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Ben's essay

Essay topic:

It is always and everywhere wrong to kill an innocent human being. A human foetus is an innocent human being. So it is always and everywhere wrong to kill a human foetus. Discuss.

The right to life of the human foetus has been the topic of intensely fierce debates by philosophers, theologians, and academics for several decades. Does the foetus' right to life override the mother's right to choose how she will control her body? If so, are there any circumstances in which an abortion is justified? I shall argue that ultimately it is the mother's choice how she will control her body, and thus, in many cases, that an abortion is justified.

The abortion debate focuses on the argument that follows:

P1: It is always wrong to kill an innocent human being

P2: A human foetus is an innocent human being

C: It is always wrong to kill a human foetus

The validity of this argument relies on the truth value of the first two premises, and by dismissing the conclusion when the premises are assumed to be true, the argument becomes invalid. Thus, in order to show that it is not always wrong to kill an human foetus, it must be shown that the premises or conclusion are not always true. Throughout this essay I shall attempt to dismiss both premises and thus invalidate the argument.

A woman has a right to control her own property, and thus her body. It is this ideology on which many laws have developed, with regards to theft and assault. By ignoring this right, many crimes are no longer immoral. Thus, in the same vein, if a woman is pregnant, she has the right to use her "control" right, to outweigh the right to life of the foetus. The right to autonomy of the woman outweighs the right to life of the foetus, which is not yet even a person. Philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson, has argued this point with a famous example. Suppose you wake one morning to find yourself hooked up to an unconscious, famous musician. His kidneys have failed and he needs to be hooked up to a person with healthy kidney's, you, for nine months to survive. You have been kidnapped by a group of music lovers, and hooked up to the ailing musician. To be disconnected now would kill him. Thomson argues that you are not morally obliged not to disconnect. To ask you to give up nine months to save someone else is too much to ask. So too, it is too much to ask a woman to give up herself for nine months (more including upbringing) in order to have a baby. (Judith Jarvis Thomson, "A Defence of Abortion", p38-39). Thus, by following this argument, the conclusion is dismissed, invalidating the initial argument.

A further angle of this suggestion will now be explored. If a mother has the right to complete control of the autonomy of her own body then she may also refuse to follow through with an accidental or ill-thought out pregnancy, for it is morally unjust to require that she be restrained for nine months in such a circumstance. Singer has adapted Thomson's argument to highlight such a situation (Peter Singer, "Practical Ethics", 2nd ed., p 147). Suppose that instead of being kidnapped by crazed, over zealous music lovers, you stumbled into a section of the hospital for volunteers to save the musician. Expecting the next volunteer, the doctors anaesthetize you and hook you in to the musician. Are you still obligated to stay? Unfortunately, this argument may then be extended to allow for unwanted pregnancies, for example, children that are the wrong sex, or simply inconvenient.

A further step on this argument, beyond the woman's right to autonomy, is any situation in which the bearing of the child would, or could, adversely affect the health of the mother. As stated by Mackie (J L Mackie, "Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, p197), abortion is justified if "it may be needed to prevent a grave risk to the mother's life or health." Is a woman morally obligated to risk her life for the potential life of a child? Is a woman also expected to bear a child that is the result of a rape, that could seriously affect her mental health? Surely it may be agreed that the mother is in no way required risk her own health in order to nurture a child that may not even survive anyway. It may also be said that a mother may abort a child if it's quality of life is going to be exceedingly low. For example a seriously disabled child.

Now, extending from the fact that a woman has the right to autonomy, a different problem exists in the argument as it stands. It is speciesist to suggest Homo Sapiens have any particular right to life, above and beyond that of an equivalently developed animal, and so rebutting P1. So, if it is in itself morally "wrong", to kill a member of the species Homo Sapiens, then we are making our decision with a bias toward our own species. Otherwise, without a modification of the initial argument (as in the next paragraph), the premises do not give an unbiased and justifiable conclusion that it is always morally unacceptable to abort a foetus of the species Homo Sapiens.

Singer suggests a justification for abortion in that we kill animals of equivalent development for food, and so, why should a foetus, without being speciesist, be any different (Peter Singer, "Practical Ethics", 2nd ed. p151). Opponents of this idea suggest interchanging the word Homo Sapiens in P1, for person, defining a person, as stated by Locke, "a thinking, intelligent being that has reason and reflection and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places" (Peter Singer, "Practical Ethics", 2nd ed. ,p87). This brings about a further problem for the anti-abortionists: person cannot simply be substituted into P2, and without this substitution in P2, the premises will not entail the conclusion. In response to this, the conservatives then change the argument entirely:

P1: It is always wrong to kill anything that will be a person

P2: A human foetus is a future person

C: It is always wrong to kill a human foetus

Then, this may be criticized by emphasizing that the rights of a real person (the woman) outweigh the rights of the potential person, and thus it is once again the mother's decision as to whether to abort the child, thus making P1 untrue.

But not every abortion is justified. For example, if the child has already been carried for some time does the mother have the right to withdraw herself at whim. Surely if the woman has committed herself for too long to plead autonomy now. Another instance is when the child is simply undesirable, due to gender, or if the mother would like to go on a hiking holiday. These examples are unjust for abortions as although the right to autonomy is paramount to the right to life of the foetus, it is intuitively wrong to end a life, even a possible one if the reason is not legitimate. Thus, it would be best, to adopt some form of rule restriction on claiming "right to autonomy" as the reason for abortion. Some form of rule system may be applied in the way that utilitarianism was rectified by a rule system.

Abortion is a complex and emotional moral issue that cannot be explained completely in one essay. Every instance in which abortion is considered differs from the last and so requires an independent evaluation. Every abortion may not be dictated by a single rule. Given the argument shown early in this essay, since the premises are not necessarily true, then the conclusion may not simply be blindly accepted as true. So, too, the argument is not valid, since if the premises are true the conclusion is contingently false. Thus it is not true that it is always and incontrovertibly wrong to have an abortion.


  1. Judith Jarvis Thomson, " A Defence of Abortion"
  2. Peter Singer, " Practical Ethics", 2nd ed
  3. J L Mackie, " Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong"
  4. Jonathan Glover, " Causing Death and Saving Lives"
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