Abortion is one of the most discussed, and least agreed upon, moral issues in the world today. It is a profoundly difficult problem for at least two major reasons. First, the moral status of a fetus is hotly debated. Some see fetuses of any age as “persons” with all the rights of adults, while others see fetuses, and even infants, as beings with either no or severely limited rights. Second, the location of the fetus inside the body of its mother raises questions about what rights the mother has over its life. In this chapter, I apply consensual utilitarianism to the issue of abortion.

I have not said very much about rights. The approach taken in this book is, I believe, more fundamental, with rights arising from it as a sort of rule-of-thumb approach to guiding utilitarian decisions (rights are a “Framework 2” approach as defined in Chapter 6). For this reason, I do not think rights offer the most complete level of analysis for a complicated issue such as abortion.

I should also note that my approach treats all relevant beings as having the same claim to happiness. Both the fetus and its mother have lives ahead of them, lives which may be filled with happiness or suffering depending on which actions are taken. This is what makes the difference between a fetus and any other object or organ that may be contained within another person. For instance, if someone wishes to have her appendix removed, we cannot object to this decision using the argument that the appendix has the right to life. An appendix cannot, and never will, experience suffering or happiness of its own. It is therefore not directly relevant to moral problems, and may be destroyed without any consideration for its well-being.

A fetus, on the other hand, usually has a high probability of developing the capacity to experience suffering or happiness, unless deliberate action is taken to thwart its development or it has a fatally serious developmental issue. The fetus is therefore a morally relevant being with its own future interests, and its location inside another person does not change this.

Thus far, it sounds as if I am heading in a distinctively conservative direction. This is not, as it turns out, the case, and I encourage the more liberally inclined reader to continue!

In my analysis of abortion, I will not ask whether any particular abortion should be performed, but will consider the legal status of the practice. My analysis, despite its length, is necessarily simplified. I make only the most basic estimates of contentment indices and action utilities, and I work with average trends in a given population of relevant people. Nonetheless, I propose that my treatment involves a greater level of detail than most people have likely attempted or encountered.

As usual, we start by identifying the available actions. Broadly speaking, there are three actions that can be taken with regards to the legalization of abortion:

Action A: Ban all abortions.

Action B: Legalize abortion only for fetuses below a certain level of development. Here, I will consider the ability to experience suffering as the relevant criterion. Under Action B, then, abortion would be legal only for fetuses that have not yet developed the ability to experience suffering.

Action C: Legalize abortion for fetuses at any level of development.

Next, let us identify relevant beings. Most beings whose contentment is contingent on which action is chosen fall into one of the following populations:

Pro-life population: People who would like to see all abortion prohibited. I include only those people whose objections to abortion are based on self-interest, such as close friends and family members of abortion-seeking women. The same general restriction to self-interested people should be assumed for the remaining populations listed here.

Limited abortion population: People who would like to see abortion permitted only for fetuses below the level of development defined above.

Unrestricted abortion population: People who would like to see abortion permitted for fetuses of any age.

Abortion-seeking women: Pregnant women who wish to have an abortion. (Pregnant women who do not wish to have an abortion fall within one of the preceding three populations.)

Suffering-incapable fetuses: Fetuses that cannot yet experience suffering (or contentment).

Suffering-capable fetuses: Fetuses that can experience suffering (or contentment).

Let us now consider the state of consent among these groups:

The pro-life group objects to Actions B and C (pro-lifers object to any form of legalized abortion).

The limited abortion group objects to Actions A and C (they want some abortions to be legal, but not all).

The unrestricted abortion group objects to Actions A and B.

Abortion-seeking women object to Action A or B depending on the age of the fetus they are carrying.

Fetuses, whether able to suffer or not, are consent-incapable beings. We must therefore invoke the statement on assumed consent made in Chapter 7. In this chapter, I will be considering two subcategories of fetus, namely those with poor future prospects and those with good future prospects. These terms will be defined more fully later, but it should be noted here that for a fetus with poor future prospects, abortion produces a higher action utility than allowing it to live. This situation requires us to assume that the fetus would object to being forced to live a life of abject suffering, rather than being allowed to die. For fetuses with good future prospects, the situation is reversed, since now the action utility is greater if the fetus is allowed to live, and we must assume that the fetus (if it were consent-capable) would object to being aborted.

Good future prospects for the fetus therefore require us to lodge an objection to Action B or C depending on the stage of development, while poor future prospects require us to lodge an objection to Action A.

We see from the above enumeration that all three actions are met with objections from at least one group of relevant beings. The best we can do, then, is follow the second rule of consent and present the best case we can for the recommended action, assuming no alternative action is available. To determine what the recommended action is, let us see proceed with the calculus by identifying relevant time periods:

Pro-lifers: Whatever decision is made, people in this population are not as deeply involved in the situation as the abortion-seeking woman and the fetus, and are therefore likely to come to terms with an unsatisfactory outcome relatively quickly (“unsatisfactory” refers to their own view of the situation).

Limited abortion population: People in this population, like the pro-lifers, will not have their contentment affected for as long as abortion-seeking women and fetuses, for the same reasons.

Unrestricted abortion population: The same argument applies to this population.

Abortion-seeking women stand to experience contentment index values that are strongly contingent on which action is chosen, and for a potentially long period of time. This is partly because the pregnant woman is personally (and therefore emotionally) invested in the decision, but there are additional factors. For instance, a woman whose pregnancy puts her at considerable risk of illness or death may experience a very low contentment index if obliged to carry her fetus to term. Or, upon having the child, the woman might experience considerable hardship raising that child due to any variety of circumstances (dire financial position, lack of support, immaturity, etc.). Conversely, if a woman does have an abortion, she may regret her decision for years to come.

Suffering-incapable and suffering-capable fetuses, taken together, may constitute the group with the most enduring changes in happiness, depending on which action is chosen. A fetus destined for a long and happy life (usually longer than the remaining life of its mother) will not experience this life if the abortion proceeds. Conversely, a fetus consigned by a serious birth defect to a short life of extreme suffering may escape this fate if the abortion is carried out.

By considering the range of possible relevant time periods, we have already thought a little about the action utilities of each population. We can be a little more thorough by considering likely action utilities under each action individually.

———- Action A: All abortion is banned.

Pro-lifers will be moderately happy for a relatively short time period, since their desired legal decision has been made.

Limited and unrestricted abortion supporters will be moderately unhappy for a relatively short time period, for the opposite reason.

Abortion-seeking women, faced with no legal abortion options, will suffer. Suffering might be severe, and death may even occur in some cases (implying a zero contentment index). The extent of the suffering may be short (a few days) or long (many years). However, I think it is reasonable to assume that if a woman is refused an abortion, and she is not at risk of severe injury or death, she will likely go on to live a long life, much of which may be just as happy as it would have been had she had an abortion.

For fetuses expected to have, on average, a happy life, Action A is the best available option and yields a high action utility. For fetuses expected to live a life full of suffering, however, Action A yields a low action utility. Furthermore, since no fetus is aborted under Action A, the suffering associated with abortion process itself does not occur in suffering-capable fetuses.

———- Action B: Abortion is legalized for suffering-incapable fetuses.

Pro-lifers will experience a brief period of relatively low contentment index as they deal with a legal decision they disagree with.

Limited abortion supporters will be moderately happy for a relatively short period.

Unrestricted abortion supporters, like the pro-lifers, will experience mild suffering for a relatively short period.

The suffering of abortion-seeking women will depend on the age of the fetus. If a woman is carrying a fetus whose level of development is beyond the legal cutoff, then she will experience the sort of suffering described under Action A, since her desire for an abortion will be thwarted. Conversely, if the fetus has not reached the legal cutoff, the woman will experience a higher action utility because her desire for an abortion will be met.

For fetuses with good future prospects, Action B makes a strongly positive contribution to action utility if the fetus is beyond the abortion age limit, and a negative contribution if it is below the age limit. For fetuses with poor future prospects, the situation is reversed. In addition, no suffering will occur during the abortion process, since only suffering-incapable fetuses will be aborted.

———- Action C: Unrestricted abortion.

Pro-lifers will experience a brief period of relatively low contentment index as they deal with a legal decision they disagree with.

Limited abortion supporters will also experience mildly lowered contentment indices for a relatively short period.

Unrestricted abortion supporters will be moderately happy for a relatively short period.

Abortion-seeking women will experience greater happiness relative to Action A.

Suffering-capable fetuses: Under Action C, suffering-incapable fetuses will be assigned an action utility of zero corresponding to death, while suffering-capable fetuses will experience the suffering associated with the abortion process, and will therefore have a negative action utility.

We have now completed our qualitative estimate of action utilities. How do they all balance?

Let us start by looking at people who have the least intense personal involvement with abortions, namely the pro-lifers and the limited and unrestricted abortion supporters.

The population of unrestricted abortion supporters is usually quite small in most instances of the abortion debate, and their action utilities are relatively modest under all three actions. We therefore omit this group from our calculations, since they are unlikely to affect the results.

The pro-lifers and limited abortion supporters, meanwhile, largely cancel each other out. Under Action A the pro-lifers are happy and the abortion supporters are not, while under Action B the situation is reversed. Only in the unrestricted abortion scenario are both of these groups unhappy.

Based on these groups alone, we might conclude that both Actions A and B are preferable to Action C, but we cannot determine which of Actions A and B should be preferred.

So, let us consider in more detail the abortion-seeking women and fetus populations, who stand to gain or lose most in this moral problem. Since we have seen some differences regarding the known health status of the fetus, we will look at the problem twice: Once for fetuses with good future prospects (for example, a clean bill of health and a likely stable home with two parents) and again for fetuses with poor future prospects (ill health, no reliable parental figures, financial destitution, and so on).

Instead of trying to pin numbers on each option, I will simply indicate with one or more “+” symbols if a particular action increases contentment in a particular group, and one or more “-” symbols if an action decreases contentment. More “+” symbols mean greater happiness, while more “-” symbols mean greater suffering. A zero action utility will simply be indicated by “0”. Obviously these estimates are somewhat speculative, but more accurate measurements are, at least in principal, obtainable.

The conclusions of the analysis are summarized in Table 1.


Fetuses with good future prospects

———- Action A: All abortion is banned.

The contentment index of abortion-seeking women is temporarily reduced from its relatively high default but, in certain cases, is permanently lowered to 0 if the woman loses her life.

One of the difficulties with assessing action utility for abortion-seeking women is that it is difficult to know when the relevant time period ends, namely when the action utilities under different actions converge to the same value. A women who is denied an abortion will perhaps return to her initial level of happiness over a period of several months to a couple of years, provided the fetus has good future prospects. Obviously her life will change dramatically, especially if she decides to keep the child once it is born. But it is not clear to me that the suffering associated with these changes would be long lasting. Whatever the relevant time period may be, we can assume that it will involve significant suffering. After all, a woman is being forced to give birth to, and possibly look after, a child she does not want. We therefore use a range of – – to 0.

Suffering-capable fetuses are generally happy over the full course of their lifetime: +++++

Suffering-incapable fetuses are also generally happy over the full course of their lifetime: +++++

———- Action B: Abortion is legalized for suffering-incapable fetuses.

Abortion-seeking women experience varying amounts of suffering if they are carrying a suffering-capable fetus: – – to 0, as before.

Abortion-seeking women experience moderate happiness if carrying a suffering-incapable fetus: +++ (We could apply a range of values here, since the relevant time period for this action utility depends on the outcome of Action A, especially if the woman dies in childbirth under that action. However, since the outcome of the problem is ultimately going to be governed by the worst suffering, it does not make too much of a different what positive action utility is chosen here.)

Suffering-capable fetuses are generally happy over the course of their lifetime: +++++

Suffering-incapable fetuses are aborted, and are therefore assigned a zero action utility: 0

———- Action C: Unrestricted abortion.

Abortion-seeking women are moderately happy in this case, since they are permitted to have an abortion: +++

Suffering-capable fetuses are aborted, and therefore experience brief suffering during the abortion process: –

Suffering-incapable fetuses are aborted, and are therefore assigned a zero action utility: 0

Thus far, Action C has the greatest minimum action utility (-). For fetuses with good prospects, the preferred action is determined to a large degree by the balance between two sources of suffering: The suffering of the suffering-capable fetus during the abortion process (under Action C), and the suffering of a woman who is compelled, against her will, to carry her baby to term and go through the considerable hardship of raising it (especially if inevitable hardship was the reason for her seeking an abortion in the first place) or giving it up for adoption. This latter suffering occurs under Actions A and B.

It seems more likely to me that the suffering of the woman would, on balance, be greater than that of the fetus, probably considerably so, because it would extend over a longer period than the few minutes of the abortion process itself. Fortunately, this suffering is not likely to last a lifetime, and I think it is reasonable to assume that a woman required by law to carry her healthy fetus to term would eventually (months or years into the future, perhaps) regain a reasonably high level of happiness. It may even be possible that the woman will experience unexpected joy at having a child, offsetting her initial suffering.

Nonetheless, it seems reasonably clear that any brief suffering a fetus might experience during the abortion process cannot compare to the suffering that a woman is likely to undergo by being forced to give birth to, and possibly raise, a child against her will.

In countries where abortion-seeking women risk being ostracized or otherwise mentally and physically abused, their situation simply gets worse, and the calculus would, in such cases, point even more firmly to Action C as the preferred action.

Next, we first consider fetuses with poor prospects.

Fetuses with poor future prospects

———- Action A: All abortion is banned.

Abortion-seeking women under this scenario suffer even more than if the fetus were healthy, since they will experience significant additional hardship looking after an extremely sick child, or looking after a healthy child in the context of poverty or other social ills. We therefore widen the range of possible action utilities: – – – – to 0.

Suffering-capable fetuses suffer over the course of their lifetime. Since they may not live as long as a healthy person would, the duration of their suffering is similarly abridged. Rather than assigning five “-” symbols to match the happy person’s five “+” symbols, then, we use four symbols instead (this does not, however, have a strong influence on the outcome of the calculus): – – – –

Suffering-incapable fetuses suffer in the same manner, and for the same duration, as suffering-incapable fetuses, once they develop the ability to experience suffering: – – – –

———- Action B: Abortion is legalized for suffering-incapable fetuses.

Abortion-seeking women suffer as described under Action A if carrying a suffering-capable fetus: – – – – to 0.

Abortion-seeking women experience moderate happiness if carrying a suffering-incapable fetus: +++

Suffering-capable fetuses suffer: – – – –

Suffering-incapable fetuses are aborted, and are therefore assigned a zero action utility: 0

———- Action C: Unrestricted abortion.

Abortion-seeking women are moderately happy: + + +

Suffering-capable fetuses are aborted, and therefore experience brief suffering during the abortion process: –

Suffering-incapable fetuses are aborted, and are therefore assigned a zero action utility: 0

In this set of options, Action C once again has the greatest minimum action utility (-). This is because Actions A and B involve the suffering both of fetuses that must be brought to term despite the inevitable physical or emotional suffering that lies ahead of them, and of abortion-seeking women who are forced against their will to bring children with poor future prospects into the world.

Total Action Utility

What if we had decided to use total action utility to rank actions, rather than minimum action utility? Here, for the sake of interest, I explore this option for the problem of abortion.

To proceed, we must recognize that the size of each population has to be taken into account, since the total amount of happiness depends on the number of people experiencing it (the water-filled bowl analogy of an earlier chapter is useful here: If we’re interested in finding the total volume of water, we need to add up the contribution from every bowl).

We assume that a typical abortion-seeking woman will only attempt to have the procedure once in her lifetime. This means that the population of abortion-seeking women will be about the same as the total population of fetuses exposed to the possibility of abortion. Among the latter population, the suffering-capable fetuses are likely to be in the minority, since relatively few women seek abortions for fetuses in the latter stages of development.

Keeping these population factors in mind, let us first consider the situation for fetuses with good prospects and women at risk of losing their lives, so that we can tie up our loose end. The loss of life is associated with zero action utility and, as shown in Table 1, Action A produces relatively high action utilities among the fetuses, which are protected from abortion by law. Using the total number of “-” and “+” symbols in the appropriate box in Table 1 as a rough quantitative measure of action utility, we find that the total action utility for Action A is two zeroes plus ten positive units, so a total of ten positive units.

We must, however, account for the fact that the population of suffering-capable fetuses and their mothers is lower than the population of suffering-incapable fetuses and their mothers. We therefore need to give more weight to the latter population.  Let us then double the values for suffering-incapable fetuses and their mothers, based on the assumption that there are roughly twice as many women seeking to abort suffering-incapable fetuses as there are women seeking to abort suffering-capable fetuses. The total is now 10 plus 5 positive units, so a total of 15 positive units.

Following the same procedure for Actions B, we arrive at a total of 2(+3 + 0) + (0 + 5) = 11. Action C yields 2(+3 + 0) + (3 – 1) = 8. However, recall the caveat regarding relevant time periods mentioned earlier. We said that if abortion-seeking women die during childbirth, then the relevant period becomes the entire lifetime they would have experienced if they had aborted the fetus instead. The action utility under pro-abortion scenarios like Action C should therefore be higher than represented in Table 1 or, conversely, the action utility for anti-abortion scenarios should be lower, since it corresponds to a shorter time interval. It does not affect the result too much which approach we use, so we pick the former. We double the action utility for the abortion-seeking women under Action C, on the rather generous assumption that suffering under Actions A and B would last half a life time. The modified action utility for Action C is therefore 2(+6 + 0) + (6 – 1) = 17. Action C is therefore the preferred action.

If we assume that the abortion seeking women suffer rather than die, then the totals for Actions A and B both decrease to 9. Action C has a total of 2(+3 + 0) + (3 – 1) = 8. Because of the reduced happiness under Action C, the preferred actions are now A and B, by a small margin.

If we proceed in the same fashion for fetuses with poor prospects and woman at risk of death, we obtain totals of -12, 2, and 17 for Actions A, B, and C, respectively. For women not at risk of death, the totals are -24, -2, and 8. The low values for Actions A and B reflect the suffering experienced by both fetuses with poor prospects and their mothers. For fetuses with poor prospects, then, Action C is the preferred action by a wide margin.

Overall, the outcome appears to be much the same for the total and greatest minimum approaches.

There is one final wrinkle to the problem that is worth noting. If a woman dies during pregnancy, the good prospects of the fetus almost certainly vanish. Either the fetus dies immediately (the most likely outcome) or it is somehow rescued (if viable). In the latter case, the future prospects of the fetus remain in doubt given the absence of its mother and a range of uncertainties regarding its upbringing. It therefore seems reasonable to conclude that if the mother dies (if she has an action utility of 0), the fetus will automatically qualify as having poor prospects.

The Law

We have determined the recommendations of consensual utilitarianism on the matter of abortion. The question about legality, however, remains to be answered. In the chapter on consent, I argued that the law should only be in the business of prohibiting an action if it consistently produces a lower minimum action utility than the available alternatives.

The question we need to ask, then, is whether Actions B and C, both of which permit abortion, produce consistently lower minimum action utilities than Action A, which does not. The consensual utilitarian calculus suggests that, to the contrary, Action C produces higher minimum action utilities than the other actions.

Finally, it may be worth recalling the balance of utilities derived from populations other than abortion-seeking mothers and fetuses: Action C was somewhat worse than the other two actions. This reduces the advantage that Action C carries as the preferred action, but given the extreme action utilities associated with abortion-seeking women and fetuses, this effect is likely to be insignificant.


It is worth considering briefly how (if at all) the above analysis would change for infants. Is there anything about the birth process that changes consent or the balance of action utilities? If women should be permitted to abort their fetuses, should they also be permitted to murder their infants?

One change that occurs when a baby is born is that it ceases to be completely dependent on its mother for survival. This means that the mother can no longer use arguments concerning her physical health to justify killing the infant. Instead, the consent of the mother, or lack thereof, can now be based solely on the emotional effects of the action being considered, in much the same way as the consent of other family members, and relatives, is based.

At this point, any desire to kill the infant falls into the category of abused consent. The mother’s objection to letting the infant live is not made in the interests of her own health, as it might have been while carrying the child, but either against the interests of the infant (if she is motivated by hatred, for example) or by concern for the infant (if, say, the infant is suffering excruciating pain due to an untreatable congenital disease). In either case, her consent can no longer be considered binding. The only valid objections remaining are those which the infant may have by virtue of assumed consent, and those coming from close friends and family whose interests are at stake.

If the infant has good future prospects then under assumed consent it will object to being killed. On the other hand, if its future prospects are so bleak that its action utility is lower than the value corresponding to death then under assumed consent it will not object to being killed. Only in this latter situation, in which a mother wishes to have mercy on a suffering infant that is beyond hope of being saved, would consensual utilitarianism recommend that the infant be killed. And this recommendation would be made only if the action utility of the infant was lower than the action utilities which the mother and her close friends and family would experience if the infant were killed. (The suffering of the mother is still taken into account, even though her consent is rejected.)

In the final chapter, I present some brief conclusions.

Return to the previous chapter.

Return to the table of contents.


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