Ethics – Abortion

OK, so this post is about a more difficult subject, as that is all that is left to talk about now in terms of notes, so please keep in mind that these posts are subject to opinions and are sensitive. However, my notes are written, as usual, without bias and are simply the topics and area’s covered in school as they are, they don’t take any side. Please enjoy them and I hope you can see all the different views involved because it is an interesting subject.


Why abortion is an ethical issue?

  • People disagree about when life begins.
  • People disagree about whether abortion is murder.
  • People disagree about whether a woman has the right to choose.
  • People argue over the time limit for abortions.
  • People disagree over whether the life of an embryo and/or foetus is sacred.
  • People disagree over whether to abort a disabled foetus and what constitutes severe disability.

Issues surrounding abortion

  • Does the Sanctity of Life apply to a foetus? Is all life sacred? Whose life is more sacred – that of the mother or that of the unborn child?
  • Wednesday features a person? When does life begin? Does foetus have the qualities of personhood?
  • What makes a good Quality of Life? Who decides? Whose Quality of Life is more important – that of the mother or that of the unborn child?
  • Whose rights more important – the mothers or the foetuses?

Sanctity of Life applied to abortion

Christianity emphasises the importance of Sanctity of Life: ‘So God created humankind in his image’ (Genesis 1:27). (Also known as Imago Dei.)

The teaching implies that, as God is the creator of life, he alone says when it starts and ends. All life is equal, has intrinsic value, and should be treated with reverence and respect. This is also part of the teaching of Natural Law as taking life is seen as intrinsically evil, and all unborn life should be protected.

Abortion can only be justified when using the doctrine of double effect. For example, if a pregnancy will kill the mother an abortion is allowed because the aim is to save the mother and it is the only thing focused on, the second effect is the baby dying – this is not focused on.

  • Strong Sanctity of Life – all life, both born and unborn is to be respected. Abortion is never allowed whatever the circumstances.
  • Weak Sanctity of Life – life in general is to be respected but scientific advances means that the boundaries between life and death are more flexible and we know more about foetal disabilities. Sometimes it is necessary to apply love and compassion and allow abortion whether to avoid a lifetime of suffering for the child to consider the mental and physical health of the mother.

Problems with the Sanctity of Life

  • Charles Darwin challenged Imago Dei with his theory of natural selection.
  • Kant saw no reason to link vital signs (heart beating, brainwaves, etc.) to valuing life.
  • Peter Singer – speciesism, meaning that all life should be valued not just human life.
  • The Sanctity of Life cannot cope with a conflict of duties – which is more sacred: that of the mother or that of the unborn child?
  • Sometimes it means that the life of the foetuses given more value than that of a disabled person, a mentally ill person, a criminal and so on.

Personhood applied to abortion

Questions to consider:

  • Is the embryo an actual person or a potential person or neither?
  • What characteristics make a person?
  • If an embryo isn’t person, when the foetus become a person?
  • Does personhood depend on when life begins?
  • Does life begin at conception?
  • Does life begin when the foetus is actually born?
  • Is there some point in between?

Mary Anne Warren lists the following characteristics of a person:

  • Sentience – ability to feel pleasure and pain
  • Reason – ability to think
  • Communication
  • Emotionality – ability to feel happy or upset and so on
  • Self-awareness – ability to know oneself as different from others moral agency – ability to be self-motivated.

She says it is not necessary to have all these characteristics – a foetus has none, but could be seen as a potential person, so killing a foetus could be regarded as murder as its future is destroyed.

Christians would consider a foetus as a person as it has a soul given by God. The precise time from solvent is debated – Aquinas thought it was 40 days for a boy and at 90 days for a girl. Today, Catholics teach it is at conception.

Catholics teach that it is impossible to say exactly when life begins, it is safe to say that it is from conception. Some say that life begins once the primitive streak appears (about 14 to 15 days), others would say it is at the quickening (the first movement felt by the mother, usually at about 14 weeks), others when the foetus has sentience (18 to 24 weeks) and others when the foetus has viability (can survive outside the womb) – with modern technology it is now possible as low as 22 weeks, but the law says 24 weeks, and finally others such as Mary Anne Warren would argue for at birth itself.

Jonathan Glover argues that it is important to say exactly when life begins as a foetus is more of a person than an embryo and the Human Fertility and Embryology Act chose the 14 day for the last point at which an embryo can be used for experimentation as at this single-point identity is established.

Quality of Life apply to abortion

Questions to consider:

  • What is a definition of Quality of Life? What makes a good Quality of Life? Who decides?
  • Whose Quality of Life is more important – the mothers or unborn child is?
  • Does judging quality devalued the lives of the disabled?

The Quality of Life argument allows the value of life to vary according to factors such as pain, the ability to think and make rational choices. However, there are always the question of who judges this quality of life and whether that of the mother should take precedence. There is always the fear of ‘playing God’ and making decisions about a future life that we cannot possibly know. Peter Singer supports the Quality of Life argument by arguing for a replacement: it is better to replace a less happy child (one with a disability which will harm their happiness once born) with a happy one.

Problems with the Quality of Life argument

  • The Quality of Life is subjective and has no clear definition – this applies both to the foetus and to the mother.
  • If, when discussing abortion, Quality of Life is a consideration, how do we make decisions about what the unborn child may feel in future?
  • QUALY’s (Quality of Life Adjusted Years) is a method used to decide if a life is worth saving if it’s quality will be poor. This is judged by professionals, so should quality-of-life decisions be left to them or is it just paternalistic?

Rights applied to the foetus and the mother

Questions to consider:

  • Do the woman’s right over her own body overruled the rights of the embryo/foetus?
  • Does an embryo even have rights? Does foetus have rights?
  • Does Locke’s principle of ownership of our bodies mean that a woman has property rights?
  • Is a right always a moral good? So does the unborn child always have a right to life?

Potentiality is usually regarded as the best reason for judging whether a foetus has rights.

John Locke’s idea of ownership of our bodies comes from his idea of personhood – God has given humans rights over their own bodies, because he has given us the power of reason so that we can use it to improve our lives. Locke’s ideas seem to suggest that a woman has the right to decide what happens to her body and supports abortion if it will improve her life and that her family, as a foetus is no different to any other part of the body. To illustrate the idea of ownership of our bodies, Judith Jarvis Thomson use the story of a person who is kidnapped and plugged into a famous violinist so that their blood can be used to cleanse his blood, but is it only for nine months and if the person unplugs himself they will kill the violinist.

For those who believe rights are an important consideration in the issue of abortion, the right of the foetus to life needs to be weighed up against the right of a woman to have an abortion.

Application of ethical theories to abortion

Christian ethics

  • The idea of Sanctity of Life is important to Christians.
  • A child is a gift from God and should not be destroyed.
  • For Catholics, who hold a strong Sanctity of Life argument, abortion goes against Natural Law and is evil. They believe an embryo or foetus has the same status as any other human.
  • Anglicans also see all human life as unique and intrinsically valuable so consider abortion evil but they would follow a weaker Sanctity of Life argument and so treat each situation with compassion.

Natural law

  • Preservation of life is paramount, so abortion is murder.
  • The unborn child has the same status as any other life.
  • The primary precepts of reproduction also has to be considered.


  • Happiness versus pain is an important consideration for utilitarians.
  • Focuses on the outcome not the action.
  • Life doesn’t have intrinsic value for utilitarians.
  • Preference utilitarianism considers the preference of mother, the harm to other family members and so on.
  • Considers the foetus as a potential person not an actual person.

Kantian ethics

  • Treat people as ends not means.
  • Abortion should be seen as a right if a foetus is not considered to be a reasoning person.
  • Abortion could be seen as wrong if the mother does it for selfish reasons only.
  • Humans have intrinsic worth so this could be applied to potential humans too.

There we are! Again, this subject is very touchy, for good reasons, and it would be appreciated when if someone wishes to comment any debate points that they do with delicacy and when people read those they remember that they are opinion. Anyway, have a good day and like if you enjoyed this 🙂

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