Contraception and Abortion:
A Utilitarian View

7. Contraception and Abortion

7.1 Rules in Practice Considerations

Using Australia as an example, I have now given in outline how an optimum population size and growth rate ought to be calculated on utilitarian grounds. The policy developers in each country will need to decide the optimum population size and growth rate for their own communities. Where policies are successfully developed, law-makers should enact laws to regulate births in relation to their country's rate of deaths, immigration and emigration, or to fine-tune their existing laws. This legal framework constitutes the rules in practice utilitarian justification for communal decisions on contraception and abortion social practices.

The establishment and maintenance of such a regulative mechanism is all the more critical in countries suffering from population explosion. In these countries, the preferred family planning choices of the individual citizen, considered in isolation, may be counterproductive to the community's interest. For example, many citizens of these nations perceive that because many children die prematurely from malnutrition and disease, it is in their own interests to bear as many children as possible in order to guarantee that they will be cared for in old age. However, such reproductive practices deplete the already severely limited food and medical resources.

Book cover: The Ethics of Abortion by Robert M. Baird and Stuart E. Rosenbaum

Ignoring the regulation of births in this situation has the same kind of deleterious consequences as not instituting a practice of rationing in times of severe water shortage. Here, individuals behaving according to act-utilitarian principles quickly diminish overall utility as the valuable resource rapidly runs out. What is required in both these scenarios is a regulated social practice that serves to co-ordinate social behaviour and limit act-utilitarian rationales.

It is important to note here that for countries with depleted populations now or in the future, prohibiting abortions with the aim of increasing population size will incur significant negative social consequences. Studies by Donohue and Levitt [2001][25] and Reyes [2007] have shown that a comprehensive restriction on abortion practices within a state leads to considerably higher crime rates. Forcing women with unwanted pregnancies to go to term should be seen as a last option after all other policy options that aim to encourage woman to conceive voluntarily have been exhausted.

In my own country, optimum population growth can be achieved, or nearly achieved, by simply allowing women, in concert with their partners, to determine for themselves whether they will bear children or not. I am making the important assumption here that the combined effect of the death rate (including infant mortality), immigration and emigration balances or is slightly less than the rate of uncoerced births. With that proviso, mixed utility can be maximized in this country through a suite of policies that include granting women an unrestricted legal right to procreate. This policy allows them to act in accordance with how they perceive their own interests to be, as opposed to constrains their choices with coercive regulative laws.

If, perchance, Australia's growth rate were not optimal, fine-tuning could be achieved through socio-economic incentives. For example, growth rate may be increased by offering higher tax rebates for dependent children or free child care. Conversely, growth rate could be decreased by offering free contraceptive medical procedures or return-to-work tax incentives for women. Such policies, which retain a woman's autonomy, would result in a higher mixed utility compared with legally coercing women to carry through an unwanted pregnancy or compelling them to undergo an abortion against their wishes.

These policy options illustrate the fact that the mixed utility resulting from a particular population policy is not simply a function of the number of births performed or prevented, but also of the type of policy. For any targeted population growth, a policy that expands the range of people's choices by eliminating socio-economic barriers will result in a higher mixed utility compared with a policy that restricts the range of choices by imposing socio-economic sanctions or loss of other liberties. Coercive measures need only be seriously considered in those situations of severe under-population or overpopulation. Even here, though, they should only be contemplated when all other less coercive policies have little chance of succeeding.

In my own country of Australia, then, a liberal contraception and abortion policy seems indicated. This policy is favourable just so long as it is practicable to weigh the aggregate of prevented conceptions and performed abortions against the number of conceptions leading to birth. If the government is able to maximize mixed utility by allowing for the abortion of one conceptus while providing an incentive for or removing barriers to the conception of another, then this ought to be done.

Applying the mixed utility maximizing principle and the utilitarian principle of impartiality, the utility of the former conceptus can count for neither more nor less than the utility of the latter conceptus in our maximizing of mixed utility. To discriminate on the basis that the former conceptus exists now while the latter will exist only at some time in the future is to abandon the principle of impartiality. As we have seen, rejecting this principle leads to discrimination on the basis of morally irrelevant characteristics. In this case, its abandonment entails that we have no obligations to future generations in preserving, say, natural resources, just because they do not exist now but will exist only at some time in the future. The time at which a being exists can be no more relevant to the consideration of its interests than its race, gender or species.

Although conceptuses are in this sense replaceable, it is unnecessary and unhelpful to speak in literal terms, as if this particular conceptus is replacing that particular conceptus. A population policy, such as the one I have been advocating for Australia, deals with the balancing of many thousands of births with many thousands of abortions. In heavily populated countries, the numbers involved run into the millions. It also makes little sense, then, to speak of the abortion of one conceptus being replaced by the conception of some future conceptus. There is no particular conceptus that one could point to and say, 'Here is its replacement'. The balancing of abortions with live births to achieve the required population growth rate will be calculated using gross numbers and not be done on a case by case basis.

The second point to note is that a population policy cannot be expected to aim for an exact growth rate and population level because of the practical uncertainties involved in determining such optimum values. Even if it were possible to calculate such exact values, with the type of policy that I advocate for Australia, it would be impossible to predict the exact growth rates and population levels resulting from the application of any given detailed policy. For these reasons, a population policy can only be expected to maintain growth rates and population levels within a certain accepted margin of uncertainty.

What these reflections amount to is that a woman contemplating an abortion ought not be concerned with whether her particular abortion will result in a direct replacement with another conceptus and what the effect will be on the country's growth rate and population level. These are properly the concerns of the policy makers at the macro-level.

Book cover: Practical Ethics by Peter Singer

In his Practical Ethics, Professor Peter Singer [1979a: ch. 5] has argued for the need for an identifiable replacement once the conceptus reaches a level of basic consciousness during its gestational development. At this point, the conceptus has the capacity to feel pain, although it is not self-conscious. In applying his replaceability[26] thesis to non-self-conscious sentient beings, he writes as if the killing of the conscious foetus can only be morally justified if its replacement can be explicitly identified. So, in his discussion of the killing of a defective infant whose life, none the less, is still worth living, Singer [1979a: 134] asks if the killing of the defective infant will motivate his parents to have another child whom they would not have had if the defective infant continued to live. This same question applies to the aborting of a normal sentient foetus. In either case, why should it matter whether this woman will replace her aborted foetus?

Consider the example of a pregnant woman whose husband has died some time after her foetus has gained sentience and now, understandably, wishes to terminate the pregnancy with no intention of producing more children. Or take another case of a rape victim who changes her mind late in pregnancy and decides against giving her baby up for adoption because of the enormous psychological burden she would incur. Singer's version of the replaceability thesis entails that these cases of abortion could not be morally permissible because the women involved would not replace their foetuses at some later date, or because, for the less stringent reason, the replacement foetuses cannot be explicitly identified.

Paradoxically, Singer's replaceability thesis would, however, allow a late-term abortion for the trivial reason that the woman wished to postpone the demands of pregnancy until after her summer vacation. Singer's version faces this difficulty because he had adopted a 'total' view for non-self-conscious beings, in which the total utility of these beings must be rigorously maintained or increased when one of them is deliberately killed. For Singer, this rigour can only be satisfied by guaranteeing an identifiable replacement. I think that by adopting the 'mixed' view advocated here and placing the problem of abortion within the context of a population policy, these paradoxical conclusions can be avoided.

On this view, a woman contemplating contraception or abortion is not morally bound to consider the future utility of the possible or actual conceptus expected to lead a normal happy life. This utility is already accounted for in the social population policy. So, the population policy has the explicit effect of rendering morally irrelevant the potential utility of the conceptus in the woman's personal deliberation over contraception or abortion. Even though the population policy grants the woman her legal right to contraception and abortion, whether these acts are moral or immoral in particular cases will depend on act-utilitarian considerations. What is characteristic of the 'mixed' view advocated here is that these act-utilitarian considerations at the level of individual decisions will not include the future utility of the normal conceptus in the calculus. On the other hand, if the conceptus is or will be defective, then, as I shall argue below, the future utility of the conceptus will be relevant in determining the moral status of contraception and abortion in particular cases.

The view that I advocate can now be seen to be both liberal and strict in certain respects. It is liberal in that it allows the woman, in concert with her partner and existing family, her autonomy in choosing whether or not to become pregnant or to carry her pregnancy to term. But, at the same time, it is strict in insisting on our communal responsibility for achieving an optimum growth rate and population level. The 'prior existence' view safeguards the woman's autonomy to some degree, but at the expense of denying our obligation to create new beings.


  1. [25] For a reply to critics, see Donohue and Levitt [2006].
  2. [26] Singer argues for the replaceability thesis for non-self-conscious beings in his [1979a: 102f].

Copyright © 2015

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