What is Wrong With Abortion? A Philosophical Case


Is it possible to make a case for the prima facie wrongness of killing a human fetus that does not depend on theological premises? In 1989 atheist philosopher Donald Marquis introduced a philosophical case for immorality of abortion that neither depended on the personhood nor consciousness of the fetus.

Consider these five cases, borrowed from Pedro Galvão (2007):

(A) The typical human fetus;

(A1) The typical preconscious fetus;
(A2) The typical conscious fetus;

(B) The typical human infant;
(C) The temporarily depressed suicidal;
(D) The temporarily comatose adult;
(E) The typical human adult.

Could what makes the killing of (B-E) prima facie so wrong be relevantly similar to the killing of (A)? This post offered a philosophical case for why abortion, killing of (A1) and (A2), is prima facie wrong, as it revisited Robert Young’s thesis (1979) on what makes killing people, in some occasions, so wrong, and Marquis’ articulations of future of value arguments (1989, 2001).

Barack Obama’s lamenting speech addressed to the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, in Newtown, correctly captured the prima facie wrongness of killing people. Obama understood the gravity of the killer’s unjust prevention of the little kids, and adults’ future of value. He said,

The majority of those who died today were children — beautiful, little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old. They had their entire lives ahead of them — birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own. Among the fallen were also teachers, men and women who devoted their lives to helping our children fulfill their dreams.(Obama 2012: n.p)

It is general prima facie wrong to kill human being, according to David Boonin’s modified future-like-ours, because it “ is in general prima facie wrong to act in ways that frustrate the desires of others, and in general more seriously prima facie wrong to act in ways that frustrate their stronger desires.”(Boonin 2003, 67)

Booni’s view would explain why it is wrong to kill (A2[1]), (B) and (E), but not (C) and (D) because (C) and (D) lack strong desire to enjoy their personal future. Assuming we agree that killing (C) and (D) is prima facie wrong, Boonin’s view is, thus, inadequate to explain why it is generally prima facie so wrong to kill people.

Unlike Boonin, Young provided a richer explanation. He argued,

[W]hat makes killing another human being wrong on occasions is its character as an irrevocable, maximally unjust prevention of the realization either of the victims’ life-purposes or of such life-purposes as the victim may reasonably have been expected to resume or to come have.(Young 1979, 516)

Persuaded by Young’s account, Marquis argued that ‘‘for any killing where the victim did have a valuable future like ours, having that future by itself is sufficient to create the strong presumption that the killing is seriously wrong’’. (Marquis 1989, 195)

Young’s account is richer because it includes (C) and (D). In both cases, viz., a depressed suicidal teenager and a comatose patient are reasonably expected to resume such life-purpose. In this account, if correct, it would be equally wrong to kill (A1) and (A2) because they also are reasonably expected to come to have such life-purposes. (A1) and (A2) have, borrowing Obama’s words, “their entire lives ahead of them — birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own”. Thus,

P1: What makes killing another human being prima facie wrong is “an irrevocable, maximally unjust prevention of the realization either of the victims’ life-purposes or of such life-purposes as the victim may reasonably have been expected to resume or to come have”

P2: Abortion is an irrevocable, maximally unjust prevention of the realization either of foetus’ life-purposes or of such life-purposes as the foetus may reasonably have been expected to come have.

C: Abortion is prima facie wrong.


Boonin, David (2003). A Defense of Abortion. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Galvão, Pedro (2007):“Boonin On The Future-Like-Ours Argument Against Abortion “ Bioethics Vol. 21 No. 6: 324-328

Marquis Donald(1989). “Why abortion is immoral.” Journal of Philosophy Vol. 86:183–202.

_________________ (2001) “Deprivations, futures and the wrongness of killing.” Journal of Medical Ethics 2001;27:363–9.

Obama, Barak (2012). Obama’s speech on December 14th 2012. Transcript: President Obama’s Remarks On Conn. School Shootings. White House

Young, Robert (1979) “What Is So Wrong with Killing People?” Philosophy, Vol. 54, No. 210: 515-528

[1] (A2) and (B) have relatively similar actual desires.


DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About Prayson Daniel

Prayson delights, enjoys and treasures Christ Jesus above all. He blogs for the love and glory of our Triune God. Reformed theology, apologetics and church history are areas he enjoys reading, pondering and sharing with the motto "when love comes first, disagreement follows at its right and proper place."

  • tildeb

    It always astounds me that so many people assume abortion is anything but a medical issue. Why not presume a philosophical argument for the morality of gall bladder issues? You discard hundreds of stem cells capable of creating life when you scratch your nose. Why do not make nose scratching a moral issue?

    • Arthur Khachatryan

      @tildeb, first, I don’t think medical issues are necessarily mutually exclusive with moral issues; certainly issues can be both medical in nature and have moral implications.

      Life, especially conscious life, in any of the significant ways that one may define it, is quite different that the mere composition of its parts, even if those specific parts have cells that have regenerative properties. In this sense, reductionism is not tenable. Also, the cells of my nose are not in a position to eventually generate a separate conscious life that will be imbued with a yet unrealized future with hopes and dreams and purpose. Prayson’s conclusion appears to make this perfectly clear:

      “What makes killing another human being prima facie wrong is “an irrevocable, maximally unjust prevention of the realization either of the victims’ life-purposes or of such life-purposes as the victim may reasonably have been expected to resume or to come have””

    • http://www.withalliamgod.wordpress.com/ Prayson W Daniel

      Thanks Arthur. To add more, Tildeb, my aim was to present a case for why abortion is prima facie immoral. Gall bladder, nose scratching, stem cells are, sadly, issues outside the case I presented.

      • tildeb

        But not therapeutic abortion. You conveniently ignore the health and welfare of women in your pursuit of defining abortion as the killing of human beings. Yet, without any trace of irony, you also forget and ignore that about two thirds of all fertilized human eggs are naturally aborted. If you want to claim god exists with omnipotence and that morality directs us to being anti-abortion, then direct your argument sans weasel words of sophisticated theology to challenge why this omnibenevolent god is such an immoral, genocidal, mass murderer.

        • http://www.withalliamgod.wordpress.com/ Prayson W Daniel

          Tildeb, I think therapeutic abortion is not wrong. That is why I contended for the “prima facie” wrongness of abortion. Natural abortion does not fall in the “unjust prevention” thus not affected by my case.

          You barked up a wrong tree when you attempted to bring in omnibenevolent and omnipotence God’s character. This case does not depend on theological ground. It is based on what is generally believed to be prima facie so wrong with killing people.

          • tildeb

            Then we are right back to where we started finding out what is a what is not ‘unjust’ regarding abortion, which is where I assert that best answer to this question not with morality and philosophy of those uninvolved but leave that bugaboo based on individual specifics where it properly belongs: as a medical for those directly involved and not a moral issue.

            • http://www.withalliamgod.wordpress.com/ Prayson W Daniel

              I do not see how that is relevant to that case I presented. It seems you are jumping from one irrelevant tree to another, as you disagreeing contentiously.

              It would be fruitful if you could deal with the case I presented. Is there a premise(s) you think is wrong? Can you show wherein I am uninformed, misinformed, illogical or incomplete?

              • tildeb

                Framing the morality of abortion in terms of “irrevocable, maximally unjust prevention of the realization either of foetus’ life-purposes” hinges on the term ‘unjust’ for the achievement of zygote’s ‘life-purposes’. You assume that causing this prevention is immoral, which is why I pointed out that 2/3rds of all human fertilized eggs spontaneously abort. Yet we don’t speak of ‘natural’ abortion in these terms, do we? We don’t frame the issue as a moral one because these abortions happen for a variety of physiological reasons over which we have no control and remains immune to any effect of our moral meddling. These abortions occur whether we want them to or not. But when a fully autonomous adult woman has issues of her own ‘life-purposes’, health, and welfare affected by incubating a fertilized egg, suddenly aborting the same zygote for those reasons becomes a moral rather than a purely medical issue focused only on the potential of the zygote rather than the actual issues of the woman. What suddenly changed the framework? You did and you have no right to insert your framework to take precedence for moral considerations over and above medical ones of the woman intimately involved when you choose to do so.

                • http://www.withalliamgod.wordpress.com/ Prayson W Daniel

                  Tildeb, I already answered your concern about spontaneously abortion. It does not fall on “unjust” prevention of zygote’s future of value like ours. For there to be unjust, there need to be a person who victimizes(being not just) a victim (fertilized egg, embryo or fetus).

                  Again, my case is base on what is agreed about the prima facie wrongness killing people, e.g. you, I and others. I argued that what make killing us wrong, applies to any being with future of values like ours.

                  Which premise do you disagree with?

                  • tildeb

                    I disagree with the notion that a zygotes are ‘people’ and that their abortion – for whatever reasons – is not a moral issue. It is a medical issue. A woman who undergoes and abortion – for whatever reasons – is not killing a person any more than nature and/or god is killing people. For these terms to apply requires first a birth of a baby. Pre-empting this birth and extending these moral standards into the womb relegates the woman’s medical status to be of less concern less than the feotus’ moral value as a potential equivalent to the woman. You have made the potential value of the zygote to be of greater moral concern than the actual value of the autonomous woman with legal rights. You do this by extending a moral standard that frames the zygotes destruction as a victimizing act in a biased application, careful to exempt nature/god from the same standard for the same result. This is moral hypocrisy in action. Either the same standard applies to the victimization of a feotus or it does not. You have neither the luxury nor right to impose your moral standard of what constitutes a zygote’s victimhood; the person whose body acts as incubator and who must assume responsibility of all effects from this must be the one to decide. Not me. Not you. But if you are going to apply different standards, then I suggest you do so upfront and allot a zygote’s destruction to be based on medical ethics, which involves the woman and her physician. Your morality – regardless of its logical form – is not superior when you have no horse in this race. If you respect life, then respect the woman’s actual and developmentally realized life more than the potential life of an undeveloped clump of cells.

                    • http://www.withalliamgod.wordpress.com/ Prayson W Daniel

                      Tildeb, your response attacked a straw-man. I did not argue for the notion that a zygotes are ‘people’, but that the reason that makes killing people prima facie so wrong, applies also to zygotes and fetus.

                      You again raised a red-herring of moral hypocrisy, imposition of moral standard, respecting life etch which are irrelevant to my case.

                      My case does not requires first a birth of a baby, but that the baby has a future of value like ours. If the fertilized egg, (or using your language “clump of cells), zygote or fetus has a future of value like ours, then, as I argued it is prima facie morally wrong to kill them.

                    • tildeb

                      PD, the only way to link the morality of killing people to killing zygotes is to argue that the potential (future of value) is equivalent to the actual (the woman’s value). The criticism is not a straw man but a directed one that the two – people and zygotes – are not synonyms, which means the term ‘killing’ does not apply to the zygote. You insist it does because of your moral imposition. This creates a moral hypocrisy. And the moral hypocrisy to claim this moral standard should be equivalently applied to zygotes as it is to people. But when competition arises between the interests of the actual versus the hypothetical interests of the potential, then the hypocrisy is revealed: you have to reduce the standing of the actual in order to promote to equivalency the potential. The prima facia (face value, so to speak) is not at all obvious, which is why assigning the term ‘killing’ is not at all to be taken at face value. It is a weasel word to allow you to pretend abortion is at face value a moral issue rather than a medical one. And the cost to such an argument rests with the real woman you have turned into nothing more than either an incubator or a killer. This should be a clue indicating a false equivalency at work.

                    • http://www.withalliamgod.wordpress.com/ Prayson W Daniel

                      Tildeb, what you point out is irrelevant to my case. In simple reasoning. My case could be outline as follows:

                      1. If P has FVO(Future of Value like ours) then killing P is prima facie morally wrong

                      2. (A-E) has FVO.

                      3. Therefore killing (A-E) is prima facie morally wrong.

                      If 1 and 2 are true, then what you are pointing out is irrelevant.

                      I sorry that you failed to understand my case and I can see that there is no way I could help you understand at the moment. Thank you for your comments.

                    • ST Mannew

                      The moral hypocrisy that you are picking up on is in fact your own, as it’s the inherent hypocrisy of a person who was once an embryo themselves and now judges what they once were themselves (a embryo), but what they condemn
                      isn’t themselves but another, why do you want to take away the right to life by making them less than what you were also once yourself, why do you judge another less than yourself when you were once one of them? That’s the real hypocrisy here.

                    • Kate Bopp

                      The majority of western world abortion is not done to save life or health of mother. Other reasons are more frequently cited. In cases of risk to mother’s life there is no hesitation to therapeutically intervene but this is not the same as direct targeting of a developing infant in the womb. You compare a developing human in utero to a “developmentally realized life” yet you don’t acknowledge that a born infant is not fully developmentally realized. In fact children continue to develop for up to 18yrs. Hence the terms “legal age of majority” and “fully grown”. Do you subscribe to the belief that infants, children and adolescents, due to their incomplete developmental realization, have in fact a lesser value or right to life than an adult?

  • Mark McGee

    Excellent, Prayson! Another great argument for life.

    • http://www.withalliamgod.wordpress.com/ Prayson W Daniel

      Thanks Mark. Credits should go to Glenn Peoples for introducing me to future-like-ours cases arguments for life.