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Contraception and Abortion:
A Utilitarian View

8. Objections Considered

University of Notre Dame students at March for Life, Washington, D.C. January 2013

This completes my systematic development of a tenable ethical view on the morality of contraception and abortion. In this section, I want to address the most significant objections to this view. A fundamental objection to viewing the morality of abortion in terms of a social population policy, as I have done, is that if one conceptus is replaceable with another conceptus, then there can be no utilitarian qualms about replacing one adult with one conceptus. If there happens to be an oversupply of conceptuses, the objection continues, then a utilitarian may countenance the selected killing of some mature persons in order to clear places for the extra conceptuses. A related objection to this one is that if a woman is not morally required to take into consideration the future utility of the conceptus in deciding whether or not to abort, then, in the same vein, the future utility of an adult cannot be a moral reason against killing him.

In dealing with these objections, I will begin by outlining why the killing of normal adult human beings is prohibited within a utilitarian ethical framework. Firstly, to kill an adult is to deprive him of his future happiness. Secondly, it will cause grief and suffering to those with whom he had enjoyed close personal relationships. The loss of individual utilities identified in these first two reasons will result in an overall substantive reduction in mixed utility.

Thirdly, a legal prohibition against the killing of adults (except in certain extraordinary cases) and supported by penal sanctions is a practical prerequisite for the continued existence of an ordered society. The absence of such a legal prohibition would result in a general feeling of acute uncertainty and insecurity. Consider some such law that allowed the exception that an adult can be legally killed by his fellow citizens if the killing results in a slightly higher net utility. A law that allowed such exceptions would fail the requirement that it promote a general feeling of security necessary for ordinary citizens to go about their day to day business, free from constant anxiety. A utilitarian law proscribing the killing of adults, therefore, must disallow these kinds of act-utilitarian defences and must allow the plea of mitigating circumstances in only the most exceptional cases. Hence, the rules in practice form of utilitarianism that I've advocated here accounts satisfactorily for the (mostly) deontic status of our strictures against the killing of adult human beings.

Book cover: A Defense of Abortion by David Boonin

As is now evident, on this form of utilitarianism, the objections to killing a normal adult do not apply to the killing of the conceptus. The third reason against the allowing of the killing of adults, that an absence of a prohibition against killing will spread fear and alarm throughout the community, cannot apply to conceptuses. This is because conceptuses cannot be alarmed at the lack of such a prohibition. It is only beings that understand the concept of death, by recognizing themselves as distinct entities with a past and a future, that can become anxious at the prospect of their future non-existence. This capacity for self-consciousness is only attained by the conceptus sometime after birth. Before the 18th week of pregnancy, the conceptus is not conscious at all. It is for this reason that non-self-conscious sentient beings are replaceable while self-conscious beings are not. A self-conscious being is able to suffer at the prospect of its future death. However, this is impossible for a non-self-conscious sentient being.

The second reason against killing adults, that it will cause grief and suffering to others, also does not apply to those conceptuses for which its host and partner prefer that it were aborted. The first reason against killing adults, that the killing will deprive the being of his future utility, has no direct application to the killing of the conceptus. The killing of an adult human being will result in a definite loss of mixed utility (excepting extraordinary circumstances), and therefore wrong. Under the scheme advocated here, however, the killing of a conceptus will not result in an identifiable loss of mixed utility. In fact, abortions performed under a well-formulated population policy, and for the type of act-utilitarian reasons discussed above, will increase mixed utility rather than decrease it.

These moral distinctions between the killing of an adult and the killing of a conceptus bring into focus the reasons why the killing of an adult cannot be compensated by the creation of a conceptus. In considering objections, I have also sought to clarify why a rules in practice utilitarian view does not countenance the killing of adults in the interests of maximizing mixed utility.

Copyright © 2015

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