Mary Warnock and the Right to Abortion

Mary Warnock has long defended a woman’s right to abortion. As a leading moral philosopher she has consistently engaged in debates about moral issues. While much moral philosophy became focused on the linguistics of morality, the meta-ethical questions of the meaning of moralterms, early in her career she tended towards a different approach. In her book Ethics Since 1900 (1960, Oxford University Press, Oxford) she made this clear. She wrote in her conclusion of the survey of the meta-ethics of the 20th century:

“One of the consequences of treating ethics as the analysis of ethical language is… that it leads to the increasing triviality of the subject. This is not a general criticism of linguistic analysis but only of this method applied to ethics. In ethics, alone among the branches of philosophical study, the subject matter is not so much the categories we use to describe or to learn about the world, as our own impact upon the world, our relation to other people and our attitude to our situation and our life.” (pp.202-203)

Her engagement in ethics is apparent from her recent contribution to the current abortion debate. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill is passing through Parliament and there is an effort to modify the bill in a way that will restrict abortion by lowering the legal limit to abortion from 24 weeks to 22 weeks, on the basis that babies over 22 weeks may survive birth. Warnock is opposed to any change in the law. She argues, in an article in the Observer newspaper (Sunday May 18th) that this should not happen for a number of reasons. It is likely that babies born will be brain damaged. It is also likely that women who want an abortion at that stage will simply do what they did before abortion was legal, and find other, probably unsafe backstreet solutions. She also argues that a law cannot be based on what is largely a religious belief.

If the argument is about vulnerable members of society then perhaps some justification can be found. If we think that abortion at 22 weeks is infanticide then, as a civilised society, we must prohibit it. There is something natural about trying to save the most vulnerable and surely 22 week old babies fall into this category. However, Warnock says we must consider the women:

“Many of them will be young and a significant number still of school age. Many will have refused to acknowledge that they were pregnant for as long as it was possible to deny it to themselves. Some may not have known they were pregnant. A combination of ignorance and fear, shame and hopelessness may have prevented their seeking either an abortion or support from their parents as the weeks went by. Some of them will, in any case, have left home and be living on the streets. Few will have any contact with the father of their baby; some may not even know who he is. … Whatever their precise circumstances, these mothers are in a desperate position. Most women deplore the need for even an early abortion, whether they regret it later or not. Few take the decision lightly. But this particular group of mothers is, most of all, to be pitied. They are the vulnerable ones.” (To read the full article go to:, ‘Women, not the unborn, deserve our protection’, The Observer, Sunday, May 18 2008.)

Warnock argues that the quality of life of the living is the priority. Warnock’s argument comes from within a powerful argument about the place of women in society. It is part of the wider tradition that argues that without reproductive rights, women cannot have basic rights. It is in part an extension of the observation that women  still do not have equality, that many institutions (including the law and religion) are patriarchal.

However, it would be a mistake to try and generalise about Warnock. She is not a situationist, or a strong advocate of rights based ethics. In her book, Making babies: Is there a right to have children, (2002, Oxford University Press, Oxford) she writes:

“We must beware of the danger of confusing what is passionately and deeply wanted with what is right. It is good if possible, and if no harm to others ensues, to try to get people what they very much want. But if they fail to get what they want they may be disappointed, but they have not, so far, been wronged.” (p.113)

She goes on to voice another concern that obsessions about rights might mean that we move our attention, from the thing that has wronged us, to the idea that have not got what we want. This would be deplorable, she writes.

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