The Wrong of Abortion

In Andrew I. Cohen and Christopher H. Wellman (eds.), Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics (Blackwell Publishers, 2005), with Patrick Lee. Reprinted in Carol Levine (ed.), Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Bioethical Issues, 11th edition (McGraw-Hill Publishers, 2006).

Much of the public debate about abortion concerns the question whether deliberate feticide ought to be unlawful, at least in most circumstances. We will lay that question aside here in order to focus first on the question: is the choice to have, to perform, or to help procure an abortion morally wrong?

We shall argue that the choice of abortion is objectively immoral. By “objectively” we indicate that we are discussing the choice itself, not the (subjective) guilt or innocence of someone who carries out the choice: someone may act from an erroneous conscience, and if he is not at fault for his error, then he remains subjectively innocent, even if his choice is objectively wrongful.

The first important question to consider is: what is killed in an abortion? It is obvious that some living entity is killed in an abortion. And no one doubts that the moral status of the entity killed is a central (though not the only) question in the abortion debate. We shall approach the issue step by step, first setting forth some (though not all) of the evidence that demonstrates that what is killed in abortion – a human embryo – is indeed a human being, then examining the ethical significance of that point.

Blackwell Publishing [pdf]