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Title: The Abortion Debate Author: Chak Last modified by: Chak Created Date: 10/2/2011 6:14:17 PM Document presentation format: Company – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: Abortion

In this lecture
  • The abortion debate
  • Pro-life vs. pro-choice
  • Personhood
  • Sentience and interest
  • Potentiality
  • Future-like-ours
  • Bodily autonomy

The Abortion Debate
  • Abortion is the deliberate termination of an
    unwanted pregnancy.
  • A fetus is an unborn child at any stage
    throughout pregnancy. An embryo is a fetus at a
    very early stage of pregnancy.

The Abortion Debate
  • The abortion debate is not about health issues,
    but moral issues.
  • Abortion has been legalized in many western
    countries. (In the United States, for example,
    after the Supreme Courts ruling on Roe v. Wade
    in 1973.) It is one of the safest medical
    procedures, with little history of complication
    or side effects.

The Abortion Debate
  • The abortion debate is often framed in terms of a
    clash between two basic rights the fetus right
    to life and the mothers right over her own body.
  • A key question concerns the moral status of the
    fetus, i.e. whether or not the fetus should be
    treated as a person with full moral rights.

The Abortion Debate
  • The debate usually surrounds two main issues 1
    whether a fetus has a right to life, and 2
    whether the pregnant womans right over her own
    body justifies abortion even if the fetus has a
    right to life.

The Abortion Debate
  • Does a fetus have a right to life in the same way
    that adults are generally recognized as having a
    right to life?
  • If the fetus does have a right to life, can it be
    overridden by the competing rights of the
    pregnant woman?

The Abortion Debate
  • The United States Supreme Court in the Roe v.
    Wade (1973) decision established that a womans
    constitutional right to privacy includes a right
    to abortion.
  • Prospective mothers are free to abort for
    personal reasons up until the third trimester
    (i.e. during the first 6 months of pregnancy).

The Abortion Debate
  • However, a womans right to terminate her
    pregnancy is not absolute after the fetus
    becomes viable (by the seventh month of
    pregnancy), the state (government) may prohibit
    all abortions except those necessary to preserve
    the health or life of the mother.

The Abortion Debate
  • Viability refers to the stage of fetal
    development where a fetus is capable of surviving
    given suitable intensive care outside the
    mothers womb.
  • The Courts decision came close to espousing
    viability as the cutoff point between not having
    a right to life and having one.

The Abortion Debate
  • The Supreme Court held that the state has a
    legitimate interest in protecting potential life
    and that this interest becomes compelling at
    viability because the fetus then presumably has
    the capability of meaningful life, outside the
    mothers womb.

The Abortion Debate
  • The Courts ruling might have settled the dispute
    over the legal status of abortion, but not the
    debate over the moral permissibility of abortion.
  • Even if a woman has a legal right to an abortion,
    it does not follow that it is morally justified
    to abort a fetus.

Pro-life vs. pro-choice
  • People who oppose abortion call themselves
    pro-life, while those who support womens right
    to abortion call themselves pro-choice.
  • Let us consider some of the arguments on both
    sides of the abortion debate

Pro-life vs. pro-choice
  • Pro-life argument It is wrong to take the life
    of an innocent person. Abortion is impermissible
    because it involves killing an innocent person.
  • Counterargument The assumption that fetuses are
    persons (full human beings) is questionable.

Pro-life vs. pro-choice
  • Pro-life argument There are plenty of readily
    available contraceptives on the market. If a
    woman does not use them, it is her own fault and
    she has to take responsibility for her
  • Counterargument No contraceptive method is 100

Pro-life vs. pro-choice
  • Pro-life argument Permitting abortion would lead
    to horrible consequences such as widespread
    infanticide and moral breakdown.
  • Counterargument Abortions have been performed in
    the U.S. and many other countries for quite some
    time without the slightest evidence of harmful
    social consequences.

Pro-life vs. pro-choice
  • Other pro-life arguments include, for example,
    1 abortions emotionally harm the mother 2
    abortion denies society the possible benefits
    those children could produce and 3 families
    eager for children are denied the opportunities
    of adopting unwanted children.

Pro-life vs. pro-choice
  • Pro-choice argument Abortion is a private,
    personal decision based on womens right over
    their own bodies and reproduction. Womens
    reproductive freedom, which includes the right to
    decide how many children they want to have and
    when to have them, has been widely accepted as a
    basic human right.

Pro-life vs. pro-choice
  • Pro-choice argument An unwanted pregnancy can be
    a significant interruption in a womans life, and
    motherhood can bring a serious disruption of her
    hopes and plans. If women are denied the right to
    abortion, they are denied the right and
    opportunity to participate fully in society.

Pro-life vs. pro-choice
  • Pro-choice argument Someone too immature or
    otherwise not ready for a child could harm the
    child or end up leaving the child as a burden to
    society. These unwanted children are likely to
    end up with problems later in life, so are the
    mothers who were forced to bear them.

Pro-life vs. pro-choice
  • Pro-choice argument If women do not have legal
    access to abortion, many of them will have to
    resort to back-street abortions carried out by
    unqualified persons. As a result, the health and
    well-being of these women will be endangered.

Pro-life vs. pro-choice
  • Counterargument Although the arguments above
    make a strong case for legal abortion rights, it
    does not follow that abortion is always morally
    permissible. If the fetus is an entity that has
    moral status, moral justification is required for
    any action that might inflict harm, suffering or
    death on the fetus.

  • The debate about the rights of a fetus is often
    framed as one about the moral status of the
    fetus, i.e. whether the fetus should be regarded
    as a person or whether it should be treated as
    a part (i.e. cells or tissue) of a pregnant
    womans body.

  • Expressions such as personhood, moral
    personhood, and personhood status are often
    used to refer to the full moral status of a
  • The question is Does a fetus have the full moral
    status of a person, or any moral status at all?

  • If an entity has moral status, it has intrinsic
    value. Its needs, interests and well-being have
    importance in their own right.
  • Persons are beings of full moral status and
    therefore are entitled to a full set of rights,
    the most important of which is the right to life.

  • Anti-abortionists argue that to kill a fetus is
    to murder a human being.
  • This claim is supported by the fact that all the
    necessary genetic material (the genetic code)
    that defines the zygote (i.e. fertilized egg) as
    human is already present at the very moment of

  • Defenders of abortion argue that a fetus is human
    only in the biological or genetic sense.
  • Fetuses, on this view, do not possess the
    relevant properties that qualify them as
    persons (i.e. full members of a moral

  • What does it mean to be a person? What
    necessary properties or capacities must an entity
    possess if it is to be counted as a person?
  • When, if ever, does a fetus attain the full moral
    status of a person with a right to life?

  • Some argue that the fetus attains personhood at
    around the eighth week when brain activity
    becomes detectable.
  • However, if brain activity is a sufficient
    condition for personhood, many animals will have
    to be treated as persons.

  • Some say that a fetus should be considered a
    person when viable (i.e. being able to survive
    outside the mothers body).
  • However, with improved medical support, very
    premature fetuses can be kept alive, challenging
    what counts as viable.

  • Some hold that birth is the decisive moment when
    the child attains moral status.
  • But this seems arbitrary because there is no
    reason to suppose that the childs moral status
    one second before birth is miraculously
    transformed one second after birth.

  • For Mary Anne Warren, birth, rather than some
    earlier point, marks the beginning of true moral
  • Warren argues that if a fetus is to be considered
    a person, then so should sperm. Does this mean
    that we need to protect the rights of sperm? Of
    course not.

  • Mary Anne Warren makes a distinction between
    humans in the biological or genetic sense
    (genetic humanity), and persons in the moral
    sense (moral humanity).

  • Warren suggests a series of traits or
    characteristics that are central to the concept
    of personhood namely, 1 consciousness, 2
    reasoning, 3 self-motivated activity, 4 the
    capacity to communicate, and 5 the presence of

  • Warrens list sets a very high threshold for
    personhood. Thus it seems impossible, at least
    according to Warren, for a fetus to be a person.
  • For Warren, although fetuses are biologically or
    genetically human, they do not qualify as members
    of a moral community.

  • But if fetuses do not have personhood status, we
    do not have a moral duty to treat them as
    persons. Therefore, abortion is permissible
    because it does not involve killing a person.

  • Counterargument 1 It is not clear which mental
    capacities or psychological traits are necessary
    (or sufficient) for moral status or personhood
    status. And there is no explanation as to why
    differences in mental capacities or psychological
    traits should make a moral difference.

  • Counterargument 2 If abortion is permissible
    simply because fetuses do not meet the
    requirements of personhood, then infanticide
    (i.e. killing babies) should also be permissible
    because it is difficult to show that there are
    any significant differences between the
    capacities of the late-term fetus and the newborn.

  • Counterargument 3 Not all humans possess those
    qualities mentioned on Warrens list, while some
    animals may possess them. The severely retarded,
    people in advanced stages of Alzheimers disease,
    and people in comas do not possess those
    properties, while dolphins and apes may possess
    some of them.

  • Is it morally permissible to kill unconscious and
    severely retarded humans, or very small children,
    simply because they do not exhibit the required
    characteristics for personhood? Should they be
    treated as members of the moral community?

  • Is the decision to terminate a pregnancy more or
    less the same, in moral terms, as the decision to
    remove an unwanted part of ones body, such as
    cutting ones hair or trimming ones fingernails?
    Is it morally permissible to treat fetuses as
    mere objects?

Sentience and interest
  • Sentience is the capacity to experience pleasure,
    pain and other conscious mental states.
  • Some philosophers believe that the possession of
    sentience is a sufficient condition for the
    possession of moral status and moral rights.

Sentience and interest
  • Sentient beings can be harmed or benefitted in
    ways that have to be taken into account when we
    make moral judgments and decisions.
  • For example, any being that has the capacity to
    feel pain has an interest in not being made to

Sentience and interest
  • An early-term fetus, i.e. one still in the
    earliest stages of its development, is
  • Scientific evidence suggests that human fetuses
    begin to acquire and develop the capacity of
    sentience sometime into the second trimester of

Sentience and interest
  • Thus, it can be argued that moral status should
    only be accorded to the late-term fetus, which is
    sentient, but not to the early-term fetus, which
    is non-sentient.
  • An early-term fetus cannot have wants, feelings
    or conscious experience. As such, it cannot have
    interests in any meaningful sense.

Sentience and interest
  • The interest theory of rights asserts that the
    possession of interests is both necessary and
    sufficient for moral status and moral rights.
  • To have moral status (and moral rights) is to be
    the kind of being whose interests must be
    considered (and protected) from the moral point
    of view.

Sentience and interest
  • If the primary function of rights is to protect
    interests, a being that lacks interests, such as
    an early-term fetus, cannot have rights because
    it cannot be harmed and does not need protection.

Sentience and interest
  • As long as the early-term fetus is non-sentient,
    it is not possible to do anything harmful to its
    interests or make it worse off.
  • As long as the early-term fetus is not morally
    considerable, no moral justification would be
    necessary for early-term abortions.

Sentience and interest
  • Counterargument Although an early-term fetus may
    not have interests now, it is a potential person
    whose future interests can be harmed by what we
    do today. Abortion, therefore, is morally
    impermissible because it harms the future
    interests of a potential person.

  • A fetus is a potential person, not an actual
    person. A potential person is surely not an
    object, but it is not a fully-functioning person
  • Should we give the same respect to potential
    persons as we do to actual persons?

  • The argument from potentiality asserts that a
    fetus has the potential to become an actual,
    fully-functioning person. As such, the fetus
    should be valued and respected for that potential
    and be accorded the same moral status and moral
    rights that we accord to actual persons.

  • However, opponents to the potentiality argument
    point out that there are significant differences
    between potentiality and actuality.
  • Someone who has the potential to become a teacher
    is not yet a teacher, and therefore should not be
    put in charge of lessons.

  • An acorn has the potential to be an oak tree. But
    we do not feel sorry for the destruction of an
    acorn in the same way we feel a sense of loss
    when a mature oak tree is cut down.
  • Although teenagers will have a right to vote in
    the future, they are not entitled to vote until
    they have reached the age of eligibility.

  • Another objection to the potentiality argument is
    that potential persons do not automatically
    become actual persons over time.
  • Some infants that were abandoned or severely
    neglected by parents fail to learn to speak and
    take on animal characteristics.

  • For a newborn to develop into a person, it must
    be properly raised and educated, and have
    opportunities to establish relationships with
  • Potentiality, therefore, does not necessarily
    imply actuality. Becoming a person is not a
    biological given but an interactive process.

  • The unfertilized egg and sperm, like an embryo or
    a fetus, also have the potential to become a
    fully-functioning person.
  • Does it imply that we should treat sperm and eggs
    with the same respect as we treat human beings?

  • One version of the potentiality argument claims
    that abortion is wrong because it prevents a
    being (the fetus) from actualizing its potential.
  • Don Marquis argues that abortion is immoral. Why?
    Because abortion involves killing. But why is
    killing wrong?

  • Because killing robs its victim of a future of
    value. Killing deprives its victim of all the
    goods of her future she otherwise would have
  • According to Marquis, what makes killing wrong is
    the loss to the victim of the value of the
    victims future.

  • Don Marquis For any killing where the victim
    did have a valuable future like ours, having the
    future by itself is sufficient to create the
    strong presumption that the killing is seriously

  • A future of value, according to Marquis,
    includes all the activities, projects,
    experiences and enjoyments that are either
    valuable intrinsically or are means to something
    else that is valuable intrinsically.

  • We know that fetuses have valuable futures
    because we were all fetuses once.
  • Thus, abortion is wrong simply because fetuses
    have futures like ours. What makes it wrong to
    kill a fetus is exactly what makes it wrong to
    kill you and me.

  • Counterargument 1 There is no guarantee that a
    fetus will have a future of value or
    future-like-ours, especially for cases of
    unwanted pregnancies.

  • Counterargument 2 If abortion is wrong because
    it deprives a potential being of its valuable
    future, the same can also be said of
    contraception, which prevents an egg from being
    fertilized and thereby deprives it of a future of

Bodily autonomy
  • Proponents of the argument from bodily autonomy
    believe that a woman has the right to decide what
    happens to her body and is under no obligation to
    support a child she does not want.

Bodily autonomy
  • For Judith Jarvis Thomson, the focus of the
    abortion debate should be the pregnant womans
    right over her own body, not the moral status of
    the fetus.

Bodily autonomy
  • In a well-known essay titled A Defense of
    Abortion, Judith Jarvis Thomson defends abortion
    while granting her opponents the concession that
    the fetus is to be viewed as a person from the
    moment of conception. She then introduces a
    thought experiment

Bodily autonomy
  • Imagine that you wake up in bed next to a famous
    violinist. He is unconscious with a fatal kidney
    ailment and because only you happen to have the
    right blood type to help, the Society of Music
    Lovers has kidnapped you and plugged your
    circulatory system into his so that your kidneys
    can filter poisons from his blood as well as your

Bodily autonomy
  • If the violinist is disconnected from you now, he
    will die but in nine months, he will recover and
    can be safely disconnected.
  • Is it morally permissible for you to unplug
    yourself from the violinist even though this will
    cause him to die?

Bodily autonomy
  • Thomsons answer is that the demands made upon
    you to remain attached to the violinist exceed
    those required of morally responsible people.
  • Just as you have no moral duty to use your body
    to support the violinist, so a pregnant woman is
    under no obligation to use her body to support a
    child she does not want.

Bodily autonomy
  • Staying attached to the violinist may be the kind
    thing to do, but disconnecting from him does not
    violate the violinists right to life.
  • Why? Because the right to life is a negative
    right which does not include the right to have
    all the assistance needed to maintain that life.

Bodily autonomy
  • A positive right can be seen as a right to be
    provided with some good or service, whereas a
    negative right is simply a right of
    non-interference, a right to be left alone.
  • For Thomson, the right to life is essentially a
    negative right.

Bodily autonomy
  • Thomson does not argue against the right to life,
    but rather against the right to use another
    persons body without the persons consent.
  • In other words, the fetus may have a right to
    life, but the pregnant woman is not morally
    required to allow the fetus to use her body.

Bodily autonomy
  • The violinist scenario shows that no one has the
    right to use the body of another person without
    that persons approval or permission.
  • The fetus, therefore, does not have the right to
    use the body of the mother for sustenance or
    survival against her will.

Bodily autonomy
  • A woman who chooses to support her child by
    carrying the pregnancy to term is performing a
    virtuous act (as what a Good Samaritan would
    do) but one that she has no moral duty to
    perform. In short, the woman does not have a
    moral duty to carry the fetus to full term.

Bodily autonomy
  • Counterargument 1 Abortion is an act of
    extracting an unborn child that inevitably leads
    to its death. There is a significant difference
    between choosing not to assist someone
    (unplugging the violinist) and doing something
    that causes someone harm (killing a fetus).

Bodily autonomy
  • Counterargument 2 Thomsons view of bodily
    autonomy is premised on the questionable
    assumption that the pregnant woman has the
    absolute right to do whatever she wants with her

Bodily autonomy
  • But most rights are not absolute. Just as the
    right to swing ones fist ends where the other
    mans face begins, a womans right to control her
    own body stops at taking the life of her unborn

Bodily autonomy
  • Counterargument 3 The violinist scenario,
    which involves a kidnapping, can only be compared
    to pregnancy after rape. If a pregnant woman was
    not raped but had sex voluntarily, she has either
    tacitly consented to allow the fetus to use her
    body, or else has a duty to sustain the fetus
    because she caused it to stand in need of her

Bodily autonomy
  • It can be argued that once a woman voluntarily
    engages in sexual intercourse, she has suspended
    her right to bodily autonomy by engaging in an
    act that brought a new life into existence.

  • A woman gets pregnant despite all the necessary
    precautions she has taken. Suppose that she wants
    to focus on her career and does not want to have
    children, is it morally justified for her to seek
    an abortion?

  • Two women were raped. One decided to keep the
    child and raise it as if conceived under normal
    circumstances. The other woman decided to have an
    abortion. Did both women make a good decision?

  • Do you think that access to abortion should be
    provided to teenage girls who got pregnant
    accidentally? What about those poor families with
    several children that cannot afford another one?

  • Do you agree with the view that abortion on
    grounds of fetal abnormality is morally
    objectionable in discriminating against people
    with disability? Why or why not?
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