Contraception and Abortion:
A Utilitarian View

1. Introduction

Citation Information

Allan, Leslie 2015. Contraception and Abortion: A Utilitarian View, URL = <>.

Prevention Park, largest Planned Parenthood administrative and medical facility in USA, located in Houston, Texas

There are very few ethical disputes that arouse the passion and bitterness of its protagonists as much as the abortion controversy. Conservatives steadfastly urge that the conceptus[1] has the same moral status as other human beings. In opposition, liberals just as vehemently make the counterclaim that the conceptus is not a human being, and so has correspondingly no or considerably less moral status.[2] The conceptus, it seems, is stuck in a no-man's land between contraception, which is generally regarded as morally permissible, and infanticide, which is equally generally considered as morally abhorrent. If the conceptus is akin with the germ cells (spermatozoa and ova) in not being a human being, then abortion is no more morally blameworthy than contraception. If the conceptus, on the other hand, is a human being, then to kill it is as morally repugnant as killing a newborn infant.

This dramatic polarization between the conservative camp and the liberal camp, centred as it is around the question of whether the conceptus is a human being, is, I hope to show, a much too simple approach to the abortion problem. Between conception and birth, the conceptus develops continuously from a single-celled microbe, comparable in complexity to an amoeba, to a multi-billion-celled, conscious organism that displays a complex relationship with its environment, and whose form and function is comparable to an adult human being. To attribute the same moral status to such a being in all of its various stages of development courts serious difficulties, as the extreme positions have demonstrated.

The conservatives' moral condemnation of a very early abortion performed on a minor pregnant due to rape is just as unconvincing as the liberals' claim that a very late abortion performed solely for the sake of avoiding a postponement of an overseas holiday is not morally questionable. These extreme positions are both unconvincing because they make the gaining of moral status an all or nothing affair which occurs at a single point in time during the gestation period. And this point is made to correspond to that stage at which the conceptus is believed to become a human being; either at conception or at birth.

It should not only strain our credulity to think that full moral status is gained in an instant during a long and complex process of development. Equally suspicious is the view that the property of being a human being simpliciter is sufficient for being accorded such status. Why should there be a general prohibition against killing human beings, but not against members of other species? The conservative and liberal alike, in their passionate attacks on the opposing side's belief that the conceptus is or is not a human being, have failed to address the question of why this property is morally relevant at all to the morality of killing.

What is needed is an approach to the abortion problem that recognizes these biological and conceptual complexities. In the course of this essay, I hope to develop such an approach. In the next section, I will continue and complete the task of outlining the central theoretical difficulties faced by the traditional views. I will do this in order that we may better appreciate the mistakes that need to be avoided.


  1. [1] In this essay, I will refer to the zygote, embryo and foetus by the general term, 'conceptus'.
  2. [2] For the purposes of this essay, (a) 'moral status' may be defined operationally as: x has the same moral status as y iff x is the subject of the same obligations as y, and (b) a normal adult human being is the paradigm case of a being with full moral status.

Copyright © 2015

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