Challenges to Ethical Thinking about Abortion

Ethical debates about abortion tend to circle around questions of the rights of women and the status of the embryo and foetus. Debates are also marked by powerfully divergent views on these issues, with strong religious arguments against abortion and strong libertarian arguments for a woman’s right to choose. Both positions tend to be focussed not simply on the specific act of abortion, but also by a view of the world that should be. For libertarians, the world should be a place in which women are not discriminated against and not denied access to family planning clinics and the full range of possible services. A world which criminalises abortion necessarily leads to women being unfairly treated by being forced to bear the children of rape, being forced out of careers and so on. For religious conservatives who object to abortion on absolute moral grounds, they also argue for a world in which women who have children out of wedlock are supported and not discriminated against in conservative societies, where unwanted babies can be easily adopted, and where back street and dangerous abortions would not need to happen.

Both sides have a vision of the world that is not a mirror of the world as it is, but rather a world they want to work towards. When the ethical question is translated into a question of public policy, in other worlds what laws we should have and how people will respond to the situation, the rather unpredictable dimensions of politics and human psychology come into play. This seems to be the case in recent research published in The Lancet which found that there was a link between higher abortion rates and more restrictive legislation. Abortion rates were lowest in Western Europe, at 12 per 1,000, and highest in Eastern Europe, at 43 per 1,000. Western Europe is more liberal and secularised and Eastern Europe more socially conservative and religious. The research does not explain why these differences are there but it presents a challenge for those who want to reduce the number of abortions. Is it better to argue for more restrictive legislation that better reflects your moral position, if that in turn leads to higher actual rates of abortion, through the back street illegal abortion market? Additionally it is these kinds of abortions that are more likely to lead to the death of the mother. In 2008, 47,000 women died from unsafe abortions and 8.5 million had serious medical complications.

Of course religious conservatives do not want women to die of unsafe abortions and of course they want lower rates of abortion. If the research is accurate it leaves us with a challenging question. What is the best public policy – the best set of laws? Is it the one that leads to the least number of actual abortions or the one that best reflects the moral view that abortion is wrong? Of course it might be that the long term moral battle is to take steps towards the better world and so short term statistics are not helpful, but long term trends more important. It might be that in going for the more conservative moral legal situation, there may be higher abortion rates in the short term but in the long term there is a better chance of society becoming the kind of place that does not require those rates.

Questions to consider
1) Should moral conservatives who oppose abortion, support liberal and permissive laws if it can be shown these in fact reduce the number of abortions?
2) Should ethicists focus on the current picture of human behaviour or plan to build towards the kind of world they want in the future, even if in the short term there are serious negative consequences?

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