Many pro-choice advocates maintain that, though abortions should be permissible, they are regrettable nonetheless. For instance, Bill Clinton famously said that he wanted to keep abortions "safe, legal and rare." I don't understand this view. To my mind, whether abortion is immoral turns on the question of whether a fetus is a person with a right to life. But this seems a clear dichotomy--either fetuses have such a right, or they don't. If they do, then abortion is immoral. If they don't, then not only should abortion be permitted, but there is nothing objectionable about them at all. Indeed, it is every bit as innocuous as using condoms. Sometimes I think that what is happening is that people who advocate this position are still captive to some kind of residual pro-life sentiment. They believe that abortions should be permissible, but they can't shake the feeling that they are still, somehow, a bad thing. (And not just because of circumstantial considerations, such as that women who need abortions are often poor or otherwise disadvantaged, or that mothers who choose abortion may come to regret her decision; but because abortions are themselves are bad.) Assuming that abortions are indeed morally permissible, what is there that could make them regrettable?

It could be, as Gene Outka, has argued that we have a false dichotomy here. A fetus is neither a person or nor an inanimate object but a unique kind of entity. It is not an object and neither does it have the rights of a person.

Either way, I don't see any problem with holding that abortion should be permissible and at the same time believing that abortions are sad events. Many believe that was is sometimes justified and yet regrettable. What is there to regret in an abortion? Ending a life that is something more than a pure potential. Indeed, I would argue that when the day comes that having an abortion is akin to having a tooth extracted, we'll be in bad shape, we'll have lost a sense of the sacred. Of course, there are many who believe that losing that sense makes sense but I would beg to differ.

You slide too easily from "ought to be legal" (which is what Clinton was saying) to "is morally permissible" to "is not regrettable". Neither of these transitions is valid.

The problem with each transition can best be brought out by example. There are strong reasons for insisting that the expression of beliefs about scientific matters should be legal even when these beliefs are idiotic. So we strongly believe that people should be legally free to express the beliefs that there is no global warming, that global warming is not caused by human beings, that the members of certain races have inferior intelligence, that women have less native ability to deal with numbers, and so on. Expressing such beliefs is hurtful and damaging to social relations, and expressing such beliefs carelessly is therefore morally wrong/impermissible, at least in many cases -- and ought nevertheless not be criminalized. Similarly, it is often morally wrong to lie to your spouse; and yet we have good reason not to outlaw such lies (we'd clog up the court system, for one thing, and encourage intolerable police snooping, for another). And similarly for abortion as well. There are strong moral reasons for wanting first-trimester abortions to be legal which have nothing to do with its moral permissibility: criminalization may produce quackery and extortion, with many women maimed, blackmailed or imprisoned for long periods, and great misery therebybeing inflicted also upon their (partly innocent) families even while the abortion rate is only slightly reduced below what it would be ifabortion were legal.

Many things are morally permissible and yet morally regrettable. For example, it is morally permissible to break the speed limit to rush a heart attack victim to the hospital even while it is also regrettable that such speeding endangers pedestrians. Moral permissibility here shows merely that the moral reasons against the behavior in question are not strong enough to overcome the reasons for moral permissibility. It does not show that there are no moral reasons against the behavior, that the behavior is not regrettable in some respects.

The problems with the two transitions do not show, of course, that some abortions that ought to be legal nonetheless are morally regrettable. But consider this thought. Most people favor outlawing abortions in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy because they take such abortions to be morally impermissible: they believe that, as a pregnancy progresses, the moral reasons against abortion become stronger and, by the second trimester, strong enough to overcome the reasons for legally permitting an abortion. If this standard view of a gradual strengthening of the moral reasons against abortion is right, then it would seem that there is a period in pregnancy during which there are moral reasons against aborting the fetus which are not strong enough to overcome the reasons against holding abortion morally impermissible. This is a period during which there already are moral reasons against abortion (abortion is already morally regrettable), but these moral reasons are not yet strong enough to overcome the reasons in favor of moral permissibility. So, the standard view on abortion suggest that, as a pregnancy progresses, moral reasons against abortion commence at some point during the first trimester, become strong enough to overcome the reasons for moral permissibility at some later point and then strong enough to overcome the reasons against criminalization at some even later point in time. This suggestion looks indeed compelling if you believe -- with Clinton and most in the US -- that late abortions are morally wrong and wrong enough to demand criminalization.

My colleagues have answered in a very thorough way - and I hesitate to add anything accept this: women's voices are important in this discussion and thus I will add mine. I can't speak for all women and I do not deny that men are affected by abortion. Men, however, can never undergo the procedure - only women can. This does not preclude insightful reflection from anyone, male or female, but it is striking to me that one often speaks of abortion as being only about the status of the fetus and not an issue that affects the woman who is considering the question.

Why is this important? In my view, there are many morally regrettable moments in a person's life - some of which involve difficult decisions and many choices involve regret. Why would a woman choose to terminate a pregnancy? Do we imagine that women (generally) do not take this to be a morally charged decision? For some, the moral clarity about abortion as a wrong action will preclude them from making that choice. Other women discover to their dismay that they hold conflicting views: the belief that abortion is wrong and yet they choose to terminate their pregnancy anyway. Does this mean these women lack a proper moral compass? Or is there something much more complex going on? Morality is always clearest in the abstract, and I would opine that in the abstract, abortion is morally wrong. But do we account for morally serious persons assenting to abortion? Perhaps we need to ask. Moral imagination is hampered when we fail to consider such questions.

Take, for example, Ohio state legislator Jim Buchy. He believes all abortions should be illegal and does everything in his power to work toward legislation that would prohibit all abortions in all circumstances. In an amazing interview he is asked what he believes is a reason why women choose abortions and he suggests economic factors, but eventually he is flummoxed. He admits he never asked the question before and, not being a woman, recognizes he has no idea why a woman might choose to end their pregnancy. [Originally from a reporter for Al Jazeera, the brief clip of this exchange may may be seen at:]

Perhaps listening to the lived experience and moral reasoning of women on this sensitive subject will lead to better discernment for women and men


Thanks to everyone for their contributions, and especially to Bette for reminding us of the importance of hearing women's voices on such topics. I'll add one more point, along the same lines.

The questioner says that, if a fetus has a right to life, then abortion is immoral and should not be permitted; if not, then it isn't immoral and should. But surely this is wrong. I have a right to free speech, but it does not mean that I have the right to cry "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Other people have rights, too, and their rights can sometimes out-weigh mine.

The same is true in the case of abortion. The mere fact that the fetus has a right to life is compatible with a pregnant woman's having other rights that might out-weigh the fetus's right to life in some cases. For example, the woman herself has a right to life, and I for one have a very hard time seeing why that right should not trump the fetus's similar right if the pregnancy is endangering the women's life. Similarly, a woman has a right not to be made pregnant against her will, and it is the central point of Judith Jarvis Thomson's classic paper "A Defense of Abortion" that, when that right is violated, then, even if the fetus brought thus into being does have a right to life, even one as strong as that of the mother's (a claim Thomson concedes for the sake of argument), that fact does not make aborting that fetus impermissible. Thomson's argument for this claim has always struck me as absolutely compelling. But if so, then abortion is morally permissible at least when the life of the mother is threatened or in cases of rape, and that means that the mere fact that a fetus has a right to life does not make abortion morally impermissible.

That said, if the fetus does have a right to life, that might well imply that abortion, even in cases where it is morally permissible, nonetheless has moral costs or is morally regrettable. And, as Thomas Pogge has so ably argued above, there is nothing unusual about that.

The difficult question is what rights women have in this regard, and how those rights interact with whatever rights the fetus has. Are there other cases in which a woman's rights might outweigh the fetus's? Are unintended pregnancies such a case? Does it matter if the woman and her partner were responsibly using birth control, which failed (as sometimes happens), or were being irresponsible and simply ignoring the possibility of pregnancy? These are all good questions, even if, as I'd be inclined to argue, abortion's being morally impermissible in some such cases does not imply that it ought to be illegal. (I really do not want courts trying to make such fine distinctions under severe time pressures.)

But we can't even have this kind of discussion until we recognize that simply saying "The fetus has a right to life!" doesn't end it. It only begins it, because the women carrying these fetuses have rights of their own. It is because so-called "pro-life" advocates flatly refuse to recognize this fact that they continue to be vulnerable to the charge of sexism and, frankly, to have no decent response to that charge.

All of that said, I'll close by expressing what I think is agreement with Bette. I often find myself unsure whether the language of rights is really appropriate to the evaluation of such a profoundly personal decision. Might it not in some cases be a loving though still fraught decision to choose not to bring a child into the world, made in the full light of consideration of that child's prospects for health and happiness, even once his or her development has begun? A difficult, even heart-breaking, decision that a mother makes on behalf of her child, just as parents often are called upon to make hard decisions on behalf of their children? I have heard women describe their choices in terms not unlike those, but only rarely does one hear anything along those lines in our public conversation. Why not? Because women's experience is excluded from that conversation. That's why.

Try this account, written by a woman who got pregnant because of rape, if you want to start listening to the unheard.

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