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Abortion Ethics 6

February 22, 2012

The Golden Rule

Is there an alternative to fretting over women’s rights, and whether fetuses are people? The utilitarian philosopher Richard Hare believed so. He argued from the Golden Rule; “Treat others as you would wish to be treated in the same situation”.

Since most mothers would not have wanted to be aborted when they were fetuses, abortion is, on the face of it, wrong; even for a fetus with spina bifida who is likely to be handicapped, because if we were that fetus we would choose life in a wheelchair rather than no life at all.

But imagine that the mother plans a family of just one child. If she carries this pregnancy she will bear a child with spina bifida. If she aborts she can have a normal child who would not otherwise exist. That “replacement” child would wish the abortion to happen. The mother cannot act as both the spina bifida and the replacement child would wish.

Hare asks what you would choose if you had to live through the lives of both children? Reject abortion and get one life in a wheelchair and one non-life. Abort, and it’s one non-life and one replacement life in full health. You’d obviously choose the latter, so the mother should abort. Wow! Abortion in the interests of the child – the future child.  But Hare has hardly started.

Consider how this type of argument plays out with the more usual types of abortion; those considered by young women not ready for a baby. They probably will have another child later.  How much better will that later child’s life be? Will it be better or worse if the mother has the first abortion?

There are more people to consider than just this child now and possible replacement/future children. All children affect other people’s lives. Not just in big ways, by marrying them, or taking the job they wanted, but in all the minor ways in which each of us improves or harms the welfare of others.

Hare argues that if we consider how all these other people would view the abortion, the decision becomes rather like deciding whether to reproduce at all.  The high likelihood that the present fetus will exist without abortion creates a presumption that abortion is usually wrong, but it’s hardly a knock down argument. In an overpopulated world, if the mother would struggle to look after the baby, if the present fetus will be handicapped, abortion might be the right choice.

Hare asks us to consider what abortions we would choose if we were as yet unconceived. i.e. from behind a veil of ignorance.  If we did not know whether we would be conceived and live, conceived and aborted or be a replacement fetus after  another abortion. We would know the chance of being a boy or girl, being handicapped, being unwanted, born to a single parent, living in an underpopulated or over crowded world. He thinks we might be fairly liberal.

Or perhaps it is too complicated to judge. Thinking about future people and replacement fetuses is tricky. One of Hare’s pupils, Derek Parfitt, wrote a whole book, Reasons and Persons, about it thirty years ago. It made my head ache.

But the complications are similar to those faced by people deciding whether to reproduce at all.  We solve them by leaving the decision to parents. They, especially the mother, are probably best placed to act in their future children’s best interest.

This is my last post in this series on abortion. Let me summarise.

Fetuses do not have the characteristics of people in the sense of “beings who may not be unjustly killed”, so abortion should be permitted. Even if they were, forcing women give up their bodies for nine months to bear them contradicts our other intuitions about our own bodies.  If neither of these arguments convinces you, try this. In the interests of the people who will one day come to exist some abortions are morally right. The best people to judge are parents.

Jim Thornton

RM Hare. Abortion and the Golden Rule. Philosophy and Public Affairs 4. No 3 Spring 1975.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Karl permalink
    March 7, 2012 10:12 pm

    Interesting read. I’ve always been completely pro choice so never read much about the ethics of abortion before.

    Do you know any decent articles on the 24 week limit.

    • March 8, 2012 8:12 am

      Not really, Karl. It’s difficult to set much of a moral threshold at 24 weeks, despite being reasonable to have a legal threshold somewhere. In fact the UK has no 24 week limit on the grounds of severe fetal handicap..

  2. Karl permalink
    March 8, 2012 9:54 pm

    The fetal handicap argument does raise a interesting debate. If the moral status of the fetus is determined based on the viability it seems immoral to terminate a pregnancy beyond this based on handicaps. The HFE Act does seem to have conflicting values in this sense. Accepting this argument is almost like justifying euthanasia based purely on disability.

    I read a good article on the BMA website: I know what you mean now in terms of the difficulty of setting a moral threshold at 24 weeks gestation. Even determining the start of pregnancy is a debate in its self.

    The more I’m reading on the subject, the more confused my views have become in terms of moral status.

    • March 9, 2012 9:37 am

      You’re right. It wouldn’t be so bad if we didn’t have state-funded programmes to identify abnormal fetuses and abort them. It’s not eugenic for an individual woman to buy a prenatal test and abort her fetus. It jolly well is when the government pays for the test for all!

  3. May 13, 2014 12:57 pm

    Jim, I really enjoyed your series on abortion. You have made some interesting philosophical arguments I had not heard before. Like Karl, I have always been pro choice so never really needed to look for more arguments than the mother’s wishes. Although I personally have great difficulty with the 24 week limit here in the NL for any reason, not just congenital defects.

    Having said all this, and having read some other arguments of yours (the “sex” page, to be exact), I have noticed you seem to really have a bee in your bonnet with regards to government interference. It reads to me like you are deathly afraid of meddling by the government, of losing people’s right no decide for themselves.
    However, I would pose, that in an imperfect society like the one we live in, if the government actually offers (not forces) certain services free of charge to the entire population (like prenatal diagnosis, contraception, etc etc ad infinitum), then there is REAL freedom for everyone. If the government does not, there will always be inequality in access to certain services, be it because of financial difficulties or the simple wherewithal to know where to find them.

    Keep writing the good stuff!

    • May 13, 2014 4:05 pm

      “Banged to rights”. I’m not really a libertarian. Limiting government to police, army and enforcement of contract would be a step too far. But IMHO we do have too much government. We can usually solve our problems by getting it to do less, not more.

      Thanks for your comments. It’s great to have sensitive readers.

  4. Vijaya permalink
    August 2, 2014 12:20 am

    Thought provoking topic. Very well addressed. Interesting debate.

    • August 2, 2014 7:18 am

      Nothing original at all. But lots of students don’t seem to know it. I think it’s worth teaching. Recent students are nearly all pro-choice so perhaps the arguments is won. But lots of doctors won’t do abortions. Probably still muddled thinking about.

  5. January 31, 2015 8:25 pm

    In 1948 Richard Hare and another philosopher I admire, Iris Murdoch, regularly attended an informal discussion group in Oxford, the Metaphysicals, Iris reportedly took a dim view of Hare’s “too restrictive a conception of moral discourse, and she took exception to his prioritising of the will.” (Iris Murdoch, A Life, by Peter J Conradi. p306).

    I bet she would have been unimpressed by the idea of deciding the rights and wrongs of abortion on the basis of our estimate of the welfare of “future persons”.


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