CommentInsight & Opinion

Anti-abortion stance is indefensible

Peter Singer says an anti-abortion stance is indefensible when millions of self-aware human beings risk death or injury because of rigid laws

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 August, 2012, 2:32am

In the Dominican Republic last month, a pregnant teenager with leukaemia had her chemotherapy delayed because doctors feared the treatment could terminate her pregnancy and therefore violate the nation's strict anti-abortion law. Chemotherapy was eventually begun, but not before attention had again been focused on the rigidity of many developing countries' abortion laws.

Abortion receives extensive media coverage in developed countries, especially in the US. But much less attention is given to the 86per cent of all abortions that occur in the developing world. Although a majority of countries in Africa and Latin America have laws prohibiting abortion in most circumstances, they do not prevent high abortion rates. In Africa, there are 29 abortions per 1,000 women, and 32 per 1,000 in Latin America. The comparable figure for Western Europe, where abortion is generally permitted, is 12.

According to the World Health Organisation, unsafe abortions lead to the death of 47,000 women every year, with almost all occurring in developing countries. A further 5 million women are injured each year, sometimes permanently.

Almost all of these deaths and injuries could be prevented, the WHO says, by meeting the need for sex education and information about family planning and contraception, and by providing safe, legal induced abortion, as well as follow-up care. Some 220 million women in the developing world say they want to prevent pregnancy, but lack either knowledge of, or access to, effective contraception.

That is a huge tragedy for individuals and for the future of our already very heavily populated planet.

Opponents will point out that abortion kills a unique, living human individual. That claim is difficult to deny.

It is also true that we cannot simply invoke a woman's "right to choose" in order to avoid the ethical issue of the moral status of the fetus. If the fetus really did have the moral status of any other human being, it would be difficult to argue that a pregnant woman's right to choose includes the right to bring about the death of the fetus, except perhaps when the woman's life is at stake.

The fallacy in the anti-abortion argument lies in the shift from the scientifically accurate claim that the fetus is a living individual of the species Homo sapiens to the ethical claim that the fetus therefore has the same right to life as any other human being. Membership of the species Homo sapiens is not enough to confer a right to life on a being. Nor can something like self-awareness or rationality warrant greater protection for the fetus than for, say, a cow, because the fetus has mental capacities that are inferior to those of cows.

We can plausibly argue that we ought not to kill, against their will, self-aware beings who want to continue to live. But why should a being's potential to become rationally self-aware make it wrong to end its life before it actually has the capacity for rationality or self-awareness? We have no obligation to allow every being with that potential to realise it. If it comes to a clash between the supposed interests of potentially rational but not yet even conscious beings and the vital interests of actually rational women, we should give preference to the women every time.

Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University. Copyright: Project Syndicate

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