answer isn’t perfect.
We argue, however, that abortion should not be illegal because most abortions are not morally wrong (and so they are not seriously or extremely wrong). So the states above are making bad moral and legal moves, to say the least, in trying to criminalize abortions, at least when they are done early in pregnancy, as they usually are. And if federal law changes towards prohibiting abortions, that would be another, more profound step towards injustice.
There is a lot to discuss. Here’s the plan:
- First, we define “abortion.” There are controversies even in stating our topic.
- Second, we give some brief factual, scientific information about how fetuses develop, in terms of the emergence of consciousness, awareness and feeling, briefly explain the moral significance of these psychological characteristics, and review the evidence on when most abortions occur, and why.
- Third, we discuss some common, but bad, arguments. First, we review many common what are called “question-begging” arguments. This type of argument assumes the conclusion it is trying to support, instead of giving genuine reasons to support that conclusion. These arguments are a type of circular reasoning and are no good from the perspective of people who want to think critically and base their beliefs and actions on good arguments.
Next, we discuss arguments that you’d often see as comments on newspaper stories and editorials, and even in those writings themselves. We call these “everyday arguments.” Seeing why these arguments are bad will help us all shift the focus to better arguments.
- Finally, we discuss some of the most important better arguments on the issues, focusing on arguments that professional philosophers tend to focus on. Here we argue that the most influential arguments “against” abortion are weak: they don’t provide good reasons to believe that most abortions are wrong. And we argue that there are good positive reasons to believe that abortion is usually not wrong. These arguments are based on facts about early fetuses completely lacking any consciousness, awareness or feeling, and the insight that the “right to life” is not a right to anyone else’s body. So, we argue that there are good arguments to justify a broadly “pro-choice” perspective.
People often begin discussions of abortion with a lot of “what ifs”: “What if an abortion is wanted because of rape?” “What if it’s needed to save a woman’s life?” “What if there are fetal abnormalities?” “What if …?”
We want to initially set aside these “what ifs?” to focus on more “ordinary cases” (if there is such a thing) where abortion is considered, not cases like these. We should acknowledge though that even most people who call themselves “pro-life” think that abortion can be permissible if it is genuinely needed to save the woman’s life. This is because if she dies, then the fetus dies also, and so an abortion—which saves one life—would be more “pro-life” than allowing two deaths. We will return to the ethics of abortions due to rape at the end of the essay and briefly discuss the ethics and legality of rare abortions done later in pregnancy, far past the first trimester.
In reading this essay, we encourage trying to think about the issues with an “open mind.” What we mean is to try to consider and evaluate the arguments as if you didn’t already have strong views on the issue that you are committed to. (Maybe you are like this, which can be good: you shouldn’t have firm opinions on issues if you aren’t well-informed on them).
Critical thinking often involves defining words and giving and evaluating reasons: asking questions like “what do you mean?” and “why think that?” It involves stating arguments in their full pattern of reasoning and rigorously evaluating all premises. It involves identifying differing explanations of various moral and scientific facts and trying to determine which explanations are best. It involves thinking about thinking.
Most importantly though, good critical thinking isn’t done with an agenda or to support a point of view: it’s to find a point of view that’s worth supporting. Our perspectives on abortion didn’t develop (we hope!) with an “agenda” in mind beyond believing what’s supported by good arguments, and neither should yours. And views can and should change, in response to understanding better arguments, so our conclusions here are not “set in stone.” New arguments, including responses to the arguments presented here, might change our minds for the better—and the same should be true for all critical thinkers.