Utilitarianism and Abortion

Philosophy - Utilitarianism & Abortion


Utilitarianism is often criticized as a moral theory because rights are conditional, i.e., they are respected only as long as doing so does not conflict with "the greatest good for the greatest number." Just for this reason, many expect utilitarians to be relatively permissive about access to abortion. Do you agree? Justify your answer by drawing on the views of Callahan, Sumner, and Wertheimer. Yes. From the utilitarian perspective, what matters most is the outcome of moral choices. In general, even if the particular act under consideration violates some objective right or moral principle, that act is justified nevertheless, if its outcome is beneficial to more people than it is harmful.

Wertheimer points out that abortion is neither factually right nor wrong in and of itself, but only takes on moral significance by virtue of how one responds to the problem.

Similarly, Sumner suggests that the moral problem of abortion is as much a matter of social policy and politics as it is a matter of personal considerations. In his view, abortion must be viewed in relation to the social implications of the relative cost to society and to other individuals in addition to consideration from the perspective of the woman or the fetus. Callahan also emphasizes that the moral implications of abortion must incorporate consideration for the individual rights and best interests of the woman.

According to Callahan, the position of the Catholic Church ignores those issues and conceives of the moral issues as limited to the well-being of the fetus. Furthermore, the Catholic position is not predicated on the rights of the fetus either, but on the supposed sanctity of its life as an incarnation of God the Creator. In this respect,

Callahan strongly favors a utilitarian analysis that would evaluate the morality of abortion on the circumstances of the pregnancy, the well-being of the mother, and the ratio of benefit to harm caused to others instead of being dictated by an a priori rule against all forms and justifications for abortion on principle. In general, a utilitarian analysis would consider the interests of everyone affected by the prospective abortion, including the mother, the family, and society as a whole, in addition to the affect of the decision on the fetus. From the utilitarian perspective, a newly fertilized human ovum (or zygote) would probably not be entitled to any consideration before developing sufficiently to be capable of experiencing discomfort, pain, and, more generally, sentience.

Prior to this stage, the utilitarian position on abortion would likely be that one has no greater moral duty to preserve a newly fertilized zygote than one has any moral duty to create a pregnancy in the first place. By contrast, the Catholic Church (among others) views the moral obligation to any fertilized human embryo as inherent as of the moment of conception, rather than as a function of any comparison of relative rights, harms, or benefits. Likewise, this religious point-of-view conflicts with utilitarian values in that it promotes the supposed moral obligation to conceive over the choice not to conceive at all.

Based on what you have written above, indicate what position you think a utilitarian should take in any two of the following situations and explain why: a. A woman seeking a late abortion because the fetus has a major birth defect; b. A teenager seeking an early abortion due to an unintended pregnancy; c. A young woman seeking to terminate a pregnancy resulting from a rape. In the case of the woman seeking abortion because the fetus has a major birth defect, the utilitarian point-of-view would consider the full range of benefits and harms to the fetus, the mother, the family, and to society as a whole. Whereas…