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3 Tutorials that teach Case study: Abortion
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Case study: Abortion

Case study: Abortion

Author: John Lumsden

Recognize and analyze ethical considerations for abortion and related topics

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In this tutorial we will be looking at various issues in the ethical evaluation of abortion. Our discussion will break down like this:
  1. Introduction to the Evaluation of Abortion
  2. A Woman’s Rights
  3. Ethical Theories and Abortion

1. Introduction to the Evaluation of Abortion

Before we consider some of the different ethical approaches to the issue of abortion, we should be clear about what exactly we mean with this term.

The termination of a fetus prematurely ending pregnancy

It’s important to be precise here because other ways of putting it can be misleading.

If someone said abortion was the termination of a baby, then they would have slipped in a meaning that already tilts the scales against abortion.

This is because they would have assumed the most important issue in the ethical question about abortion. That is, by calling it a “baby” they have given the fetus the moral status of a human being. But this is precisely what needs to be debated.

Most ethical theories agree that abortion is wrong if the fetus has the moral status of a human (something similar would be the case with stem cell research). Where they disagree is whether or not the fetus does in fact have this status.

The US Supreme Court based its ruling on abortion by answering the question whether or not a fetus counts as a human. They said a fetus isn’t human until it can survive outside of the mother. For this reason, they ruled that abortions are legal through the second trimester.

But you should be careful here. The legal status of abortion and the moral status of abortion aren’t the same. Although the US Supreme Court appears to have followed an ethical line of reasoning here, a legal system doesn’t have to. For instance, laws are often made for merely practical purposes (e.g. traffic laws ensure things run smoothly) rather than ethical ones.

The most important issue for figuring out the permissibility of abortion is deciding whether or not a fetus counts as a human.

2. A Woman’s Rights

Even though the moral status of the fetus is important, there are other factors to be considered. Most notably, the moral status of the woman carrying the fetus. She clearly already counts as human, so the question is: what kind of rights does she have that may conflict with the (potential) rights of the fetus?

Some argue that a woman’s right to her own body already gives her the permissibility to have an abortion. Others think this is only the case when her body is under threat in some sense.

If going through with the pregnancy, for instance, would likely lead to the woman’s death, then it could be argued that she has the right to terminate the fetus.

There are other issues to be considered as well. The ethical evaluation of abortion could change if the woman was the victim of rape.

If a woman has already had her body violated, should she be made to lose control of her own body again?

In this instance, it could be argued that abortion is morally permissible.

There are various circumstances where the rights of the woman’s body can outweigh whatever rights we might think a fetus has.

3. Ethical Theories and Abortion

Now let’s see how different ethical verdicts could be produced through different ethical frameworks. First of all, consider it from the perspective of virtue-based ethics.

Recall that virtue-based ethics evaluates actions in terms of what kind of character it manifests and how such an action could, in turn, inform our character.

With this in mind, you can see that it depends on what kind of character the woman reveals in her action.

If she has an abortion because she doesn’t feel ready for motherhood, then this could manifest the virtues of wisdom or patience. But if she does it because she simply doesn’t care, then this could manifest vices such as inconsiderateness or selfishness.

As you can see, virtue-based ethics will say it’s permissible if it manifests virtues, but impermissible if it manifest vices.

Now let’s see how a consequentialist will evaluate abortion. Like virtue-based ethics, it all depends.

If the fetus is destined to be brought up in extreme poverty or else in a very bad situation (with little possibility of getting out), then the consequences of giving birth might be worse than the consequences of having an abortion.

Something similar could be the case if it was known that the fetus would have an extreme birth defect that would drastically reduce the quality of life of both parent and child.

But if going through with the pregnancy would bring about more benefit than harm, then abortion would be impermissible. Making these kinds of calculations can be very difficult.

Depending on where you place moral value (e.g. in character traits or consequences), your evaluation of abortion will vary.

We started this tutorial with an introduction to the evaluation of abortion, seeing that the debate about its permissibility largely revolves around the question of the moral status of the fetus. Then we considered how a woman’s rights might affect our evaluation of abortion, focusing on different circumstances where the woman’s rights to her own body become important. Finally, we looked at ethical theories and abortion, including some of the evaluations that different theories provide.
Terms to Know

The termination of a fetus prematurely ending pregnancy