What Do Philosophers Think About Abortion?

By John G. Messerly, Ph.D. | 9 July 2014
Reason and Meaning

A pro-choice activist looks towards anti-abortion demonstrators. (Photo: John Stillwell / PA)

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—statistics about their views on applied ethics issues are unavailable as far as I can tell. But my educated guess is that around 10%-20% 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 to take this position, but I have known many religious philosophers to take the opposing 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.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

John G. Messerly received his PhD in philosophy in 1992. He has taught at St. Louis University and The University of Texas at Austin. He is currently an Affiliated member of the Evolution, Cognition, and Complexity Group localized at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium, and an Affiliate Scholar of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

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