Frank Bouchier-Hayes

Abortion raises subtle problems for private conscience, public policy, and constitutional law. Most of these problems are essentially philosophical, requiring a degree of clarity about basic concepts that is seldom achieved in legislative debates and letters to newspapers (Feinberg 1984: 1).

The above quote is taken from The Problem of Abortion, an important anthology of articles for anyone with an interest in this particular moral issue. In this paper, I intend to examine the views of two leading philosophical figures in the abortion debate. The emergence of abortion as an ethical issue went hand in hand with the introduction of practical ethics in the 1960s. Indeed as L.W. Sumner pointed out in his book, Abortion and Moral Theory:

As late as two decades ago abortion was nowhere a prominent public issue. In virtually every nation of the world, performing an abortion was, under all but the rarest of circumstances, a criminal act... An organised women’s movement was non-existent in the fifties. Although the control of reproduction had been an issue for decades, the energies of reform groups were largely directed to securing legal access to contraceptives. Most such groups, whether out of principle or pragmatism, took pains to distinguish the availability of contraception from that of abortion. The consensus in all sides was that abortion was a further and much more troubled question, one that it was premature to place on the public agenda (Sumner 1981: 3).

As soon as abortion was placed on the public agenda, changes in government policy towards and changes in public opinion on abortion stimulated philosophers to turn their attention towards this issue in an effort to resolve it. Public issues, then, became matters of philosophical concern. Philosophy appeared to be uniquely suited to resolving issues of public debate. It could analyse these matters in a highly rational as opposed to a highly emotional manner. Philosophers began to take a keen interest in abortion in the 1960s, and they have continued to do so ever since.

Joel Feinberg points out that questions about the morality of abortion "can be divided in two groups; those concerned with problems about the moral status of the unborn and those concerned with the resolution of conflicting claims - in particular, the claims of the mother and those of the fetus" (Feinberg 1984: 1). As far as the moral status of the unborn is concerned, we find that certain philosophers accord them no moral status whereas other philosophers accord them full moral status. If philosophers view the problem of abortion as a problem of conflicting claims, then they either argue that the claims of the mother supersede those of the foetus or vice versa. All of the above points will be discussed in the course of this paper.

It is important to note, however, that our ideas about abortion do not exist in a moral vacuum. In other words, what I believe in relation to abortion will, whether I like it or not, influence what I believe in relation to other public issues such as infanticide, euthanasia, and eugenics. Arguments that those who favour even limited access to abortion will unwittingly usher in other ‘moral ills’ such as infanticide, euthanasia, and eugenics are known as ‘slippery slope arguments’. These arguments are, not surprisingly, hotly disputed by those philosophers who seek to limit themselves to the abortion issue. However, certain philosophers do not appear to have any problem with certain of the consequences of a positive stance on abortion implied by the ‘slippery slope argument’. Michael Tooley, as we shall see, argues in favour of abortion and infanticide.

It is easy to see why ‘slippery slope arguments’ have become popular among opponents of abortion. These arguments essentially comprise the claim that a lack of respect for any form of human life will result in a gradual eroding of respect for all forms of human life. The common thread running through the arguments of those who support the slippery slope argument is that we must protect the most vulnerable members of our society. Otherwise, we will end up with what is known as eugenics or 'survival of the genetically fittest’. Opinion, needless to say, is divided in the merits and demerits of eugenics. Do we have the right to create a genetically perfect society by any means necessary? If the answer is yes, then abortion, albeit of a limited form, would appear to be permissible. Critics can, of course, argue that the richness of our human culture is as much due to genetic imperfection as it is to genetic perfection, and that, consequently, the creation of a genetically perfect society is not a morally appropriate goal for man.

As far as the structure of this paper is concerned, part one will briefly examine some of the points which Judith Jarvis Thomson raises in her highly influential article, ‘A Defense Of Abortion.’ Indeed, William Parent, the editor of one of Thomson’s books, tells us that this article is now "the most widely reprinted essay in all of contemporary philosophy "(Thomson 1986: vii). Judith Jarvis Thomson bases her argument on the assumption that foetuses are persons from the moment of conception. Despite the latter assumption, Thomson argues that this does not necessarily mean that foetuses have a right to life. She is not, however, in favour of infanticide. She is also not in favour of abortion on demand but argues instead, as Susan Sherwin points out, that "if the costs to the mother are not too severe, then it seems it would be proper of her to provide such care (and, in some cases, it would be ‘positively indecent’ of her not to) but that, even so, it seems she does not have an actual moral duty to do so" (Sherwin 1981: 31). Part two will examine some of the points raised by Michael Tooley in an article entitled ‘In Defense of Abortion and Infanticide,’ which is published in the second edition of Feinberg’s excellent anthology, The Problem of Abortion, as well as offering a brief summary of Tooley’s book, Abortion and Infanticide. Michael Tooley accords foetuses and certain infants no moral status. Tooley, unlike Thomson, argues that not only abortion but also infanticide should be seen to be morally permissible on the grounds that both involve the killing of nonpersons. Part three will examine some criticisms of Thomson’s article. Such criticisms are invariably associated with the thought experiments which she uses to support her position. Indeed, her imaginative thought experiments undoubtedly serve to partly explain the article’s continued popularity. Part four will consider Tooley’s approach to the issues of abortion and infanticide. I should mention that Tooley also uses thought experiments, but the spatial constraints of this paper prevented me from either presenting them or criticising them. In any case, a basic understanding of Tooley’s central argument does not, in my view, necessarily involve an awareness of his thought experiments. Part five will explore an alternative and, to my mind, more realistic approach to the issues of abortion and infanticide. This approach will indicate new ways in which personhood can be understood in the context of these issues.

My conclusion will be that although Thomson and Tooley have raised some important points which richly deserve our closest attention, they fail to properly relate their arguments to the issues of abortion and infanticide for several reasons. Firstly, Thomson’s thought experiment involving an ailing violinist bears no resemblance to the abortion situation. Secondly, Thomson and Tooley have failed to grasp the uniqueness of the abortion dilemma in their arguments. They both place too much emphasis on the woman and too little emphasis on the foetus. They fail to realise that the needs of both beings must be taken into account.


Thomson begins her article ‘A Defense Of Abortion’ by tackling the premiss which she believes much of the opposition to abortion relies upon, viz. that the foetus is a human being or person from the time it is conceived. To claim this, she argues, would be like claiming that an acorn is an oak tree. She does, however, concede that choosing a point in the development of the foetus where we can definitely say that a human being exists, which didn’t exist before this point, is highly problematic. Indeed, she tells us that, in her view, "we shall probably have to agree that the foetus has already become a human person well before birth "(Thomson 1971: 48). She does not, however, believe that a human being or person is present at conception. Despite the latter statement, Thomson is prepared to allow, for the purposes of her argument, the premiss that the foetus is a person from the time of conception.

Thomson proceeds by outlining what she believes to be the argument which certain opponents of abortion would derive from the premiss above-mentioned. The crux of this argument, as Thomson sees it, is that the right to life of the foetus outweighs the right to life of the mother "to decide what happens in and to her body "(Thomson 1971: 48). The subsequent thought experiment which Thomson places before us is an attempt to expose the flaws which she believes exist in the latter statement. The thought experiment involves you imagining a situation in which you wake up in a hospital bed to discover that your circulatory system has been connected up to the circulatory system of an unconscious famous violinist. The reason given for this gross abuse of your privacy is that the violinist has a serious kidney infection. Unfortunately for you the appropriate treatment consists of connecting him up to you, since both you and the violinist have been found to possess the same rare blood type by the Society of Music Lovers. The hospital director informs you that even though the Society of Music Lovers was wrong to kidnap you and place you in this difficult position, you are morally compelled to remain as you are until such time as the violinist can function independently of you. To do otherwise, he points out, would result in the death of the violinist and to allow this, at least in the eyes of the hospital director, is patently impermissible. Given that the time frame involved is nine months, Thomson asks you whether you would feel morally obliged to defer to the wishes and beliefs of the hospital director. Apparently worried that you will fail to see what she sees as a ludicrous situation which you are under no obligation to tolerate, Thomson stretches the time frame indefinitely. In short, she wants us to accept that the right to life of one person does not override the right of another person to choose what happens in and to his or her body, when the connection between such people resembles that expressed in the thought experiment outlined above.

Thomson acknowledges the fact that opponents of abortion can point to the involuntary nature of the relationship between the violinist and donor, and can liken such a relationship to that between the mother and foetus in a rape-induced pregnancy. She goes on to say that they can then make an exception for such pregnancies and "can say that persons have a right to life only if they didn’t come into existence because of rape; or they can say that all persons have a right to life, but that some have less of a right than others, in particular, that those who came into existence because of rape have less" (Thomson 1971: 49). As it happens, Thomson tells us, most opponents of abortion do not make allowances for cases of rape.

Thomson is concerned with the phenomenon of unwanted pregnancies in general, and not just with the phenomenon of unwanted pregnancies arising as a result of rape. In order to explain her position on this matter, she claims that it is necessary to "distinguish between two kinds of Samaritan: the Good Samaritan and what we might call the Minimally Decent Samaritan" (Thomson 1971: 62). Thomson uses the famous biblical story to assist her in explaining the distinction. The Good Samaritan in the story, Thomson reminds us, was the person who seriously inconvenienced himself in assisting the person in need. The Minimally Decent Samaritan, had he or she been present in the story, would have been the person who would have helped the person in need by doing less for him than the Good Samaritan did. Hence, it turns out that, according that, according to Thomson, the people in the story who did nothing to help the person in need were not even Minimally Decent Samaritans "not because they were not Samaritans, but because they were not even minimally decent" (Thomson 1971: 62).

Even if the story of the Good Samaritan was meant to serve as an example of what we should do in similar circumstances, we are not required, according to Thomson, to do more than the Good Samaritan would do in similar circumstances. Society at present, however, Thomson points out, requires women "to be not merely Minimally Decent Samaritans, but Good Samaritans to unborn persons inside them" (Thomson 1971: 63).

Thomson acknowledges the fact that some people might claim that all of her analogies fail to take into account the special relationship which exists between mother and foetus. She, however, contends that no such relationship exists unless one assumes responsibility for the foetus either implicitly or explicitly. Once the parents have assumed responsibility for the foetus, "they have given it rights, and they cannot now withdraw support from it at the cost of its life because they now find it difficult to go on providing for it" (Thomson 1971: 65). Hence, unprotected sex, with foreknowledge of the possible consequences, resulting in pregnancy and carried to term involves, according to Thomson, the implicit assumption of certain responsibilities which cannot be withdrawn if to do so would result in the death of the foetus.

On the other hand, if the parents have "taken all reasonable precautions against having a child, they do not simply by virtue of their biological relationship to the child who comes into existence have a special responsibility for it" (Thomson 1971: 65). What this means for Thomson is that if protected sexual intercourse results in an unwanted pregnancy, then the parents have the choice of either accepting or rejecting responsibility for the foetus but that "if assuming responsibility for it would require large sacrifices, then they may refuse" (Thomson 1971: 65). Thomson tells us that a Splendid Samaritan would assume responsibility for the foetus in the previous situation, regardless of the consequences which such a decision might have for him or her. She points out, however, that a Splendid Samaritan would also assume responsibility for the famous violinist.

Thomson concludes her article with an explanation as to why many proponents of the right to choose will find her argument concerning abortion somewhat lacking in terms of what it can do to assist their argument. Firstly, she points out that she has been arguing that abortion is sometimes, though not always, permissible. She has, in particular, been arguing that cases involving ‘Minimally Decent Samaritanism’ should be endured, whereas cases of pregnancy involving Good or Splendid Samaritanism needn’t necessarily be endured. Secondly, she tells us that she has not been "arguing for the right to secure the death of the unborn child" (Thomson 1971: 66). She acknowledges the fact that, given current medical capabilities, it is easy to make the mistake of taking abortion to mean the fully intended destruction of the foetus rather than the termination of a pregnancy. In other words, because most abortions are carried out when the foetus has no chance of surviving outside the womb under present medical conditions, people often tend to equate abortion with the death of the foetus instead of seeing it as the termination of a pregnancy. According to Thomson, "the desire for the child’s death is not one which anybody may gratify, should it turn out to be possible to detach the child alive" (Thomson 1971: 66).

Thomson ends her article by saying that if we accept, as she does, that no person exists at conception or for a period after conception, bearing in mind that "we have only been pretending throughout that the foetus is a human being from the moment of conception, "then very early abortions do not comprise the subject matter for moral debate" (Thomson 1971: 66). In other words, only when the requisite physiological development has occurred, in Thomson’s view, can we justifiably couch a discussion of the abortion of such an entity in moral terms.


In his article entitled ‘In Defense of Abortion and Infanticide,’ Michael Tooley introduces Feinberg’s ‘interest principle’ in an effort to better explain his position. He tells us that, according to the ‘interest principle’, only that which has or is capable of having interests can have rights. In addition, interests are in some way related to desires. Tooley finds the interest principle somewhat lacking for his purposes because although it talks of things possibly having rights, it does not talk of things actually having "rights - including, in particular, a right not to be destroyed" (Feinberg 1984: 124). He goes on to define a ‘particular interest principle’ which, he tells us, asserts "that an entity cannot have a particular right, R, unless it is at least capable of having some interest, I, which is furthered by its having right R" (Feinberg 1984: 125). This, he tells us, will help to explain why new-born kittens have a right not to be tortured but do not have a serious right to life. Kittens have a right not to be tortured, according to Tooley, because they can be said to have an interest in not experiencing pain. Kittens do not, however, according to Tooley, have a serious right to life because they cannot be said to have an interest in their own continued existence. Tooley contends that kittens cannot have an interest in their own continued existence because they lack self-consciousness. Moreover, he argues that since not only foetuses but also new-born babies lack self-consciousness and, consequently, cannot have an interest in their own continued existence, they also do not have a serious right to life.

Tooley applies the ‘particular interest principle’ to the concept of a right to life. Before doing this, however, he replaces the term ‘right to life’ with the term ‘right of a subject of experiences and other mental states to continue to exist’. He makes the point that interests presuppose desires and that desires "existing at different times can belong to a single continuing subject of consciousness only if that subject of consciousness possesses, at some time, the concept of a continuing self or mental substance" (Feinberg 1984: 129). The latter point, together with the ‘particular interest principle’, are used to argue for the necessary condition, viz. that the entity have, at least once, "the concept of a continuing self or mental substance," which something must fulfil in order that it possess a right to life (Feinberg 1984: 130).

Tooley then explores the implications which the latter statement has for the morality of abortion and infanticide. He points out that if, as most philosophers do, one sees the mind and brain as being closely related, then "when human development, both behavioural and neurophysiological, is closely examined, it is seen to be most unlikely that human fetuses, or even newborn babies, possess any concept of a continuing self " (Feinberg 1984: 130-131). What this means, according to Tooley, is that neither newborn babies nor foetuses have a right to life.

If, however, one chooses to hold that the mind is distinct from the brain, then, according to Tooley, this commits one either to the belief "that it is possible to establish, by means of a purely metaphysical argument, that a human mind, with its mature capacities, is present in a human from conception onward " or to the belief "that it is a divinely revealed truth that human beings have minds from conception onward" (Feinberg 1984: 131). He denies the validity of the former belief and points out that doubts about the existence of God create uncertainty about the validity of the latter belief. In addition, Tooley points out that the latter belief does not enjoy widespread acceptance either among religions or within the religion to which it belongs.

Interestingly, Tooley argues that adult members of certain nonhuman species have a right to life because he believes "that some nonhuman animals are capable of envisaging a future for themselves, and of having desires about future states of themselves.. that anything which exercises these capacities has an interest in its own continued existence. And.. that having an interest in one’s own continued existence is not merely a necessary, but also a sufficient, condition for having a right to life" (Feinberg 1984: 133)

As far as infanticide is concerned, he makes the point that certain philosophers base their moral objections to infanticide on common moral intuitions since common moral intuitions deem infanticide to be morally wrong. Tooley himself argues that "even if [one] grants, at least for the sake of argument, that moral intuitions are the final court of appeal regarding the acceptability of moral principles, the question of the morality of infanticide is not one that can be settled by an appeal to our intuitions concerning it" (Feinberg 1984: 122). Any proper rejection of infanticide must, according to Tooley, be based on an impregnable argument. Tooley strongly denies the possibility of such an argument.

Tooley’s book, Abortion and Infanticide, presents a sustained defence of the position on abortion and infanticide which he presented in his articles on these issues. It also deals with some of the criticisms made of his position on these issues. He offers us reasons why the standard objections to infanticide should be rejected and concludes, among other things, that in order for the issues to be satisfactorily resolved, there must be "much closer co-operation between, on the one hand, philosophers working in this area of ethics, and, on the other, scientists working in areas such as psychology and neurophysiology" (Tooley 1983: 425).


Francis Beckwith finds four ethical problems with Thomson’s analogy. Firstly, he tells us that in "using the violinist as a paradigm for all relationships, which implies that moral obligations must be voluntarily accepted in order to have moral force, Thomson mistakenly infers that all true moral obligations to one’s offspring are voluntary" (Beckwith 1992: 111). Beckwith contends that in an unwanted pregnancy the reluctant father has involuntary obligations to his offspring because of "the fact that he engaged in an act, sexual intercourse, which he fully realised could result in the creation of another human being, although he took every precaution to avoid such a result" (Beckwith 1992: 111).

Secondly, he tells us that Thomson’s volunteerism, above discussed, opposes family morality,

which has as one of its central beliefs that an individual has special personal obligations to his offspring and family which he does not have to other persons (Beckwith 1992: 112).
He goes on to say that even if Thomson sees the concept of family as being oppressive towards women,
a great number of ordinary men and women, who have found joy, happiness and love in family life, find Thomson’s volunteerism to be counter-intuitive (Beckwith 1992: 112).

Thirdly, he argues that one can establish that the foetus has a prima facie right to the mother’s body on the grounds that the foetus is something which is dependent on its mother, that this stage of a human being’s natural development takes place in the womb, that the foetus, when born, has a natural claim upon its parents that they care for it, even if it is the case that they never actually wanted it, and, finally, that there is no reason to deny the foetus a natural prima facie right to its mother’s body if, as Thomson allows, it is fully human prior to birth.

Fourthly, he argues that abortion is not simply the withholding if treatment for the foetus, but is in fact the killing of the foetus. He makes the point that "calling abortion the ‘withholding of support or treatment’ makes about as much sense as calling suffocating someone with a pillow the withdrawing of oxygen" (Beckwith 1992 116).

Quite apart from all of the above criticisms, Beckwith is fundamentally opposed to Thomson’s use of the violinist analogy as is clear from the following passage:

It is evident that Thomson’s violinist illustration undermines the deep natural bond between mother and child by making it seem no different than two strangers artificially hooked-up to each other so that one can steal the service of the other’s kidneys. Never has something so human, so natural, so beautiful, and so wonderfully demanding of our human creativity and love been reduced to such a brutal caricature (Beckwith 1992: 114).


Kenneth R. Pahel, in an article entitled "Michael Tooley on Abortion and Potentiality", argues that as far as the right to life or, to use Tooley’s term, the right to continued existence is concerned, foetuses and newborn infants "are beings that will, unless prevented, develop the particular interests, desires, and supporting concepts protected by this right in a normal healthy process of maturation," and that, consequently, "it is not actually having desires at some time that is essential, but the potentiality for naturally acquiring these desires and concepts that constitutes the necessary condition for being a holder of certain rights" (Pahel 1987: 94).

In my view, Tooley must be complemented for investigating what it is that separates human beings from other animals. Our capacity for self-consciousness does indeed serve to separate us from other animals. However, our capacity for morality also serves to distinguish us from other animals. In other words, we can behave morally towards animals by becoming vegetarian or by becoming more humane in our treatment of animals, and towards nature in general by becoming more environmentally aware. Morality, I believe, seeks to include rather than exclude.

I do not agree with Tooley’s assertion that self-consciousness alone ensures that something has a serious right to life. Tooley argues that only those things which can have an interest in continuing to exist can have a right to continue to exist. Interests, however, Tooley tells us, presuppose desires. In other words, it cannot be in a thing’s interest to continue to exist if it is incapable of desiring to continue to exist. It is my belief, however, that even though plants cannot have desires, it is morally objectionable for someone to argue that because of the latter inadequacy they have no right to continue to exist. I am not denying that Tooley has made some important points about what it means to be a rights holder. I am, however, saying that Tooley has not exclusively defined what a rights holder is.


Shannon M. Jordan, in an article entitled "The Moral Community and Persons," suggests that rather than trying to define what person is and thereby establishing which human beings are members of the moral community, we should "invert the order of reasoning to first determine the meaning of moral community, for then we will already understand who is a person" (Jordan 1986: 109). The following passage outlines Jordan’s essential characteristics of human life:

Human life is not and cannot be solitary; it is always lived in community; it is a life in which persons are bound together by rational intentions and actions which constitute their relationships with each other and thus form their moral commitments. The bond formed thereby is a fundamental moral bond which sets persons in moral relationships with each other, constituting them as moral persons. This bond is forged in those circumstances which are fundamentally constitutive of the moral life; birth, nurture, and the community in which one, normally by choice, lives shared lives. In two of these, i.e. birth and nurture, the self is constituted as a moral person through no choice of one’s own; only in the third circumstance are some capable of choosing in an autonomous or self-constituting way (Jordan 1986: 109).

Jordan criticises moral theories which focus on the rational autonomous individual and which hold that, as far as the foetus, the neonate, the infant, the retarded, the insane, the comatose, and the senile are concerned, we should act in such a way as to "respect the person one has been or might become, but that failure to do so cannot be as serious an offense as failure to respect the autonomy of a fully competent or rational person" (Jordan 1986: 110). Jordan argues that such theories fail to recognise that it is the moral community which creates persons rather than vice versa. In other words, human beings do not exist in a relational vacuum; they exist through relationships with others. In short, it can be said that the morality of nurturance governs our relationships with foetuses, infants, children and adults. Furthermore, a study of phenomenology coupled with cultural anthropology leads Jordan to conclude that "human survival, both individually and as a species, necessarily requires prescribed patterns of belief, behaviour and relationships - which is to say that human being is always being in a moral community" (Jordan 1986: 113).

Jordan goes on to make the point that infant survival depends on human action which itself reflects rational intentions. In particular, Jordan tells us that the infant is a person not because of his future ability to exhibit rational intentionality but because "in his infant incompetency the very contingency of his existence is based on membership in a community of rationally intending persons" (Jordan 1986: 114). In other words, Jordan is saying that because the infant only possesses a non-rational self which cannot act with rational intention, it depends upon the ‘other’ self, viz. the moral community, to act with rational intention on his or her behalf. What this means is that the term ‘person’ does not refer to some grouping within the human species but that any human being "is necessarily being person-in-relation, member-of-moral-community, self-in-the-life-world-of-other-selves" (Jordan 1986: 116).

I find Jordan’s article highly persuasive because it seems to square strongly with our moral intuitions about the vulnerable in society. It also allows us to get around Tooley’s principle which excludes foetuses and newborns from the realm of persons due to their inability to act rationally by arguing that foetuses and newborns are persons because we, the moral community, are their rational selves until such time as they acquire their rational selves. Moreover, if they can never be said to have acquired their rational selves, then we continue to be their rational or ‘other’ selves.

Another definition of personhood is provided by Marjorie Reiley Maguire who tells us that the point at which personhood begins is the point when the mother accepts the pregnancy. She argues that when the mother accepts the pregnancy, the foetus’ "potentiality for relationality and sociality is activated, because it is brought into a personal relationship with a human person, with the only human person who can actuate this potentiality while the fetus is still in the mother’s body and in a previable state " (Reiley Maguire 1985: 38). Reiley Maguire echoes the remarks of Shannon M. Jordan in the following extract:

The fetus cannot become related to the human social community except through the mediation of the mother. It is the mother who makes the fetus a social being by accepting its relatedness to her. Thus, it is the mother who makes the fetus a person (Reiley Maguire 1985: 38).

She goes on to tell us that she would demand that the brain and central nervous system were developed to the extent that the foetus was almost viable before she "would say that a biological reality existed which presumed consent of the mother to the pregnancy "(Reiley Maguire 1985: 41). Reiley Maguire opts for viability as the cut-off point while, at the same time, recognising that viability is itself "a shifting area and, in fact, is not even purely biological but is itself dependent on society’s standards as technology allows society to take over biology" (Reiley Maguire 1985: 41). She points out that when the foetus becomes viable, it no longer needs the mother to establish a relationship for it with the human social community.

Paul Gomberg takes up the notion of nurturance discussed by Jordan and argues that instead of being a dispute about when a foetus becomes a person, the abortion controversy is a dispute about the morality of nurturance. Gomberg suggests that "the abortion controversy derives less from disagreement about how to apply the principle prohibiting the killing of another person and more from the part of our morality that concerns parental duties of nurturance of the young: what are our duties to our offspring? When do those duties take hold?" (Gomberg 1990: 514)

Gomberg claims that the suggestion that the abortion controversy concerns the morality of nurturance highlights the following issues:

It gives a better articulation of the objection to abortion than the claim that abortion is murder; it allows us to understand why many believe that later abortions are morally more problematic than earlier ones; it puts the issue of abortion in the context of the morality that governs family life; and, most important, it allows us to understand why there is, on the one hand, a connection between conservatism on abortion and traditional women’s roles and, on the other, a connection between liberalism and affirmation of equality between men and women (Gomberg 1990: 514).

According to Gomberg, it is more appropriate to describe abortion as a failure to nurture than to describe it as an act of murder, because the issue of abortion involves duties towards offspring rather than duties towards adults. In other words, moral relations between adults are characterised by a principle forbidding one person from killing another person whereas moral relations between parents and their offspring are characterised by a principle entailing that parents nurture their offspring until they become self-sufficient. Gomberg also makes the point that because abortion as an issue involves moral relations between adults and their offspring, philosophers such as Michael Tooley are misguided in their approach to and solution of the problems of abortion and infanticide. Gomberg himself expresses the latter point as follows:

I doubt that the morality of nurturance is derivable from principles governing moral relations between adults, the principle prohibiting killing of another person being paradigmatic of morality between adults. Hence I doubt the significance of both the attempts to derive a prohibition on abortion from potential to become an adult like ourselves, and the vindications of abortion which rely on criticisms of such arguments. Since the purpose of the present paper is only to understand the abortion debate, I adopt, methodically, a moral intuitionism which articulates the moral imperatives commonly accepted in our culture (Gomberg 1985: 515).

Gomberg echoes the remarks of Marjorie Reiley Maguire when he says that the morality of nurturance takes over when a woman accepts her pregnancy. Gomberg argues that if we accept that a woman’s chief role is to bear and nurture children, then the woman is morally required to accept her pregnancy from the moment of conception. He also argues, however, that if we accept that a woman’s chief role is not to bear and nurture children, then the woman can choose either to accept or to reject her pregnancy. On the other hand, Gomberg points out that while most of us believe that early abortions appear to be in line with the morality of nurturance, most of us "believe that later abortions are morally and emotionally more problematic" because although "there is no precise point at which it is clear that the morality of nurturance must apply to the fetus, it is clear that the longer we wait to abort, the more like a baby is the thing we destroy" (Gomberg 1990: 519).

Gomberg is highly critical of conservatives who see women as being more biologically suited to being mothers and childbearers than to being members of a world of recognised employment. This emphasis on the servile status of women is, as he points out, highly demeaning for women. Keeping the latter point in mind, Gomberg concludes his article by offering a twofold solution to the problem of abortion:

First, instead of allowing the communism of the family to be undermined by the competitiveness of the capitalist order, the egalitarianism and commitment to others that characterize family relations at their best should be spread to the larger world. Second, nurturing attitudes can represent morality rather than servility in a world where they are cultivated equally among adults; the duties of nurturance must fall equally on men. But where much of our social life is governed by market imperatives, it becomes impossible to share nurturing equally among men and women. This suggests that a satisfactory solution to the problems surrounding the abortion issue will require changing the economic structures of our society. The moral problems of abortion are really social problems of capitalist society (Gomberg 1990: 524).

Jordan, Reiley Maguire, and Gomberg analyse the issues of abortion and infanticide as they are experienced by women. They do not parade elaborate hypothetical examples before our eyes to support their argument because, unlike Thomson, they do not need to do so. They adopt a pragmatic approach to the question of personhood which allows for variation in terms of defining the term ‘person’. In other words, they accept that personhood of the foetus occurs for different people at different stages of foetal development. All are agreed, however, that as the foetus approaches viability, it becomes less and less morally permissible for it to be aborted. Consequently, then, they are prepared to accept early abortions, they are strongly disinclined to accept abortions which occur close to the point at which the foetus becomes viable, and they are not prepared to accept abortions which occur from the moment that the foetus becomes viable.

Although Jordan, Reiley Maguire, and Gomberg adopt a moderate or developmental approach to the issue of abortion, they acknowledge that the mother can choose to recognise the foetus as a person prior to viability. From that point on, then, we, the moral community, must also recognise this foetus as a person. In other words, we must recognise this foetus as something which is as deserving of our respect as is any other human being with which we might come in contact.

In conclusion, then, it is my belief that philosophers can make significant contributions to the abortion debate but only if they are prepared to approach the issue of abortion in terms of how it is actually experienced by the people involved. If philosophers choose to follow the approaches made by Judith Jarvis Thomson and Michael Tooley, then I think that no significant advances will or can be made towards resolving this issue of abortion.

Resolving the issue of abortion involves, in my view, trying to look at the issue from the perspective of the beings involved, viz. the mother and foetus. When we do this, we will, I think, see that the abortion issue is not about the rights which we as adults have against each other or about the capacities which we as persons have to make rational decisions, but that it is about the duties which we as adults have towards our offspring.

Abortion, as Paul Gomberg points out, can only morally occur if it occurs in accordance with the morality of nurturance. According to the morality of nurturance, we have, Gomberg tells us, a duty to take care of our offspring until they become self sufficient. When do these duties of nurturance take hold? This is a difficult question to answer as they appear to take hold at different times for different people. It is not my intention here to attempt to answer this question except to say that an ethic of nurturance allows for a plurality of answers as opposed to one single answer to this question.

Notwithstanding the latter statement, however, an ethic of nurturance such as we have encountered morally prohibits infanticide on the grounds that at viability and, consequently, at birth a person unquestionably exists which has as much a right to life as any other person whereas prior to viability an organism exists which one is not morally required to recognise as a person, even though one may wish to do so.

It will of course be noted that my brief survey of philosophical approaches to the issue of abortion has yielded no definitive answer, but this is, I think, a measure of the philosophical complexity of the issue, and, at any rate, with a paper of this size I can only hope to present a selective outline of the issues of abortion and infanticide as seen through the eyes of certain philosophers.




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Thomson, J. J., Rights, Restitution and Risk. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.

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Thomson, J.J., "A Defense of Abortion." Philosophy and Public Affairs. Vol. 1, no. 1, 1971.

Tooley, M., Abortion and Infanticide. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.

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Pahel, K.R., "Michael Tooley on Abortion and Potentiality." The Southern Journal of Philosophy. Vol. 25, 1987.

Jordan, S.M., "The Moral Community and Persons." Philosophy Today. Vol. 30, no. 2, 1986.

Reiley Maguire, M., "Personhood, Covenant, and Abortion." American Journal of Theology and Philosophy. Vol. 6, no. 1, 1985.

Gomberg, P., "Abortion and the Morality of Nurturance." Canadian Journal of Philosophy. vol. 21, no. 4, 1990.

Copyright © 1998 Minerva. All Rights Reserved.

A version of this paper was presented to the
Limerick Philosophical Society in 1998.

Frank Bouchier-Hayes is a member of the Philosophy Department, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Ireland.

Mail to: Frank Bouchier-Hayes
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