The moral issue that is still resonant in society and that could be addressed using utilitarianism is abortion. Abortion is defined as a voluntary termination of pregnancy that is typically done by using medication or invasive procedures, depending on the term. The issue of abortion is often approached from spiritual or religious standpoints, and utilitarianism arguably has the potential to provide a refreshing perspective. Following Mill’s Principle of Utility, the phenomenon and its impact could be broken down and analyzed as follows:
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- quality of happiness is central to utilitarianism and prevails over the quantity of pleasure (Barrow 167). Access to universal healthcare that includes medical abortion empowers women and allows them to take control over the course of their life. Besides, by making a well-informed decision about their own reproductive health, they refuse to subject their unborn children to a life of suffering;
- The calculus is not feasible as qualities cannot be quantified; however, there is a distinction between higher and lower pleasures. In the context of the discussed issue, the pleasure from doing what society deems acceptable (keeping the child) can be contrasted with the long-term positive effects of personal autonomy;
- “The Greatest Happiness Principle:” utilitarianism attempts to promote the capability of achieving happiness for the greatest number of people possible. Foster et al. claim that women who were denied abortion had higher levels of depression and anxiety than those who actually had an abortion (2080). Building on these facts and using Mill’s Principle, it is safe to assume that universal access to abortion would make more women content and fewer women depressed. Surely, there is a possibility for “stray” cases where having the medical procedure would take a strain on a person’s mental health. Yet, the likelihood is negligible as long as there is a large-scale positive effect.
Another way to approach the issue is by applying the so-called Bentham’s felicific calculus. The algorithm includes seven answers for calculating seven variables (de Lazari-Radek and Singer 438). Following his logic, the discussed issue may be addressed as follows:
- Intensity: How strong is pleasure? It ranges from merely escaping the pain of having an unwanted child to feeling happy about the decision;
- Duration: How long will the pleasure last? The positive effects might persist for life;
- Certainty or uncertainty: How likely or unlikely is it that the pleasure will occur? Only a small fraction of women actually feel depression or anxiety from having an abortion;
- Propinquity or remoteness: How soon will the pleasure occur? The pleasure might follow the decision right away; alternatively, a woman might come to a happy realization later;
- Fecundity. There is a high probability that the medical procedure will be followed by sensations of the same kind;
- Purity: The probability that it will not be followed by sensations of the opposite kind. Some individuals might still have regrets about the decision, which is inevitable;
- Extent: How many people will be affected? At least two people are affected: the woman and the unborn child. The latter is not forced to live a life as someone who was not planned or wanted to begin with. He or she will not have to suffer from their parents’ unreadiness and lack of resources to have children. The woman will be able to move on and focus on other goals, which will increase her quality of life.
Barrow, Robin. Utilitarianism: A Contemporary Statement. Routledge, 2015.
de Lazari-Radek, Katarzyna, and Peter Singer. Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2017.
Foster, Diana G., et al. “A Comparison of Depression and Anxiety Symptom Trajectories between Women Who Had an Abortion and Women Denied One.” Psychological Medicine, vol. 45, no. 10, 2015, pp. 2073-2082.