The ethical and practical aspects of abortion

The ethical standing of induced abortion in human mothers has become an important question. Much of what is on this page was previously in a section on my page on general ethics, but the subject is of sufficient importance to have a page of its own.

Death, dying and killing are very emotive issues; I apologise to those who find my arguments on this page offensive, but ask you to try to consider the question dispassionately; or else just not read any further.

Created as a separate page 2009/02/14, last edited 2023/11/05
Contact: David K. Clarke – ©

The ethics of killing:
in relation to abortion

I have discussed death itself and have compared animal rights with human rights elsewhere.

Characteristics central to the concept of personhood: Mary Anne Warren
  1. Sentience – the capacity to have conscious experiences, usually including the capacity to experience pain and pleasure;
  2. emotionality – the capacity to feel happy, sad, angry, loving, etc;
  3. reason – the capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems;
  4. the capacity to communicate – by whatever means, messages of an indefinite variety of types; that is, not just with an indefinite number of possible contents, but on indefinitely many possible topics;
  5. self-awareness – having a concept of oneself, as an individual and/or as a member of a social group; and finally
  6. moral agency – the capacity to regulate one's own action through moral principles or ideals.


Flaws in the 'deprivation of a life like ours' argument

If this argument was to be applied to the abortion of a foetus, it could also be applied to contraception. It could be used to argue that every time contraception avoids a pregnancy a potential 'life like ours' is lost.

The argument could be taken even further. It could imply that we should have as many children as we possibly can, because to not have them is to deprive them of a potential life.

In a world that is grossly overpopulated we must limit our family sizes and we must have contraception if our children and grandchildren are to live in a world with a viable environment.

Inducing an abortion involves killing an embryo or a foetus. What are the ethics of killing anything, an animal, an adult human, a foetus or an embryo? (I will use 'foetus' in what follows to include zygote, embryo and foetus.)

As there is no evidence for the existence of a god or gods, this page does not consider the morality of abortion from any religious point of view.
Philosophers have discussed killing in terms of depriving the entity killed of a future, especially if that future is a 'future like ours'; that is a future such as a typical person might expect in a lifetime (the definition of personhood in this context is in the box on the left). Plainly this concept has relevance to the induced abortion question. (I have pointed out a flaw in this argument in the case of abortion in a box on the right.)

I would hold that in order to understand the ethics of killing we need to look at the very basis of ethics. Who is disadvantaged by a death? What is the balance between the good and the harm done? What suffering is involved?

In the case of the death of a person the friends and relations will suffer grief, in some cases the grief greatly affects the remainder of their lives. We might expect the death of a non-human animal to have less impact on other animals, but there are certainly cases where animals do seem to 'morn' for a killed companion, perhaps especially in those cases where they mate for life. In the case of the death of a foetus the mother will be affected emotionally, sometimes deeply so; other family members may well also be affected, probably to a lesser degree.

But I hold that the entity that is killed – whether adult human, animal, or foetus – does not suffer from death, although he/she may suffer in the process of dying. Death is oblivion, the end of consciousness and awareness; just like going to sleep, but a sleep from which one will not wake. There is no suffering in the loss of one's future; although there could well be suffering in a person's contemplation of the losing of his future, supposing that he knows of it in advance.

It seems to me that the argument that the entity killed is harmed by being deprived of its future is logically and ethically unsupportable.

The death of a foetus is of much less concern than the death of a person; the foetus has not developed the characteristics of personhood. It seems that to kill a non-sentient foetus is no more immoral than to kill a non-sentient animal.

Given that most entities, supposing that they were capable of understood the concepts involved, would prefer not to be killed rather than the alternative, we have to hold that killing is unethical, when that understanding is present, on the ground of the Golden Rule. But a foetus would not be capable of understanding the concept of death, and considering the arguments above there seems little harm to the 'victim' in dying.

In human, and at least some other, societies the ethics of killing must take into account the harm done to the friends and relations of the person killed.

The ethics of Abortion

Can we find any objective answer to the question:- is abortion ethical? I believe we can, but as you might expect, it will not be a simple answer of yes or no.

I have been uncertain about the ethics of abortion for a long time. I found that considering what good and bad is involved and writing my thoughts here, helped me decide. As always, I would be pleased to hear other points of view, my email address is on the About Me page.

The value of human life argument

Those who hold that human life is sacred will probably also hold that the embryo or foetus (again, I will use foetus in what follows to include zygote, embryo and foetus) is likewise sacred because it is a potential human being. But as this presupposes some divine ruling about the sanctity of human life – for which no evidence exists and which we must accept on faith alone – it is invalid in an ethical argument. The religion delusion is discussed elsewhere on these pages.

The Golden Rule applies. One should avoid harming any other person. I would go further, as I have done in my thoughts on the Golden Rule; we should try to avoid harming any other organism (unless doing so achieves a greater good). In my page on Animal rights I argue under the Supremacy of Man and Animal vs. human rights that there is no justification on holding human life to be in any way special compared to non-human life.


Having disposed of the 'human life is sacred' argument, we must go to the primary questions. In an abortion who or what is harmed? Who is helped? How much good is done in comparison to how much bad?

What good is done, what harm? The foetus

The foetus will be killed; I have argued above that while killing does not harm the foetus, in that it does not suffer, it is to be avoided on the grounds of the Golden Rule and that any emotional harm that might be done to others must be considered. The next question is, how much harm is there in killing a foetus in particular?

How can we judge the value of the life of a foetus? If we hold that human life is not special, according to the arguments referred to above, then we must judge the value of the life of a foetus by more general measures.

There seem to be several ways if we are to try to be objective:

All living things consist of cells. There are single-celled organisms and multi-celled organisms. An adult human consists of several trillion (million million) cells. At conception the zygote starts at one cell and steadily increases in number of cells as it grows, later becoming an embryo and then a foetus when it becomes recognisably human. Surely, if killing two animals is worse than killing one, then killing an animal with a million cells should be considered worse than killing an animal with a hundred cells.

Plants do not feel pain. They lack a nervous system. Therefore it is not possible to cause a plant pain in the same sense that an animal can be made to suffer pain. The ability to suffer pain, and to be aware, is called sentience. I would think that the great majority of people would agree that 'higher' animals (Man, for example) are more sentient than 'lower' animals (millipedes for example). A zygote or embryo a few days or weeks old can not be called sentient. So far as I know, it does not in any way respond to changes in its environment, it has no nervous system, it certainly has no brain. At the other end of the scale, a foetus near full term is probably nearly as sentient as a new-born baby.

Can it suffer?
In his book, Practical Ethics, Peter Singer explains that the earliest a foetus can feel pain is at about eighteen weeks. Before this, killing it could not cause it to suffer.
Both by quality and quantity then, it seems that an early embryo must be considered greatly inferior to a late-term foetus, and both would have to be considered of less 'value' than a fully sentient adult human. The 'can it suffer' argument, which I am inclined to believe is more compelling than the other two, suggests that no moral wrong is done by killing an early foetus.

What good is done, what harm? The mother

If a pregnancy puts the life of the mother at risk, then we should consider the value of the foetus compared to the value of the life of the mother (the arguments above place a much lower value on the life of the foetus than on that of the mother); remembering too that should the mother die early in the pregnancy the foetus will also die.

Another very important question is, is the potential child wanted? An unwanted child does not have a good life. If a mother has a child that she does not want then both she and the child may be greatly harmed; forcing the mother to continue with the pregnancy might produce a child with little chance of a happy life for itself and cause the mother much suffering as well.

The mother should have a right to control her own life, at least to the extent that in doing so she does minimal harm to others.

The philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote, in On Liberty:

"The only part of the conduct of any one, for which [a citizen] is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself [or herself], his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign."
The mother is a fully sentient being, her happiness is of great value and she should have full say over matters concerning her own body. The foetus is totally dependent on its mother and is not sentient.

What good is achieved if the mother is forced to look after an foetus/child that she does not want right through its first twenty or so years? The mother, and in many cases the child, suffers.


Concluding remarks

In conclusion it seems that at the beginning of a pregnancy the zygote, having no sentience and no capacity for suffering, cannot be held to be of much importance compared to the mother. Destroying any life is undesirable, but it is impossible to rationally argue that destroying a early-term foetus, in itself, is worse than destroying a small animal; in fact, the animal, being sentient and capable of suffering, should be held to be more deserving of compasion than the foetus. Of course we must also consider the emotional trauma that may be caused to the mother and father by the abortion.

A late-term abortion is a different matter. The foetus may be beginning to develop the early stages of sentience, is capable of suffering and we need to consider the greater trauma to the mother and to the clinic or hospital staff (whose welfare seems often forgotten in discussions of the ethics of abortion) where the abortion is carried out. Here more consideration needs to be given to the balance of good and bad likely to be achieved.