• The Atheist Argument Against Abortion

    Philosopher Don Marquis.

    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.

    Marquis introduces the argument in a 1989 paper:

    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.


    Category: Home Life


    Article by: Larry Tanner

    • Are these issues with the argument:

      1) it possibly puts a value (-ve) on non-existence – problematic
      2) it discounts the idea of a really negative potential future


      • lartanner

        Not sure I understand your question. Marquis does not discount the idea of a negative future. It gets addressed in the middle of his paper. I think he might imply that non-existence is not as good as existence. I don’t think that I do; but I wouldn’t be comfortable adjudicating possible future existence versus future non-existence. Let’s say you and I alone knew that hellfire would come and all would suffer on 12/12/2012–wouldn’t we agree that on this day it would be better not to be alive? In any case, I see Marquis trading an actual–a real mother with a real choice in her life–for something purely speculative–a child carried to term, being physically and mentally healthy, receiving and giving love, avoiding fatal or devastating accidents, overcoming life’s struggles and pain, and so forth.

      • Jack_Ma

        We lose nothing by our death since we no longer exist to experience any loss.

        • That’s part of what I was trying to get at. i think it was Schopenhauer who said that you cannot compare values of existence to non-existence since nothingness has no value. It is simply an incoherent pastime.

          On the idea of future, I was alluding to when Christians often say “well, you could have killed a potential Einstein who would cure cancer” or whatever.

          Yeah, could also have been a Jeffrey Dharma.

          • Jack_Ma

            How can you resist quoting Epicurus? Such discipline. I shall take strength from your example.

            • Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.

            • alex

              A fetus is alive….don’t know if you’re saying it isn’t…just wanted to say that. Existence is more precious and important to those who have had less of it than others (the LIVING fetus)

          • Yo

            “nothingness has no value”

            Try telling that to Laurence Krauss.

      • Caleb Ontiveros

        1) Marquis is trying to explain why killing is bad for the individual being killed and then extrapolate this to the individual question of abortion. He thinks it’s wrong because they are deprived of future goods. Of course one could deny that being killed is bad for an individual, but that would be a curious way of going about the abortion debate. (“Sure abortion is permissible because it just kills something and it’s never wrong to kill something if doing so won’t harm others!”)

        2) As already mentioned Marquis deals with this. The argument implied by (2) seems to be (i) it is permissible to abort fetus because they may have a really negative potential future. But if that is right then (ii) it is permissible to kill children because they may have a really negative potential future is also permissible if you accept (iii) It’s permissible to kill things that have the potential of experiencing a really negative potential future. Since (ii) is wrong it follows that (i) is also mistaken, by reductio ad absurdum.

      • ceruleanblue777

        1) the value is not placed on non-existence. It is placed on life and the recognition that the loss of life is the greatest loss one can face.
        2) potentially. But we don’t take away rights based on potential outcomes.

    • Jack_Ma

      There’s a good case at least for requiring an induced delivery in lieu of abortion if the foetus is viable when the abortion is sought.

      One could argue that pre-viablilty abortions ought to be illegal insofar as it avoids a non-negligible precedent for asserting the right to take our own lives should we become utterly dependent on others to stay alive.

      • lartanner

        The precedent may be non-negligible, but it’s weight isn’t so great, either. One who actually has lived a life and considered the possibility of utter dependency can pre-arrange matters.

    • Lydia

      The primary abortion rights argument is: Who owns my body? It has to be me, or I’m not free. Otherwise I am a slave or a potential slave of the state. If I decline to allow my body to be used by another, the result cannot be murder, because murder requires removing a life support system that isn’t my body and doesn’t belong to me. The life of the zygote or fetus is secondary to the choice of the person whose body is being used, no matter the consequences of that choice or the history of past allowed useage. I own my body. You own your body. That is what freedom is. And, BTW, this is exactly what the religious fanatics are afraid of: women owning their own bodies.

      • Prepagan

        And the primary pro-life argument (from a non-dogmatic perspective) is: Does a woman’s right to autonomy over her own body trump someone else’s right to safety and security of person?

        Should your right to control over your own body be a greater right than the right to life of a child growing within that body?

        You use terms such as zygote and fetus but if your argument is based on the premise that your right to bodily autonomy is absolute then are you not also arguing that your rights should also allow you to terminate the life of a child growing within you, say, a day or week before an expected delivery date?

        The argument really rests on the point at which a person acquires the right not to have their life terminated at the whim (or ‘considered decision’ if you find ‘whim’ overly weighted) of another.

        On the one hand this could be as early as conception and at the other extreme could be delivery. Most rationale people (free of ideology) would, I think, tend to see the answer lying somewhere between the two with an inclination to err on the side of caution.

        To characterise the debate as being simply about “women owning their own bodies” is simplistic and unhelpful and only serves to encourage a polarisation of issues that are, in reality, far more nuanced.

        • Lydia

          Prepagan – in answer to your first two questions: YES. It is just that simple. I should be able to deliver early if I determine that my body needs that. My rights are always paramount over the rights of the fetus while it is in and using my body. The fetus has developing rights. It does not become a citizen with full rights upon fertilization, but it is one by the time of birth. Those developing rights do contest with my rights, but do not trump them.
          Compare this possible real-world scenario: Conjoined twins (adults) that do not have all the organs to make two separate people. Would either the full-bodied twin or the dependant twin be required by law to remain attached if he/she desired surgical separation? No! Even if it resulted in the death of one or both. Obviously, arriving at such an end point would have required a terrific struggle. But, for some people, independance is more important than anything else.
          I return to my earlier point: forced servitude makes slaves.
          By the way, I find the argument of “right to terminate a day before delivery” to be a specious one. No one in their right mind would desire such an outcome, and it is insulting to insinuate that any one would. Problems at the end of a pregnancy are the most painful, because that child is wanted. And, I would speculate that the percentage of “whim” abortions is in the miniscule range, and not worth even considering seriously. I suggest that you don’t use those terms in a respectful discussion.

          • Prepagan

            “The fetus has developing rights. It does not become a citizen with full rights upon fertilization, but it is one by the time of birth.”

            Could you please clarify what you are saying here? Are you asserting that the unborn child’s rights gradually increase over time and that finally, at the point of birth, comes into full possession of those rights?

            Or are you suggesting that the unborn child may have acquired sufficient rights prior to actual delivery to prevent their life being terminated at the behest of the mother? I suspect the former as the latter would conflict with your primary assertion of women’s rights to autonomy over their own bodies trumping all other rights but I don’t want to make assumptions.

            I’m only aware of one real-world scenario involving the separation of conjoined twins in a manner resembling what you suggest and in that instance the law judged that separation could only take place where the lives of both twins would be forfeit if the operation did not proceed. If we are to make a comparison with abortion this would be to permit abortion in cases where the continued development of the foetus would endanger the life of the mother – I don’t think that this is much of a bone of contention even with strident pro-lifers.

            “By the way, I find the argument of “right to terminate a day before delivery” to be a specious one.”

            It is customary when discussing absolute rights to explore the extreme implications of those rights. I accept that you find that argument specious but it is not.

            Neither have I insinuated that anyone in their right mind would consider terminating a pregnancy very near delivery. If I have insinuated anything it is that your assertion of the pre-eminence of the mother’s rights automatically leads to such a decision being possible (as horrific as that may seem to the majority).

            Again, the term ‘whim’ was used to accentuate the interpretation that needs to be given to any suggestion that a woman’s right to determine whether an abortion takes place should be absolute. If the right is absolute then the mother’s reasons for exercising that right should be irrelevant and can be made on a whim, caprice or toss of a coin. I doubt that the overwhelming majority of expectant mother’s would make a decision on that basis but we are discussing rights here not necessarily the likelihood of those rights being used.

            To do otherwise, is to suggest perhaps that a woman only has absolute autonomy over her body’s reproduction capabilities provided she uses those rights wisely or within a pre-determined time-frame. In which case those rights are far from absolute and are trumped, at least in certain circumstances, by, presumably, the rights of the unborn child?

            “forced servitude makes slaves”

            I think the debate should be about more than sound bites and slogans.

            • Lydia

              I think that the fetus becomes a person gradually, just as people die gradually (there really is no such thing as a “moment of death”). Yes, there is a point, where, barring complications, the mother has entered an implicit agreement to support a pregnancy to term. When that happens is arguable. But I feel strongly (not a sound bite) that forcing a woman to go through an unwanted pregnancy is state slavery. Also, a supposition that a fetus with rights trumps the mother’s rights doesn’t square with me. In a situation where the mother’s health is threatened, her rights always trump, no matter what stage the pregnancy is at. I actually think that the current U.S. laws (not the uneven practice of them) are pretty reasonable, making termination after the 2nd trimester difficult, but not impossible based on the reason.

              Personally, I think the exploration of extreme hypotheticals is not very productive to a practical solution. I think those are only slightly interesting questions and I am very comfortable not needing an absolute deterministic answer to them. In fact, I find the exploration of the extremes unuseful (such as the speculative “whim” situation: a fairly boring straw-man), as there are plenty of real world tragedies that lose focus (Savita, anyone?) when people get distracted by the emotions of an almost certainly non-existant hypothetical.

              Most situations have reasonable people trying to make the best of a very complex set of non-optimal and emotionally difficult choices. Some outsiders support their rights to make their own choices, and some do not. I am more about trusting people to make the best decisions for themselves, and the use of their own body, and continually emphasizing that it is THEIR body. Nobody but that person can possibly understand what they are going through. I find much of the anti-abortion discussion to be simplistic arguments that are completely disrespecfully dismissive of the impact on individual women, as if going through pregnancy is a mere blip. No, it has unknown risks, up to death. It is vastly complex and includes huge emotional and social consequences both during and forever after. Why, otherwise, would some pregnant women suicide rather than carry to term when abortion is not available? I cannot understand the point of view of a person who would be ok with that as her only option out.

            • Prepagan

              I’m glad to see that you have backed away from your initial assertion that the mother’s right to make decisions based on a concept of her own bodily autonomy always trump those of her unborn child. I personally think that is sensible.

              The remaining grey area concerns the point at which the unborn child’s rights take priority – this will clearly be a matter of timing (the extent to which the zygote/foetus/child has developed) and health (to what extent the mother’s life may be threatened by continuing the pregnancy).

              I am happy to leave it to experts in the appropriate medical and scientific disciplines to determine that point (with a personal hope that any uncertainty errs on the side of ‘earlier’ rather than ‘later’).

              I’m afraid I don’t have a very helpful answer to your implication that not allowing a woman an abortion after the 2nd trimester (no health issues etc) is tantamount to ‘state slavery’. How do you reconcile that?

              By the way a “straw man” fallacy occurs where a debater mis-characterises their opponent’s argument in order to more easily argue against it. I was clearly not doing this. Unfortunately, throwing around vague and inaccurate assertions that certain well known logical fallacies have been employed appears to be an increasingly popular way of avoiding addressing legitimate but unwelcome arguments.

              Asserting absolute rights may look good on a banner or placard but, as I wrote at the outset, the issues involved are far more nuanced.

            • ceruleanblue777

              “I think that the fetus becomes a person gradually, just as people die gradually…”

              If a fetus gradually becomes a person, and people die gradually, are you saying that the elderly become less a person as they gradually die? At what point does this occur? Do the elderly stop being “people” at some point even though they are still alive? Should the elderly lose rights to personal safety as they gradually face their imminent demise?

          • Fredlos

            Any argument that insinuates that an opposing one is “insulting” or “disrespectful” is an invalid one, as it places emotion over reason.

      • alexandra jonas

        There is just not enough votes up

    • Edward S.

      There’s another secular argument for minimal fetus rights along libertarian grounds by Professor Walter Block of Loyola University. He calls it “evictionism.”

      From Wikipedia’s entry:

      “According to this moral theory, the act of abortion must be conceptually separated into the acts of (a) eviction of the fetus from the womb; and (b) killing the fetus. Building on the libertarian stand against trespass and murder, Block supports a right to the first act, but, except in certain circumstances, not the second act. He believes the woman may legally abort if (a) the fetus is not viable outside the womb; or (b) the woman has announced to the world her abandonment of the right to custody of the fetus, and (c) no one else has “homesteaded” that right by offering to care for the fetus.”

      There’s an introduction to the argument on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QNTAmwUHcLM

      Here’s a link to his paper in the Appalachian Journal of Law http://www.walterblock.com/wp-content/uploads/publications/block-whitehead_abortion-2005.pdf


    • Alex

      It is very dangerous to have people like the author of this article spread their incorrect views about what they “feel” is killing or what is living or not. A human is living from the point of conception. That is a scientific fact. It has its complete DNA and is a living human, it doesn’t matter what it may “feel” like to any uneducated abortion supporter. It is ALWAYS killing. ALWAYS

    • High Inquisitor Torquemada