Bioethical Issues Pertaining To Abortion Philosophy Essay


Bioethical Issues Pertaining to Abortion


Dr. Hyder Ali Khan

M.B.E #



I: Modern Western Philosophy


Dr. Farzad Rafi Khan


Abortion has always been a very divisive issue within academic circles and on a communal level. It raises interesting questions regarding personal choice, as well as the limits to which this personal choice can be exerted. Additionally, it elicits arguments about the definition of life, and when a fetus can be defined as human.

This essay is on the ethics of abortion, and not on the legislative aspects of it. Hence, arguments based on the philosophy of governance, the limits of its mandate as well as the legitimacy of laws that it creates, don’t fall within the scope of this essay. The reason this limitation has been placed is simple- abortion can still be ethical in countries where it is illegal and vice versa.

Also, for the purposes of this essay, we will limit abortions to those which don’t have any medical indications, and those that are induced by a healthcare practitioner.

Individual Choice

The important concept underlying issues of autonomy is the freedom to make the determination of what the best method of pursuing one’s perceived goals and objectives. These objectives may range from socioeconomic security to reproductive rights. Furthermore, the freedom to get an abortion is representative of sexual "emancipation", as the constraints of pregnancy are differentially placed on women. All of these reasons have one underlying principle- that being the importance of the freedom of choice.

Existentialist philosophy as espoused by Sartre and Kierkegaard state that man is a function of the choices he makes; not the converse. Therefore, denying freedom of choice is tantamount to negating the individual’s humanity, and treating her like an automaton.

Based on this analysis, one could add substance to Libertarian arguments, which state that the role of the government is to maximize human potential. Any law that limits human potential or denies them their individuality is illegitimate.

Therefore, analyzing Judith Jarvis Thomson’s thought experiment pertaining to a violinist with a potentially fatal kidney disease being sowed to a woman; we can conclude that if the she decides she doesn’t want to be treated as a human dialysis machine, it would be immoral to deny her the freedom to make the decision for herself.

Fetal Personhood

The argument, however, has an important flaw in it. It fails to recognize the fact there are conflicting principles involved. It assumes that the woman and her healthcare provider are the only two stakeholders in this decision. We also have to consider the concept of fetal personhood.

There are various schools of thoughts as to when a fetus attains personhood, ranging from the point of ensoulment or soul infusion in Islamic ethics; the moment of conception according to the Catholic Church; or the Aquinas’ use the concept of individuation.

Seeing that there is a great amount of uncertainty when it comes to deciding if a fetus has rights as an individual, we need to ask whether or not it is morally responsible to act as though it doesn’t. Owing to this risk, an abortion would be tantamount to manslaughter.

The issue is further compounded by the possibility of the fetus experiencing pain during the procedure. Although this is subject to some amount of debate on the scientific validity of the exact period of time when the fetus can experience pain, the maximum period of time hypothesized is 26 weeks, when thalamocortical connections form. Recognizing the uncertainty within this, the risk of subjecting the fetus to pain is very callous, especially if the decision to have an abortion is made on heteronomous grounds.

The "Grand Sez Who" Argument and Personal Reflections

So far, we have examined a number of arguments pertaining to abortion. However, a problem occurs that the arguments do not necessarily clash with one another, and establishing which argument takes precedence over the other becomes increasingly difficult.

Arthur Leff’s argument comparing parallel arguments based on a Personalist view of ethics with clashing monads of Babylonian gods. The logical reasoning to each argument is sound, and internally consistent (despite the fact that logical consistency does not necessarily correlate to ethical truths), so how does one make them clash? Furthermore, if we remove the ethical dilemma from a Personalist position, and introduce societal norms into the equation, how do we determine which value to consider? To quote Leff’s article, "If each person is a Godlet, there is no room for a valid society; if each society is God, there is no space for individual freedom."

We need to ask ourselves as to whether or not the task of seeking ethical truths using logical argumentation is possible.

If we analyze the essay using Münchhausen trilemma, we can argue that logic can’t help us attain ethical truths. The trilemma states that all arguments are always one of the following:




This means that all argumentation relies either on a where the conclusion is predicated on the truth value of premises; require proof that require further proof ad infinitum; or are where the assertion and the proof support one another.

All three methods of argument are fallacious in their nature, leading to problems in any epistemic framework we are trying to set up. This means that if ethical truths exist, we have no method of ascertaining them.

Contemporary epistemologists have to decide among the three deeply unsatisfying options. Owing to the failure of logical analysis in helping us establish the truth values of our ethical system, we can reasonably question whether or not any such truth value exists. Assuming that it does, we can furthermore question whether or not knowledge of these truth values is attainable by Mankind.

As to how Arthur Leff’s article helps us understand Western Ethics, I think that it demonstrates that all arguments are pragmatic in their nature. Unless one ascribes to schools of thought (I find to be highly unsatisfying) such as Moral and Epistemic Nihilism, no normative assessment can be made on multiple competing arguments.