PHTRPP

Why does Marquis think abortion is immoral? What is his argument? Thomson argues that abortion is permissible, at least in a wide range of cases. What are those cases and what is/are her arguments? Do Marquis’s arguments challenge those of Thomson, or can one endorse both positions without contradiction? Justify your answer in either case. Cite all the texts you employ. In offering your own judgment and defense, use course concepts.
philosophyabortion
ATTACHED FILE(S)
WALTER SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG
YOU CAN’T LOSE WHAT YOU AIN’T NEVER HAD:
A REPLY TO MARQUIS ON ABORTION∗
(Received in revised form 22 May 1997)
Don Marquis’s article, “Why Abortion Is Immoral”,1 has been
anthologized very quickly and very widely. It is easy to see why.
Marquis presents the most sophisticated and detailed argument
against abortion in the literature. This makes it important to determ-
ine whether his argument succeeds. I will argue that it does not.
1. MARQUIS’S ARGUMENT
Marquis’s argument takes the form of an inference to the best expla-
nation. He begins with the assumption that it is morally wrong to
kill me or you or any normal adult human in normal circumstances.2
He then proposes an explanation ofwhy this is morally wrong. He
also criticizes several alternative explanations, usually by showing
that these alternatives conflict with his (or our) moral intuitions (or
beliefs) about other cases. He concludes that his proposal is the best
explanation of the moral wrongness of killing, and this supports its
underlying moral principle.
Marquis’s proposed explanation is that it is morally wrong to kill
a normal adult human except in extreme circumstances because it
is morally wrong to cause “the loss to the victim of the value of its
future” (192). He then claims that an abortion also causes a fetus to
lose a valuable future, so abortion is also morally wrong except in
the same extreme circumstances.
2. PREVIOUS CRITICISMS
Three criticisms of Marquis’s article were published the following
year. All three fail to refute Marquis’s main argument.
Philosophical Studies96: 59–72, 1997.
© 1997Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
60 WALTER SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG
The first criticism, by Ann Cudd, accuses Marquis of “assuming
that whatever rights of, or obligations to, fetuses there are, they must
be absolute.”3 However, Marquis’s argument is not formulated in
terms of either rights or obligations, and he admits several times
that “the most extreme reasons” can justify abortion. His claim is
that it would take the same strength and kind of reason to justify
killing a fetus as it would take to justify killing a normal adult
human. We would like to hear more aboutwhich circumstances are
extreme enough to justify killing normal human adults and fetuses,
but Marquis is definitely not committed to absolute rights.
The second response was by Peter MacInerney.4 His main claim
is that fetuses lack the mental states that many philosophers take to
be necessary for personal identity, so the fetus does not possess its
future, since it is not the same as the person who will or would have
that future. However, Marquis emphasizes that his argument avoids
the concept of a person (192). Consequently, Marquis can respond
that the fetus is the sameorganismas the body into which it will or
would develop, even if it is not the sameperson. Marquis’s argument
works just as well if he refers to the future of the organism. He does
not need to refer to the future of a person.
The third response, by Alastair Norcross, claims that Marquis’s
explanation implies that contraception is immoral in the same
circumstances as abortion. Marquis denied this on the grounds that
“Nothing at all is denied such a future by contraception” (201),
but Norcross responds that “a mereological sum of a sperm and an
ovum” is “a thing” that can lose its future.5 However, Marquis can
just rephrase his point. Even if a mereological sum is athing, it is
not an organism. The organism with the relevant future does not
exist until the sperm fertilizes the ovum, so contraception does not
deny a future to that organism. The egg and the sperm might also
be organisms, but abortion does not cause them the loss of a future,
since these particular organisms would not exist after conception
anyway. Neither is the same organism as the zygote after concep-
tion, because the egg and sperm are different from each other, and
there is no reason to identify the zygote with one but not the other.
In response, Norcross would probably ask why it matters whether
something is the same organism, but the issue here is killing, and
only organisms can have a life or be killed, so any moral principle
A REPLY TO MARQUIS ON ABORTION 61
that restricts killing protects only organisms. Some opponents might
also respond that Marquis’s explanation still implies the immorality
of those kinds of contraception that prevent a zygote from implant-
ing or developing after conception. However, many people do not
find this implication counterintuitive, so this objection would be at
best inconclusive, at least for those people.
3. EQUIVOCATION
So far, then, it seems to me that Marquis is winning the debate. No
critic has yet revealed a fatal flaw in his argument. However, there
is such a flaw. That, along with the philosophical interest and wide-
spread distribution of his argument, makes it worthwhile to look
again at Marquis’s argument.
In my view, the central flaw in Marquis’s argument is a fallacy
of equivocation. When Marquis applies his proposed explanation to
abortion (192), his basic argument is this:
(1) It is morally wrong except in extreme circumstances to
cause anything the loss of a valuable future.
(2) Abortion causes a fetus the loss of a valuable future.
(3) Therefore, abortion is morally wrong except in extreme
circumstances.
What does the term “loss” mean here? Losing a future is not like
losing one’s car keys, or even like losing money in the stock market.
So, whatis the loss of a future? The answer is not clear, and Marquis
says nothing to clarify his idea.6
We can begin to understand losses by looking at examples.
Suppose the winner of a race will receive a valuable trophy that is
now held by an official. Lee and Kristin are the only racers, so Lee
will win unless Kristin beats him; but Kristin wins the race. When
Kristin wins, does she cause Leethe loss of a valuable trophy? One
could answer both “Yes” and “No” in different ways. Kristin’s act
of winning the race causes Lee to lose the race and causes his loss of
the race. Kristin thereby prevents Lee from gaining the trophy. This
line of reasoning might make it seem that Kristin’s winning causes
thelossof the trophy to Lee. In another way, however, it seems odd
62 WALTER SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG
to say that Kristin causes Lee anyloss of the trophy, because Lee
does not own the trophy, and he does not have any right either to
gain the trophy or to win the race.8 As the great sage Muddy Waters
said, “You can’t lose what you ain’t never had.”
This suggests two ways to talk about losses. The first is neutral
or non-moral:
(NL) An agent’s act causes theneutral loss of something valu-
able to a loser if and only if (i) the agent does the act, and
(ii) the loser does not gain or keep the valuable thing, but
(iii) the loser would gain or keep the valuable thing if the
agent did not do the act.9
Kristin’s act of winning the racedoescause thisneutralkind of loss
to Lee of the trophy. Such neutral losses contrast with moral losses,
which can be defined roughly like this:
(ML) An agent’s act causes themoral loss of something valu-
able to a loser if and only if (i) the agent does the act, (ii)
the loser does not gain or keep the valuable thing, (iii) the
loser would gain or keep the valuable thing if the agent did
not do the act, (iv) the loser has a moral right to the means
necessary for gaining or keeping that valuable thing, and
(v) the agent does not have a moral right to those means.10
Kristin winning the race doesnot cause amoral loss to Lee, since
Lee did not own the trophy or have any right to gain the trophy or
to win the race. Details might be controversial, but (NL) and (ML)
represent two general approaches to losses.11
This distinction creates two ways to read Marquis’s argument
(1)–(3). First suppose that the argument refers toneutral losses as
on (NL). It is clear that (2) abortion causes a neutral loss of a future
to a fetus (assuming the fetus would live if the abortion were not
performed). Since Marquis calls this premise “obvious” (192), here
he seems to have neutral losses in mind. However, it is then less
clear that (1) it is morally wrong except in extreme circumstances to
cause a neutral loss of a valuable future. If the term “loss” does not
imply any moral right, it is not obviouswhy it is morally wrong to
cause such a neutral loss.
A REPLY TO MARQUIS ON ABORTION 63
This problem is solved if Marquis refers tomoral losses as on
(ML). To cause a moral loss is to violate the loser’s moral right
when the agent has no moral right to do so. This makes it clearer
why (1) it is normally morally wrong to cause the moral loss of a
valuable future. However, it is less clear that (2) abortion causes the
moral loss of a future to a fetus. If the term “loss” implies a moral
right, then we cannot determine whether abortion causes any loss to
the fetus until we determine whether the fetus has a moral right to
the necessary means to its future. It would beg the question in this
context to assume this controversial premise without any argument.
Not only does Marquis not give us any argument for this claim, but
also it is hard to see how hecould give any such argument without
running into all of the standard troubles which plague previous argu-
ments against abortion (and which Marquis discusses forcefully in
the first part of his article).
Thus, each use of the term “loss” makes one premise clearly true
but leaves the other premise questionable. This seems to be a kind
of equivocation. The point is not that readers cannot tell whether
Marquis refers to moral losses or to neutral losses. At most places in
his article, it is pretty clear that Marquis refers to neutral losses.
Nonetheless, the terms in which the argument is formulated are
ambiguous in this context, and the force of the argument for many
readers depends on a confusion between these two kinds of losses.
That is how the argument commits the fallacy of equivocation.
4. THE BEST EXPLANATION
To respond to this charge, Marquis needs to show that the argument
works when the ambiguity is removed and the term “loss” is used in
a single way throughout. But then does it refer toneutral losses or
to moral losses? Marquis cannot always refer tomoral losses, since
then premise (2) would beg the question, as I just showed. The only
viable alternative is for Marquis to stick toneutrallosses throughout
his argument. This use of the term “loss” makes it obvious that (2)
abortion causes a loss of a valuable future, so all Marquis has to do
to save his argument is to show that (1) it is morally wrong except in
extreme circumstances to cause the neutral loss of a valuable future.
He would probably claim that this is exactly what is supported by
his inference to the best explanation.
64 WALTER SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG
But does Marquis’s inference to the best explanation really
support principle (1) about neutral losses? Despite some qualms,
I will grant for the sake of argument that this principle does explain
our moral intuitions in his cases better than any alternative that he
mentions.12 Nonetheless, I will argue that another explanation is
even better.
Marquis claims that the explanation of why it is morally wrong
to kill normal human adults and fetuses is that:
(NE) It is morally wrong except in extreme circumstances to
cause anything theneutralloss of a valuable future.
It should come as no surprise that my alternative explanation is:
(ME) It is morally wrong except in extreme circumstances to
cause anything the neutral loss of a valuable future when
the loser has a moral right to the means necessary for that
valuable future and the agent does not have a moral right
to that means.
This is equivalent to
(ME*) It is morally wrong except in extreme circumstances to
cause anything themoral loss of a valuable future.
In comparing these alternatives, the first thing to notice is that
they have exactly the same implications wherever the loserdoes
have a moral right and the agentdoes nothave a moral right to the
necessary means. Consequently, no moral intuitions in such cases
can show that either of these explanations is better than the other.
These explanations differ only when the loser doesnot have a right
to the means to its future or the agentdoeshave a right to that means.
Before turning to those crucial cases, however, it is useful to
consider other values. Recall the race between Kristin and Lee.
Kristin causes Lee the neutral loss of a valuable trophy, but her act
is not morally wrong, because Lee has no moral right to win the
race or to gain the trophy. In contrast, suppose that Lee shows up for
the race without any shoes, and Kristin happened to bring an extra
pair that fits Lee. Lee will win if Kristin loans him her shoes, but
Kristin will win if she refuses to loan him her shoes. It would be
A REPLY TO MARQUIS ON ABORTION 65
nice for Kristin to loan Lee her shoes, but, since Lee has no right
to the shoes, and Kristin does, it does not seem morally wrong for
Kristin to refuse to loan Lee her shoes, or for Kristin then to win the
race and the trophy. In contrast, suppose Lee brings his own running
shoes, but Kristin steals them and she wins the race. These shoes
are Lee’s means of winning, he has a right to use them, and Kristin
does not have any right to take them. In this case, Kristin does cause
a moral loss to Lee of the trophy (as well as of the shoes). More
generally, the difference between taking and stealing can be seen
as an instance of the difference between causing a neutral loss and
causing a moral (or legal) loss. Such cases suggest that the best
explanation of these cases is not that it is morally wrong to cause
the neutral loss of a valuable thing, but is instead that it is morally
wrong to cause the neutral loss of a valuable thing when the loser
does have and the depriver does not have a right to the necessary
means to that valuable thing.
An opponent might respond that this case is irrelevant because
what is lost is not a whole future. However, an explanation is better,
because more coherent, if it avoids using different principles for
losses of different kinds of values (without an adequate reason to
use different principles). Thus, if my proposed explanation is better
in the case of a valuable trophy, that makes (ME) better than (NE)
in the case of a valuable future.
Moreover, (ME) also seems better than (NE) in cases where a
whole future is at stake.13 For example, suppose Adam will die
without a certain medicine. Beth has a milder case of the disease,
so she needs the same medicine only to prevent her from being sick
for nine months, from some risks of complications, and from longer-
term adverse effects on career, feelings, etc. However, Beth owns the
only dose of the medicine. She obtained it fairly and did not promise
it to anyone. If Adam asks Beth to give him her medicine, would it
be morally wrong for Beth to refuse? I don’t think so.
It doesn’t even matter if Adam has Beth’s medicine in his phys-
ical possession. Suppose that Beth plans to take her medicine after
eating in a restaurant. She puts her medicine into the pocket of a coat
on a rack, but she mistakenly puts it into Adam’s coat. When Beth
comes for her medicine, Adam has already found it, and he refuses
to return it to Beth. In these circumstances, is it morally permissible
66 WALTER SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG
for Beth to take the medicine from Adam, or to get the police to
take it? I think so. It would benicer for Beth to let Adam have the
medicine, but Beth isnot morally requiredto give it to Adam, and
it would not be morallywrong for Beth to take her medicine from
Adam. The reason is clear: the medicine is Beth’s property, so she
has a right to decide who uses it, and Adam has no right to it unless
she gives it to him or he gets that right in some other way.
Nonetheless, Beth’s act of taking her medicine from Adam
causes Adam a neutral loss of a valuable future. Thus, (NE) implies
that it is morally wrong for Beth to take her own medicine from
Adam. In contrast, (ME) implies that it wouldnot be morally wrong
for Beth to take her medicine from Adam, since she does have and
he does not have a right to her medicine.14 Thus, (ME) is a better
explanation than (NE) of the moral wrongness in such cases.
The implications for abortion should be obvious. To stay alive,
a fetus needs a place to grow, as well as blood and other fluids for
nourishment, but what it needs belong to the pregnant woman and
not to the fetus. Thus, (ME) doesnot imply that abortion would
be morally wrong in circumstances where the fetus lacks a right
to the womb and blood that are necessary for its future. Just as
it is not morally wrong to prevent a doctor from taking blood or
bone marrow out of a woman without her permission even to save
someone else’s life, so it is not morally wrong to stop a fetus from
using its mother’s blood and womb, unless it somehow gains the
moral right to those means to its life. Thus, if (ME) or anything like
it provides the best explanation, then Marquis’s kind of argument
cannot show that abortion is immoral in general.
5. RESPONSES
Of course, many responses are possible. One might respond that a
fetus usuallydoeshave a moral right to the means to life, since its
mother gave it that right when she voluntarily engaged in the sex that
led to her pregnancy (assuming that she was not raped). I will not
address the complex issue of responsibility here. My point for now
is just that the fetus needs to somehow get that moral right to the
means to its future in order for (ME) to apply and to make abortion
morally wrong.
A REPLY TO MARQUIS ON ABORTION 67
A second response might be that causing lossesis sometimes
morally wrong, even when the loser doesnot have a moral right to
the necessary means to avoid loss. This happens when third parties
are wronged or when the loss is insignificant or grossly dispropor-
tionate to any gain. For example, if Beth needs her medicine only to
prevent one short, mild headache, but Adam needs it to save his life,
then it seems morally wrong for Beth to refuse to give her medicine
to Adam.15 If so, (ML) and (ME) need to be complicated somewhat.
Even if so, however, to apply this concession to abortion, one would
need to argue that the loss to the pregnant woman and others is so
small or so disproportionate to the loss to the fetus that it is morally
wrong to cause the latter in order to prevent the former, despite
the disparity in rights. This would require a new argument, and the
examples of Beth’s medicine and of taking blood or bone marrow
without consent suggest that such an argument will founder on the
fact that unwanted pregnancy and birth usually do not cause only
minor losses.
Opponents of abortion also might deny my intuitions. They might
claim that itwould be morally wrong for Beth to take her medicine
from Adam when Adam needs it to stay alive and Beth needs it
only to prevent nine months of illness and so on, and for one to
refuse to donate blood or bone marrow when this is needed to save
a life. I find this implausible, but it is hard to know what more to say
when intuitions clash in this way. Still, we can say that it isat least
not obvious that it would be morally wrong for Beth to take her
medicine from Adam or for one to refuse to donate one’s needed
blood or bone marrow. Thus, Marquis hasat leastnot shown that
(NE) provides the best explanation of the moral wrongness of killing
or that abortion is immoral.
A fourth response might be that (ME) fails as an explanation
because (ME) citesmoral properties. Marquis seems to demand
an explanation in non-moral terms when he writes, “The point
of the analysis is to establish whichnatural property ultimately
explains the wrongness of the killing, given that it is wrong.” (190;
my emphasis) However, Marquis does not follow his own restric-
tion. His explanation refers to “thevalue of its future” (192; my
emphasis), and values are no more natural than rights.
68 WALTER SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG
(ME) still might seem circular in a way that (NE) is not, because
(ME) cites moral rights to explain moral wrongness, and moral
rights are themselves normally explained in terms of moral wrong-
ness. This charge cannot be made against Marquis’s reference to
values. And I grant that it would be circular to say that it would be
morally wrong to kill something because that thing has a right not
to be killed. However, this isnot what (ME) says. (ME) explains
the wrongness of killing in terms of a moral right to themeans
to a valuable future, which, in the case of abortion, includes the
pregnant woman’s womb and blood. That right can be explained in
terms of rights to decide what is done with that womb and blood.
For example, the pregnant woman can sell or donate her blood to
a blood bank, but nobody else can. She can consent to the surgical
removal of her womb, but nobody else can (while she is competent).
Thus, these rights can be explained and justified without referring to
abortion or killing. (ME) is then useful as an explanation because
it shows how this right fits into a more general moral structure that
applies to many otherwise unrelated situations.
Nonetheless, some opponents, including Marquis, still might
insist on removingall moral terms from any explanation or moral
wrongness. This is hard, but not impossible. My notion of a right
in (ME), like his notion of value in (NE), could in theory be
replaced by a naturalistic description of the non-moral base on
which moral rights supervene. Any such naturalistic replacement,
however, would depend on a particular, substantive theory of moral
rights, which is bound to be controversial. Since my points do
not depend on any particular substantive theory, I do not need to
replace the moral terms in (ME) with particular naturalistic terms. I
can remain neutral among defensible substantive theories of moral
rights, because any substantive theory would be inadequate if it did
not imply that Beth has a right to her medicine and that a woman
has a right to her blood and womb, so any defensible substantive
theory of rights would make (ME) or its naturalistic replacement
into a better explanation than (NE).
A very persistent opponent still might not believe that any such
replacement is even possible. These doubts can be relieved some-
what by suggesting very briefly and schematically how one natur-
alistic replacement could work. Consider a rule-consequentialist
A REPLY TO MARQUIS ON ABORTION 69
account of moral rights on which one has a moral right to something
if and only if society is better off when a rule against certain inter-
ferences with certain people’s use of similar things is entrenched
into the moral attitudes and practices of almost all members of that
society. Then (ME) can be restated as:
(ME**) It is morally wrong except in extreme circumstances to
cause anything the neutral loss of a valuable future when
doing so violates a rule whose entrenchment benefits
society and which concerns the use of something that
is a necessary means to that valuable future.
Many details need to be spelled out, but I hope that (ME**) is
clear enough to illustrate one way to avoid any direct reference to
moral rights in (ME). I am not claiming that this particular rule-
consequentialist theory of rights is adequate, but this example at
least shows the possibility of avoiding any apparent circularity in
(ME).
Marquis has one move left. He explicitly warned that he “will
assume, but not argue” that “whether or not abortion is morally
permissible stands or falls on whether or not a fetus is the sort of
being whose life it is seriously wrong to end” (183). Marquis might
respond that my criticisms do not deny that fetuses are this “sort of
being”. In a way, this is correct. To defend abortion on my account,
it is enough that the fetus lacks the right to the means necessary for
its life, including the mother’s blood and womb. I do not and need
not deny that fetuses are the sort of being thatcanbe given the right
to the means to life and to the necessary means to life. Indeed, I
need not deny that the fetushasa right to life or that it is seriously
wrong for some people in some circumstances to kill a fetus.16 What
I do deny is that Marquis has shown that it is “seriously wrong” for
a pregnant woman to end the life of a fetus by getting an abortion.
Even if my points concern only an exception to a general rule against
killing, this exceptionis the rule in abortion. Marquis admits that
killing can be justified in extreme circumstances, but he claims to
have shown why “morally permissible abortions will be rare indeed”
(194). The exception for which I argue will hold in almost all cases
of abortion, at least if the pregnant woman did not give the fetus the
70 WALTER SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG
right to use her blood and womb. My argument thereby shows that
morally permissible abortions will be common indeed.
6. CONCLUSION
Overall, then, Marquis’s argument fails to show that abortion is
immoral to the extent that he claimed. To save his argument,
Marquis would need to show that a fetus has a moral right to
the means it needs to gain its future or that the woman lacks a
moral right to control her blood and womb or else that the pregnant
woman’s loss is so minor or so grossly disproportionate to the fetus’s
loss that it would be morally wrong for her to refuse to let it use her
body, despite the disparity in rights. Such issues are controversial,
and one of Marquis’s main goals was to sidestep them. What I have
tried to show is that he cannot really avoid them in the end.
NOTES
∗ I am very grateful for helpful comments by Ann Bumpus, Sarah Buss,
Bob Fogelin, Bernard Gert, Don Hubin, Steve Jacobson, Don Marquis, Alastair
Norcross, Stefan Sencerz, Suzanne Uniacke, and audiences at the Australian
National University, the University of Wollongong, and the Central Divison of
the American Philosophical Association.
1 Don Marquis, “Why Abortion is Immoral,”Journal of Philosophy86, 4 (April
1989): 183–202. All page references in the text are to this article.
2 The qualification “in normal circumstances” indicates that killing normal adults
as ageneralkind of act is morally wrong onlyprima facie, but aparticular act of
killing a normal adult in normal circumstances where there is no special reason to
kill is still morally wrong overall. Moral wrongness needs to be explained at both
levels.
3 Ann Cudd, “Sensationalized Philosophy: A Reply to Marquis’s ‘Why Abortion
is Immoral,’ ” Journal of Philosophy87, 5 (May 1990): 262.
4 Peter K. McInerney, “Does a Fetus Already Have a Future-Like-Ours?”Journal
of Philosophy87, 5 (May 1990): 264–268.
5 Alastair Norcross, “Killing, Abortion, and Contraception: A Reply to Marquis,”
Journal of Philosophy87, 5 (May 1990): 271–272. On pp. 275–276, Norcross
does discuss whether a fetus has a right to its future. This issue is closely related
to my concerns, and I am indebted to his remarks, but I focus on the right to the
necessary means to its future rather than on the right to its future. See my notes
14 and 16.
6 Marquis sometimes writes of being “deprived” of a future (190), but “deprive”
A REPLY TO MARQUIS ON ABORTION 71
is no clearer than “cause a loss”, since the former would presumably be explained
in terms of the latter. (The moral connotations of “deprive” might even be clearer.)
The notion of “cause” is also unclear in this context for much the same reasons,
but I will focus on the term “loss” for simplicity.
7 This might seem disanalogous to abortion because only the fetus can have its
valuable future, whereas any runner can win the trophy. However, nobody else
can feel Lee’s feelings, but my point applies even if we refer to Lee losing the
pleasure that he would feel if he received the valuable trophy.8 Lee does have a
privilege in Hohfeld’s sense of winning the race, assuming Lee has no duty not to
win the race and it would not be wrong for him to win the race. However, Lee has
no claim against Kristin that she not win the race or not interfere with his winning
the race by beating him. Such Hohfeldian claims are what I call “rights” here and
elsewhere.
9 Problems of overdetermination infect (iii) if someone else would prevent the
victim from having the valuable thing even if this agent did not do the act that
actually causes the loss. However, these problems do not affect my point here.
10 I include both (iv) and (v), rather than their disjunction or one without the other,
because the conjunction weakens my later claims, especially (ME). In order to
discuss abortion, I do not need to take any stand on cases where neither the agent
nor the loser has a right to a means to life, or where both the agent and the loser
have a right to a means to life, if such cases are possible.
11 The moral approach to losses and the role of rights in determining what
counts as a loss or as depriving are discussed by Bernard Gert,Morality (New
York; Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 111–116. Gert argues that one does
not deprive or cause a loss to the next person in line if one buys the last bag of
popcorn or the last ticket to a football game (or to a Muddy Waters concert). I am
deeply indebted to Gert’s discussion here.
12 I think that the desire account, which Marquis rejects, could be defended
by including future desires and dispositional desires, but I will not develop that
defense here.
13 Because fetuses are not guilty, I will focus on cases where the loser is not
guilty. Nonetheless, the alternative explanations can also be tested by applying
them to self-defense when killing an attacker is necessary to prevent the attacker
from killing the defender. Such killing causes a neutral loss of a valuable future,
but it does not seem morally wrong. Marquis can try to explain this by pointing
out that a valuable future is also saved, but it also does not seem morally wrong
to kill two attackers when this is necessary to save one life. The reason seems to
be that both attackers have no right to do what they are trying to do. Thus, (ME)
seems better than (NE) at explaining moral judgments about self-defense.
14 Adam might have a moral right to his future insofar as it would be morally
wrong for Beth or some third party to kill Adam in ways other than by taking her
medicine when killing is not necessary to get her medicine. See note 16.
15 This seems to be denied by Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion,”
Philosophy and Public Affairsvol. 1, no. 1 (Fall 1971): 47–66, Section 5. It should
be clear to anyone who knows Thomson’s article that many of my claims are just
72 WALTER SINNOTT-ARMSTRONG
applications of Thomson’s views to Marquis’s argument. However, in allowing
that it might be morally wrong to cause a neutral loss for a grossly dispropor-
tionate gain, I avoid Thomson’s apparent commitment to the absoluteness of
property rights or rights to control one’s body.
16 If one accepts that a fetus is the kind of being that can have moral rights, one
might want to claim that a fetus has a moral right against third parties not to kill
it, when they are not acting as agents of the pregnant woman, and when killing
it is not necessary to protect the pregnant woman’s rights (as might become the
case after viability). Even if this is granted, however, we can still say that the fetus
has no right against the mother that she not cause it the neutral loss of a valuable
future by getting an abortion before viability.
Department of Philosophy
Dartmouth College
Hanover, NH 03755-3592
USA
Journal of Philosophy, Inc.
Why Abortion is Immoral
Author(s): Don Marquis
Source: The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 86, No. 4 (Apr., 1989), pp. 183-202
Published by: Journal of Philosophy, Inc.
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WHY ABORTION IS IMMORAL 183
WHY ABORTION IS IMMORAL
T n HE view that abortion is, with rare exceptions, seriously im-
moral 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 posi-
tion is either a symptom of irrational religious dogma or a conclusion
generated by seriously confused philosophical argument. The pur-
pose of this essay is to undermine this general belief. This essay sets
out an argument that purports to show, as well as any argument in
ethics can show, that abortion is, except possibly in rare cases, seri-
ously immoral, that it is in the same moral category as killing an
innocent adult human being.
The argument is based on a major assumption. Many of the most
insightful and careful writers on the ethics of abortion-such as Joel
Feinberg, Michael Tooley, Mary Anne Warren, H. Tristram Engel-
hardt, Jr., L. W. Sumner, John T. Noonan, Jr., and Philip Devine’-
believe that whether or not abortion is morally permissible stands or
falls on whether or not a fetus is the sort of being whose life it is
seriously wrong to end. The argument of this essay will assume, but
not argue, that they are correct.
Also, this essay will neglect issues of great importance to a complete
ethics of abortion. Some anti-abortionists will allow that certain
abortions, such as abortion before implantation or abortion when
the life of a woman is threatened by a pregnancy or abortion after
rape, may be morally permissible. This essay will not explore the
casuistry of these hard cases. The purpose of this essay is to develop a
general argument for the claim that the overwhelming majority of
deliberate abortions are seriously immoral.
I.
A sketch of standard anti-abortion and pro-choice arguments ex-
hibits how those arguments possess certain symmetries that explain
why partisans of those positions are so convinced of the correctness
of their own positions, why they are not successful in convincing
‘ Feinberg, “Abortion,” in Matters of Life and Death: New Introductory Essays
in Moral Philosophy, Tom Regan, ed. (New York: Random House, 1986), pp.
256-293; Tooley, “Abortion and Infanticide,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, ii, 1
(1972):37-65, Tooley, Abortion and Infanticide (New York: Oxford, 1984); War-
ren, “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion,” The Monist, I.vii, 1 (1973):43-
61; Engelhardt, “The Ontology of Abortion,” Ethics, lxxxiv, 3 (1974):217-234;
Sumner, Abortion and Moral Theory (Princeton: University Press, 1981); Noonan,
“An Almost Absolute Value in History,” in The Morality of Abortion: Legal and
Historical Perspectives, Noonan, ed. (Cambridge: Harvard, 1970); and Devine,
The Ethics of Homicide (Ithaca: Cornell, 1978).
0022-362X /89/8604/183-22 (? 1989 The Journal of Philosophy, Inc.
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184 THE JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY
their opponents, and why, to others, this issue seems to be unresolv-
able. An analysis of the nature of this standoff suggests a strategy for
surmounting it.
Consider the way a typical anti-abortionist argues. She will argue
or assert that life is present from the moment of conception or that
fetuses look like babies or that fetuses possess a characteristic such as
a genetic code that is both necessary and sufficient for being human.
Anti-abortionists seem to believe that (1) the truth of all of these
claims is quite obvious, and (2) establishing any of these claims is
sufficient to show that abortion is morally akin to murder.
A standard pro-choice strategy exhibits similarities. The pro-
choicer will argue or assert that fetuses are not persons or that
fetuses are not rational agents or that fetuses are not social beings.
Pro-choicers seem to believe that (1) the truth of any of these claims
is quite obvious, and (2) establishing any of these claims is sufficient
to show that an abortion is not a wrongful killing.
In fact, both the pro-choice and the anti-abortion claims do seem
to be true, although the “it looks like a baby” claim is more difficult
to establish the earlier the pregnancy. We seem to have a standoff.
How can it be resolved?
As everyone who has taken a bit of logic knows, if any of these
arguments concerning abortion is a good argument, it requires not
only some claim characterizing fetuses, but also some general moral
principle that ties a characteristic of fetuses to having or not having
the right to life or to some other moral characteristic that will gener-
ate the obligation or the lack of obligation not to end the life of a
fetus. Accordingly, the arguments of the anti-abortionist and the
pro-choicer need a bit of filling in to be regarded as adequate.
Note what each partisan will say. The anti-abortionist will claim
that her position is supported by such generally accepted moral
principles as “It is always prima facie seriously wrong to take a
human life” or “It is always prima facie seriously wrong to end the
life of a baby.” Since these are generally accepted moral principles,
her position is certainly not obviously wrong. The pro-choicer will
claim that her position is supported by such plausible moral princi-
ples as “Being a person is what gives an individual intrinsic moral
worth” or “It is only seriously prima facie wrong to take the life of a
member of the human community.” Since these are generally ac-
cepted moral principles, the pro-choice position is certainly not ob-
viously wrong. Unfortunately, we have again arrived at a standoff.
Now, how might one deal with this standoff? The standard ap-
proach is to try to show how the moral principles of one’s opponent
lose their plausibility under analysis. It is easy to see how this is
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WHY ABORTION IS IMMORAI, 185
possible. On the one hand, the anti-abortionist will defend a moral
principle concerning the wrongness of killing which tends to be
broad in scope in order that even fetuses at an early stage of preg-
nancy will fall under it. The problem with broad principles is that
they often embrace too much. In this particular instance, the princi-
ple “It is always prima facie wrong to take a human life” seems to
entail that it is wrong to end the existence of a living human cancer-
cell culture, on the grounds that the culture is both living and
human. Therefore, it seems that the anti-abortionist’s favored princi-
ple is too broad.
On the other hand, the pro-choicer wants to find a moral principle
concerning the wrongness of killing which tends to be narrow in
scope in order that fetuses will not fall under it. The problem with
narrow principles is that they often do not embrace enough. Hence,
the needed principles such as “It is prima facie seriously wrong to kill
only persons” or “It is prima facie wrong to kill only rational agents”
do not explain why it is wrong to kill infants or young children or the
severely retarded or even perhaps the severely mentally ill. There-
fore, we seem again to have a standoff. The anti-abortionist charges,
not unreasonably, that pro-choice principles concerning killing are
too narrow to be acceptable; the pro-choicer charges, not unreason-
ably, that anti-abortionist principles concerning killing are too broad
to be acceptable.
Attempts by both sides to patch up the difficulties in their posi-
tions run into further difficulties. The anti-abortionist will try to
remove the problem in her position by reformulating her principle
concerning killing in terms of human beings. Now we end up with:
“It is always prima facie seriously wrong to end the life of a human
being.” This principle has the advantage of avoiding the problem of
the human cancer-cell culture counterexample. But this advantage is
purchased at a high price. For although it is clear that a fetus is both
human and alive, it is not at all clear that a fetus is a human being.
There is at least something to be said for the view that something
becomes a human being only after a process of development, and
that therefore first trimester fetuses and perhaps all fetuses are not
yet human beings. Hence, the anti-abortionist, by this move, has
merely exchanged one problem for another.2
The pro-choicer fares no better. She may attempt to find reasons
why killing infants, young children, and the severely retarded is
2 For interesting discussions of this issue, see Warren Quinn, “Abortion: Identity
and Loss,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, xiii, 1 (1984):24-54; and Lawrence C.
Becker, “Human Being: The Boundaries of the Concept,” Philosophy and Public
Affairs, iv, 4 (1975):334-359.
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186 THE JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY
wrong which are independent of her major principle that is sup-
posed to explain the wrongness of taking human life, but which will
not also make abortion immoral. This is no easy task. Appeals to
social utility will seem satisfactory only to those who resolve not to
think of the enormous difficulties with a utilitarian account of the
wrongness of killing and the significant social costs of preserving the
lives of the unproductive.3 A pro-choice strategy that extends the
definition of ‘person’ to infants or even to young children seems just
as arbitrary as an anti-abortion strategy that extends the definition of
‘human being’ to fetuses. Again, we find symmetries in the two posi-
tions and we arrive at a standoff.
There are even further problems that reflect symmetries in the two
positions. In addition to counterexample problems, or the arbitrary
application problems that can be exchanged for them, the standard
anti-abortionist principle “It is prima facie seriously wrong to kill a
human being,” or one of its variants, can be objected to on the
grounds of ambiguity. If ‘human being’ is taken to be a biological
category, then the anti-abortionist is left with the problem of ex-
plaining why a merely biological category should make a moral dif-
ference. Why, it is asked, is it any more reasonable to base a moral
conclusion on the number of chromosomes in one’s cells than on the
color of one’s skin?4 If ‘human being’, on the other hand, is taken to
be a moral category, then the claim that a fetus is a human being
cannot be taken to be a premise in the anti-abortion argument, for it
is precisely what needs to be established. Hence, either the anti-
abortionist’s main category is a morally irrelevant, merely biological
category, or it is of no use to the anti-abortionist in establishing
(noncircularly, of course) that abortion is wrong.
Although this problem with the anti-abortionist position is often
noticed, it is less often noticed that the pro-choice position suffers
from an analogous problem. The principle “Only persons have the
right to life” also suffers from an ambiguity. The term ‘person’ is
typically defined in terms of psychological characteristics, although
there will certainly be disagreement concerning which characteristics
are most important. Supposing that this matter can be settled, the
pro-choicer is left with the problem of explaining why psychological
characteristics should make a moral difference. If the pro-choicer
should attempt to deal with this problem by claiming that an explana-
‘For example, see my “Ethics and The Elderly: Some Problems,” in Stuart
Spicker, Kathleen Woodward, and David Van Tassel, eds., Aging and the Elderly:
Humanistic Perspectives in Gerontology (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities,
1978), pp. 341-355.
4See Warren, op. cit., and Tooley, “Abortion and Infanticide.”
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WHY ABORTION IS IMMORAL 187
tion is not necessary, that in fact we do treat such a cluster of psycho-
logical properties as having moral significance, the sharp-witted
anti-abortionist should have a ready response. We do treat being
both living and human as having moral significance. If it is legitimate
for the pro-choicer to demand that the anti-abortionist provide an
explanation of the connection between the biological character of
being a human being and the wrongness of being killed (even though
people accept this connection), then it is legitimate for the anti-
abortionist to demand that the pro-choicer provide an explanation
of the connection between psychological criteria for being a person
and the wrongness of being killed (even though that connection is
accepted). 5
Feinberg has attempted to meet this objection (he calls psychologi-
cal personhood “commonsense personhood”):
The characteristics that confer commonsense personhood are not arbi-
trary bases for rights and duties, such as race, sex or species member-
ship; rather they are traits that make sense out of rights and duties and
without which those moral attributes would have no point or function. It
is because people are conscious; have a sense of their personal identities;
have plans, goals, and projects; experience emotions; are liable to pains,
anxieties, and frustrations; can reason and bargain, and so on-it is
because of these attributes that people have values and interests, desires
and expectations of their own, including a stake in their own futures,
and a personal well-being of a sort we cannot ascribe to unconscious or
nonrational beings. Because of their developed capacities they can as-
sume duties and responsibilities and can have and make claims on one
another. Only because of their sense of self, their life plans, their value
hierarchies, and their stakes in their own futures can they be ascribed
fundamental rights. There is nothing arbitrary about these linkages
(op. cit., p. 270).
The plausible aspects of this attempt should not be taken to obscure
its implausible features. There is a great deal to be said for the view
that being a psychological person under some description is a neces-
sary condition for having duties. One cannot have a duty unless one
is capable of behaving morally, and a being’s capability of behaving
morally will require having a certain psychology. It is far from obvi-
ous, however, that having rights entails consciousness or rationality,
as Feinberg suggests. We speak of the rights of the severely retarded
or the severely mentally ill, yet some of these persons are not ra-
tional. We speak of the rights of the temporarily unconscious. The
New Jersey Supreme Court based their decision in the Quinlan case
‘ This seems to be the fatal flaw in Warren’s treatment of this issue.
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188 THE JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY
on Karen Ann Quinlan’s right to privacy, and she was known to be
permanently unconscious at that time. Hence, Feinberg’s claim that
having rights entails being conscious is, on its face, obviously false.
Of course, it might not make sense to attribute rights to a being
that would never in its natural history have certain psychological
traits. This modest connection between psychological personhood
and moral personhood will create a place for Karen Ann Quinlan
and the temporarily unconscious. But then it makes a place for
fetuses also. Hence, it does not serve Feinberg’s pro-choice pur-
poses. Accordingly, it seems that the pro-choicer will have as much
difficulty bridging the gap between psychological personhood and
personhood in the moral sense as the anti-abortionist has bridging
the gap between being a biological human being and being a human
being in the moral sense.
Furthermore, the pro-choicer cannot any more escape her prob-
lem by making person a purely moral category than the anti-abor-
tionist could escape by the analogous move. For if person is a moral
category, then the pro-choicer is left without the resources for es-
tablishing (noncircularly, of course) the claim that a fetus is not a
person, which is an essential premise in her argument. Again, we
have both a symmetry and a standoff between pro-choice and anti-
abortion views.
Passions in the abortion debate run high. There are both plausi-
bilities and difficulties with the standard positions. Accordingly, it is
hardly surprising that partisans of either side embrace with fervor
the moral generalizations that support the conclusions they preana-
lytically favor, and reject with disdain the moral generalizations of
their opponents as being subject to inescapable difficulties. It is easy
to believe that the counterexamples to one’s own moral principles
are merely temporary difficulties that will dissolve in the wake of
further philosophical research, and that the counterexamples to the
principles of one’s opponents are as straightforward as the contra-
diction between A and 0 propositions in traditional logic. This might
suggest to an impartial observer (if there are any) that the abortion
issue is unresolvable.
There is a way out of this apparent dialectical quandary. The moral
generalizations of both sides are not quite correct. The generaliza-
tions hold for the most part, for the usual cases. This suggests that
they are all accidental generalizations, that the moral claims made by
those on both sides of the dispute do not touch on the essence of the
matter.
This use of the distinction between essence and accident is not
meant to invoke obscure metaphysical categories. Rather, it is in-
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WHY ABORTION IS IMMORAL 189
tended to reflect the rather atheoretical nature of the abortion dis-
cussion. If the generalization a partisan in the abortion dispute
adopts were derived from the reason why ending the life of a human
being is wrong, then there could not be exceptions to that general-
ization unless some special case obtains in which there are even more
powerful countervailing reasons. Such generalizations would not be
merely accidental generalizations; they would point to, or be based
upon, the essence of the wrongness of killing, what it is that makes
killing wrong. All this suggests that a necessary condition of resolving
the abortion controversy is a more theoretical account of the
wrongness of killing. After all, if we merely believe, but do not un-
derstand, why killing adult human beings such as ourselves is wrong,
how could we conceivably show that abortion is either immoral or
permissible?
II.
In order to develop such an account, we can start from the following
unproblematic assumption concerning our own case: it is wrong to
kill us. Why is it wrong? Some answers can be easily eliminated. It
might be said that what makes killing us wrong is that a killing bruta-
lizes the one who kills. But the brutalization consists of being inured
to the performance of an act that is hideously immoral; hence, the
brutalization does not explain the immorality. It might be said that
what makes killing us wrong is the great loss others would experience
due to our absence. Although such hubris is understandable, such an
explanation does not account for the wrongness of killing hermits, or
those whose lives are relatively independent and whose friends find it
easy to make new friends.
A more obvious answer is better. What primarily makes killing
wrong is neither its effect on the murderer nor its effect on the
victim’s friends and relatives, but its effect on the victim. The loss of
one’s life is one of the greatest losses one can suffer. The loss of one’s
life deprives one of all the experiences, activities, projects, and en-
joyments that would otherwise have constituted one’s future. There-
fore, killing someone is wrong, primarily because the killing inflicts
(one of) the greatest possible losses on the victim. To describe this as
the loss of life can be misleading, however. The change in my biologi-
cal state does not by itself make killing me wrong. The effect of the
loss of my biological life is the loss to me of all those activities,
projects, experiences, and enjoyments which would otherwise have
constituted my future personal life. These activities, projects, experi-
ences, and enjoyments are either valuable for their own sakes or are
means to something else that is valuable for its own sake. Some parts
of my future are not valued by me now, but will come to be valued by
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190 THE JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY
me as I grow older and as my values and capacities change. When I
am killed, I am deprived both of what I now value which would have
been part of my future personal life, but also what I would come to
value. Therefore, when I die, I am deprived of all of the value of my
future. Inflicting this loss on me is ultimately what makes killing me
wrong. This being the case, it would seem that what makes killing any
adult human being prima facie seriously wrong is the loss of his or
her future.6
How should this rudimentary theory of the wrongness of killing be
evaluated? It cannot be faulted for deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’,
for it does not. The analysis assumes that killing me (or you, reader) is
prima facie seriously wrong. The point of the analysis is to establish
which natural property ultimately explains the wrongness of the kill-
ing, given that it is wrong. A natural property will ultimately explain
the wrongness of killing, only if (1) the explanation fits with our
intuitions about the matter and (2) there is no other natural property
that provides the basis for a better explanation of the wrongness of
killing. This analysis rests on the intuition that what makes killing a
particular human or animal wrong is what it does to that particular
human or animal. What makes killing wrong is some natural effect or
other of the killing. Some would deny this. For instance, a divine-
command theorist in ethics would deny it. Surely this denial is, how-
ever, one of those features of divine-command theory which renders
it so implausible.
The claim that what makes killing wrong is the loss of the victim’s
future is, directly supported by two considerations. In the first place,
this theory explains why we regard killing as one of the worst of
crimes. Killing is especially wrong, because it deprives the victim of
more than perhaps any other crime. In the second place, people with
AIDS or cancer who know they are dying believe, of course, that
dying is a very bad thing for them. They believe that the loss of a
future to them that they would otherwise have experienced is what
makes their premature death a very bad thing for them. A better
theory of the wrongness of killing would require a different natural
property associated with killing which better fits with the attitudes of
the dying. What could it be?
The view that what makes killing wrong is the loss to the victim of
the value of the victim’s future gains additional support when some
of its implications are examined. In the first place, it is incompatible
h I have been most influenced on this matter byJonathan Glover, Causing Death
and Saving Lives (New York: Penguin, 1977), ch. 3; and Robert Young, “What Is
So Wrong with Killing People?” Philosophy, l iv, 210 (1979):515-528.
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WHY ABORTION IS IMMORAL 191
with the view that it is wrong to kill only beings who are biologically
human. It is possible that there exists a different species from an-
other planet whose members have a future like ours. Since having a
future like that is what makes killing someone wrong, this theory
entails that it would be wrong to kill members of such a species.
Hence, this theory is opposed to the claim that only life that is
biologically human has great moral worth, a claim which many anti-
abortionists have seemed to adopt. This opposition, which this
theory has in common with personhood theories, seems to be a merit
of the theory.
In the second place, the claim that the loss of one’s future is the
wrong-making feature of one’s being killed entails the possibility that
the futures of some actual nonhuman mammals on our own planet
are sufficiently like ours that it is seriously wrong to kill them also.
Whether some animals do have the same right to life as human beings
depends on adding to the account of the wrongness of killing some
additional account ofjust what it is about my future or the futures of
other adult human beings which makes it wrong to kill us. No such
additional account will be offered in this essay. Undoubtedly, the
provision of such an account would be a very difficult matter. Un-
doubtedly, any such account would be quite controversial. Hence, it
surely should not reflect badly on this sketch of an elementary theory
of the wrongness of killing that it is indeterminate with respect to
some very difficult issues regarding animal rights.
In the third place, the claim that the loss of one’s future is the
wrong-making feature of one’s being killed does not entail, as sanc-
tity of human life theories do, that active euthanasia is wrong. Per-
sons who are severely and incurably ill, who face a future of pain and
despair, and who wish to die will not have suffered a loss if they are
killed. It is, strictly speaking, the value of a human’s future which
makes killing wrong in this theory. This being so, killing does not
necessarily wrong some persons who are sick and dying. Of course,
there may be other reasons for a prohibition of active euthanasia, but
that is another matter. Sanctity-of-human-life theories seem to hold
that active euthanasia is seriously wrong even in an individual case
where there seems to be good reason for it independently of public
policy considerations. This consequence is most implausible, and it is
a plus for the claim that the loss of a future of value is what makes
killing wrong that it does not share this consequence.
In the fourth place, the account of the wrongness of killing de-
fended in this essay does straightforwardly entail that it is prima facie
seriously wrong to kill children and infants, for we do presume that
they have futures of value. Since we do believe that it is wrong to kill
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192 THE JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY
defenseless little babies, it is important that a theory of the wrong-
ness of killing easily account for this. Personhood theories of the
wrongness of killing, on the other hand, cannot straightforwardly
account for the wrongness of killing infants and young children.7
Hence, such theories must add special ad hoc accounts of the
wrongness of killing the young. The plausibility of such ad hoc
theories seems to be a function of how desperately one wants such
theories to work. The claim that the primary wrong-making feature
of a killing is the loss to the victim of the value of its future accounts
for the wrongness of killing young children and infants directly; it
makes the wrongness of such acts as obvious as we actually think it is.
This is a further merit of this theory. Accordingly, it seems that this
value of a future-like-ours theory of the wrongness of killing shares
strengths of both sanctity-of-life and personhood accounts while
avoiding weaknesses of both. In addition, it meshes with a central
intuition concerning what makes killing wrong.
The claim that the primary wrong-making feature of a killing is the
loss to the victim of the value of its future has obvious consequences
for the ethics of abortion. The future of a standard fetus includes a
set of experiences, projects, activities, and such which are identical
with the futures of adult human beings and are identical with the
futures of young children. Since the reason that is sufficient to ex-
plain why it is wrong to kill human beings after the time of birth is a
reason that also applies to fetuses, it follows that abortion is prima
facie seriously morally wrong.
This argument does not rely on the invalid inference that, since it
is wrong to kill persons, it is wrong to kill potential persons also. The
category that is morally central to this analysis is the category of
having a valuable future like ours; it is not the category of person-
hood. The argument to the conclusion that abortion is prima facie
seriously morally wrong proceeded independently of the notion of
person or potential person or any equivalent. Someone may wish to
start with this analysis in terms of the value of a human future,
conclude that abortion is, except perhaps in rare circumstances,
seriously morally wrong, infer that fetuses have the right to life, and
then call fetuses “persons” as a result of their having the right to life.
Clearly, in this case, the category of person is being used to state the
conclusion of the analysis rather than to generate the argument of
the analysis.
The structure of this anti-abortion argument can be both illumi-
nated and defended by comparing it to what appears to be the best
7 Feinberg, Tooley, Warren, and Engelhardt have all dealt with this problem.
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WHY ABORTION IS IMMORAL. 193
argument for the wrongness of the wanton infliction of pain on
animals. This latter argument is based on the assumption that it is
prima facie wrong to inflict pain on me (or you, reader). What is the
natural property associated with the infliction of pain which makes
such infliction wrong? The obvious answer seems to be that the
infliction of pain causes suffering and that suffering is a misfortune.
The suffering caused by the infliction of pain is what makes the
wanton infliction of pain on me wrong. The wanton infliction of pain
on other adult humans causes suffering. The wanton infliction of
pain on animals causes suffering. Since causing suffering is what
makes the wanton infliction of pain wrong and since the wanton
infliction of pain on animals causes suffering, it follows that the
wanton infliction of pain on animals is wrong.
This argument for the wrongness of the wanton infliction of pain
on animals shares a number of structural features with the argument
for the serious prima facie wrongness of abortion. Both arguments
start with an obvious assumption concerning what it is wrong to do to
me (or you, reader). Both then look for the characteristic or the
consequence of the wrong action which makes the action wrong.
Both recognize that the wrong-making feature of these immoral
actions is a property of actions sometimes directed at individuals
other than postnatal human beings. If the structure of the argument
for the wrongness of the wanton infliction of pain on animals is
sound, then the structure of the argument for the prima facie serious
wrongness of abortion is also sound, for the structure of the two
arguments is the same. The structure common to both is the key to
the explanation of how the wrongness of abortion can be demon-
strated without recourse to the category of person. In neither argu-
ment is that category crucial.
This defense of an argument for the wrongness of abortion in
terms of a structurally similar argument for the wrongness of the
wanton infliction of pain on animals succeeds only if the account
regarding animals is the correct account. Is it? In the first place, it
seems plausible. In the second place, its major competition is Kant’s
account. Kant believed that we do not have direct duties to animals at
all, because they are not persons. Hence, Kant had to explain and
justify the wrongness of inflicting pain on animals on the grounds
that “he who is hard in his dealings with animals becomes hard also in
his dealing with men.”8 The problem with Kant’s account is that
8 “Duties to Animals and Spirits,” in Lectures on Ethics, Louis Infeld, trans.
(New York: Harper, 1963), p. 239.
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194 THE JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY
there seems to be no reason for accepting this latter claim unless
Kant’s account is rejected. If the alternative to Kant’s account is
accepted, then it is easy to understand why someone who is indiffer-
ent to inflicting pain on animals is also indifferent to inflicting pain
on humans, for one is indifferent to what makes inflicting pain
wrong in both cases. But, if Kant’s account is accepted, there is no
intelligible reason why one who is hard in his dealings with animals
(or crabgrass or stones) should also be hard in his dealings with men.
After all, men are persons: animals are no more persons than crab-
grass or stones. Persons are Kant’s crucial moral category. Why, in
short, should a Kantian accept the basic claim in Kant’s argument?
Hence, Kant’s argument for the wrongness of inflicting pain on
animals rests on a claim that, in a world of Kantian moral agents, is
demonstrably false. Therefore, the alternative analysis, being more
plausible anyway, should be accepted. Since this alternative analysis
has the same structure as the anti-abortion argument being defended
here, we have further support for the argument for the immorality of
abortion being defended in this essay.
Of course, this value of a future-like-ours argument, if sound,
shows only that abortion is prima facie wrong, not that it is wrong in
any and all circumstances. Since the loss of the future to a standard
fetus, if killed, is, however, at least as great a loss as the loss of the
future to a standard adult human being who is killed, abortion, like
ordinary killing, could be justified only by the most compelling rea-
sons. The loss of one’s life is almost the greatest misfortune that can
happen to one. Presumably abortion could be justified in some cir-
cumstances, only if the loss consequent on failing to abort would be
at least as great. Accordingly, morally permissible abortions will be
rare indeed unless, perhaps, they occur so early in pregnancy that a
fetus is not yet definitely an individual. Hence, this argument should
be taken as showing that abortion is presumptively very seriously
wrong, where the presumption is very strong-as strong as the pre-
sumption that killing another adult human being is wrong.
III.
How complete an account of the wrongness of killing does the value
of a future-like-ours account have to be in order that the wrongness
of abortion is a consequence? This account does not have to be an
account of the necessary conditions for the wrongness of killing.
Some persons in nursing homes may lack valuable human futures,
yet it may be wrong to kill them for other reasons. Furthermore, this
account does not obviously have to be the sole reason killing is wrong
where the victim did have a valuable future. This analysis claims only
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WHY ABORTION IS IMMORAL 195
that, for any killing where the victim did have a valuable future like
ours, having that future by itself is sufficient to create the strong
presumption that the killing is seriously wrong.
One way to overturn the value of a future-like-ours argument
would be to find some account of the wrongness of killing which is at
least as intelligible and which has different implications for the ethics
of abortion. Two rival accounts possess at least some degree of plau-
sibility. One account is based on the obvious fact that people value
the experience of living and wish for that valuable experience to
continue. Therefore, it might be said, what makes killing wrong is the
discontinuation of that experience for the victim. Let us call this the
discontinuation account.~’ Another rival account is based upon the
obvious fact that people strongly desire to continue to live. This
suggests that what makes killing us so wrong is that it interferes with
the fulfillment of a strong and fundamental desire, the fulfillment of
which is necessary for the fulfillment of any other desires we might
have. Let us call this the desire account. I'(
Consider first the desire account as a rival account of the ethics of
killing which would provide the basis for rejecting the anti-abortion
position. Such an account will have to be stronger than the value of a
future-like-ours account of the wrongness of abortion if it is to do
the job expected of it. To entail the wrongness of abortion, the value
of a future-like-ours account has only to provide a sufficient, but not
a necessary, condition for the wrongness of killing. The desire ac-
count, on the other hand, must provide us also with a necessary
condition for the wrongness of killing in order to generate a pro-
choice conclusion on abortion. The reason for this is that presum-
ably the argument from the desire account moves from the claim that
what makes killing wrong is interference with a very strong desire to
the claim that abortion is not wrong because the fetus lacks a strong
desire to live. Obviously, this inference fails if someone’s having the
desire to live is not a necessary condition of its being wrong to kill
that individual.
One problem with the desire account is that we do regard it as
seriously wrong to kill persons who have little desire to live or who
have no desire to live or, indeed, have a desire not to live. We believe
it is seriously wrong to kill the unconscious, the sleeping, those who
9 I am indebted to Jack Bricke for raising this objection.
“‘ Presumably a preference utilitarian would press such an objection. Tooley once
suggested that his account has such a theoretical underpinning. See his “Abortion
and Infanticide,” pp. 44/5.
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are tired of life, and those who are suicidal. The value-of-a-human-
future account renders standard morality intelligible in these cases;
these cases appear to be incompatible with the desire account.
The desire account is subject to a deeper difficulty. We desire life,
because we value the goods of this life. The goodness of life is not
secondary to our desire for it. If this were not so, the pain of one’s
own premature death could be done away with merely by an appro-
priate alteration in the configuration of one’s desires. This is absurd.
Hence, it would seem that it is the loss of the goods of one’s future,
not the interference with the fulfillment of a strong desire to live,
which accounts ultimately for the wrongness of killing.
It is worth noting that, if the desire account is modified so that it
does not provide a necessary, but only a sufficient, condition for the
wrongness of killing, the desire account is compatible with the value
of a future-like-ours account. The combined accounts will yield an
anti-abortion ethic. This suggests that one can retain what is intu-
itively plausible about the desire account without a challenge to the
basic argument of this paper.
It is also worth noting that, if future desires have moral force in a
modified desire account of the wrongness of killing, one can find
support for an anti-abortion ethic even in the absence of a value of a
future-like-ours account. If one decides that a morally relevant prop-
erty, the possession of which is sufficient to make it wrong to kill
some individual, is the desire at some future time to live-one might
decide to justify one’s refusal to kill suicidal teenagers on these
grounds, for example-then, since typical fetuses will have the desire
in the future to live, it is wrong to kill typical fetuses. Accordingly, it
does not seem that a desire account of the wrongness of killing can
provide a justification of a pro-choice ethic of abortion which is
nearly as adequate as the value of a human-future justification of an
anti-abortion ethic.
The discontinuation account looks more promising as an account
of the wrongness of killing. It seems just as intelligible as the value of
a future-like-ours account, but it does not justify an anti-abortion
position. Obviously, if it is the continuation of one’s activities, expe-
riences, and projects, the loss of which makes killing wrong, then it is
not wrong to kill fetuses for that reason, for fetuses do not have
experiences, activities, and projects to be continued or discontinued.
Accordingly, the discontinuation account does not have the anti-
abortion consequences that the value of a future-like-ours account
has. Yet, it seems as intelligible as the value of a future-like-ours
account, for when we think of what would be wrong with our being
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WHY ABORTION IS IMMORAL, 197
killed, it does seem as if it is the discontinuation of what makes our
lives worthwhile which makes killing us wrong.
Is the discontinuation account just as good an account as the value
of a future-like-ours account? The discontinuation account will not
be adequate at all, if it does not refer to the value of the experience
that may be discontinued. One does not want the discontinuation
account to make it wrong to kill a patient who begs for death and who
is in severe pain that cannot be relieved short of killing. (I leave open
the question of whether it is wrong for other reasons.) Accordingly,
the discontinuation account must be more than a bare discontinua-
tion account. It must make some reference to the positive value of
the patient’s experiences. But, by the same token, the value of a
future-like-ours account cannot be a bare future account either. Just
having a future surely does not itself rule out killing the above pa-
tient. This account must make some reference to the value of the
patient’s future experiences and projects also. Hence, both accounts
involve the value of experiences, projects, and activities. So far we
still have symmetry between the accounts.
The symmetry fades, however, when we focus on the time period
of the value of the experiences, etc., which has moral consequences.
Although both accounts leave open the possibility that the patient in
our example may be killed, this possibility is left open only in virtue
of the utterly bleak future for the patient. It makes no difference
whether the patient’s immediate past contains intolerable pain, or
consists in being in a coma (which we can imagine is a situation of
indifference), or consists in a life of value. If the patient’s future is a
future of value, we want our account to make it wrong to kill the
patient. If the patient’s future is intolerable, whatever his or her
immediate past, we want our account to allow killing the patient.
Obviously, then, it is the value of that patient’s future which is doing
the work in rendering the morality of killing the patient intelligible.
This being the case, it seems clear that whether one has immediate
past experiences or not does no work in the explanation of what
makes killing wrong. The addition the discontinuation account
makes to the value of a human future account is otiose. Its addition
to the value-of-a-future account plays no role at all in rendering
intelligible the wrongness of killing. Therefore, it can be discarded
with the discontinuation account of which it is a part.
IV.
The analysis of the previous section suggests that alternative general
accounts of the wrongness of killing are either inadequate or unsuc-
cessful in getting around the anti-abortion consequences of the value
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198 THE JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY
of a future-like-ours argument. A different strategy for avoiding
these anti-abortion consequences involves limiting the scope of the
value of a future argument. More precisely, the strategy involves
arguing that fetuses lack a property that is essential for the value-of-
a-future argument (or for any anti-abortion argument) to apply
to them.
One move of this sort is based upon the claim that a necessary
condition of one’s future being valuable is that one values it. Value
implies a valuer. Given this one might argue that, since fetuses can-
not value their futures, their futures are not valuable to them.
Hence, it does not seriously wrong them deliberately to end
their lives.
This move fails, however, because of some ambiguities. Let us
assume that something cannot be of value unless it is valued by
someone. This does not entail that my life is of no value unless it is
valued by me. I may think, in a period of despair, that my future is of
no worth whatsoever, but I may be wrong because others rightly see
value-even great value-in it. Furthermore, my future can be valu-
able to me even if I do not value it. This is the case when a young
person attempts suicide, but is rescued and goes on to significant
human achievements. Such young people’s futures are ultimately
valuable to them, even though such futures do not seem to be valu-
able to them at the moment of attempted suicide. A fetus’s future
can be valuable to it in the same way. Accordingly, this attempt to
limit the anti-abortion argument fails.
Another similar attempt to reject the anti-abortion position is
based on Tooley’s claim that an entity cannot possess the right to life
unless it has the capacity to desire its continued existence. It follows
that, since fetuses lack the conceptual capacity to desire to continue
to live, they lack the right to life. Accordingly, Tooley concludes that
abortion cannot be seriously prima facie wrong (op. cit., pp. 46/7).
What could be the evidence for Tooley’s basic claim? Tooley once
argued that individuals have a prima facie right to what they desire
and that the lack of the capacity to desire something undercuts the
basis of one’s right to it (op. cit., pp. 44/5). This argument plainly
will not succeed in the context of the analysis of this essay, however,
since the point here is to establish the fetus’s right to life on other
grounds. Tooley’s argument assumes that the right to life cannot be
established in general on some basis other than the desire for life.
This position was considered and rejected in the preceding section of
this paper.
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WHY ABORTION IS IMMORA, 199
One might attempt to defend Tooley’s basic claim on the grounds
that, because a fetus cannot apprehend continued life as a benefit, its
continued life cannot be a benefit or cannot be something it has a
right to or cannot be something that is in its interest. This might be
defended in terms of the general proposition that, if an individual is
literally incapable of caring about or taking an interest in some X,
then one does not have a right to X or X is not a benefit or X is not
something that is in one’s interest.”
Each member of this family of claims seems to be open to objec-
tions. As John C. Stevens’2 has pointed out, one may have a right to
be treated with a certain medical procedure (because of a health
insurance policy one has purchased), even though one cannot con-
ceive of the nature of the procedure. And, as Tooley himself has
pointed out, persons who have been indoctrinated, or drugged, or
rendered temporarily unconscious may be literally incapable of car-
ing about or taking an interest in something that is in their interest or
is something to which they have a right, or is something that benefits
them. Hence, the Tooley claim that would restrict the scope of the
value of a future-like-ours argument is undermined by counterex-
amples. ‘3
Finally, Paul Bassen”4 has argued that, even though the prospects
of an embryo might seem to be a basis for the wrongness of abortion,
an embryo cannot be a victim and therefore cannot be wronged. An
embryo cannot be a victim, he says, because it lacks sentience. His
central argument for this seems to be that, even though plants and
the permanently unconscious are alive, they clearly cannot be vic-
tims. What is the explanation of this? Bassen claims that the explana-
tion is that their lives consist of mere metabolism and mere metabo-
lism is not enough to ground victimizability. Mentation is required.
The problem with this attempt to establish the absence of victimi-
zability is that both plants and the permanently unconscious clearly
lack what Bassen calls “prospects” or what I have called “a future life
like ours.” Hence, it is surely open to one to argue that the real
reason we believe plants and the permanently unconscious cannot be
” Donald VanDeVeer seems to think this is self-evident. See his “Whither Baby
Doe?” in Matters of Life and Death, p. 233.
12 “Must the Bearer of a Right Have the Concept of That to Which He Has a
Right?” Ethics, xcv, 1 (1984):68-74.
`See Tooley again in “Abortion and Infanticide,” pp. 47-49.
‘ “Present Sakes and Future Prospects: The Status of Early Abortion,” Philoso-
phy and Public Affairs, xi, 4 (1982):322-326.
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200 THE JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY
victims is that killing them cannot deprive them of a future life like
ours; the real reason is not their absence of present meritation.
Bassen recognizes that his view is subject to this difficulty, and he
recognizes that the case of children seems to support this difficulty,
for “much of what we do for children is based on prospects.” He
argues, however, that, in the case of children and in other such cases,
“potentiality comes into play only where victimizability has been
secured on other grounds” (ibid., p. 333).
Bassen’s defense of his view is patently question-begging, since
what is adequate to secure victimizability is exactly what is at issue.
His examples do not support his own view against the thesis of this
essay. Of course, embryos can be victims: when their lives are deliber-
ately terminated, they are deprived of their futures of value, their
prospects. This makes them victims, for it directly wrongs them.
The seeming plausibility of Bassen’s view stems from the fact that
paradigmatic cases of imagining someone as a victim involve em-
pathy, and empathy requires mentation of the victim. The victims of
flood, famine, rape, or child abuse are all persons with whom we can
empathize. That empathy seems to be part of seeing them as
victims.’
In spite of the strength of these examples, the attractive intuition
that a situation in which there is victimization requires the possibility
of empathy is subject to counterexamples. Consider a case that Bas-
sen himself offers: “Posthumous obliteration of an author’s work
constitutes a misfortune for him only if he had wished his work to
endure” (op cit., p. 318). The conditions Bassen wishes to impose
upon the possibility of being victimized here seem far too strong.
Perhaps this author, due to his unrealistic standards of excellence
and his low self-esteem, regarded his work as unworthy of survival,
even though it possessed genuine literary merit. Destruction of such
work would surely victimize its author. In such a case, empathy with
the victim concerning the loss is clearly impossible.
Of course, Bassen does not make the possibility of empathy a
necessary condition of victimizability; he requires only mentation.
Hence, on Bassen’s actual view, this author, as I have described him,
can be a victim. The problem is that the basic intuition that renders
Bassen’s view plausible is missing in the author’s case. In order to
attempt to avoid counterexamples, Bassen has made his thesis too
weak to be supported by the intuitions that suggested it.
I Note carefully the reasons he gives on the bottom of p. 316.
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WHY ABORTION IS IMMORAL 201
Even so, the mentation requirement on victimizability is still sub-
ject to counterexamples. Suppose a severe accident renders me to-
tally unconscious for a month, after which I recover. Surely killing
me while I am unconscious victimizes me, even though I am incapa-
ble of mentation during that time. It follows that Bassen’s thesis fails.
Apparently, attempts to restrict the value of a future-like-ours argu-
ment so that fetuses do not fall within its scope do not succeed.
V.
In this essay, it has been argued that the correct ethic of the wrong-
ness of killing can be extended to fetal life and used to show that
there is a strong presumption that any abortion is morally impermis-
sible. If the ethic of killing adopted here entails, however, that con-
traception is also seriously immoral, then there would appear to be a
difficulty with the analysis of this essay.
But this analysis does not entail that contraception is wrong. Of
course, contraception prevents the actualization of a possible future
of value. Hence, it follows from the claim that futures of value
should be maximized that contraception is prima facie immoral. This
obligation to maximize does not exist, however; furthermore, noth-
ing in the ethics of killing in this paper entails that it does. The ethics
of killing in this essay would entail that contraception is wrong only if
something were denied a human future of value by contraception.
Nothing at all is denied such a future by contraception, however.
Candidates for a subject of harm by contraception fall into four
categories: (1) some sperm or other, (2) some ovum or other, (3) a
sperm and an ovum separately, and (4) a sperm and an ovum to-
gether. Assigning the harm to some sperm is utterly arbitrary, for no
reason can be given for making a sperm the subject of harm rather
than an ovum. Assigning the harm to some ovum is utterly arbitrary,
for no reason can be given for making an ovum the subject of harm
rather than a sperm. One might attempt to avoid these problems by
insisting that contraception deprives both the sperm and the ovum
separately of a valuable future like ours. On this alternative, too
many futures are lost. Contraception was supposed to be wrong,
because it deprived us of one future of value, not two. One might
attempt to avoid this problem by holding that contraception deprives
the combination of sperm and ovum of a valuable future like ours.
But here the definite article misleads. At the time of contraception,
there are hundreds of millions of sperm, one (released) ovum and
millions of possible combinations of all of these. There is no actual
combination at all. Is the subject of the loss to be a merely possible
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202 THE JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY
combination? Which one? This alternative does not yield an actual
subject of harm either. Accordingly, the immorality of contraception
is not entailed by the loss of a future-like-ours argument simply
because there is no nonarbitrarily identifiable subject of the loss in
the case of contraception.
VI.
The purpose of this essay has been to set out an argument for the
serious presumptive wrongness of abortion subject to the assump-
tion that the moral permissibility of abortion stands or falls on the
moral status of the fetus. Since a fetus possesses a property, the
possession of which in adult human beings is sufficient to make
killing an adult human being wrong, abortion is wrong. This way of
dealing with the problem of abortion seems superior to other ap-
proaches to the ethics of abortion, because it rests on an ethics of
killing which is close to self-evident, because the crucial morally
relevant property clearly applies to fetuses, and because the argu-
ment avoids the usual equivocations on ‘human life’, ‘human being’,
or ‘person’. The argument rests neither on religious claims nor on
Papal dogma. It is not subject to the objection of “speciesism.” Its
soundness is compatible with the moral permissibility of euthanasia
and contraception. It deals with our intuitions concerning young
children.
Finally, this analysis can be viewed as resolving a standard prob-
lem-indeed, the standard problem-concerning the ethics of
abortion. Clearly, it is wrong to kill adult human beings. Clearly, it is
not wrong to end the life of some arbitrarily chosen single human
cell. Fetuses seem to be like arbitrarily chosen human cells in some
respects and like adult humans in other respects. The problem of the
ethics of abortion is the problem of determining the fetal property
that settles this moral controversy. The thesis of this essay is that the
problem of the ethics of abortion, so understood, is solvable.
DON MARQUIS
University of Kansas
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Article Contents
p. 183
p. 184
p. 185
p. 186
p. 187
p. 188
p. 189
p. 190
p. 191
p. 192
p. 193
p. 194
p. 195
p. 196
p. 197
p. 198
p. 199
p. 200
p. 201
p. 202
Issue Table of Contents
The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 86, No. 4 (Apr., 1989), pp. 169-224
Front Matter
The Backward Induction Paradox [pp.169 – 182]
Why Abortion is Immoral [pp.183 – 202]
Book Reviews
untitled [pp.203 – 208]
untitled [pp.208 – 214]
untitled [pp.214 – 221]
Notes and News [pp.222 – 224]
Back Matter

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