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Abortion to Scale


Most people seem to have some instinct toward moral utilitarianism – generally speaking, more suffering is worse than less. Well, at least the vast majority’s initial response to the trolley problem suggests that. With that in mind, I wanted to use a similar framework to help clarify the ethics of abortion.

Many of us are familiar with the concept that abortion equals murder. So let’s examine the math that leads anyone to believe that.

If you were faced with preventing the death of either

A) An 8 year old child with a mother that wants to kill him or:

B) You could stop the voluntary abortion of an unborn fetus

Which would you choose?

Or do you accept the standard that all life is morally equal and allow chance to determine from two evenly horrible choices?

If you grudging accept that the 8 year old child is more valuable for some reason, but still want to maintain that the unconscious fetus has significant moral weight than it follows that there must be some number of voluntary abortions that would tip the scale in your calculation forcing you to accept the death of the 8 year old innocent child to prevent the termination of some number of fetuses. What is that number for you? Would 100 abortions be the number that demanded you explain to an emotional and confused child that his or her life could be saved, but 100 fetuses is just too many let expire. Or is it 1000? Would 1 million justify it for you when explaining to the child’s friends and family why you made your choice?

Undoubtably there are some principled religious purists that will flip the coin and answer that the 8 year old child and the unborn fetus truly are morally equivalent and would allow the conscious child to die if that’s what chance dictates. It’s worth knowing who believes that. Who but the most extreme could maintain such a compassionless position? When confronted directly it becomes apparent very quickly that a living person is more valuable than a clump of cells. And once you start accounting for the reasons why those two entities deserve different moral values, the logical path toward consequentialism and the pro-choice view materializes.

I find a living sentient person so much more valuable that no number of voluntary abortions could persuade me allow an 8 year old to die in order to save them. Doesn’t that imply that I place zero moral weight on the unborn of mothers choosing abortions? Actually, yes. And you should value conscious life infinitely more as well.

(Ultrasound image from UPMC)

Categories: Reproductive Rights
  1. Antonio
    June 10, 2013 at 7:58 pm

    So in your argument intelligence (being aware and having control over your environment) plays a role in who lives or dies? Or did I miss something! A conscious being being saved over those that are still unborn is not an argument that I would like to defend.

    I prefer to accept that when one aborts one is terminating a life just like when a suffering dying human being can be given a lethal injection to end the suffering. Of course a fetus does not have control or a say in the matter whereas a dying patient does. We rationally know that life begins at conception not at birth but still accept the woman’s right to have control over her own body.

    • June 10, 2013 at 11:05 pm

      It’s not that awareness “plays a role in who lives or dies” but it helps determine how we should approach ethical problems.

      You can “prefer to accept” that abortion is “just like” the death of any other dying person, but I noticed you didn’t answer the challenge. If you think life begins at conception and believe that fetal life is morally similar to conscious life I’d be curious to know if you’d allow the 8-year old die to save a fetus if you had only the ability to save one option. Why or why not? What accounts for the distinction if there is one?

      I’m not persuaded that “life” in itself is the quality that we should value – a stronger case can be made that conscious life makes all the relevant difference.

  2. Peter Pajakowski
    June 12, 2013 at 10:05 am

    This is a great point, Dan. It demonstrates the complexity of the issue. In the “Centrist Manifesto”, Charles Wheelan delineates a similar logical complexity to the issue, pointing out that those who want to avoid the “extreme” of saying that abortion should be allowed in cases of rape or the life of the mother are actually holding a logically inconsistent position if they claim that life begins at conception and that all life is equally sacred. Your question is one that I intend to put to people on both sides of the issue.

    I don’t think that the answer they give is as important as the process by which they arrive at it.

    • June 12, 2013 at 12:19 pm

      Exactly – the thought experiment is designed to probe into the reasons for your moral choice.

  3. Antonio
    June 13, 2013 at 6:35 pm

    I would definitely save the 8 year old and let the fetus die (kill it). When we say die it means it was living. For generations it has been accepted that the weaker shall perish, survival of the fittest. However this is a discussion on abortion and I was pointing out that I look at it from a perspective that the weaker minded should not be chosen over the intellectual superior when making decisions on who lives or dies.

    Neither am I implying you are, however if you had to choose between an average 8 year old and a multi handicapped one, which one would choose? Glad we are not playing god!

    • June 13, 2013 at 6:43 pm

      But if “life” for you is the quality worth protecting and not ‘conscious life’, why would you choose the 8 year old over the fetus? What reasons do you have for that choice? And is there a number of fetuses that would tip the scale and you’d allow the 8 year old to die in order to save the fetuses?

      Also, I want to clarify that it’s not “intelligence” that is the relevant value, but consciousness and the ability to suffer. There is no reason to believe that the mentally handicapped have any significantly reduced ability to suffer or experience joy.

  4. Antonio
    June 13, 2013 at 9:49 pm

    What about degree of suffering or ability to suffer and from whose perspective? When you abort a fetus I assume more then one being suffers. When one kills a bug I assume it suffers but we assume correctly it did not consciously suffer. I am not sure that conscientiousness and intelligence can that be easily separated.

    • June 13, 2013 at 10:11 pm

      I was curious about your actual answers to the questions I posed in my last reply. I hope you’ll answer them in your next response.

      Antonio :

      I am not sure that conscientiousness and intelligence can that be easily separated.

      I assume you mean “consciousness;” if so, you don’t think they’re different? You believe that less intelligent people are less consciously aware of their pain or happiness? I see no reason to believe they’re totally correlated. There are however many reasons to believe that fetuses are not aware of any pain. For some of development there aren’t even neurons and throughout development the fetus is suspended in a neuroinhibitory and sedated environment.

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