The Ethics of Abortion

Abortion is a sensitive topic and a uniquely divisive one. It’s something we’ve all thought about and probably hold a strong opinion on. We know how Christians generally feel about it. But once we’ve left religion behind and we’re no longer being told what to think about abortion, how should we draw a conclusion about such a contentious moral issue? When I was religious, the authorities within the Christian world told me what my opinion would be on abortion and how I would feel about it and there wasn’t much room for disagreement. Within the world of Evangelical Christianity, being pro-life seemed to be just as much a core tenet as anything else in the religion. And once I became an atheist, I had to rebuild my position from scratch. With any belief in an immaterial soul or morality based on divine command theory taken out of the equation, the arguments changed substantially, at least for me. And since independent moral reasoning is something atheists, naturalists, and skeptics can’t avoid, we shouldn’t shy away from intra-group discussion about one of the most important moral issues of our time just because it’s a difficult subject in which emotions tend to run high. At its core, abortion is not a question of political tribalism. It’s not a question of left vs. right; it’s an issue in moral philosophy. I know I don’t need to tell my audience this, but we should always be dispassionately rational and open to being wrong about these sorts of things, and evaluate ideas on their own merits.

Personally, I’ve been all over the map on this issue. When I first became an atheist, I held on to my pro-life beliefs that I inherited from my conservative Christian upbringing for quite some time before incrementally migrating to the strong pro-choice position that I currently hold. I think abortion should be legal at any point in the pregnancy for any reason. But we haven’t yet reached a consensus on this question like we have with other moral issues, like slavery, for example. And I think that we have to take the pro-life side seriously if for no other reason than the seriousness of the accusations being leveled. A significant faction of the population seems to genuinely believe that we’re all bystanders to a modern holocaust. If someone truly believes this, their moral outrage and concern is completely understandable. And this concern is not limited to the Christian right — many atheists and secularists have expressed reservations about abortion.

No matter what your view is on this subject, we can gain from listening to each other and develop a more nuanced position. So if you’re pro-life, hopefully you’ll continue listening to this. And whatever view you hold, you should never refuse to engage in a discussion or an argument like this. Refusing to engage only harms yourself. If you’d end up being convinced that some other view is right, you’re depriving yourself of the opportunity to stop being wrong about something, or at least to refine your view to make it better. If you would’ve remained unconvinced by the other side, then refusing to engage deprives you of the confidence gained from knowing your beliefs can withstand intense scrutiny. So at the end of the day, you’ll either have upgraded your opinion or you’ll be more convinced that you’re right. So you should never refuse to engage in any discussion on principle or because you think your position is so obviously morally superior. Refusing to engage only harms yourself.

Before we move on to the arguments, though, I should say that I’m not really going to deal with any meta-ethical questions here; I’ll tell you from the beginning where my starting points are and I’ll just work up from there. It needs to be said that there is no such thing as the “atheist position” on morality, let alone an atheist position on abortion; there is a wide range of opinion among atheists, metaphysically and morally. There is no broad consensus on meta-ethics, and atheism doesn’t entail any belief regarding it, so naturally, atheists disagree a lot on meta-ethics. But as far as this episode is concerned, we should be able to agree on abortion while disagreeing on moral realism, or something like that. Really, I’m happy to talk about any issue in moral philosophy you want. But as I said, I’ll be up front about my starting points and that this is not an episode on really foundational questions in moral philosophy. I’m taking a few moral principles and premises that most people accept to some degree and moving on from there.

Three facts

There are three crucial facts that I’ll keep coming back to.

(1) Consciousness is a product of the brain. (2) Fetuses do not develop a functional brain and nervous system until sometime after the twenty week mark. (3) Nearly 99% of abortions occur before the twenty week mark.

I’m getting that last number from the CDC, and of course the link to that is in the show notes. That figure also reflects previous reports on the same question. Around two-thirds of abortions occur before eight weeks and about 90% occur before twelve weeks. By the time you get to twenty weeks, the figure is 98.7%. As for the second point about the development of the fetal nervous system, a fetus probably can’t experience pain until around twenty-six or twenty-eight weeks according to papers published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and the British Medical Journal (both of which are also linked in the show notes). But I’m happy to just say “sometime after twenty weeks,” or “sometime between twenty and twenty-eight weeks,” since pro-lifers spend a lot of time trying to establish twenty weeks as the marker when fetuses can suffer; though as I mentioned, the time is probably far later than the twenty week mark, according to the best research in the highest quality journals. But I concede the earliest possible date because as I mentioned, nearly 99% of women are getting their abortions before the twenty-week mark. So when people get hung up on late-term abortions, it’s relevant that we’re arguing about a minuscule fraction of the overall number, and I’ll address those cases later. As for the first premise — consciousness is a product of the brain — you don’t need to be a materialist and accept the arguments from the consciousness episodes; you really only need to accept that pain or any kind of suffering is only felt with an operating brain and nervous system. Patients under general anesthesia are not just asleep; their brain doesn’t respond to pain signals or reflexes. When enough of your brain is inactive, you are unable to feel pain and lose all consciousness.

So with those three descriptive facts in mind (consciousness is a product of the brain; fetuses do not develop a functional brain and nervous system until sometime after the twenty week mark; nearly 99% of abortions occur before the twenty week mark), we can move on to values.


If you’re causing suffering of any kind to a conscious creature, directly or indirectly, you’re doing something that needs to be justified. You don’t need to morally justify kicking a pebble absent-mindedly, because that action has no foreseeable effect on any conscious being. If you wanted to kick a conscious creature, like a cat or a child, that feels different to us than kicking a pebble. Whatever your moral intuitions may be, you’re not indifferent to harming a conscious creature in the same way that you’re indifferent to kicking a non-conscious thing. Up until approximately twenty to twenty-eight weeks, the fetus can’t feel pain because it doesn’t have a functional brain or nervous system. It’s physiologically impossible for it to suffer. And I have no moral sentiments towards inanimate, unfeeling cells, even if those cells are human cells. Prior to twenty weeks, we may as well be talking about a tree, since a fetus and an tree have the same level of consciousness and the same capacity for suffering.

Individual Freedom

I also think individuals should have rights and control over their own lives. (As a brief aside, I think caring about individual freedom can be justified on utilitarian grounds. You can justify a rule of individual freedom and want to maximize freedom as a result of simply wanting to minimize suffering and maximize flourishing.) The desires and life projects of individuals shouldn’t be interfered with, so long as they’re not interfering with the rights or life projects of anyone else. A fetus can’t have it’s will violated because it has no will. It doesn’t want anything, due to the aforementioned lack of brain and nervous system. It doesn’t desire anything, so it’s desires can’t be interfered with. You’re not violating what the being wills for itself and you’re not interfering with the life project of the being because it has no will and it has no desires, period. While the individual freedom moral paradigm can’t apply to the fetus prior to twenty weeks, everything I just said does apply to the mother, who has a will, desires, a life project, and so on.

The fact that 99% of aborted fetuses aren’t conscious to any degree and never have been is highly relevant to our moral judgement. The fetus exists but no conscious creature exists yet; and consciousness is necessary for morality to apply to anything. No suffering is being caused, no individual freedom is being violated; you don’t need to morally justify an act that has no negative effect on any conscious being. In order to enter the moral arena, you have to either be a conscious creature or have an effect on a conscious creature.

Forced Childbirth

One of the main reasons that I’m pro-choice is that I’m deeply uncomfortable with the idea of forced childbirth. I don’t want to grant anyone the power to force women to give birth against their will. I think it’s obviously preferable for the individual to decide whether or not they become a parent. If you think abortion should be illegal at any point, then “forced childbirth” is a phrase you should get really comfortable with.

That’s another irony of this discussion. Not all, but many pro-lifers are also people who claim to want “small government” and are repelled by any potential government overreach in our personal lives. And yet, these are the same people who want to have a policy of state-mandated forced childbirth.

This is not an abstract issue. Almost everyone listening to this will either be pregnant or will get somebody pregnant at some point; and even if you’re not in either of those groups, there are many people you care about who are. At the end of the day, you’re either okay with forced childbirth or you’re not. If you want to make abortion illegal or greatly restrict it, you will almost certainly increase net human suffering, decrease individual freedom, cause women to have unsafe medical procedures, give the state more control over your life; and you’ll do this in order to force women to give birth against their will.

Foreseeable Consequences

We have to take into account not just the immediate effects of abortion, but the foreseeable consequences of making abortion illegal vs keeping it legal. Creating a rule that outlaws abortion will no doubt lead the state to preside over forced childbirth. There is also the significant suffering wrought by the immense burden of being a parent — parenting is strenuous enough when it’s a choice. So I don’t think this reduction of personal freedom can be justified on the grounds that we’re minimizing suffering. For one, the fetus is not even possibly conscious prior to twenty weeks. Secondly, the suffering imposed by forcing childbirth and parenthood on a woman outweighs any suffering visited upon the fetus in the barely one-percent who are aborted after twenty weeks, not to mention the suffering imposed on an unwanted child.

To make an informed decision, one should be aware of the long history of abortion and infanticide in the human race. There is archeological evidence of women having children and bludgeoning them with rocks immediately after birth, presumably because they did not have the resources to take care of them. In the Apocalypse of Peter, a non-canonical book of the Bible, Jesus showcases the tortures of hell, which include abortionists buried to their necks in excrement. Abortion has been commonplace for thousands of years, right up until Roe v. Wade. If you make it illegal, you’ll immediately increase the number of abandoned infants, for one. Women will still use back alley and homemade methods for abortion, just as they have for thousands of years. In fact, women are already using unsafe home-methods for abortion in states where it’s functionally impossible to get abortion. In a perfect world, nobody would get pregnant if they didn’t want to be pregnant. But since that’s not the world we live in, a woman can either safely get an abortion, or she can unsafely get an abortion.

If you sincerely have moral reservations regarding abortion and you’re truly interested in decreasing the number performed, the data we have suggest that we should invest in early, comprehensive sex education and make birth control cheap and accessible for men and women. These are empirically verified ways to reduce abortion. This is true from country to country, as well as from state to state in the U.S.

the reduction of crime

Having run the experiment of legalized abortion in the U.S. for a few decades now, there may be an uncomfortable implication to data we now have: abortion may reduce the rate of crime. Children who are unwanted or whose parents can’t support them in the ways children need are likelier to become criminals, and this is well understood. During the 1990’s, there was a notable and sudden drop in the rate of crime. Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, and millions of legal abortions were carried out in the following years. About eighteen years later, criminal incidents began to drop at a rate roughly proportional to the number of abortions that had been performed. This point, whatever it’s worth, is contingent on the idea that abortion increases dramatically once it’s legalized, which is something pro-lifers tend to argue.

In the show notes, I’ve linked the PDF of a paper called The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime and a popular article that summarizes the reasoning. The authors, Donohue and Levitt, write,

“Since 1991, the United States has experienced the sharpest drop in murder rates since the end of Prohibition in 1933. Homicide rates have fallen more than 40 percent. Violent crime and property crime have each declined more than 30 percent. Hundreds of articles discussing this change have appeared in the academic literature and popular press. . . . We offer evidence that legalized abortion has contributed significantly to recent crime reductions. Crime began to fall roughly eighteen years after abortion legalization. The Žfive states that allowed abortion in 1970 experienced declines earlier than the rest of the nation, which legalized in 1973 with Roe v. Wade. States with high abortion rates in the 1970s and 1980s experienced greater crime reductions in the 1990s. In high abortion states, only arrests of those born after abortion legalization fall relative to low abortion states. Legalized abortion appears to account for as much as 50 percent of the recent drop in crime.”

Pro-life talking points

Any being that is conscious to any degree needs to be taken into account. But since 99% of aborted fetuses are not conscious to any degree and never have been, they never even enter the moral domain. It doesn’t matter if what we’re killing is human, or if it has unique DNA, or if it’s a living thing. None of that is relevant — all that matters is the suffering caused to conscious creatures. Whether the fetus is conscious or not is the relevant question. If it is conscious to any degree, it enters the moral domain. If it’s not, it has the same moral status as a rock or a tree. It only matters insofar as it affects already conscious creatures.

I’ve already mentioned a few pro-life talking points, but let me make sure I’m clear on them. Pro-lifers will point out that abortion involves killing a living thing, but cutting down a tree is also killing a living thing, so I’m not sure why that matters. If this were a morally relevant fact, we’d be engaging in a holocaust every time we mowed the lawn. That it’s life is not relevant. Equally relevant is the fact that an organism has human DNA. The fetus’ DNA is often invoked in support of the idea that we’re killing a human. It’s not just that it’s a living thing we’re killing, it’s that we’re killing a human being. Again, consciousness is what grants moral status, not human DNA.

We tend to elevate humans in our moral calculations primarily because we are humans, but also for a better reason which is that we have reason to believe that consciousness comes in degrees. Humans have the most complex brains, so we seem to have a reasonable case that we are probably conscious to a higher degree compared to other animals living on Earth. Many other animals are obviously conscious, and can clearly suffer in physical and emotional ways. And as I’ve mentioned, consciousness is the main criterion for entering the moral domain, not whether you’re a human. I think most people would agree that it’s immoral to torture a dog for fun; and the degree to which torturing a human is worse is proportionate to the degree that humans are more conscious. No matter what your views on animal rights are, you’re not totally indifferent to hitting an animal with a baseball bat in the same way you’re indifferent to hitting a baseball with a baseball bat. You don’t talk yourself out of caring about the baseball; it just never occurs to you. Consciousness is what causes you have moral inclinations towards humans and animals or even hypothetical aliens but not inanimate objects, like a clump of cells or a chemical like DNA. Regardless of the fetus’ unique human DNA, it has the same ability to suffer as a baseball prior to twenty weeks. Consciousness is what matters, not DNA.

The famous trolley problem is actually a great analogy for the situation we’re in. Even if you’re convinced that legalizing abortion causes some suffering, as it undoubtedly does after a certain point in the pregnancy, you still have all your work ahead of you to explain why it causes more net suffering. We may very well be causing some suffering by enacting what I’m calling for, which is legalized abortion at any time in the pregnancy for any reason. But you have to make the case that we’d be causing more suffering under my system than we would under any of the alternatives. No suffering at all is not an option. Our options are between more suffering or less suffering.

As for the post-twenty week abortions (which consist of barely 1% of abortions), I think these can generally be justified. The foreseeable consequences of implementing an across-the-board ban on abortion after twenty weeks would cause more suffering than the amount of suffering wrought by aborting the few thousand barely sentient fetuses.

The Line

This brings me to one pro-life talking point that I’m mildly sympathetic to, which is the question of “the line”. Where do we draw the line, exactly? Isn’t it sort of arbitrary, when it comes down to it? Of course, I haven’t been arguing that it’s arbitrary; I’ve been arguing that the capacity to suffer should be the line we care about for the fetus. But why is the moment of birth the line we’re drawing here? If we’re trying to justify our position on utilitarian grounds, shouldn’t the line be the moment a creature becomes conscious to any degree? I already said that I think the suffering caused by imposing an abortion ban would cause far more suffering than the suffering visited to the around one-percent of fetuses aborted after the twenty week line. But if we take that utilitarian reasoning seriously, then why is the line the moment of birth, rather than, maybe, three days after the moment of birth, like Peter Singer advocates?

I think I have to admit that our legal drawing of the line is ultimately arbitrary, just like eighteen or twenty-one years of age is an arbitrary legal line. It’s not like you’re incapable of handling alcohol the hour before you turn twenty-one, and you’re suddenly far more mature than you had been an hour earlier. We can debate the exact line we want to draw, whether it’s the moment of birth, a few weeks before, or a few days after the moment of birth. We have to decide where the line goes, just as we decided on eighteen years old, rather than nineteen or seventeen and three-quarters, even though these are not all that different. Outlawing abortion before twenty weeks is absolutely unjustifiable. I would argue that the moment of birth should be the line, or possibly three days after birth to give parents some room in special cases of unforeseen birth defects. As I mentioned, if something has no consciousness, it has no moral status. As for the post-twenty week abortions (which, again, excludes nearly 99% of abortions), these can generally be justified on utilitarian grounds. And the foreseeable consequences of implementing an across-the-board ban on abortion after twenty weeks would cause far more suffering than the amount brought on by aborting the fetuses in the few thousand potentially questionable cases. If there are five hundred thousand abortions in a given year, only a few thousand are even potentially questionable out of half a million.

If you’re someone who believes abortion should be banned after twenty weeks (except in cases of medical emergency), you should recognize that we’re talking about a fraction of one percent of abortions. And if we looked at these handful of cases, my guess is that the situation is no so simple. Nobody goes through eight months of a pregnancy for the hell of it; so at that point, they probably have a reason. It’s impossible to foresee every scenario where abortion would seem justified, so we should leave this decision to the individual mother. At this point, we’re talking about which direction leads to less suffering. This is what I meant earlier when I referenced the trolley problem. No suffering is not a realistic option.

If I’m wrong, I’m completely open to hearing why. And as I mentioned, I’ve changed my mind on this issue before. All I’m doing is trying to be as consistent as possible with the values of minimizing suffering while maximizing freedom. If you can show me a system that has better net results with those values, then I’ll change my mind.



CA31 The Ethics of Abortion

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2014 Abortion Data []

Fetal Pain: A Systematic, Multidisciplinary Review of the Evidence [Journal of the American Medical Association]

Can Fetuses Feel Pain? [British Medical Journal]

Utilitarianism [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]

The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime — Donohue-Levitt Hypothesis [PDF – Quarterly Journal of Economics]

Freakonomics — Abortion and Crime [Freakonomics]

The Trolley Problem — Massimo Pigliucci [YouTube]

“But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” — J.S. Mill


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