Why abortion is immoral?

Why Abortion Is Immoral: An Argumentative Analysis

The argument on the immorality of abortion is a long standing philosophical discourse which opens itself to numerous discussions or even attacks. That the pro-choice and anti-abortionists stances stand or fail is based on the strength or weakness of the other’s claim against the other and vice versa. The morality or immorality of abortion, however, leaves an open question which also leaves the partisans reflecting on whether or not there can be a clear and evident claim of its morality or immorality, wrongness or otherwise. Don Marquis’ “Why Abortion is Immoral”(1989) is an argumentative essay that attempts to dissect the assumptions for and against abortion with the end view of presenting an alternative proposition that generally sets up a discussion that abortion is seriously immoral.

This essay seeks to further dissect Marquis’ work and critically analyze his propositions and arguments to present its successes and failures in defending its own thesis. Conversely, this essay does not seek to argue on whether abortion is right or wrong, but rather, seeks to analyze the arguments of Marquis on the immorality of abortion. Although Marquis’ arguments seem generally sound and plausible, it admits of some inconsistencies and weaknesses which this essay seeks to address in the hope of suggesting possible enhancements in his discourse. Marquis’ Propositions and Arguments

Marquis’ essay sets out an argument that “purports to show, as well as any argument in ethics can show, that abortion is, except possibly in rare cases, seriously immoral, that it is in the same moral category as killing an innocent adult human being.”(p. 183). To do this, he sets up analyses of numerous arguments on the wrongness or soundness of abortion. First, he analyzed the standard anti-abortion and pro-choice arguments. Then, he presented arguments on the ethics or morality of killing to establish the wrongness of killing and thereafter derive his justification for the immorality of abortion.

To Marquis, the anti-abortionists’ and the pro-choice’s claims stand on similar strengths and suffers from similar weaknesses. Anti-abortionists argue that life is present from the moment of conception while pro-choice partisans argue that fetuses are not persons. The anti-abortionists stand, according to him tends to be too broad in scope such that even fetuses at the early stage of pregnancy will fall under this category. The pro-choice argument, on the other hand, tends to adapt an argument that is too limited such that fetuses shall not fall under it. In fine, the pro-choice adapts the person account.

If even fetus, however, are to be considered persons, it may be problematic to characterize them as such because a ‘person’ typically is defined in terms of psychological characteristics which the fetus do not have as of yet. On the other hand, if fetuses are to be considered human beings, there is a need to identify if it shall be categorized as biological or moral. If biological, the challenge is explaining why biological category should make a moral difference if it is moral. If this is the case, then the anti-abortionist cannot use the argument that fetuses are human beings because this morality is what is needed to be proved. Marquis claims, however, that “a pro-choice strategy that extends the definition of ‘person’ to infants or even to young children seems just as arbitrary as an anti-abortion strategy that extends the definition of a ‘human being’ to fetuses.”

Because of this existing and seemingly irresolvable standoff, Marquis suggested a more theoretical account on the wrongness of killing to resolve the abortion controversy. Marquis presented a number of arguments why killing is wrong. He explained the brutalization concept of killing which makes it wrong, that is, it brutalizes the victim and is focused not on the loss brought to the victim’s friends or relatives. Under this premise, killing is wrong because it inflicts one of the greatest possible losses on the victim—the loss to him of all those activities, projects, experiences and enjoyments which could have otherwise constituted the victim’s future personal life. There, however, should be value on these activities or personal future life.

Marquis then resorts to explaining the wrongness in terms of the natural property account. The point of analysis according to him is to establish which natural property ultimately explains the wrongness of killing given that it is wrong. Thus, what makes killing a particular human wrong is what it does to that particular human. Here, he derives the future-like-ours account to state that killing is wrong. Under this account, it is required that there be a perceived future for the being, then a value for that future, and a perceived valuer, otherwise, it defeats the purpose of the argument. The fetus may not be able to value his future or his own life, but some other may value it for him just as in the case of some suicidal youth, or the severely unconscious.

He then makes reference to the discontinuation account. Based on this, what makes killing wrong is the discontinuation of the experience of living and the wish for valuable experience to continue. Conversely, continued existence, requires the desire to continue his existence. Absence of this desire to continue leaves another question. The desire account requires that there be a capacity to desire, otherwise, there can be no perceived value of the future (consider mentally ill, or the unconscious who do not have the capacity to desire). The loss of the value of the future of the victim, however, is not supported by the biological category of the wrongness of killing. It also neglects the idea that they may be some other creatures who may also have futures and the question is what it is in their futures that makes it wrong to be taken away.

Finally, it discounts the possible future of pain that may be avoided by the severely ill who may opt for active euthanasia instead. To derive his argument that abortion is seriously wrong, he needed to base his argument not on the personhood but on the account that the concept of ‘person’ is used to state the conclusion of the analysis rather than to generate the argument of the analysis. He suggests to state the argument by “starting the analysis in terms of the value of the human future, conclude that abortion is, except perhaps in rare circumstances, seriously morally wrong, infer that fetuses have the right to life and then call fetuses ‘persons’ as a result of their having the right to life.”(p.192)

Despite these accounts for the wrongness of killing, these alternative general accounts still unsuccessfully or inadequately got around the anti-abortion consequences of the value of a future-like-ours argument. Marquis’ suggestion was to limit the scope of the value of a future-like-ours argument by arguing that fetuses lack a property that is essential for the value of a future-like-ours argument to apply to them. He counter argues, however, that his proposition stands because it may not be necessary that it be the fetus who values his life but it may be some other person. Another argument presented is whether or not an embryo or fetus may be victimized.

He cites Bassen who says that embryos lack mentation that establishes the reason why fetuses and embryos cannot be victims and therefore cannot be the basis for the wrongness of abortion. Marquis overturns this by noting that Bassen’s examples and discussions eventually lead to deprivation of a value of a future-like-ours and not mentation as the basis of the victimization. Marquis, argues, that in fact, “embryos can be victims: when their lives are deliberately terminated, they are deprived of their futures of value, their prospects” and this fact makes them victims because it directly wrongs them. Despite his proposition that majority of deliberate abortions are seriously immoral, Marquis does not consider contraception as wrong.

To him, nothing at all is denied such a future by contraception because in his analysis, there is in fact no subject of harm. Accordingly, Marquis claim that “the immorality of contraception is not entailed by the loss of the a future-like-ours argument simply because there is no nonarbitrary identifiable subject of the loss in the case of contraception.”(p.202) Finally, Marquis was able to propose an alternative generalization on the immorality of abortion. His purpose of setting out an argument for the serious presumptive wrongness of abortion based on the assumption that the moral permissibility of abortion stands or falls on the moral status of the fetus was successfully laid out. Strengths and Weakness of Marquis’ Arguments

Marquis’ essay is quite impressive in that it was able to deliver a deliberate and provocative analysis of existing arguments on abortion. In order to derive his position, he in fact delved into numerous philosophical accounts and went into categorically offering the premises, the arguments and even the possible counter-arguments for and against the wrongness of abortion. His persuasive style of writing is engaging in that he makes reference to his readers in attempting to appeal both to their pathos and logos. His use of “us” and “or you, reader” (as in pages 190 and 193) repeatedly in the text on the subject of killing is an effective tool in involving the readers in the active thought process. A closer analysis of his discussion, however, reveals some weaknesses. It is worthy of note that his thesis is not capable of standing on its own in that its soundness rests to some extent on the unsoundness of the arguments on which it was based or grounded.

Thus, its strength lies in the weakness of other arguments, and its full understanding is reliant upon the understanding of the consequences of other premises and argument. In the process, Marquis was successful in delivering his points. He presented his contemporaries arguments along with their weaknesses, delivered his personal propositions and even offered the possible attacks on his arguments. He offered strategies on dismantling standoffs or of avoiding certain consequences by limiting the scope of specific arguments. In the end, however, he left the readers to fill in the gaps and knit together his arguments rather than offering them a definite suggestion.

How and why his conclusions are derived at is left to the discretion and understanding of the readers of how he presented his ideas. In the text, one may notice that he explicitly excluded or tried to avoid certain issues. For example, he neglected issues of great importance to a complete ethics of abortion (p. 183) and what it is about our future or the future of other adult human beings which makes it wrong to kill us (p.191). In order to stress his conclusion, he deliberately left out some issues and focused on some other. That he presented these issues by excluding them from his analysis, however, brought more questions unanswered and left his readers in quandary on how his argument could have been arrived at if the issues he avoided had been considered in the analysis.

What could have happened to his arguments if these issues were in fact discussed and included? Could they have made his argument weak or illogical? Or could they have strengthened his argument? Probably not. Consequently, this further created gaps in the full understanding of the text. The author seems to be in the habit of opening a lot of discussions but leaves them hanging. Although he may have done this on purpose so as to limit his discourse, the resultant is a less than likely confusion or misconception. Note that in the previous section of this essay, Marquis discussed and established the wrongness of killing to a great extent then diverted to his initial thesis on the serious immorality of abortion as if they are one in the same thing.

He apparently seems to claim that wrong is equivalent to immoral. What he failed to do, however, is to establish what makes killing immoral to surmount it to the level that would make abortion seriously immoral in general. To him, the answer may have been obvious, but to logically think about it, he could have presented the morality issues of killing as it related to the wrongness of killing first then established the serious immorality of abortion. Marquis’ style is a bit cyclic in that he jumps from one concept to another and then goes back to a previous concept so as to drive at his comparisons of theories and propositions. It was advantageous in that it opens the readers to a lot logical and illogical possibility in trying to assess his points.

This style, however, requires the reader to go over and over the previous discussions and arguments to refresh his memory. Otherwise, readers find it difficult to draw connections between and among his propositions. In short, his discourse is quite difficult to contextualize in relation to other concepts in one reading. The author proposes in the conclusion that a fetus possesses a property, the possession of which in adult human beings is sufficient to make killing an adult human being wrong, thus, abortion is wrong, but failed to discuss in more detail what this property of a fetus is all about as compared to the property of an adult human being who have a valuable future ahead. In the beginning of the essay, it seems that the thesis is that it purports to show that abortion is seriously immoral and that it is in the same moral category as killing an innocent adult human being. At the end of the essay, however, he says that “the thesis of this essay is that the problem of the ethics of abortion, so understood, is solvable.” They do not seem to clearly jive at all, or at least clearly define what was in the entire text of the discussion.

In fact, his closing left another question hanging. Solvable in what sense, then? Does the author mean to say that his generalization that abortion is seriously immoral has solved the problem of the ethics of abortions? There is a strong reason to disagree. In fact, his jumping from his initial thesis that abortion in general is seriously immoral was not clearly sustained in the entire text when he eventually referred to it as a disputable presumption later in the discussion. He explicitly claimed that “abortion is presumptively seriously wrong, where the presumption is very strong—as strong as the presumption that killing another adult human being is strong”(p.194).

A counter argument, however, that he failed to recognize, or probably avoided, is the issue of what it is in the nature of a thing that could break this strong presumption that killing an adult human being is wrong that could also be made applicable to a fetus which could probably support or dismantle the argument that abortion is presumptively very seriously wrong. How similarly (or differently) situated are adults and fetuses to have (or not have) this strong presumption? In sum, Marquis’ essay is impressive in that it was able to deliver a highly critical analysis and argumentation on the wrongness of abortion. That a few weaknesses was identified in this analysis of his paper, however, does not serve to mitigate or totally overturn his arguments, but merely provided for an alternative suggestion in improving his arguments.


  • Marquis, D. (1989). Why Abortion is Immoral. The Journal of Philosophy, 86, No. 4, 183-202.

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