Kristina Grob and Nathan Nobis

Nathan Nobis is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Morehouse College, Atlanta GA. He is the author of many articles and chapters on bioethics and other ethical and philosophical issues. He is the author of the open-access book Animals & Ethics 101: Thinking Critically About Animal Rights, and is an editor of the open-access 1000-Word Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology. Kristina Grob is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of South Carolina, Sumter. This work released under a CC-BY license.


Abortion is often in the news. In the course of writing this essay in early 2019, Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio, Georgia, Alabama and Missouri passed legislation to outlaw and criminalize abortions starting at six to eight weeks in pregnancy, with more states following. Federal law, however, generally permits abortions, so it is unclear what the legal outcome here will be.

Abortion is a political issue – with different political parties tending to have different perspectives on the issue – because abortion is a moral or ethical issue. (These two words mean the same thing).

Some believe that abortions are typically morally permissible, or not wrong, and so believe that abortions should be legal. If doing something isn’t wrong, it shouldn’t be illegal: criminalizing actions that aren’t wrong is a form of injustice.

Other believe that abortion is morally wrong, that it’s often wrong, maybe nearly always or even always.

Some people argue that even though they believe abortion is wrong, it should remain legal: after all, if every morally wrong action was illegal, we would all be in jail! Seriously though, there are many actions that are morally wrong, even really hurtful, that the government shouldn’t try to prevent or punish. (You can supply the potential examples to make the point). They might also think that, for a variety of other reasons, their personal moral views on the issues shouldn’t be made into law for all.

Others argue that abortions are wrong and should be illegal. What types of wrongdoing should be illegal? This question isn’t easy to answer: it’s abstract and general. One answer is that seriously, extremely wrong actions should be illegal. This might seem plausible, since many illegal actions are seriously wrong, but since there are other very wrong actions that shouldn’t be illegal, this answer isn’t perfect.

Defining “Abortion”

Abortion might personally affect you or someone you know: you or a partner, spouse, relative or friend may have had an abortion, have considered abortion, or will have an abortion. But what is an abortion? There are a number of common definitions, some of which are better and others which are worse:

Definition 1: An abortion is the murder of an unborn baby or child.

Definition 2: An abortion is the intentional termination of a fetus to end a pregnancy.

Definition 3: An abortion is the intentional killing of a fetus to end a pregnancy.

Definition 3 is best. We’ll explain why after we show the problems with the first two definitions.

“Murdering Babies”

Definition 1 is common with certain groups of people, but even people who think abortion is wrong should reject it.

“Murder” means “wrongful killing,” and so this definition implies that abortion is wrong by definition, which it isn’t. This definition means that to know that abortion is wrong, we’d just need to reflect on the meaning of the word, and not give any reasons to think this. Murder is wrong by definition, but to know that any particular killing is murder, we need arguments. (Compare someone who calls the death penalty murder: we know it’s killing, but is it wrongful killing? We can’t just appeal to the definition of “murder”: we need arguments that this is wrongful killing). This definition also means that someone who claims that abortion is not wrong says that “Wrongful killing is not wrong,” which makes no sense. We can even call this a “question-begging” definition, since it assumes that abortion is wrong, which can’t be assumed. So this definition is problematic, even if abortion is wrong.

Definition 1 also describes fetuses as “babies” or “children.” While people are usually free to use whatever words how they want, people can say things that are false: calling something something doesn’t mean it’s really that thing. And the beginnings of something are usually not that thing: a pile of lumber and supplies is not a house; fabric, buttons and thread are not a shirt, and an embryo or early fetus is not a baby or child. So it’s false and misleading to call embryos and early fetuses “babies” or “children.”

Defining abortion in terms of “babies” seems to again result in a “question-begging” definition that assumes that abortion is wrong, since it is widely and correctly believed that it’s wrong to kill babies. We understand, however, that it’s wrong to kill babies because we think about born babies who are conscious and feeling and have other baby-like characteristics: these are the babies we have in mind when we think about the wrongness of killing babies, not early fetuses. Describing early fetuses as “babies” characterizes them either as something they are not or, at least, assumes things that need to argued for, which is misleading, both factually (in terms of what fetuses are like) and morally (insofar as it’s assumed that the rules about how babies should be treated clearly and straightforwardly apply to, say, embryos).

Part of the problem with this definition is that terms like “babies” and “children” encourage strong emotional responses. Babies and children are associated with value-laden terms such as innocence, vulnerability, preciousness, cuteness, and more. When we refer to unborn human beings as fetuses, some people become defensive because they see the word “fetus” as cold and sterile. But “fetus” is merely a helpful, and accurate, name for a stage of development, as is “baby,” “child,” “adolescent,” and “adult.” Distinguishing different stages of human development doesn’t commit anyone to a position on abortion, but it does help us understand what an abortion is.

In sum, defining abortion in terms of “murdering babies” is a bad definition: it misleads and assumes things it shouldn’t. Even those who think that abortion is wrong should not accept it.


The second definition describes abortion as an intentional action. This is good since a pregnant woman does not “have an abortion” if her pregnancy ends because of, say, a car accident. And “spontaneous abortions” or miscarriages are not intentional actions that can be judged morally: they just happen.

Definitions, however, are supposed to be informative, and the vague word “termination” doesn’t inform. If someone had literally no idea what an abortion was, it would be fair for them to ask what’s exactly involved in a “termination” of a pregnancy. A discussion between persons A and B – who knows nothing about abortion –  might go like this:

“There is a pregnant woman (or girl) who does not want to have a baby, a living baby, obviously. And so we are going to do something to something insider her – that is developing into that living baby – so she does not have that baby. The action we are going to do is the ‘termination.’”

That something inside her, developing into that living baby, it is living?

“Yes. It started from a living egg and sperm cell.”

“So you are making something living not living, right? That sounds like killing something, right?”

Person B’s reasoning seems correct: abortions do involve killing. The word “termination” obscures that fact and so makes for an unclear definition. This doesn’t make the definition wrong; to “terminate” something means to end it in some way, and abortion ends the development of a fetus.  But it doesn’t say how abortion ends that development and so is not ideal.

Why might someone accept this definition? Probably because they are reasoning this way:

Killing is wrong. So if abortion is killing, then it’s wrong. But I don’t believe that abortion is wrong, or I am unsure that abortion is wrong, so I don’t want to call it a ‘killing,’ since that means it’s wrong.

The problem here is the first step. Not all killing is wrong. Lots of killing is perfectly fine and raises no moral issues at all: killing mold, killing bacteria, killing plants, killing fleas, killing random cells and tissues (even ones that are human, say cheek cells or skin cells), and more. We don’t even need to observe that it’s sometimes not wrong to kill adult human beings to make the point that not all killing is wrong.

This means that it’s not problematic to define abortion in terms of “killing.” The important questions then are, “Is abortion wrongful killing, or killing that’s not wrong?” and “When, if ever, might it be wrongful killing and when, if ever, might it be permissible killing? And why?”


A final definition understands abortion in terms of an intentional killing of a fetus to end a pregnancy. This definition is accurate, informative since it tells us how the fetus would be “terminated”, and morally-neutral: it doesn’t assume that the killing involved in abortions is not wrong or that it’s wrong. This is a good definition.[1]

Why Most Abortions Occur

The Guttmacher “Fact Sheet”[2] provides an overview of the research on why abortions occur and other relevant information:

  • The reasons patients gave for having an abortion underscored their understanding of the responsibilities of parenthood and family life. The three most common reasons—each cited by three-fourths of patients—were
    1. concern for or responsibility to other individuals;
    2. the inability to afford raising a child; and
    3. the belief that having a baby would interfere with work, school or the ability to care for dependents.

    Half said they did not want to be a single parent or were having problems with their husband or partner.

  • Fifty-one percent of abortion patients were using a contraceptive method in the month they became pregnant, most commonly condoms (24%) or a hormonal method (13%).
  • Fifty-nine percent of abortions were obtained by patients who had had at least one birth.
  • Some 75% of abortion patients in were poor or low-income. Twenty-six percent of patients had incomes of 100–199% of the federal poverty level, and 49% had incomes of less than 100% of the federal poverty level ($15,730 for a family of two).

This information suggests, at least, that if women were economically better off, had better access to affordable child-care and other forms of support, and had ready access to more reliable forms of contraception, there would likely be fewer abortions.

Bad Arguments: “Question-Begging” Arguments & “Everyday” Arguments

We’ll now discuss some commonly given arguments about abortion that, unfortunately, are rather poor.

“Question-begging” Arguments

Many common arguments about abortion are what’s called “question-begging,” which means the reason given for the conclusion assumes that conclusion. This means that you wouldn’t accept the reason as a good reason to believe the conclusion unless you already believed that conclusion! This is circular reasoning, and arguments like this are always bad.

“Against” Abortion:

Many common arguments against abortion are question begging. Here are some:

Abortion – killing fetuses to end pregnancies – is wrong because:

  1. abortion is murder;
  2. abortion is killing babies or children;
  3. adoption is a better option than abortion;
  4. pregnant women just must keep the pregnancy and give birth;
  5. abortion should not be used as ‘birth control’;
  6. women who have abortions are irresponsible;
  7. a good person wouldn’t have an abortion;
  8. women who have abortions feel guilty.

These premises all assume that abortion is wrong. To explain:

Premise Begged Assumption
abortion is murder; assumes that killing fetuses is wrong, since “murder” means wrongful killing;
abortion is killing babies or children; assumes that fetuses are like babies and children and so are similarly wrong to kill;
adoption is a better option than abortion; assumes that abortion is a worse or bad option, since it assumes it is wrong;
pregnant women just must keep the pregnancy and give birth; assumes that women must not have abortions since it assumes they are wrong;
abortion should not be used as ‘birth control’; assumes that abortion is wrong: but if it is not wrong, while it might not be an ideal form of “birth control” it could permissibly be used for that purpose;
women who have abortions are irresponsible; assumes that women who have abortions are doing what they are not supposed to do, doing wrong, and so are “irresponsible”;
a good person wouldn’t have an abortion; assumes that abortion is wrong and so good people, who avoid wrongdoing, wouldn’t have one;
women who have abortions feel guilty. assumes that abortion is wrong and so assumes that some women feel guilty because they have done something wrong: however, people can feel guilty even if they haven’t done anything wrong, so guilt feelings aren’t perfect evidence of wrongdoing (just as not feeling guilty doesn’t mean you did something that was OK).

People would believe these claims only if they already believed abortion is wrong, so these claims should not sway anyone who wants to think critically about the issues.

“For” Abortion:

People who think abortion should be allowed also sometimes give question-begging arguments. Here are a few:

Abortion is not wrong because:

  1. abortion is a personal choice; couples should be able to make that choice;
  2. women have a (moral) right to have abortions;
  3. women have the right to do what they want with their bodies;
  4. well, if you don’t like abortions, then don’t have one!
  5. those who oppose abortions just want to control women.

These premises likewise assume their conclusions. To explain:

Premise Begged Assumption
abortion is a personal choice; couples should be able to make that choice; the idea of a “personal choice” seems to be a choice that’s not wrong to make: e.g., we wouldn’t call a choice to be an ax-murderer a “personal choice” because that’s wrong, whereas what color socks to wear is a “personal choice.” So claims like this seem to just assume that abortion is not wrong or that it should be legal;
women have a (moral) right to have abortions; sometimes when people say that they have a moral right to do something, they are merely saying that it’s not wrong for them to do it. So this claim amounts to saying that abortion is not wrong because it’s not wrong, which is question-begging. (If it’s explained why women have this right, the argument might cease to be question-begging, however);
women have the right to do what they want with their bodies; there are limits to rights, and sometimes we don’t have the right to do what’s wrong. If abortion were wrong, then perhaps women wouldn’t have the right to have them, and this claim just assumes abortions are not wrong;
well, if you don’t like abortions, then don’t have one! consider an analogous slogan, “Don’t like arson? Then don’t burn down any buildings!” This is absurd, because arson is wrong, and we don’t offer slogans like this about actions that are wrong. “Don’t like strawberries? Then don’t eat them!” makes sense since not eating strawberries is not wrong. The slogan here assumes that abortion is not wrong;
those who oppose abortions just want to control women. since some wrongdoing should be “controlled,” those who offer this reason might merely assume that abortion is not a type of wrongdoing that should be illegal. They are also focusing on other people’s motives, which is often unwise: people who allegedly wish to “control” women might respond or suspect that abortion advocates are motivated by the desire to “engage in immorality without consequences!” (Is that true? No, pro-choice advocates argue.) Accusations about motives are fruitless: it’s better to engage the basic questions of whether abortion is wrong or not and why, like we are doing here, instead of speculating about motives.

Question-begging arguments are common, on many issues – not just abortion, and they should be rejected, by everyone, always.

“Everyday” Arguments

Now we will discuss some other common arguments, that you might often hear or read about, that are also poor but often not because they are question-begging. We’ll begin with some arguments against abortion.

“Against” Abortion

“Abortion ends a life.”

People often ask, “When does life begin?” Some people wonder if fetuses are “alive,” or when they become “life.” Some argue abortion is wrong because “life begins at conception,” whereas those who support abortion sometimes respond that “fetuses aren’t even alive!”  There are a lot of debates here, and to get past them, we need to ask what is meant by alive, living or a life.

This is often considered a “deep” question, but it’s not. Consider this: are eggs (in women) alive? Are sperm cells alive? Yes to both, and so when a sperm fertilizes an egg, what results is a biologically living thing. Above, we defined abortion as a type of killing and, of course, you can only kill living things. So, yes, fetuses are alive, biologically alive, from conception: they are engaged in the types of life processes reviewed on page 1 of any biology textbook.

Some people think that fetuses being alive shows that abortion is wrong, and so they enthusiastically argue that fetuses are biologically alive. Some who think that abortion is not wrong try to argue that fetuses are not even alive. These responses suggest concern with an argument like this:

  1. Fetuses are biologically alive.
  2. All things that are biologically alive are wrong to kill.
  3. Therefore, fetuses are wrong to kill.

The second premise, however, is obviously false: uncontroversial examples show it. Mold, bacteria, mosquitos and plants are biologically alive, but they aren’t wrong to kill. So, just as acknowledging that abortion involves killing doesn’t mean that abortion is wrong, recognizing that biological life begins at conception doesn’t mean that abortion is wrong either.

Now, perhaps people really mean something like “morally significant life” or “life with rights,” but that’s not people what say: if that’s what they mean, they should say that.

“Abortion kills babies and children.”

Classifying fetuses as babies or children obscures any potentially relevant moral differences between, say, a 6-week old fetus and a 6-day old baby or 6-year old child. This claim assumes that fetuses – at any stage of development – and babies are the same sort of entity. This claim involves loaded emotional language, is inaccurate and is question-begging, as we discussed above in the section on definitions: this saying doesn’t contribute to a good argument.

“Abortion is murder.”

Murder is a term for a specific kind of killing. As a moral term, it refers to especially wrongful killing. As a legal term, it refers to intentional killing that is both unlawful and malicious. Since abortion is legal in the US, most abortions cannot be legally classified as murder because they are not illegal or unlawful. Moreover, abortions don’t seem to be done with malicious intent. When people claim that abortion is murder, what they seem to mean is either that abortion should be re-classified as murder or that abortion is wrong, or both. Either way, arguments are needed to support that, not question-begging slogans.

“Abortion kills innocent beings.”

Fetuses are often described as “innocent,” meaning that they have done nothing wrong to deserve being killed. Since killing anyone innocent is wrong, this suggests that abortion is wrong. “Innocence,” however, seems to be a concept that only applies to beings that can do wrong and choose not to. Since fetuses can’t do anything – they especially cannot do anything wrong that would make them “guilty” – the concept of innocence does not seem to apply to them. So saying that banning abortion would “protect the innocent” is inaccurate since abortion doesn’t kill “innocent” beings: the concept of innocence just doesn’t apply.

“The Bible says abortion is wrong.”

People often appeal to religion to justify their moral views. Some say that God thinks abortion is wrong, but it’s a fair question how they might know this, especially since others claim to know that God doesn’t think that. In reply, it is sometimes said that the Bible says abortion is wrong (and that’s how we know what God thinks). But the Bible doesn’t say that abortion is wrong: it doesn’t discuss abortion at all.[3]

The Bible Implies that Beings in the Womb are the Same Sort of Things that We are

There are verses in the Hebrew Bible (what the Christians call the Old Testament) that can be taken together to imply that there is something in the womb that YHWH values or likens to a person at some point during pregnancy.

Passages in the Hebrew Bible that Support the Notion of Personhood of Beings in the Womb
Book and Location Text (NRSV)
Jeremiah 1:5 Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.
Psalm 139:13-16 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.

Bible and the Fetus as Valuable, but not a Person

Case closed, right? If those were all of the passages  in the Hebrew Bible that intersected with the question, that would be one thing.  But then there are the rest of the passages in the rest of the books collected in the Hebrew Bible. There are 2 sets of passages that complicate the use of the Bible as a consistent authority on the moral permissibility of abortion.

The first found throughout Exodus 21, specifically . The section on violence against persons opens with the legal principle of lex talonis,[4] a method of stopping the cycle of violence in a society by having the state inflict proportional harm in lieu of retaliatory revenge.

Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death.If it was not premeditated, but came about by an act of God, then I will appoint for you a place to which the killer may flee.But if someone willfully attacks and kills another by treachery, you shall take the killer from my altar for execution.

So the principle here is if a person kills another person and the killing is premeditated, then the penalty is death.

The section of Exodus 21 that deals with harm done to property discusses the following about pits and beasts of burden:

If someone leaves a pit open, or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit shall make restitution, giving money to its owner, but keeping the dead animal.

The principle here is if a person is liable for damage to valuable property (not persons), then the penalty is monetary in nature.

To sum up:

If one causes the death of a The penalty is
Person death
Non-Person monetary

Later on in the section, the harm to pregnant women is addressed:

When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine.If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

The penalty here for causing a miscarriage is a monetary fine, determined by the woman’s husband. This is the same sort of penalty as when valuable property is killed. Logically, this would strongly imply that the fetus is valuable, but not a person.

Numbers 5: God’s Instructions for Magical Abortions

Numbers 5 is rarely brought up by anti-abortion advocates. In the passage, the question of jealous husbands who suspect their wives have cheated on them, but have no proof.

If any man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him, if a man has had intercourse with her but it is hidden from her husband, so that she is undetected though she has defiled herself, and there is no witness against her since she was not caught in the act; if a spirit of jealousy comes on him, and he is jealous of his wife who has defiled herself; or if a spirit of jealousy comes on him, and he is jealous of his wife, though she has not defiled herself; then the man shall bring his wife to the priest.

One can imagine how difficult this would be to sort out in an Iron Age society structured by patriarchal honor. The solution offered by God in Numbers 5 is for the priest to administer an abortifacient, the drink that brings the curse, to the wife.

Then the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the Lord; the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel, and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water. The priest shall set the woman before the Lord, dishevel the woman’s hair, and place in her hands the grain offering of remembrance, which is the grain offering of jealousy. In his own hand the priest shall have the water of bitterness that brings the curse. Then the priest shall make her take an oath, saying, “If no man has lain with you, if you have not turned aside to uncleanness while under your husband’s authority, be immune to this water of bitterness that brings the curse. But if you have gone astray while under your husband’s authority, if you have defiled yourself and some man other than your husband has had intercourse with you,” —let the priest make the woman take the oath of the curse and say to the woman—“the Lord make you an execration and an oath among your people, when the Lord makes your uterus drop, your womb discharge; now may this water that brings the curse enter your bowels and make your womb discharge, your uterus drop!” And the woman shall say, “Amen. Amen.”

Then the priest shall put these curses in writing, and wash them off into the water of bitterness. He shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that brings the curse, and the water that brings the curse shall enter her and cause bitter pain. The priest shall take the grain offering of jealousy out of the woman’s hand, and shall elevate the grain offering before the Lord and bring it to the altar; and the priest shall take a handful of the grain offering, as its memorial portion, and turn it into smoke on the altar, and afterward shall make the woman drink the water. When he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and has been unfaithful to her husband, the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her womb shall discharge, her uterus drop, and the woman shall become an execration among her people. But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be immune and be able to conceive children.

If the woman has been unfaithful, then the drink will, through sympathetic magic, abort the pregnancy and render her infertile. If the woman has not cheated, then nothing will happen.

Notice how this is written entirely from the male point of view, with men’s concerns in mind, and with only men having agency. This is not a feminist pro-choice text. But it is a clear set of directions on how and when men can force women to have abortions.

The Bible and Abortion – Selection and Interpretation

As we’ve seen, the Bible does not give a straightforward, simplistic set of rules concerning abortion. It does not directly address our contemporary discussion of abortion and where it does somewhat intersect, the collection of books as a whole are either contradictory or support the claim that the fetus is valuable, but not to be valued at the same level as persons. No matter what, interpretation is required to have the texts recorded in the Bible to have any import to our contemporary discussion on abortion.

However any verses are best interpreted, they still don’t show that abortion is wrong. This is because the Bible is not always a reliable guide to morality, since there are troubling verses that seem to require killing people for trivial “crimes,” allow enslaving people (and beating them), require obeying all government officials and more. And Jesus commanded loving your neighbor as yourself, loving your enemies and taking care of orphans, immigrants and refugees, and offered many other moral guidelines that many people regard as false.[5] Simple moral arguments from the Bible assume that that if the Bible says an action is wrong, then it really is wrong (and if the Bible says something’s not wrong, it’s not wrong), and both premises don’t seem to be literally true.

This all suggests that people sometimes appeal to the Bible in selective and self-serving ways: they come to the Bible with their previously-held moral assumptions and seek to find something in the Bible to justify them.

There is an interesting Biblical connection here worth mentioning though. Some argue that if women who want abortions are prevented from having them, that forces them to remain pregnant and give birth and that this is like forcing women to be like the “Good Samaritan” who went out of his way, at expense to himself, to help a stranger in great need (Luke 10:25-37). (The analogy is imperfect, as analogies always are).

The problem is in no other area of life is anyone forced to be a Good Samaritan like a pregnant woman would: e.g., you can’t be forced to donate an organ to anyone in need (even to your child or parent); you can’t even be forced to donate your organs after you are dead! Nobody other than pregnant women would be forced by the government – under threat of imprisonment or worse – to use their body to help sustain someone else’s life. It is unfair to require women to be Good Samaritans but allow the rest of us to be like the “priest” and “Levite” in the story who helped nobody.

Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that laws should not be based on any particular religions. If you are not, say, a Hindu, or a Buddhist, or a Rastafarian, you probably don’t want laws based solely on one of those religion’s values. Laws should be religiously-neutral; on that we all should agree.

“Abortion stops a beating heart.”

This claim, if given as an argument, assumes that stopping a beating heart is wrong. The assumption, however, is just obviously untrue: e.g., during open heart surgery, surgeons temporarily stop the patient’s heart so that repair can be made to the still heart: they would permanently stop that heart if they replace it with an artificial heart. If there were somehow an independently beating heart, attached to nobody, that heart wouldn’t be wrong to stop. Whether a heart is wrong to stop or not depends on who is around that heart and their value or rights, not anything about that heart by itself. Finally, embryos and early fetuses do not even have hearts, as critics of recent “heartbeat” bills have observed! (The heart fully develops much later in pregnancy.)

If, however, this widely expressed concern about a heartbeat isn’t meant to be taken literally, but is merely a metaphor or an emotional appeal, we submit that these are inappropriate for serious issues like this one.

“How would you like it if . .?”

Some ask, “How would you like it if your mother had had an abortion?” Others tell stories of how their mother almost had an abortion and how they are grateful she didn’t. Questions and stories like these sometimes persuade, but they shouldn’t. Consider some other questions:

  1. How would you like it if your mother had been a nun, or celibate, all her life?
  2. How would you like it if your mother had moved away from the city where she met your father, and they never met?
  3. How would you like it if your father had decided early in life to have a vasectomy?

All sorts of actions would have prevented each of our existences – if your parents had acted differently in many ways, you wouldn’t be here to entertain the question: at best, someone else would be[6] – but these actions aren’t wrong.

Some might reply that if you had been murdered as a baby, you wouldn’t be here to discuss it. True, but that baby was conscious, had feelings, and had a perspective on the world that ended in being murdered: an early fetus is not like that. We can empathetically imagine what it might have been like for that murdered child; we can’t do that with a never-been-conscious fetus, since there’s no perspective to imagine.

In sum, these are some common arguments given against abortion. They aren’t good. Everyone can do better.

Common Arguments “For” Abortion

Many common arguments “for” abortion are also weak. This is often because they simply don’t engage the concerns of people who oppose abortion. Consider these often-heard claims:

“Women have a right to do whatever they want with their bodies . . .”

Autonomy, your ability to make decisions about matters that profoundly affect your own life, is very important: it’s a core concern in medical ethics. But autonomy has limits: your autonomy doesn’t, say, justify murdering an innocent person, which is what some claim abortion is. The slogan that “women can do what they want . .” does not engage that claim or any arguments given in its favor, so it’s inadequate.

“People who oppose abortion are just trying to control women.”

They might be trying to do this. But they might be trying to ban abortion because they believe that abortion is wrong and should be illegal. Speculations about motives don’t engage or critique any arguments they might give to think that. (If you doubt that thinking critically about arguments and evidence here would do any good, do they have any better ideas that might do more good?).

“Men shouldn’t make decisions about matters affecting women.”

Insofar as women profoundly disagree on these issues, some women must be making bad decisions about matters affecting women: all women can’t be correct on the issues. And some men can understand that some arguments (endorsed sometimes by both women and men) are bad arguments and give good arguments on the issues. Someone’s sex or gender has little to no bearing on whether they can make good arguments about matters that affect them or anyone else. Furthermore, the existence of transgender men who have given birth further undermines the thought that one sex or gender is apt to have more correct views here.

“Women and girls will die if abortion isn’t allowed.”

This is true. However, this fact is apt to not be persuasive to some people who think that abortion is wrong: they will respond, “If someone dies because they are doing something wrong like having an abortion, that’s ‘on them,’ not those who are trying to prevent that wrong.” Observing that women will die if abortions are outlawed doesn’t engage any arguments that abortion is wrong or give much a reason to think that abortion is not wrong. Again, this type of engagement is necessary for progress on these issues.

In sum, while we agree that people who think that abortion is generally not morally wrong and should be legal are correct, they sometimes don’t offer very good reasons to think this, just like the opponents of abortion. An analysis of the more nuanced reasons in favor of abortion provided by philosophers will yield proper support for this viewpoint.

For Review and Discussion:

  1. Do the reasons that people get abortions matter for its moral permissibility? Why or why not?
  2. Describe the common arguments against abortion and assess them. Are they good or bad arguments? Do they make assumptions or claims that are problematic? Do the reasons provided actually provide evidence and reasons to oppose abortion?
  3. Describe the common arguments for abortion and assess them. Are they good or bad arguments? Do they make assumptions or claims that are problematic? Do the reasons provided actually give evidence and reasons to support abortion?

Notes and Additional Readings

  1. Later, however, we will see another definition of abortion as the intentional withholding of what a fetus needs to live, to end a pregnancy.
  2. Retrieved from on May 31, 2019.
  3. This section has been edited and added to by the editor of Phronesis.
  4. You can see this stated more clearly later on in the chapter, where it says "you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe."
  5. Appeals to the Bible and other sources (and people) considered to be an authority, leads to this dilemma: either there are good reasons to accept that what that authority claims or not. If not, then we should not accept what the authority says. If there are good reasons, then those reasons – which we all can discuss and debate – would be why we should accept what it says, not because the “authority” says so. These insights are applied to morally problematic verses of the Bible, since we have good reasons to reject the moral guidance suggested by those verses. For discussion of these issues, which are related to the “Euthyphro dilemma” that Socrates addressed, see Spencer Case’s “Because God Says So: On Divine Command Theory,” at
  6. For discussion of this question of what could have been different about the past such that you never existed, see Chad Vance’s “Origin Essentialism: What Could Have Been Different about You?” at 1000-Word Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology at


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Phronesis Copyright © 2019 by Kristina Grob and Nathan Nobis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.