Do Mothers Have A Duty Not To Abort?


When a mother falls pregnant you’ll often hear ‘you ought to do this’ or ‘you ought to do that’, and such statements can feel very demanding. But what about the most crucial statement of them all: ‘You ought not to abort’. Is this fair? Can we assign this duty to women? On close inspection, it seems not.

It has long been held by pro-life activists that mothers have some sort of duty not to abort when the fall pregnant. The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) have adamantly defended this position for decades, and called for stricter regulations on abortion; leading, eventually, to a law against abortion to be passed within the UK.

First, it helps, to clarify a definition. On the one hand you have a philosophical duty, say a Kantian moral duty (if you believe there are such things), towards a certain action. You, may, therefore have a duty not to murder your classmates or a duty not to sexually assault. Or, on the more positive side, you may have a duty to generally promote good character virtues like honesty or charity. It is not this type of moral duty we are dealing with here. Rather we are dealing with a defeasible duty that pro-life activists have wrongfully placed on expecting mothers. By a defeasible duty (a term coined by Southampton lecturer Fiona Woollard) we instead mean that you have a duty to do such an action unless there is some strong countervailing reason. In general, for example, you may feel you have a defeasible duty not to lie, unless a strong countervailing reason be presented too you (like an axe murderer knocking at your door asking where your children are hidden). SPUC, even though they may claim an indefeasible duty is present, seem to defend this position against-abortion. They claim that mothers have a defeasible duty not to abort minus this strong countervailing reason, i.e. that the pregnancy was a result of rape, or that the mother’s life is in physical danger.

It is this defeasible duty, however, that is unfairly pushed upon women. This is not to encourage abortion at all, but rather to say it is not necessary that legislation or a moral campaign be launched to minimise it, as opponents to this view suggest. To do this is to wrongfully apply a defeasible duty where one should not exist. Imagine I proposed a defeasible duty that, against your will, I declared that you must have 12 bags of sugar taped to your stomach for the next month. How many volunteers will step forward? Infact, it is even worse, how many of the people who have declared they do not want the sugar would be happy to then be forced to have it? The reality is that many women do not expect to fall pregnant, or contraception can fail, and the statement ‘you had sex, so should now deal with the consequences’ is not only patronising but demeaning. Just because a women has had sex she has signed no contract that will assign her a duty in the situation that she does fall pregnant. This is not the 19th century anymore. Furthermore, duty (broadly speaking) links with obligation and there is no reason to believe that women should be obligated to follow through with pregnancies, or – that if they do not – they should be looked down upon from a moral perspective (as you would be if you broke the general moral obligation not to steal).

Another important pivot, which pro-life activists often slander or put down, is the importance of pro-choice. Activists will say that the choice is abandoned at the expense of the other life. But how, and why, are they allowed to make this claim? Let’s give another example: would we find it suitable to torture someone if it would save the life of someone else? It’s a similar case where we use the body of someone else for the life of another. Some people may be fine with this, but I can imagine a great proportion would have some ethical or moral questions. In short, if a mother does not want a child, by forcing her to keep it we are reducing her Sanctity – and Quality – of life and using her as a mere means to the life of another which, as shown by the torturer analogy, seems morally flawed (to the say the least). There are plenty more arguments that can be made against abortion in this fashion, and I would suggest that those interested read recent works by the like of Judith Jardis Thompson whose 1971 essay ‘A Defence of Abortion’ appeals to pro-choice on the grounds of one’s right to their own body. It’s important to note that I detract from the personhood debate here quite intentionally, as it has become fallaciously assumed that this solves the abortion debate. Instead, as we have seen, even if personhood is assumed of a foetus that is not enough to assign a defeasible duty; infact, if there were no personhood at this stage that would just be yet another fatal blow for the likes of the SPUC.

Ronald Reegan once declared that ‘it seems funny that anyone pro-abortion has already been born’, and it is this quote you’ll find plastered over much pro-life activist material, including that of the SPUC. This quote just highlights the ignorance of the opposition. Firstly, it takes a serious issue to an unfair sarcastic level; it would be like me saying ‘It seems funny that no one pro-death penalty has ever been killed’. It’s not only a flawed, but also a rather amateur argument. In fact, it looks bad on an organisation that does its best to present itself as professional. You do not need a philosopher or logician to tell you why such an argument is fundamentally flawed. It equally seems funny that most pro-abortion activists are men; white middle-classed men with money to make from such a project. I wouldn’t rely on such an argument, but this is the reality.

So what conclusions should we draw? Well, I think they are quite clear. The first is that there is no reason to restrict abortion law in this country, compared to what it currently stands (which, itself, ensures a good and fair reason for abortion). If we do introduce new measures or illegalise it then we assign mothers defeasible duties which just can’t be defended from a number of positions, including pro-choice arguments and general considerations of the nature of duty. So, mothers do not have a defeasible duty not to abort; I will not encourage it but equally I will not put moral blame on those women who decide it is the correct option for them.

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I'm a third-year Philosophy and History student whose interests (outside my love for Tudor history) pertain to issues on equality, sex and moral ethics and education. I'm also Philosophy Academic President 2016-17. @russb005

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