Sep 022011

Abortion is in the news in the UK. See: Nadine Dorries’ abortion proposals – Fact and Fiction

I am among the least qualified to comment on abortion. I am a childfree man who is not likely to be remotely involved in such a process in the foreseeable future. But my detachment may be useful for introducing some analysis to this topic. (I don’t claim originality for most of the ideas here, but it would hard to cite all the influences).

Trying to treat an inherently emotional subject unemotionally leaves out a lot that is important. I expect there is something here to irritate everyone! But perhaps there is a useful perspective too.

Rights of women

It would be easy to say “women should have full rights over what happens to their bodies”. But is that true? The situation about what rights we have over our own bodies is complicated and often contradictory:

  • In the UK, it is illegal to perform female genital mutilation, even if the “recipient” believes it is needed for her religion or simply wants help to mutilate herself! This is a protection against social or family pressure. An element of protection for vulnerable and too-easily influenced people can often be desirable.
  • In the UK, suicide (and attempted suicide) is legal. I believe this applies to pregnant women too. Women can legally kill, or attempt to kill, their fetus, via their own death. (But things may be different in other countries; I am undecided about this situation!)
  • While suicide is legal, some methods are morally (and perhaps legally?) wrong. Committing suicide while endangering someone else, for example jumping off a building and risking landing on someone, or jumping in front of a train and traumatising the driver, is morally wrong. (Would it still be wrong to risk landing on a great ape? A dog? A petunia?)

In general, our rights over our own bodies need to be constrained when others are put at risk; and that is arguably the case with abortion, which kills something. But what does it kill?

Relative status of woman & embryo/fetus

Richard Dawkins’ term “the tyranny of the discontinuous mind” applies overwhelmingly here!

I think I am talking about “moral status” here, based on biological status. See: The Scourge: Moral Implications of Natural Embryo Loss. Obviously the numbers and other details are to give the flavour of what I am saying. There is no numerical scale that I know of for expressing these concepts.

Roman Catholic Church perspective

Unless I’ve missed the point, [the comment below suggests I have], the embryo is granted full moral status at conception. I’ve given the woman only 99% status, because I keep reading of cases where the embryo/fetus appears to have higher priority than the woman! (Perhaps I am being unfair, biased by my opinion that the Roman Catholic Church ranks equal to Islam as the joint worst religious influence on the planet.)

I know of no reason, other than the supposed existence of a soul, for this perspective. As an atheist I can’t take either the existence of a soul, or this perspective, seriously.

Soul-less perspective

It is hard to give much status (moral or biological) to the embryo soon after conception, when nature aborts such a large proportion of them without women even knowing they’ve conceived. But as it starts to be recognisably human, and especially when it has a possibility of independent existence, its status must surely be considered greater. (Needless to say, rather a lot of other people say something similar!)

I’ve given the fetus the value 99% at birth to make the point that, by default, if it is only possible to save one of them, that should be the woman. (Unless she explicitly says otherwise while able to speak rationally.)

Now I need to identify the implications of these changing statuses.


Analogies can be useful for identifying precedents, or for removing some of the emotion from the discussion. They must not be pushed too far.

“Abortion is a sin against God”

Being an atheist, I could take the easy way out and dismiss the existence of any god(s). But I’ll go head-to-head with this silly claim instead. See: The Scourge: Moral Implications of Natural Embryo Loss

About 63% of all conceptions are naturally aborted. If there were a god ruling the universe, that god would be by far the most prolific abortionist there will ever be. After all, when god has done her bit (I assume a god performing that many abortions is a woman) there are only 37% left for human beings to abort.

(How much effort should we devote to trying to reduce that 63%? And would we be thwarting god’s will in doing so?)

“Abortion is murder”

Murder has various motives, most of which don’t resemble abortion. “Murder for financial gain?” – no. “Murder for revenge?” – no. “Murder during rage?” – no. None of these convey the flavour of what happens without the abortion. What sort of murder is needed to avoid a steadily worsening unwanted physical condition that will eventually have unwanted life-time consequences?

The nearest I can get is “Murder to obtain an organ to be transplanted into one-self”. But that would typically be murder of an adult. That case doesn’t match abortion. Abortion just isn’t much like murder.

“Abortion is a cure for parasitic infection”

For the first several weeks, “parasitic infection” appears to be a good analogy. Once the fetus shows signs of being human, it leaves a lot to be desired!

“Abortion is separation of conjoined twins”

Sometimes when conjoined twins are separated, it is known that only one can survive. The alternatives are then “leave them conjoined” or “kill one to give the other a better life”. This is a useful analogy up to a point, but doesn’t convey the fact that the woman and fetus will (probably) separate themselves naturally if there is no operation.

However, if the woman’s life is at risk from continued pregnancy or birth, then there will not be such natural separation, and this becomes a good analogy for the later stages of pregnancy.

“Abortion is self-defence”

An essential feature of abortion is that it resolves a struggle between 2 entities. So to some extent “self-defence” is a good match.

But “self-defence” conveys an immediate struggle between an innocent person and another entity that could just go away as an alternative to being injured or killed. From the woman’s point of view, this may well be a good analogy, while an outsider may look at things from the fetus’ point of view, (assuming it is developed enough to plausibly have a point of view).

“Abortion is hostage-resolution”

This builds on “self-defence”, but adds elements of being trapped over a period of time with an uncertain future. It also adds elements of negotiation. This is a significant improvement.

But it still doesn’t address a feature of hostage situations – the ability of the hostage-taker to surrender as an alternative to being injured or killed.

Comments on analogies

The first conclusion is that analogies only go so far, and none is a good match for abortion. That should not be a surprise!

“Sin against God” and “Murder” are poor analogies, and shouldn’t be used.

“Cure for parasitic infection” is a good analogy for the first several weeks. After that, “Separation of conjoined twins” is a good analogy where the woman’s life is at risk. “Hostage-resolution” is only a crude analogy once the fetus shows signs of being human, but it has the advantage that it expresses the elements of “trapped over a period of time” and “negotiation”.

Some conclusions

There is no definitive conclusion here! Abortion law tends not to end up as a good compromise among the opposing perspectives, giving everyone something of what they want. It tends to end up as a bad compromise between largely-polarised perspectives that have little overlap at all.

One end of the polarisation is often positioned by religion, and as an atheist my response can only be:

“If you are basing your position on what your god wishes, bring your god in front of a court or parliamentary committee to confirm god’s wishes; or if you are basing you position on the existence of souls, supply the evidence for souls”.

We do need to take some of the hypocrisy out of the process. If we decide according to constitutionally-valid means that abortions of various types are valid within certain periods, then we must ensure that matters can be expedited within the defined periods. If abortions are permitted in various circumstances up to (say) 24 weeks, then it would be hypocritical, thwarting the intentions behind the law, to place unnecessary delays and obstacles into obtaining those abortions.

“If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well It were done quickly ….”

There is widespread (but certainly not universal) agreement that effective use of contraception is a good idea. Anyone opposed to abortion ought to support this, although many don’t. That is a separate topic, but it raises interesting an question (which I can’t answer):

“what are the ethics of parents having their children implanted with contraceptives, somewhat similar to vaccinating them against parasitic infections, with the proviso that the children have the unqualified right to have the implants removed after the age of consent?”


Apart from my human rights views, I also have a utilitarian view about women’s reproductive rights. I believe maximising the ability of women worldwide to control their own reproduction is a high priority for the human race, because it will inevitable reduce the birth rate. It may be the single best way of doing so. That is needed to reduce (or stop increasing) the impact of human society on the environment, whether to control climate change or the long-term destruction of the environment. It is also needed to reduce the consequences, few of them pleasant, of increasing competition for resources, including of course water and food.

But … I believe that this shouldn’t be used as an argument in favour of abortion. Utilitarian arguments can rebound. What if a particular country was suffering because of a declining population? Should they legislate to remove women’s control; or worse?

I think the case has to be made on grounds of biology, health, ethics, and human rights, not utility.

Interesting reading: A Defense of Abortion

  One Response to “Abortion – some unemotional analysis”

  1. The Catholic Church does not think that the mother counts for 99% while the embryo counts for 100%. The issue is the doctrine of double effect.

    Even if we consider the 11-week fetus a person, this was a situation of two dead or one, and the legalistic adherence to the principle of double effect the Church demands would have insisted, unconscionably I think, that they choose two deaths over one.  The doctrine of double effect holds that one may never directly perform an intrinsically evil action, such as killing an innocent, for the sake of the greater consequences.  Consequentialist thinking that allows for evils (such as deaths of innocents) is only permissible where such evils are foreseeable but undesired byproducts of intrinsically good actions and where any foreseen and permitted evil results are significantly worse than all other possible outcomes.)  So, even if in this case we judge an 11 week fetus to be an “innocent human being” with an inviolable right to life, we cannot make the obvious judgment that it will die in either case and opt to kill it directly in order to save its mother’s life.  That’s what “pro-life” means to rigid legalists.

    That’s why the Bishop talks about the abortion being unnecessary to treat the “mother’s underlying conditions”—if in the act of treating a specific condition of the mother, the fetus were to be foreseeably but indirectly destroyed, that would be acceptable.  But the fetus cannot be considered the “ailment” itself.

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