Abortion is one of the most discussed topics of bioethics. It is one of the oldest topics and, at the same time, one of the most divisive. The topic of abortion makes people question the nature of life and personhood. With such grandiose questions, many different moral theories could be applied to this topic. In this paper, I will attempt to show you that abortion is morally acceptable according to the Care Ethics theory by examining possible outcomes of a ban on abortion, and the prominent literature on the topic.
Motivating the Problem
Abortion is an important topic because it concerns almost every female person on Earth. Perhaps it is not a direct concern, but there is always a chance of unwanted pregnancy, possibly as a result of sexual assault. This issue is interesting because it could be approached from many angles. Because the practice of abortion has a long history, it has been analyzed from a wide variety of viewpoints. One of the major issues concerning abortion is the will of the pregnant woman and whether she is allowed to terminate the pregnancy. This issue stems from the differing perspectives on the nature of personhood. This issue is still highly debated, and it is possible that there would never be a clear answer due to the complexity of the problem. In fact, personhood is such a contested issue that even different proponents of abortion are unable to come to a common conclusion on the topic. However, another aspect of the topic is the health of the pregnant woman. Often, opponents of the abortion practice call for policies that would ban abortion, but this does not eliminate the need for abortion. Women who want to terminate their pregnancy would have to utilize more dangerous methods of abortion that would put their physical and mental health in jeopardy (Kaczor, 2014).
The latter aspect of the topic is the reason why I believe a Care Ethics argument would be appropriate for the paper. Care Ethics consider acts that improve the wellbeing of a person through attentive, competent, responsive, and responsible care to be morally acceptable. The main features of this theory that apply to the topic are the focus on providing help to the person in need, the importance of competence of the person who provides the care, and the need to avoid unnecessary suffering. Abortion is a practice that requires the help of others to be performed safely. This is an important point for the Care Ethics because not all of the philosophers agree that actions that can be performed by the person to help themselves are included in the philosophical definition of care. The people who are providing the help need to be educated and sufficiently trained to perform the operation properly. Therefore, the confidence of the person providing the care is essential, which again shows that abortion can be considered morally appropriate by the Care Ethics (Barnes, Conradi, & Vosman, 2015).
Finally, the most important aspect of Care Ethics for my argument is the unnecessary suffering of the woman who decides to terminate her pregnancy in a situation when abortion is illegal (Barnes et al., 2015). In such a situation, she only has two options. The first is to terminate it herself through bodily harm or attempt to use medical guidelines to perform the operation without medical competence or skill. This option is extremely dangerous because it could lead to irreparable damage and even death. The second is to seek out an illegal clinic or a person who performs this operation illegally. While this option has a perceived safety, it provides no guaranty of competence of the people who perform the procedure or the safety of the place where the operation is performed (Melese et al., 2017). Moreover, the issue of contributing to an illegal enterprise could also be considered, although it does not concern Care Ethics. Both of these options are likely to result in unnecessary physical and psychological suffering. Studies show that in settings where abortion is criminalized, the levels of post-abortion complications are high, with injuries and fatalities being common (Melese et al., 2017). This unnecessary suffering would signify that the practice of decriminalized abortion would be considered morally appropriate according to Care Ethics (Barnes et al., 2015).
Connection to Feminist Ethics
Care Ethics are often connected to the feminist movement, as many of the ideas presented in care ethics could be used to argue for gender equality and women’s right to self-determination. One of the most important papers on the ethics of abortion comes from a feminist perspective. Susan Sherwin published an article titled “Abortion Through a Feminist Ethics Lens” in 1991. Her article echoes many of the positions presented in this paper, as well as arguments touched upon in the later sections. To provide an all-encompassing view on abortion from the perspective of Care Ethics, it would be important to consider the feminist ethics perspective of this article (Sherwin, 1991).
The first and perhaps the most fundamental position Sherwin provides in the paper is the importance of women being able to make their own decisions. No one should be able to disregard a woman’s opinion when it comes to her body. A woman’s decision, in this case, is absolute, even if it ends in regret. According to Sherwin, success or failure cannot have any effect on the right to make personal decisions. This is a very fair point because it would be hard to find a person who would give up their decision-making abilities, even if they have made terrible mistakes in the past (Sherwin, 1991).
Just as in the case of Care Ethics, the life of the person is of top priority. An unwanted pregnancy changes not only the immediate physical condition but almost all the aspects of the life of a woman. Care Ethics do not permit suffering, and Sherwin examines how, without abortion, a woman’s life would be filled with physical, economic, and psychological complications and strains. By losing the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, women quite literally lose control over their bodies, which leads to a wide variety of issues, including the loss of control over sexual experiences, as contraception is not a guaranteed solution for pregnancy prevention. Unwanted pregnancy increases reliance on a woman on economic support from a man, which lessens her independence and removes a lot of agency from her life (Sherwin, 1991).
Sherwin does not believe that a fetus can be considered a person due to its lack of relationships. Her definition of personhood comes from being defined by society. A person is a friend, acquaintance, a member of a community. A fetus is unable to make such social connections, and therefore it cannot be considered a person. This is a very controversial position, and while the argument has an internal logic, it is hard to apply it to real life. A person without any social connections is still a person, but looking at other papers on this issue, I do not believe that this is the primary argument of Feminist Ethics against the personhood of the fetus. However, her positions on self-determination and consequences of unwanted pregnancies go hand in hand with the concerns of Care Ethics (Sherwin, 1991).
The Personhood of a Fetus
One of the most common arguments against abortion is that the act itself should be equated to a murder of a person. This is a hard position to argue against because it concerns the critic’s definition of personhood. However, if the critic is reasonable, it could be argued that a fetus that does not have the capacity to produce brain waves cannot be considered a person. With no clear definition of self or personhood, this would need to be a mostly logic-based argument. This could be done by identifying the traits that we consider to be a part of personhood among every person, including people with impaired mental and physical ability, comatose patients, people who have psychological disorders, and anyone who does not fall under the presented categories while still being considered a person. Subsequently, those traits should be compared to the traits that a fetus has in the different stages of its development. With brainwaves being the most common trait among people, it could be considered one of the primary responses to a fetus being considered a person. A similar argument is used by a variety of philosophers, but some of the similar theories have suffered from not considering the personhood of comatose patients, leading to a weak argument that is hard to find agreeable (Kaczor, 2014).
One of the leading theorists in this field was Mary Anne Warren. Her articles on the morality of abortion have gathered a lot of attention and criticism due to their attempts to define the concept of a person. She is perhaps most famous for her paper “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion” from 1973. In it, Warren tries to outline the main aspects of personhood in hopes of providing a possible solution to the status of personhood. I believe she is one of the first people to establish conditions for personhood in regards to abortion. Warren outlines five traits that are fundamental for a living creature to be considered a person:
- Consciousness – an ability to perceive yourself and objects around you, especially the feeling of pain;
- Reasoning – an ability to solve previously unknown problems;
- Self-motivated activity – an ability to perform actions without genetic or external control;
- Communication – an ability to communicate through any means on many topics;
- Self-awareness – an ability to be aware of your own identity, and existence (Warren, 1973).
To be considered a person, a fetus would need to show at least one of these traits, but science has shown that a fetus is not able to even feel pain during the early stages of pregnancy. However, this definition holds a serious issue that puts its validity into jeopardy. Warren presents these traits without citing any scientific research on the topic. Moreover, these traits are described as rough suggestions and are clearly not something that should be considered as fact without research into the issue (Warren, 1973). While common sense thinking might provide a compelling argument toward these being the main traits of personhood, a closer examination might prove them to be too vague to be taken as is. For example, communication is defined in such a way that a modern computer algorithm designed to imitate conversation would be considered a person, despite its lack of all the other traits, or even a physical body. The paper was written before such technology existed so that it might have seemed like a science fiction concept, but this lack of consideration illustrates the importance of an all-inclusive research into the nature of personhood. Every person knows they are a person, which I believe to be one of the main barriers toward developing a comprehensive definition of personhood. Due self-awareness, people often assume that personhood can be defined using personal perceptions of personhood. Unfortunately, the reality is much more complicated, because people often define their own personhood by different parameters than others do.
Does Personhood Matter? Arguments on the Issue
However, what if hypothetically a fetus has to be declared a person? Would that make abortion a completely immoral act? Could there be exceptions in this case? How would the law have to react to abortion if both the mother and the fetus have equal rights? Judith Jarvis Thomson attempts to answer these questions in her article “A Defense of Abortion.” It was written in 1971, but the ideas Thomson presented are very interesting and could serve as a good example of the possible morality of abortion. This section will cover the major insights and arguments presented in the paper to gain a better understanding of the issue (Thomson, 1971).
The article is built as a direct response to many popular arguments against abortion that persist to this day. It begins with a counter argument to the strictest position against abortion. This position does not permit abortion in any case, even when it would mean the death of the mother. Both the mother and the fetus have an equal right to life in this scenario, but the life of one would lead to the death of another. She brings attention to an important aspect of this argument that completely ignores the personhood of the mother because the fetus is perceived as a more “innocent” person due to its unborn nature. However, this fact should not play a role in deciding its mother’s right to live. Thomson defines both people in this scenario as “innocent” but states that this situation would have to qualify as self-defense, as the mother’s life is threatened by the fetus. However, to constitute self-defense, the mother would have to perform the abortion without any help from bystanders, which would lead to putting her life in danger (Thomson, 1971).
To provide an argument against this scenario Thomson argues for the woman’s right to choose to do with her body whatever she finds important. Indeed, this is an important factor and reflects not only a feminist connection to care ethics, but how important self-determination is to people. A third party should not be able to answer “I cannot choose between you both” when the ownership of the body is clear. She provides an example based on clothing shared by two friends. One of the friends decides to share a coat with another, after some time he wants to get the coat back, but the friend refuses as he is also freezing. If a third party is brought into the conflict, they would have to make a concrete decision as the coat belongs to the original owner and he can decide when the take it back (Thomson, 1971).
While arguments about abortions that have to be performed to save a life are important, they do not describe the majority of cases when women want to have an abortion for less dramatic reasons. These scenarios require a deeper dive into what can be considered a right to live. Her argument comes back to the issue of ownership. Every person has a right to live, but this right does not give them a right to use another person’s body without their permission. This rule extends to actions that would not involve the death of one of the parties. To explain this, Thomson presents an example of a person who requires a harmless but personal gesture from a celebrity. While it would be considered a good did for that celebrity to come to the patient and make the gesture, they are not required by any law to do it. In fact, they have a completely justified right to refuse this action. Despite the importance of this action, the patient is unable to force anyone to do anything (Thomson, 1971).
What I consider to be the most important idea presented in the article is the consideration that even if a fetus is considered a person, abortion might not be considered murder. To make this argument, Thomas defines murder as an unjust killing, or precisely as a violation of a right to not be killed. This touches upon the most controversial aspects of the abortion debate such as abortions in the case of rape, and abortions in the case of accidental pregnancy. She clearly states that in the case of rape, a fetus is using a woman’s body unjustly, as her consent was not given. Therefore, abortion, in this case, is not murder, as the woman played no part in this consequence, and does not take away rights from the fetus. In the case of voluntary sexual intercourse, this issue raises a new difficulty. A woman is aware that pregnancy is a possible outcome of intercourse which could make her responsible for its consequences. However, her responsibility can only be partial, as there are numerous actions that could be done to prevent pregnancy, both temporary and permanent. Thomson’s article was written before the widespread of contraception, so the options she presents are slightly severe, but her argument can be extended to faulty contraception leading to pregnancy, and that in those cases abortion would also not be able to be an unjust killing. Thomson provides a few other arguments and ideas in the article, but these serve as the best illustration of how care ethics can answer to this issue (Thomson, 1971). Consent, health, and the issue of personhood are all aspects of care ethics, so having a professional work outline these issues is very beneficial.
Another counter argument could concern women who would still attempt abortion despite the illegality of the act. People who oppose abortion do not wish bodily harm or death of the women who terminate their pregnancies. Therefore, it could be argued that the dangers associated with bans on abortion would lead to injury or death of the women attempting the practice. Because in this situation the crime would not be possible to stop, the women are guaranteed to put themselves in danger before becoming criminals. If the critic believes this to be acceptable, then their concern for human life only extends to the unborn child, which contradicts their belief in the importance of all life. This is a less evidence-based argument, but I believe that the wellbeing of the women should be considered in this situation.
Care ethics emphasize the health and wellbeing of a person. A ban on abortion would provide a great number of dangers to women who want to terminate their pregnancies. Moreover, this bad would remove a great deal of freedom from women leading to not only physical but socioeconomic harm. Until a proper definition of a person is created, this topic might never be resolved, as many of the arguments are based around the personhood of the fetus. Meanwhile, Care Ethics show that unlike personhood, the health of a woman is a clearly defined concept. By providing quality professional care to women in need, abortion clinics are performing morally acceptable and even favorable acts. Thankfully, abortions are not outlawed in most countries making it a safer world for women than it could be otherwise.
Barnes, M., Conradi, E., & Vosman, F. (2015). Deliberation and transformation from the ethics of care. Ethics and Social Welfare, 9(2), 109-112.
Kaczor, C. (2014). The ethics of abortion. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.
Melese, T., Habte, D., Tsima, B., Mogobe, K., Chabaesele, K., Rankgoane, G., … Moreri-Ntshabele, B. (2017). High levels of post-abortion complication in a setting where abortion service is not legalized. PLOS ONE, 12(1), 1-8.
Sherwin, S. (1991). Abortion through a Feminist Ethics lens. Dialogue, 30(03), 327.
Thomson, J. (1971). A defense of abortion. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 1(1), 69-80.
Warren, M. (1973). On the moral and legal status of abortion. The Monist, 57(1), 43-61.