What is Wrong With Abortion? A Philosophical Case


Is it possible to make a case for the prima facie wrongness of killing a human foetus that does not depend on theological premises? In 1989 atheist philosopher Donald Marquis introduced a philosophical case for immorality of abortion that neither depended on the personhood nor consciousness of the foetus.

Consider these five cases, borrowed from Pedro Galvão (2007):

(A) The typical human foetus;

(A1) The typical preconscious fetus;
(A2)  The typical conscious fetus;

(B) The typical human infant;
(C) The temporarily depressed suicidal;
(D) The temporarily comatose adult;
(E) The typical human adult.

Could what make  killing of (B-E) prima facie so wrong be relevantly similar to  killing of (A)? This post offered a philosophical case for why abortion, killing of (A1) and (A2), is prima facie wrong, as it revisited Robert Young’s theses (1979) on what makes killing people, in some occasions, so wrong, and Marquis’ articulations of future of value arguments (1989, 2001).

Recently Barack Obama gave a lamenting speech  in Newtown, addressed to the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, correctly captured the prima facie wrongness of killing people. Obama understood the gravity of the killer’s unjust prevention  of  the little kids, and adults’  future of value. He said,

The majority of those who died today were children — beautiful, little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old. They had their entire lives ahead of them — birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own. Among the fallen were also teachers, men and women who devoted their lives to helping our children fulfill their dreams.(Obama 2012)

It is general prima facie wrong to kill human being, according to David Boonin’s modified future-like-ours, because it “ is in general prima facie wrong to act in ways that frustrate the desires of others, and in general more seriously prima facie wrong to act in ways that frustrate their stronger desires.”(Boonin 2003, 67)

Booni’s view would explain why it is wrong to kill (A2[1]), (B) and (E), but not (C) and (D) because (C) and (D) lack strong desire to enjoy their personal future. Assuming we agree that killing (C) and (D) is prima facie wrong, Boonin’s view is, thus, inadequate to explain why it is generally prima facie so wrong to kill people.

Unlike Boonin, Young provided a richer explanation. He argued,

[W]hat makes killing another human being wrong on occasions is its character as an irrevocable, maximally unjust prevention of the realization either of the victims’ life-purposes or of such life-purposes as the victim may reasonably have been expected to resume or to come have.(Young 1979, 516)

Persuaded by Young’s account, Marquis argued that  ‘‘for any killing where the victim did have a valuable future like ours, having that future by itself is sufficient to create the strong presumption that the killing is seriously wrong’’. (Marquis 1989, 195)

Young’s account is richer because it includes (C) and (D). In both cases, viz., a depressed suicidal teenager and a comatose patient are reasonably expected to resume such life-purpose. In this account, if correct, it would be equally wrong to kill (A1) and (A2) because they also are reasonably expected to come to have such life-purposes. (A1) and (A2) have, borrowing Obama’s words, “their entire lives ahead of them — birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own”. Thus,

P1: What makes killing another human being prima facie wrong is “an irrevocable, maximally unjust prevention of the realization either of the victims’ life-purposes or of such life-purposes as the victim may reasonably have been expected to resume or to come have”

P2: Abortion is an irrevocable, maximally unjust prevention of the realization either of foetus’ life-purposes or of such life-purposes as the foetus may reasonably have been expected to come have.

C: Abortion is prima facie wrong.

Next: Weakness and Objection To Future of Value Arguments Against Abortion


Boonin, David (2003). A Defense of Abortion. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Galvão, Pedro (2007):“Boonin On The Future-Like-Ours Argument Against Abortion “ Bioethics Vol. 21 No. 6: 324-328

Marquis Donald(1989). “Why abortion is immoral.” Journal of Philosophy Vol. 86:183–202.

_________________ (2001) “Deprivations, futures and the wrongness of killing.” Journal of Medical Ethics 2001;27:363–9.

Obama, Barak (2012). Obama’s speech on December 14th 2012. Transcript: President Obama’s Remarks On Conn. School Shootings. White House

Young, Robert (1979) “What Is So Wrong with Killing People?” Philosophy, Vol. 54, No. 210: 515-528

[1] (A2) and (B) have relatively similar actual desires.

23 thoughts on “What is Wrong With Abortion? A Philosophical Case

  1. I think your first comment from violetwisp is closest to how I feel about this. Anyone faced with this gut-wrenching choice is only thinking about “killing” as one of the many terrible facts to consider. I always put myself in the place of the pregnant woman who has a valuable life that needs to be protected and cherished. And second I think of the potentially miserable life of the unwanted child. Is it not a sin to condemn these two people to misery by forcing the birth?

    If a mother wants her child, and can provide for it, she would not consider an abortion.

  2. It’s delightful to see an issue like abortion treated like a black and white maths puzzle. Hopefully if your deity exists, and is benevolent, she takes a slightly broader approach to the very real dilemmas in people’s lives. Your erroneous start (talking about mindless rights and wrongs) undermines any sensible analysis of the range of difficulties that women face in relation to pregnancy. The complex areas of life you broadly ascribe to ‘morality’ are nothing more than situations that require a logical assessment of the positive and negative outcomes of any potential action. For instance, killing is usually overall a negative action, but in situations of self-defence or when someone is suffering tremendously from an incurable illness, the positive outcomes of killing can outweigh the negative consequences. In the same way, abortion is not generally a positive action, it arises as a result of poor decision-making, error or force during sex, but for many individuals, the negative consequences of leaving the foetus to develop outweigh the potential positive outcomes. The only way to help women out of these dilemmas is by avoidance – through education for both sexes about the seriousness of sex and respect. Looking to avoid unwanted pregnancies is the ONLY sensible approach for people concerned about abortion levels. Ignorant and judgemental ‘immoral’ labels that seek to make abortion illegal will only have the effect of pushing it underground in the hands of unscrupulous or desperate people, and cause more suffering for all involved.

          • I assumed you were agreeing that abortion is not a simplistic ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ logic puzzle, but a seriously complicated decision that’s best left up to the pregnant woman.

      • It is one thing to assume your opponent’s position and quite another to claim your opponent realized her position, which you assumed, to be wrong. The former is unwise, the latter is folly.

        I agree that “abortion is not a simplistic ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ logic puzzle, but a seriously complicated decision.” This is a fair and correct point.

        I totally agree that “[t]he only way to help women out of these dilemmas is by avoidance – through education for both sexes about the seriousness of sex and respect.” This is another fair and correct point.

        So I did not see how you came to assume I realized I was wrong. Did you think I thought abortion issue is ” best left up to the pregnant woman” also a fair and correct point? My answer is no, it is fair but incorrect point as I contended above about the prima facie wrongness of abortion.

    • I cringe when I here she is having an abortion because her pregnancy is the result of a “poor decision” or “error”. How lucky we all are that our mothers didn’t error. This year, in the USA, there will be over 1 million not so lucky.

      The first step in addressing the root causes would be to empower young men and young women with the Holy Spirit by introducing them to the love of God and His forgiving and compassionate nature. The best way is first by modeling a Christ like behavior towards everyone. The secular world watches a Christian in action. If they see a Christian being judgmental and unforgiving, they will want no part of Christianity as they perceive it to be. No compassionate person, Christian or Non-Christian wants to see a teenage girl drop out of school and face a lifetime of poverty because she became pregnant. No compassionate person wants her to suffer the pain and anguish of abortion.

      Since abortion is immoral, the stigma attached to the character of the woman for the rest of her life by pro-lifers and Christians alike, isn’t a realistic way for a woman to deal with the complexities and fears of an unwanted pregnancy. Public and private funding for comprehensive programs that emphasize celibacy and teen pregnancy prevention must be increased dramatically. Abortion is murder and should be taught as such with unbiased evaluation and replication of effective programs that include proven strategies, such as life planning skills, self-esteem workshops, and mentoring by older peers must be conducted. The church should be taking an active role in promoting these programs in and out of the public sector. Adjusting the programs to state biological reasons why this act is considered murder, and facilitating programs in modern day ethics that prove it’s immoral will be a way to reach those that oppose any organized religion or Christianity in particular.

      Across the country, Americans on both sides of the abortion debate agree that women have a right to make informed decisions about their pregnancies. Women would be empowered to exercise this right by the passage of “Right to Know” legislature. As with any other medical procedure, women have the right to full disclosure of the nature of the abortion procedure. Now, clinics have no uniform inspection or reporting requirements; even veterinary clinics are better regulated. Doctors who have botched abortions, caused infertility or death and lost their medical licenses have been known to jump state lines to continue performing abortions and even open new clinics. There are no regulations to stop them. Why can’t the government enforce regulations on abortion if it’s a normal medical procedure? They can’t because it isn’t a normal medical procedure. Abortion is murder. How do you regulate murder? Women, when becoming pregnant, are told that the action’s immoral, therefore their character is immoral, and are sometimes forced to discontinue their education or quit their jobs. This isn’t a Christian behavior. Christians should show compassion, by supporting those that make mistakes and become pregnant. They should not be playing the blame game, and should be instructing women and men in the truths about abortion. Abortion is murder, and replacing another sin to substitute the sin of fornication is not appropriate.

      • How lucky are we that our parents happened to have sex at the precise moment that our dad’s only sperm with our code hit our mum’s only egg with our code? And do you advocate that every potential child needs to be manufactured? If I hadn’t been born, I would be none the wiser, so arguments about life needing to be created are completely nonsensical to me. I value life, but that doesn’t mean we are obliged to generate it to maximum capacity just in case someone doesn’t get born.

        You talk about dealing with the harmful stigma and judgement that faces women, and then brand anyone who has an abortion a murderer. Unbelievable! Christians should show compassion. I agree. You have no need to qualify that with your definition of when that is required. All the time. There is NOTHING about abortion in the Bible, except perhaps in Numbers when the rabbi is authorised to give magic dirty water to a woman to induce a miscarriage if she has been unfaithful. So, even if the realities of the world for a woman are outside your realm of experience and you have to rely on 2000 year old books jam packed full of murder and genocide for your ‘morals’, you have no justification for calling abortion a crime.

    • You are referring to Numbers 5:11-31, which describes an unusual procedure a husband could use to determine if his wife had been unfaithful to him. There was nothing magical about the concoction. It was entirely a matter of God using the result to demonstrate whether a woman was innocent or guilty. So, in summary, Numbers 5:11-31 affirms the truth of Numbers 32:23, “be sure, your sin will find you out,” the passage does not say that drinking the concoction would cause an abortion/miscarriage.

      I find several things you said very odd,

      1. “And do you advocate that every potential child needs to be manufactured?”
      “potential” and “manufactured”

      My son and daughter-in-law would say things like, “when our baby is born we are going to name her Leann.” No one I ever knew referred to their baby as a fetus, or a potential child, and how can one attribute a baby as being manufactured?

      2. “I value life, but that doesn’t mean we are obliged to generate it to maximum capacity just in case someone doesn’t get born.”

      We are obligated to help the helpless. “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” Elie Wiesel

      3. “…you have no justification for calling abortion a crime.”

      I never said it was a crime. It is legal and will happen every 26 seconds, on average, just in the USA alone. What I said was taking another life is murder. In the womb, the child is alive, it’s heart beats and it feels pain.

  3. Great. Totally agree, though the assumption of this seems to be that all (A-E) are equally human. (Which I absolutely believe is the case.) I think a lot of pro-abortionists, however, would argue that a foetus is not actually yet a human, and that life recieves it’s value and independent future at the point of birth. What would you say to that?

    • That is a wonderful question. If by, “foetus is not actually yet a human”, they mean that human foetus is not a matured human being, then yes they are correct. But if they mean that immature human foetus, is not human being, then they are wrong because it is ontologically a human being in its early stage. They will be confusing “development”(qualitative identity) with “being”(numerical identity).

      To expound more, I am(Prayson at age 27) not qualitative identical to Prayson at age 5 nor 1 nor 1 months nor 2 weeks. I have developed, grown taller, e.t.c. But I am numerical identical to Prayson at all those past stages.

      Did that help?

      • Yes I guess it did help. It’s very logical, but somehow people manage to ignore the logic. If people truly saw foetuses as human beings, they wouldn’t be able to justify aborting them, so they tell women that it’s just tissue, and that makes it ok. It’s a terrible argument, but one that it seems much of the world holds to…

  4. A while back you wrote a post about this subject, or maybe it was Zande, and I started to study the why of it for a post of my own.

    In the USA alone, there were 1,212,000 abortions in 2011. Statistics have been kept since 1973 and there is no indication this number will ever have a significant drop.

    Why do women have abortions?

    having a baby would interfere with work, school, or other responsibilities.
    they cannot afford to have a child.
    they do not want to be a single parent, or have relationship problems with husband or partner.
    Less than 2% say they became pregnant as a result of rape or incest.

    One baby is aborted every

    26 seconds
    137 every hour
    3,304 every day
    23,196 every week
    100,516 every month
    1.206,192 every year on average, in the United States alone.

    WHY is it legal??????

    In the case of Roe v. Wade, the answer boils down to one of personal rights versus legitimate government interests. The government has a legitimate interest in protecting the life of an embryo or fetus, but embryos and fetuses do not have rights themselves unless and until it can be determined that they are human persons.

    Women are, obviously, known human persons. They make up the majority of known human persons. Human persons have rights that an embryo or fetus does not have until its personhood can be established. For various reasons, the personhood of a fetus is generally understood to commence between 22 and 24 weeks. This is the point at which the neocortex develops, and it is also the earliest known point of viability–the point at which a fetus can be taken from the womb and, given the proper medical care, still have a meaningful chance of long-term survival. The government has a legitimate interest in protecting the potential rights of the fetus, but the fetus itself does not have rights prior to the viability threshold.

    So the central thrust of Roe v. Wade is this: Women have the right to make decisions about their own bodies. Fetuses, prior to viability, do not have rights. Therefore, until the fetus is old enough to have rights of its own, the woman’s decision to have an abortion takes precedence over the interests of the fetus.

    Abortion is the twisted reality of our fallen world. Until the child can survive outside the womb it is not a person with rights of protection under the law and can be killed. There are many other twisted realities but that’s for a latter day….

    If you want to help, Google “charities for unwed mothers”.

  5. A marvelous article that I will certainly bookmark for future reference when someone drops the line, ” the only reason you are against abortion is because of your religious convictions.”
    I have held the same philosophical position as you have described here since long before God’s grace sought me, but I have never been able to articulate it in such a way.

    Thank you for this, Prayson.

  6. Great article. You’ve exposed the fundamental difference between our true Judeo-Christian God and other gods or self existential beliefs (and thus our premise for pro-life) : “there is implicit value in every life”! A-E are all valuable, relevant and purposeful:

    But God told Samuel, “Looks aren’t everything. Don’t be impressed with his looks and stature. I’ve already eliminated him. God judges persons differently than humans do. Men and women look at the face; God looks into the heart. (1 Sammual 16:7, Message Bible)

    What is missing is the obedience of Christians called to foster and adopt an array of children including those with special needs so that God can do his part and show their lives meaningful.

  7. If mankind was fashioned in God’s image with the ability to think, to reason; and, if the opinion of a philosopher lines up with the clear teaching of Scripture (although Scripture says precious little regarding abortion, and your conclusions must be inferred by the whole); and, if all Truth is God’s Truth, then a man’s opinion (when in line with God’s Truth), far from stinking, would be the result of common grace or an exercising of God’s nature in man. To throw out any truth is a waste and a lack of faith that God can (and does) use ‘any old bush’.

    What saddens me about this post is the way Obama can advocate for the life of children and not see the utter inconsistency (and hypocrisy) of simultaneously advocating for abortion. It has astounded me for 20+ years that we put a young woman in jail for killing her day-old infant, but she could have let an abortion doctor kill her child LEGALLY just 24 hours earlier. The nonsense is absolutely maddening at times.

    Thanks for a great post!

  8. A philosopher can declare anything he/she chooses, to be either right or wrong, with arguments that seem conclusive to (some) men. But it has no final authority and will never accomplish unanimous agreement. Only a supreme, sovereign being (i.e., the God of the Bible) can do that, by fiat if necessary. Philosophy is merely the opinion of mortal men, and can/does shift like the wind, unlike God. Your personal opinion or mine is just as valid as any philosopher’s, meaning that it is merely a human opinion, not the final word. As “they” say, “Opinions are like butt holes; everyone has one and they all stink.”

    • But of course you understand your issue with Philosophy is also but an opinion, or according to your above statement, a philosophy. You have a double negative (or contradiction) in your thinking and writing you express an opinion/philosophy to deny the power or credibility of philosophy. A true “verbal fart” or “stinky hole” if you will.

      Philosophy and philosophers use logic and the power of truth and reason to help define the reality the Creator set in place. Your above epistemology (epistemological relativism) suggests that we as humans can know no truth but hope for an “arbitrary” God to come in and clean up the mess.

      In a sense your right, we will never reach a “unanimous agreement” but then that’s not the purpose of Philosophy, or for that matter the Christian. Our task is persuasion – giving answers or a reason (I Peter 3:15) not “wait till God comes” which is manipulation by way of guilty conscience posturizing.

      • Of course, it is my opinion, and I wasn’t trying to prove anything; just expressing my opinion. I don’t have much regard either for much of “theology.” A great deal of what passes for theology is just philosophy; men trying to study God as if He were some sort of organism in a Petrie dish upon which one can run experiments (philosophies). God is the only one who can reveal anything definite and final about God, and He has done so in the Holy Bible. All else (apart from “rightly dividing the Word of God”) is, in my opinion — albeit entertaining and fun to play with — mere human speculation and, therefore, seriously subject to gross human error. Of course, that’s just my opinion, but I would philosophize that the God of the Bible pretty much agrees with me, if His opinion is to carry any weight. BTW, I didn’t say anything about God being arbitrary or “wait till God comes”. That’s something you imagined I said or meant. Good illustration of the unreliability of human opinions, whether they concern either man or God.

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