Contraception and Abortion:
A Utilitarian View

7. Contraception and Abortion

7.2 Act-utilitarian Considerations

I now want to go on and suggest how certain act-utilitarian considerations come into play in deciding whether to conceive or abort a conceptus that is expected to be normal. Below, I will go on to consider the case in which the conceptus is or is expected to be defective. I have argued that in a developed country such as Australia, a utilitarian population policy would grant women the liberty of deciding whether to become pregnant and whether to terminate a pregnancy already in progress. As I will argue here, such a liberty also needs to be exercised with restraint. Although a woman contemplating conception or abortion would not be morally obligated to consider the potential utility of the normal conceptus, she would, none the less, remain bound by her moral obligations to others.

The situation bears similarity to our monetary institutions, such as banks, stock markets, note printers and the like. These institutions contribute to the maximization of social utility. They constitute, for example, a far more efficient system for the transaction of goods than other systems, such as the direct barter system. However, they are only able to do this by granting citizens the liberty (within certain limits) to spend and invest their money in accordance with how they perceive their own interests to be. As this complex of financial systems has utilitarian warrant, each citizen is relieved of deciding how this particular purchase or that investment will impact the financial system in toto. None the less, individuals remain morally bound to spend and invest their money in a way that will maximize utility for the people impacted by the particular financial act.

Book cover: Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice by Francis J. Beckwith

The woman contemplating conception or abortion, likewise, would be required to balance her interests against the interests of others. She would have to consider how having a baby would affect her partner and her other children, if she had any. Would having a baby allow her to fulfil her previous commitments? How would having an abortion affect her relationship with her partner? Could she cope with giving the baby up for adoption?, and so on. The theory that I advocate is sufficiently complex to take seriously the interests of all parties in determining the moral status of particular acts of contraception and abortion. The potential utility of the conceptus is given due weight (by means of the population policy), along with the utilities of the woman, her family, and any other parties involved. This is in sharp contrast to the narrow solutions offered by the traditional approaches.

For cases in which the conceptus is, or will be expected to be, defective in some way, the above act-utilitarian considerations also apply. Such cases of deformed conceptuses, however, require additional and special consideration. Here, the future utility of the conceptus is also directly morally relevant in determining the moral status of these particular cases of contraception and abortion.

I will first consider cases in which the actual or possible conceptus will suffer such gross deformities that its future life will not be worth living. The conception or continued existence of such a being will result, of itself, in a definite decrease in mixed utility. The sufferings of the parents, other children and family members, and so on, potentially also diminish mixed utility. A prudent utilitarian population policy will not encourage its continued existence. In addition, act-utilitarian considerations dictate that its existence ought to be terminated for its own sake.

An exception to this is where the prospective parents would suffer such deep and long-lasting distress at its death as to outweigh the gain in mixed utility resulting from its being aborted. For this reason, there ought to be no legal compulsion in terminating the lives of such conceptuses. Instead, it should be left up to the decision of the prospective parents involved. In some cases, such heartrending decisions may have been avoided by effective genetic counselling prior to conception. Such counselling ought to be encouraged by social policy and possibly publicly funded for families known to be at risk.

The second type of case concerns actual or possible conceptuses that suffer from some defect, where this defect is not so severe as to rob the future human being of a happy life. None the less, the existence of the defect makes it probable that its life will not be as happy as a normal human being. Since the life of such a being is likely to be happy to some extent, if the mother is unable to give birth to a normal baby at some time in the future (say, because one parent carries a defective gene), then the moral status of its conception or abortion will be dependent on the above act-utilitarian considerations that apply to normal conceptuses.

If, however, the mother is capable of delivering a normal baby, the moral considerations are different. The mixed utility resulting from the birth of a normal baby will most probably be higher than that resulting from the birth of a defective baby, assuming that the parents will not suffer excessively from the aborting of the defective conceptus. On act-utilitarian grounds, and in accord with the replaceability thesis, the potential parents are morally obligated in this case to abort the defective conceptus and try again for a normal conceptus.

If, on the other hand, the prospective parents will suffer excessively at the death of the conceptus, abortion is not morally obligatory. Once again, the decision to abort or not to abort ought to be left to the prospective parents and not be determined by legislative fiat. For utilitarian reasons, the government ought to provide a free counselling service for all prospective parents in such unfortunate circumstances. Such counselling will serve to fully inform the prospective parents of the possibilities open to them and give them the opportunity to discuss their personal problems.

Book cover: Killing and Letting Die by Bonnie Steinbock

The view advocated here for countries such as Australia does not licence people doing whatever they want with conceptuses. Far from it. The social practice or laws regulating the population level only grant women the liberty of deciding whether to have an abortion or not. In the interests of maximizing mixed utility, laws and social mores ought to protect the welfare of conceptuses whose mothers intend to bring their pregnancies to term. A human being disadvantaged as the result of a harm incurred during pregnancy is likely to have less utility than if it had not been so harmed. So, although the future utility of a normal conceptus is not morally relevant in deciding whether to abort or not, all other actions pertinent to the pregnancy must be evaluated on an act-utilitarian basis if the intention is to carry the pregnancy to term.

Even if it is known that the pregnancy will not be carried to term, act-utilitarian considerations dictate that the life of the sentient foetus must be made as comfortable as possible for the duration of its existence. The neurophysiological evidence indicates that the conceptus develops a rudimentary level of sentience at no less than 18 weeks of gestation; sometime around the middle of the second trimester.[27]

Laws protecting the welfare of the sentient foetus ought to be enacted and enforced, excepting for those cases in which to do so would even further diminish social utility. Harmful actions that cannot be legally proscribed for this reason remain subject to the domain of personal morality. So, for example, to willingly engage in smoking or the drinking of alcohol, knowing that doing so will harm the future welfare of the foetus, is morally prohibited on act-utilitarian grounds, regardless of whether or not these acts are subject to legal prohibition.

I have argued that the ethics of abortion should be viewed in the context of a utilitarian population policy and so, in this respect, as a natural but significant extension of a utilitarian attitude to contraception. I want to stress that there are, none the less, important ethical distinctions between contraception and abortion. The distinctions are these. It is both imprudent and immoral to rely on abortion as a method of contraception, in ordinary circumstances. It is imprudent because the morbidity and mortality rates are higher for abortion at all phases of pregnancy compared with those for contraception. In addition, an abortion requires the expenditure of time by all parties involved that could be better spent in less stressful circumstances.

It is immoral because the resourcing and conducting of such abortions places an unnecessary burden on public revenue. Public hospitals and hospital staffs can be better utilized in the prevention and treatment of unavoidable illnesses. Also, some hospital staffs find attendance to abortions distasteful, especially those performed at a late stage of pregnancy. For the same reasons, once a woman decides to have an abortion, it is imprudent and immoral to delay it longer than is necessary. A late term abortion may also cause pain to the foetus, which can be avoided by termination at an earlier stage. In fact, governments seriously intent on maximizing the welfare of its citizens are committed to instituting a comprehensive public education programme on the benefits of effective contraception, coupled with an extensive sex education programme in schools.


  1. [27] The Use of Fetuses and Fetal Materials for Research 1972, chairman, Sir John Peel, London, and reported in Singer [1979a: 118, 227].

Copyright © 2015

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