Utilitarianism and Abortion

The debate over abortion usually focuses on politics and law and the most frequently asked question tends to be whether or not abortion should be outlawed or continue to be allowed at the discretion of each individual. Behind these debates are the most basic of ethical questions which do not always receive the attention they may deserve. There are many opinions on this topic, however, a good place to start is whether or not law has the authority to rule over morality and whether the laws that we have now bring enough attention to the moral value of abortion. Along with these concepts abortion can also be viewed through the eyes of the utilitarian approach to ethics which focuses on both pleasure and pain and the ability to maximize pleasure over pain. To do so we must first know exactly what abortion is and then must also have a broad definition of what the utilitarian theory encompasses. Abortion by definition is the termination of a pregnancy by the removal or expulsion of a fetus or embryo from the uterus resulting in its death. The utilitarian theory by definition focuses on the rightness or wrongness of the act in question and its effects on a community as a whole (Katz, 2004). Viewing abortion through the utilitarian approach, theorists would want to distinguish between the possibility of pleasure and pain instances of abortion over the amounts of
pleasure and pain when abortion is not the option.

Most would think that the best place to begin this discussion would be from the prospects of the fetus itself however, that is not always the case. The first thing to consider is that through abortion and the stopping of the fetus’s life the fetus can be said to have any possible pleasure taken away from it. Secondly, no one knows for sure what level of pain is inflicted through the procedure, especially in the later stages of pregnancy. Unfortunately, this focus seems to be unjustified because many say that the abortion could have been done earlier and with less invasive techniques. The problem with both of these possibilities is that who determines the amount of pain inflicted? Usually adults in experimental settings so then the question that follows must be how can adults know how an unborn fetus itself will feel?

Another consideration would have to be that the life of the unborn fetus would promote a much greater amount of happiness over pain. Again no one knows exactly what the future may hold, but it is very likely that these individuals, who are essentially put to death against their will, have a very happy life. This, however, cannot happen once an abortion has taken place because any chance for the fetus to experience happiness in any form has been removed. The possibilities of pleasure over pain for an unborn fetus later in life must be thoroughly considered when applying the utilitarian method to the process of abortion.

The third group that must be accounted for are the parents and extended family of the unborn child. Those who intend on having a child are doing so under careful consideration and thus happiness should prevail. To the opposite of this are those who are pregnant with an unwanted child that may feel grief and are more than likely to become unhappy and even depressed from the birth of this child. This may result from financial issues or just the general unpreparedness to having a child that is not wanted. The parents and extended family are also a component of abortion that must be considered under the utilitarian method of ethics.
Since the utilitarian theory focuses much of its strength on the effects individual’s acts play amongst the community rather than on the individual, much of the issue of abortion lies on its effects on a population. This is important because if a population would have to consist of a “perfect” size then it is abundantly clear that the possibility of new population (births) will be hindered in an area of consistent population while areas with underdeveloped population will be allowed to reproduce. In this way those overdeveloped areas will require abortion as a way to control the population while the underdeveloped areas will be strictly against abortion so that their population can flourish.

To take this method even farther there are two very different rules that are provided by this method those being Rule and Act utilitarian. Rule utilitarian’s are more formula oriented and superficial and focus on behavioral codes or rules that are based on societal practices and institutions (Waller, 2008). This principle can be said to be a test for the morality of a moral rule and does not pertain to the action itself. An example of this is the concept “stealing is wrong”. This rule will allow for more positive then negativities to come from all of those who follow it. Rule utilitarianism then becomes a method for judging various behaviors. Rule utilitarianism allows abortion to be labeled according to moral rules thus allowing each individual a chance at a more favorable outcome over an unfavorable one.

Act utilitarianism, in contrast, maintains that the morality of each action is determined in relation to the favorable and unfavorable consequences that come from the act (Waller, 2008)). This aspect seems the best fit when speaking of abortion as it focuses on the act of abortion and not just the consequences of the act or moral code. The Act portion of utilitarianism is a more moral based utilitarianism as it focuses on the act itself and the consequences that come from doing that specific act.

Now that we have a broad prospective on how the utilitarian theory works in accordance to the topic of abortion we must further this discussion and apply the fundamental aspects of a variety of different theorists to the topic of abortion. The first of these coming from Peter Singer (1993) who claims “there is a clear cut answer to the question of the moral permissibility of abortion and those who think there is not ‘are simply mistaken’ (P. 135). This is an important concept to hold and brings a much heated debate on abortion that will surely require much attention in the future. Singer starts his debate on this issue at the very beginning of the life cycle and never looks back. He says as stated by Crome (2008):

“One of the primary issues is that the development form from the fertilized egg to child is continuous. Consequently, it is difficult for those who want to defend abortion to establish a morally significant dividing line between the earliest stages of life when abortion would be permissible and the point at which that life turns into a properly human life, and when it would not” (pg. 2).
Along the way he emphasizes that this process may hit many detours in the determining when a fetus can actually be able to live viably. This is just one of the ways Singer brings mention to the life cycle and its ability to determine when or when not an abortion is a just fact. To the opposite of this there are many instances where Singer seems to be a proponent for abortion, but at the same time shows signs that he is actually against it. He even goes to the extent of giving vivid details in the case of those who may be over the gestational age to have an abortion, but choose to go to another country to have the abortion done illegally. Peter Singer, in my opinion, gives a thorough representation of the utilitarian method of ethics. He denotes the good points and the bad points of this type of ethical judgement while giving examples to prove or disprove his methods.

Another utilitarian philosopher by the name of J. S. Mill also gave great contribution to the concept of abortion and the utilitarian way. However, before we talk about how he contributed to abortion, we must get a generalization about the role he played in utilitarian ethics and morality in general by visiting an excerpt from his famous piece Utilitarian in which Mill (1998) states:

“there is, I am aware, a disposition to believe that a person who sees in moral obligation a transdental fact, an objective reality belonging to the province of things in themselves; is likely to be more obedient to it than one who believes it to be entirely subjective, having its seat only in human consciousness” (P. 75).

This sentiment goes the distance in explaining the type of utilitarianism Mill promoted. Unlike others he seemed to use a lighter version of utilitarianism allowing for things others would have never dreamed of. Mill went great lengths in trying to determine a more effective way to approach utilitarianism as he felt there were deeper components then just what is left to the consciousness.

Mill would approach this issue through a variation of questions ending with the notion of overall pleasure. One of Mill’s (2002) firm beliefs was that “the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion” (p. 259). This is intrinsic to the discussion of abortion as there are so many points of view that range from lack of opinion to utter disgust. He does however feel that individuals should be rational enough to realize whether an event will have favorable or unfavorable outcomes (Qizilbash, 2006). This being said, the pleasure or the pain behind the act becomes the justification of the act. For instance, let us consider the case of parents that are faced with having a baby that would become a disadvantage over a period of time. In this case the greater good in Mill’s view would be to abort the baby, thus forgoing the possibilities of grief and stress in the future. In the end the event will bring more pain then pleasure and becomes a vehicle to attain a desired pleasure and in that respect is considered a moral act.

Interestingly enough Mill encountered the topic of abortion through another careful observation. If carrying and raising a baby may potentially bring pain of any sort (not being able to nurture the child properly) then the baby may be better off being aborted. This can be said because the inability to function as a good parent is a painful thing and thus the abortion becomes the appropriate thing to do. This again under Mills and the utilitarian theory becomes a moral act for those reasons. The one great distinction between Mill and others is the allowance for a calculation of pain and pleasure (Riley, 2009). These calculations were to be done on an individual basis which now allowed for each person to hold some accountability for their own pleasures and pain. Mill held many views on abortion and morality but more importantly he set into motion the fact that pleasure and pain is not necessarily a set factor and can be calculated by each individual.

When viewing abortion in accordance of the utilitarian theory it is imperative that the views of Jeremy Bentham be discussed as he gives an interesting stance to the topic of abortion. His focus is on the greatest good for the overall greatest number of people and also includes the Hedonistic Calculus Theory which was extremely helpful in representing his position on abortion. He used the Hedonistic Calculus Theory as a way to determine which pleasures are of the greatest good and should be pursued by others (Nussbaum, 2004). This theory contained several different categories which were used under Bentham as a way to view each situation separately. In this way there were times when abortion would be permitted and other times when abortion would be strictly prohibited. For example, if a woman was raped and subsequently became pregnant then abortion would be justifiable because the baby could possibly bring more pain to the mother, the family, and even the baby itself. The problem that comes about under this approach is that many times the issues surrounding abortion never really come to a final conclusion, but instead multiple conclusions may be reached depending on the variation of circumstances that arise. Bentham and his utilitarian approach definitely addresses the topic of abortion, however, leaves many opportunities for a final conclusion to never be determined.

In conclusion, we have to understand that the application of the utilitarian principle of ethics seeks to set a general rule to apply to all moral decisions. In the case of abortion, the utilitarian states that all unwanted pregnancies that represent a physical, mental, emotional, and financial hardship should be terminated via abortion. Furthermore, the utilitarian does not look at the unborn fetus as in a way which happiness is to be gained or lost, but rather as a piece of society as a whole. This becomes a disadvantage because the fetus is not allowed any rights nor is it granted happiness because at this stage it does not experience a cognitive rational thought process. The limitations that the utilitarian theory adds to the discussions must also be addressed as many times there is not enough information provided to come to a final and ever so important conclusion. The utilitarian method is a straight forward way to determine the best possibilities of pleasure over pain for all involved.

Crome, K. (2008). Is Peter Singer’s Utilitarian Argument about Abortion Tenable? Richmond Journal of Philosophy. 17, 1-9.
Katz, D. (Nov. 8, 2004). Political, Public Health and Morality. New Haven Register. New Haven, Con.
Mill, J. S. (2002). On Liberty. Classics of Political and Moral Philosophy. Ed. New York: Oxford.
Mill, J. S. (1998). Utilitarianism. Ed. Roger Crisp. New York: Oxford University Press. 75.
Nussbaum, M. (2004). Mill between Aristotle and Bentham. Daedalus. 133(2), 60-69.
Qizibash, M. (2006). Capability, Happiness, and Adaptation in Sen and J. S. Mill. Utilitas, 18(1), 20-33.
Riley, J. (2008). The Interpretation of Maximizing Utilitarianism. Social Philosophy and Policy, 26(1), 286-326.
Singer, P. (1993). Taking Life: The Embryo and the Fetus. Practical Ethics, Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 135.
Waller, B. N. (2008). Consider Ethics: Theory, Readings, and Contemporary Issues. New York: Pearson Custom Publishing.