Why Abortion is Immoral – Don Marquis

Marquis attempts to demonstrate that abortion is morally on a par with the killing of an adult human; that is, he tries to show that aborting a fetus is, except in exceptional circumstances, a serious moral wrong. Before laying the groundwork for his own argument, Marquis briefly surveys the landscape of the philosophical debate over the morality of abortion. He suggests that because the typical arguments put forth by anti-abortionists and pro-choicers are possessed of symmetrical merits and weaknesses, the dispute between the two camps seems intractable. Whereas anti-abortionists very convincingly demonstrate that fetuses typically exhibit many of the same features as adult humans, pro-choicers convincingly argue that fetuses lack the sorts of features that are generally taken to be necessary for inclusion in the moral community. Each side then attempts to argue in favor of a principle that explains the wrongness of killing such that it renders a verdict favorable to their own view on the topic of abortion. The problem, Marquis suggests, is that principles on which anti-abortionists rely are too broad, whereas principles on which pro-choicers rely are two narrow.

In light of all of this, Marquis recommends adopting a new strategy. His plan is to first identify what explains why killing an adult human is ordinarily wrong, and then to see if that reason can be applied to abortion. If it can, we will have discovered a strong reason that abortion is presumptively immoral. What is wrong with killing, Marquis, argues, is that it deprives the victim of something valuable. In particular, it deprives the victim of everything that she would have valued in the future had her life not been prematurely ended. Among these things will be various goals, achievements, completed projects, relationships, aesthetic experiences, and so on. Killing is wrong because it takes away the value of those, and many other, experiences. Marquis argues that there are several attractions to explaining the wrongness of killing in this way. In the first place, it can account for our belief that murder is one of the worst of crimes (because it deprives the victim of so much value), and it matches up well with attitudes that the terminally ill have toward their future deaths. Beyond this, the theory is not speciesist in that it does not arbitrarily make the killing of a biological human of special moral import. Furthermore, Marquis believes, the theory renders plausible verdicts in a variety of ethical issues; it can help us see why active euthanasia is sometimes permissible, and it can directly account for the wrongness of infanticide in way that is not argumentatively awkward.

The upshot of the account, of course, is that it entails that abortion is presumptively immoral. As fetuses typically will go on to enjoy futures that are valuable in the same way that our own lives are, it follows that depriving a fetus of its future is a serious moral offense. Marquis is careful to point out, though, that the argument does not demonstrate that abortion is always immoral. Nor does it purport to explain the wrongness of all killings; a being’s having a future of value is not offered as a necessary condition for the killing of that being to be immoral, nor must it be that depriving a being of a future of value is the only reason that killing a being with such a future is wrong.

Marquis ends his discussion by considering various sorts of objections to his view. First, he considers competing accounts that are meant to explain the wrongness of killing, accounts that, if sound, would not entail that abortion is presumptively wrong. The first account has it that because fetuses cannot themselves value their own futures, their futures are thereby not valuable to them. In a somewhat similar vein, the second account has it that a being cannot have a right to life unless it expressly desires its own continued existence; as fetuses do not value in such a way, they cannot have a right to life. Marquis believes that both of these accounts make a similar mistake. He argues that just because a being does not currently value or desire something, it does not follow that that thing is not valuable to, or desirable for, the being. Lastly, Marquis considers an objection concerning contraception. The objector contends that if Marquis’ theory is correct, then contraception must be immoral. But, as contraception is not immoral, Marquis’ theory must be false. Marquis responds by refuting the first move that the objector makes. He argues that nothing is presumptively wrong with contraception, on his account, because no determinate being is deprived of a future of value.