Humanists seek to live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs. They use reason, experience and respect for others when thinking about moral issues, not obedience to dogmatic rules. So in thinking about abortion a humanist would consider the evidence, the probable consequences, and the rights and wishes of everyone involved, trying to find the kindest course of action or the one that would do the least harm.
Abortion is an issue that demonstrates the difficulties of rigid rules in moral decision making. Medical science has advanced to the point where we have options that were unthinkable even a few generations ago and where old rules cannot cope with new facts.
Some medical facts
- Some very premature babies can now be kept alive, which has altered ideas about when foetuses become human beings with human rights. The law in England and Wales is based on the fact that after 24 weeks the foetus is often viable, in that with medical assistance it can survive outside the womb.
- Many illnesses and disabilities can now be diagnosed long before birth.
- Some very ill or disabled babies who would probably once have died before or shortly after birth can now be kept alive.
- The sex of a foetus can be known well before birth (and some parents would like to be able to choose the sex of their child).
- Genetic research makes it increasingly likely that parents will be able to know, or even to choose, other characteristics for their unborn child. A few will want to reject some foetuses.
- Abortions can be performed safely, though they can occasionally cause medical or psychological problems.
These are in themselves morally neutral medical facts, but they bring with them the necessity to make moral choices and to consider who should make those choices. Doctors? Politicians? Religious leaders? Medical ethics committees? Individual women? Their partners?
Some views on abortion
Some examples of contemporary rules and views about abortion will perhaps demonstrate the complexity of the problem.
Some religious people think that all human life is sacred, that life begins at conception, and so abortion is always wrong (and some also believe that contraception is wrong, which leads to even more unwanted pregnancies). But a humanist would argue that the idea of “sacredness” is unhelpful if one has to choose between risking the life of the mother or the life of the unborn foetus. (This is very rare these days, and the choice is most often about the quality of life of either the mother or the foetus or both).
People often argue that it is not for doctors “to play God” and that it is for God to decide matters of life and death. But it could be said that all medical interventions are “playing God” (even your childhood vaccinations may have kept you alive longer than “God” planned) so we have to decide for ourselves how we use medical powers. Arguments which invoke God are unconvincing to those who do not believe in gods, and laws should not be based on claims which rely on religious faith.
Some (non-religious) moral philosophers have argued that full consciousness begins only after birth or even later, and so foetuses and infants are not full human beings with human rights.
Doctors have a range of opinions on abortion, but tend to give the medical interests of the mother (which may include her mental health) the most weight when making decisions.
Some doctors and nurses dislike carrying out abortions because they feel that their job is to save life, not to destroy it.
Some people believe that a woman has absolute rights over her own body which override those of any unborn foetus. You might like to read Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion” (see bibliography below) which states a feminist case for abortion very clearly.
The law in England, Scotland and Wales permits abortion before the 24th week of pregnancy if two doctors agree that there is a risk to the life or the mental or physical health of the mother if the pregnancy continues, or there will be a risk to the mental or physical health of other children in the family. However, there is no time limit if there is a substantial risk that the baby will be born severely disabled, or there is a grave risk of death or permanent injury (mental or physical) to the mother. In effect this means that almost every woman who wants an abortion and is persistent in seeking one before the twenty-fourth week can obtain one. However, some women who do not realise that they are pregnant until too late (perhaps because they are very young or because they are menopausal) may not be able to have abortions though they would have qualified on other grounds.
The humanist view
The current law is permissive: it does not impose abortion on anyone who does not want one or does not want to perform one. So even within the law, individuals have to make moral choices. How do humanists pick their way between these conflicting ideas? There is not one, correct humanist view on abortion. However humanists tend to converge on liberal, “pro-choice” stance. Humanists value happiness and personal choice, and many actively campaigned for legalised abortion in the 1960s. Although humanists do not think all life is “sacred” they do respect life, and much in this debate hinges on when one thinks human life begins. Humanists tend to think that – on the basis of scientific evidence about foetal development – a foetus does not become a person, with its own feelings and rights, until well after conception.
Because humanists take happiness and suffering as foremost moral considerations, quality of life will often trump the preservation of life at all costs, if the two come into conflict. (Assisted dying is another example.) The probable quality of life of the baby, the woman, rights and wishes of the father and the rest of the family, and the doctors and nurses involved, would all have to be given due weight. There is plenty of room for debate about how much weight each individual should have, but most humanists put the interests of the woman first, since she would have to complete the pregnancy and probably care for the baby, whose happiness would largely depend on hers. She also exists already with other responsibilities and rights and feelings that can be taken into account – unlike those of the unborn foetus which cannot be so surely ascertained.
Of course all possible options should be explored and decisions should be informed ones. Adoption of the unwanted baby might be the best solution in some cases, or on reflection a woman might decide that she could look after a sick or disabled child. Or she might decide that she cannot offer this child a life worth living and abortion is the better choice. She will need to consider the long-term effects as well as the immediate ones. It is unlikely to be an easy decision, and requiring an abortion is a situation that most women would prefer to avoid.
For society as a whole, as well as for the children themselves, it is better if every child is a wanted child. However, abortion is not the best way of avoiding unwanted children, and improved sex education, easily available contraception, and better education and opportunities for young women, can all help to reduce the number of abortions. But as long as abortion is needed as a last resort, most humanists would agree that society should provide safe legal facilities. The alternatives, which would inevitably include illegal abortions, are far worse.
Questions to think about and discuss
- Is abortion in the case of conception after rape more justified than other abortions?
- Would a humanist favour abortion if a woman wanted one because her pregnancy was interfering with her holiday plans? Why (not)?
- Why do humanists think contraception is better than abortion?
- Are there any good arguments against adoption of unwanted babies?
- Should doctors and nurses impose their moral views on patients? Yes? Sometimes? Never?
- Should religious people impose their views on abortion on non-religious people? Yes? Sometimes? Never?
- Should parents be able to choose the sex of their child? Should they be able to abort a foetus of the “wrong” sex?
- At what point does a foetus become a human being? Does this affect the humanist view of abortion? Does this affect your view of abortion?
- Can infanticide ever be right?
- Should abortion ever be carried out on a non-consenting woman, e.g. one too young to give legal consent or one in a coma?
- How are you deciding your answers to these questions? What principles and arguments influence your answers?
- How is the humanist view on this issue similar to that of other worldviews you have come across? How is it different?
Another version of this perspective, together with many others designed for easy photocopying and much useful information for teachers, can be found at Understanding Humanism.
- Mary Warnock, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Ethics (Duckworth)
- Jonathan Glover, Causing Death and Saving Lives (Penguin)
- Peter Singer, Practical Ethics (Cambridge University Press)
- Judith Jarvis Thomson, (1971), “A Defense of Abortion” widely reprinted e.g. in Michael Palmer,Moral Problems (Lutterworth)