The idea of abortion goes a lot deeper than just the thought of “killing” an embryo. The complicated idea of abortion relates with many other complicating issues such as sex, morals, and choices. Therefore, it is important to analyze these many issues to fully understand the ethical considerations that surround abortion dilemmas. Anti-abortionists easily find reasons to support the banning of abortion with the emphasis on abstinence and responsibility of unprotected sex, and religious value which leaves pro-abortionists to strictly contradict those reasons by emphasizing the positive, or better yet, the reasonable aspects of abortion. These aspects include obvious reasons such as rape, a mother’s natural instinct, the idea of murder, and the fact that the true issue of abortion is the outcome of the life of the embryo if it had not been terminated.


This paper presents the two sides of the controversial issues of abortion by applying the philosophical stand of Immanuel Kant who believes in moral duty and the utilitarian principles of J. S. Mill who favors “the greatest good” explaining their respective theories in the process. Moreover, this paper provides an understanding why abortion is considered a moral problem and not merely a controversial topic.   


Utilitarianism vs. Moral Duty

At the forefront of the rights and duties theory of ethical behavior are the writings of Immanuel Kant, who believed that a “right” implied the existence of some condition to which persons are entitled simply because they are human beings or citizens of a nation. Along with the existence of rights, Kant wrote, comes the existence of “duties.” Kantian theory considers a person’s rights as irreducible – that is, they are not to be traded or abridged at any time or in any fashion.  According to this theory, there are two primary types of rights: legal rights and moral rights. Legal rights are those rights bestowed on persons through laws passed by the government. Moral rights, on the other hand, are those granted to every human being, regardless of the legal system by which they are governed.


The right to live is the most obvious of the moral rights. To be noted here is one of the most critical features of rights – which they exist in a complementary relationship with obligations. In other words, not only do rights bestow on persons specific freedoms, but they also obligate those persons to allow others to exercise those freedoms as well. As such, the ethical dilemmas that is evident in the legality or the mere act of aborting a fetus when argued under the principles of Kant’s concept of moral duty favors the anti-abortionists who supports the legitimate rights of unborn children. Anti-abortionists often argue that freedom is experienced along with the duties and responsibilities of its consequences. In this case, the freedom to engage sexually and attend to one’s physical need comes with being liable of the end results of the act which is the possibility of conceiving a child.

Meanwhile, taking J. S. Mill’s approach, utilitarian theory seeks to provide a quantitative method for making ethical decisions, using cost-benefit analysis as a basis for what to do and what not to do as pioneered by J.S. Mill. Utilitarianism is “a general term for any view that holds that actions and practices should be evaluated on the basis of the aggregate social benefits and the aggregate social costs associated with the actions or practices. In any given situation, the proper or ‘right’ action or practice is the one that will produce the greatest net benefits (or lowest net costs) for society as a whole.” But an important point that should be taken into account is that in order for the action chosen to be truly utilitarian, it must provide the highest benefits for society as a whole, not for the person making the decision.


Why would a mother want to kill her own baby? Anti-abortionists frequently ask this question and the answers may vary following the common trend of death versus torture arguments, in that torture is worse than death. The obvious reasons in which utilitarianism applies to abortion are in cases such as rape. In any case, the victim, if she does become pregnant, should never be forced to have a child. There are also other cases where embryos innocently become victims of unknown incest, a drug- addictive mother, or even some type of known physical or mental defect. In these cases the unfortunate baby should not have to be faced with a life of physical and/or mental defects brought upon under uncontrollable circumstances. A mother who chooses abortion feels that if the child lives, he/she will not experience a well-deserved decent life. This could be due to financial problems, physical problems, or even because the mother knows she is not ready to care for another living human being.


Attempting to balance the competing rights of all parties in a dispute raises the problem of fairness or justice. Justice is concerned with “the comparative treatment given to the members of a group when benefits and burdens are distributed, when rules and laws are administered, when members of a group cooperate or compete with each other, and when people are punished for the wrongs they have done or compensated for the wrongs they have suffered”. Three primary forms of justice exist: distributive, retributive, and compensatory justice.


Distributive justice is concerned with how fairly the benefits and burdens of society are distributed among its citizens. Benefits are defined as resources, goods, income, status and prestige, while burdens include tasks, responsibilities, and poorer living conditions. The basic principal of distributive justice is that individuals who are similar in all respects, relevant to the kind of treatment in question, should be given similar benefits and burdens in proportion to that similarity, even if they are dissimilar in other irrelevant respects. Retributive justice is a sub-category of distributive justice and relates to a single portion of society: the rule breakers. Specifically, this type of justice is concerned with how rule breakers are identified, what sanctions are applied to them, and the process by which these sanctions are applied. Let the punishment fit the crime is the bottom of this type of justice. Compensatory justice is another sub-category of distributive justice. However, as opposed to retributive justice, compensatory justice analyzes the fairness of compensation from the point of view of the victim. Its primary concern is whether or not the victim’s compensation is proportional to the loss incurred.

This makes the controversies of abortion more complicated in which determining and assessing the moral consequences as well as the realistic considerations of the wrongness or rightness of the act continue to clash. Dealing with the issue calls for thorough investigation of the different types of abortion cases’ conditions, probabilities and facts along with cultural and value differences that uniquely characterize and highly influence specific societies and the people who are its citizens. 


Moral Problems of Abortion

Ethics is, according to the Greek signification of the term, a science of customs or morals.   Moreover, ethics belongs to the practical sciences.  Its function is to show how human life as such must be fashioned to realize its purpose or end. Subsequently, it stands at the head of the practical sciences, embracing them all in a certain measure.  This is because all arts ultimately serve a common purpose, which is the perfection of human life. Hence, the corresponding arts are subordinated, or included as its parts, to ethics, the theory of the art of life, .


This shows that major ethical theories are not precise, and enforcement of ethical actions relies on individual judgments. Even though individuals highly trained in the philosophy of ethics do not agree about the application of ethics since the distinction between ethical and unethical behavior is based on the cultural milieu and is a byproduct of social norms. Therefore it is extremely difficult to determine the ethicalness of a particular behavior mainly because it is grounded on the specific social and moral standards or norms of different communities or territories. Abortion, along with other conditions or situations that present moral dilemmas, most often than not appear as a personal discretion as influenced by individual values and beliefs. Since values and moral considerations of a person cannot be fully separated nor distinguished, abortion is treated as not merely a controversial social issue but a more serious evaluation of moral standards.


This is made more complicated by the fact that everything changes including social and moral principles,  discusses the diversity and changing nature of social norms that derive from new economic and social situations: “Every society or culture contains a whole set of social norms, based on its particular history, religions, philosophies, and the nature of its people and the problems they have faced… While social norms may appear to remain stable being based on long traditions, in fact they are in a continual state of evaluation.”  Thus, conflicting ethical decisions may also arise from conflicting sets of social norms within the same culture, thereby intensifying the complexity of intangible moral values and considerations of certain actions, and in this case, abortion.


In this light, an effective solution for ethical decision making must consider barriers to implementation besides understanding the nature of ethical behavior. Many questions of implementation remain. Each of us has our own set of values and beliefs that we have evolved over the course of our lives through our education, experiences and upbringing. We all have our own ideas of what is right and what is wrong and these ideas can vary between individuals and cultures.

            Our own and individual concept of what is right and what is wrong is the application of these values made more difficult by personal pressures. But self definition of the right thing to do when it comes to social responsibility is one of the most crucial questions that need to be addressed through one’s ability and capacity to balance personal interests with one’s duties as a community member can in order to justify the morality of a behavior. 



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