The Atheist Argument Against Abortion
I’m grateful that A.C. Lee of the New York Times mentions Don Marquis, a philosopher who makes a non-theistic argument for the immorality of abortion.
The view that abortion is, with rare exceptions, seriously immoral has received little support in the recent philosophical literature. No doubt most philosophers affiliated with secular institutions of higher education believe that the anti-abortion position is either a symptom of irrational religious dogma or a conclusion generated by seriously confused philosophical argument. The purpose 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, seriously 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 Ann Warren, H. Tristram Engelhardt, 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.
Here is Marquis’s major argument for the wrongness of abortion:
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 enjoyments which would otherwise have constituted one’s future. Therefore, killing someone is wrong, primarily because the killing inflicts (one of) the greatest possible losses on the victim.
The overall argument is decent, but I don’t buy it. I consider abortion a serious and legitimate procedure that a woman can choose in consultation with medical professionals. I say “serious” because it certainly should not be chosen lightly. I am uncomfortable with defining abortion, or at least all instances, as killing. I also think there is a legitimate distinction between embryo and fetus: my moral intuition says aborting a fetus is plainly less ethical than aborting an embryo.
Yet I find I’m most resistant to the idea that deprivation of a future is a compelling reason. Marquis loses me because I don’t think deprivation of a future makes abortion immoral. With every choice we make, we deprive ourselves and others a possible future (many possible futures, even). We could deprive others of futures filled with abuse, suffering, and death. Or not. We don’t know the future, and we don’t know the futures we don’t know. Should a person decide to terminate a pregnancy before the fetal stage, that embryo would never know it was losing either its life or its future.
I’m glad there is at least one atheistic argument against abortion. The subject is a serious one that deserves to be argued without appeal to dogma. Indeed, if America ever reaches a national policy on abortion that reasonably satisfies a majority of the population, it will be only through the triumph of secular argumentation.
This post is dedicated to my beautiful niece, just born yesterday.