What do people have against abortion?


Prof. Dr. Dagmar Fenner

is full professor in Basel and teaches ethics at the Universities of Tübingen and Basel. Among other things, she has published "Introduction to Applied Ethics" in UTB-Verlag.

The assessment of the termination of pregnancy is a difficult topic in terms of medical ethics and is particularly controversial in society. What is the moral status of human life before birth?

Feb 23, 2013: Anti-abortionists in front of the Alabama Women's Center for Reproductive Alternatives. (& copy picture alliance / landov)
The ethical assessment of abortion is one of the most difficult problems in medical ethics, and only the most important positions and arguments can be briefly presented below. The question about the beginning of human life must be distinguished from the question about the beginning of the moral worthiness of human life, since both require different answers: [1] To answer the first question, biological, empirically observable aspects are central, whereas the second one requires rational justification by means of ethical arguments. At the center of the current bioethical debates is the question of the moral status of prenatal human life in this second sense.

Conservative position

From a conservative point of view, the human embryo is accorded the same moral status and inviolable right to life as adults, so abortion is generally morally inadmissible.

Extension arguments: With the help of extension arguments, anti-abortionists try to "extend" the maximum moral status of adult humans to human embryos. The only arbitrary and clearly identifiable turning point is the beginning of human life when egg and sperm cells fuse. The Continuity argument states that the development from the zygote to the adult human is continuous. According to the Identity argument there is an identity between the fertilized egg cell and the adult human because they have the same individual human genome. At the Potentiality argument emphasizes the potential of the fertilized egg, d. H. the inherent ability to develop into a sensitive and rational adult human being.

The weakness of these argumentation strategies lies in the seemingly effortless transition from biological facts to ethical judgments: With regard to the identity argument, the zygote can split up into several embryos until it is implanted in the uterine lining. An autonomous person with an individual biography is also fundamentally much more than genetic material. Even with the arguments of potentiality and continuity, the empirical facts are correct that the facilities for the further development of a person already exist in the embryo and that this development basically forms a continuous process. Nonetheless, this development process is subject to profound, morally relevant changes, and a norm of equal treatment cannot simply be derived from biological continuity and identity. Because we consider it right and fair, for example, that children are not allowed to vote or that a prince as a potential king does not have the same rights as the king himself (Prince Charles argument).

Unavailability arguments: According to the unavailability thesis, every human life, regardless of certain qualities and stages of development, is valuable in itself and absolutely worthy of moral protection. [2] In view of the "unavailability" or "sanctity" of life, any discussion about the "quality of life" or the "value" of a life is strictly rejected. There is no reason for a selective abortion to "spare" the unborn life a life full of suffering, for example with serious illnesses or disabilities.

The "sanctity of life" argument is often represented against a religious background: From the theological point of view, from conception on, humans are subject to a being created by God and subject to his special protection. "Holiness" or "dignity" of human life are often justified with the "likeness of God". Such theological arguments can only convince religious people.

In a secular context that means Human dignity argumentthat every human life - regardless of all differences in development status, abilities or origin - is accorded the same dignity and thus the same moral status. Abortion is morally wrong because human embryos are members of the human species. If one justifies human dignity solely with reference to belonging to the biological genus or "species" human, this is an ethically inadmissible one Species argument vor: [3] Just as arbitrarily as racists in "racism" value the interests of members of "their own race" higher than the interests of members of other "races", in "speciesism" one treats members of the genus Homo sapiens preferentially and speaks only to humans, but not, for example, to animals, a status of dignity and absolute moral worthy of protection. In order to be able to justify a special moral status of people, however, specific, ethically relevant characteristics or abilities must be specified that are typical for every person and at every stage of development. Biological properties such as a specific set of chromosomes cannot provide such a justification. [4]

Radical liberal position

From a radically liberal point of view, the unborn life is accorded minimal or no moral status, so that abortions are generally ethically permissible and the pregnant woman's right to self-determination is the only decisive factor.

Workaround arguments: Radical liberal feminists try to "circumvent" the question of the moral status of the embryo by pointing out the special bodily and biographical unity of mother and embryo: As long as the child is in the mother's womb, there is an "intrapersonal" (in the person self-occurring), not an "interpersonal" (interpersonal) conflict. [5] Due to the particular asymmetrical relationship of dependency between the pregnant woman and the embryo, only the woman herself can make an ethical decision regarding the continuation or termination of the pregnancy.

The argument against this circumvention argument is that, except in the case of rape, women are ethically responsible for their pregnancy and its consequences. If the argument of women’s right to self-determination about their bodies is exaggerated, this harbors the risk of a reduction in responsibility. Ethically, it would be highly questionable if a woman decided to have an abortion, for example, because the pregnancy thwarted her vacation plans. The reference to the asymmetry in the relationship to the embryo is not enough to deny it any moral status.

Moderate liberal position

Today, a graduated status concept of a moderate liberal position is very popular, according to which the moral status of the embryo increases in the course of pregnancy: [6] The moral status and the dignity of human life are linked to certain properties or abilities that only arise during pregnancy can be acquired. The difficulty then is to justify which properties are ethically relevant.

Michael Lockwood and Hans-Martin Sass suggested brain life as a counterpart to the "brain death" criterion. However, since rudimentary brain activities that can be demonstrated from the 10th week of pregnancy onwards in no way enable the fetus to think and sensible self-determination, the ethical relevance of this developmental step is not evident.

In contrast, the ability to feel that is present in the embryo from around the second trimester of pregnancy is ethically relevant. However, the requirement of special moral consideration for sentient beings does not mean that they must be granted a right to life and absolute protection. Because it might be ethically permissible to kill them using a painless method.

Interest or personal arguments are based on the interest in continuing to live, which requires rationality, self-confidence and awareness of time. Since a child only develops an interest in continuing to live years after birth, the argument would have the counterintuitive consequence that not only abortions but also infanticide are ethically harmless. [7]

Birth undoubtedly represents the most important step in the development to an independent human being, separated from the mother. This clearly recognizable turning point from unborn to born life changes the moral status considerably. Roughly speaking, according to a graduated status concept of a moderately liberal position, the moral status of the embryo is low in the first trimester of pregnancy, and the woman's right to self-determination dominates, whereas in the last trimester the embryo's right to life has the decisive moral weight.