Ethical Theories and Abortion Issues
In contemporary American society, elective abortion remains one of the most controversial political, social, and moral issues. While the debate is often reduced to matters of religious belief, the issues are also addressable through purely secular ethical concepts. In that regard, the deontological, utilitarian, and virtue-based ethical perspectives may yield very different answers to the underlying moral question of terminating pregnancy. However, in many respects, each philosophical view is also capable of supporting more than one answer, depending on the assumptions and definitions used in the analysis.
All three perspectives provide specific considerations that are helpful to identifying the most important issues for moral consideration, but in that regard, a comprehensive objective approach to human morality may actually require incorporating elements of more than any single moral perspective alone. Ultimately, what may be much more important than the choice of moral perspective applied are the initial definitions and assumptions in relation to those issues, because in many cases, they determine the outcome of any objective moral analysis.
Deontological Abortion Considerations:
In general, the deontological perspective emphasizes the role of moral duty and the motivation for various human behaviors. One of the principal deontological arguments against elective abortions is the religious belief that life begins at conception and that because human life is in the image of God, it is necessarily sacred from the instant of conception. According to that Divine Command form of deontological ethics, the divine origin and nature of human life and the relationship between man and God
creates an absolute moral duty to preserve human life (Dershowitz, 2002 p90). In that
application of deontological concepts, the source of the moral duty to protect the unborn fetus in the womb (or even a zygote in a Petri dish) derives directly from God.
In fact, there may be little better illustration of the importance of the initial assumptions with respect to the outcome of moral dilemmas than this particular form of deontology. Specifically, it is only the a priori definition of human life as (1) having been created by and in the form of "God" and (2) as beginning at conception that determines the outcome of the moral issue of abortion whether by deontological analysis or by other philosophical perspectives. Obviously, without those two specific beliefs as initial assumptions, it is impossible to object to abortion on deontological grounds without alternative assumptions that establish the moral principle violated by abortion.
Kant might also prohibit abortion under his deontological formalism (Dershowitz,
2002 p94), based on the notion that human reason alone is sufficient to value the protection of life over elective choices of individual convenience, although that outcome would depend entirely on the underlying assumptions and definitions of values. For example, the objective application of human reason to the issue might propose that the concept of consciousness is the basis of moral objection to abortion beyond the point of fetal consciousness but not where abortion is performed prior to that phase of fetal development.
Alternatively, objective deontological ethical concern might emphasize the significance of fetal viability defined as the point of gestation beyond which the fetus is capable of independent survival outside the womb. Finally, objective deontological ethics could define sentience as the basis for moral objection to abortion, at least without the use of anesthesia to eliminate any pain experienced by the fetus during the process.
Therefore, both Kantian deontological formalism and divine command can provide different moral determinations based on the initial assumptions that generate a perceived moral duty and that define the moral character of volitional choices.
Kantian formalism also differs fundamentally from divine command because it is capable of producing a much wider range of results based purely on the initial assumptions. For example, whereas secular formalism might condemn the use of abortion purely for convenience as a method of retroactive birth control, it might support the use of abortion to prevent the suffering of a fetus known to be defective in such a manner as would be likely to cause physical pain and suffering.
To whatever extent the (same) decision to procure an elective abortion is
motivated out of concern for the fetus, Kantian deontological formalism would consider it a virtuous moral act rather than a moral violation. Conversely, to whatever extent the (same) decision is reached out of selfish and superficial concerns of the…