The ethics of abortion – De ja vue or necessary debate?

This summer I realised with some horror that it was 20 years ago I first presented a paper at an international medical ethics conference while still being a medical student. That paper was on who should control the fate of aborted foetuses and the paper I gave the year after at the same conference was on whether “spare embryo” is a fixed category with moral importance. Both issues are still discussed in the literature and I just finished reading an excellent Danish PhD thesis discussing the current legal importance of these questions (1).

But would it not be better if we could finish with some issues one and for all and reach some kind of resolution?

In the current issue of the JME Carson Strong revisits an even older question in medical ethics – the question of the moral assessment of abortion. In his paper ‘A Critique of “The Best Secular Argument against Abortion”’ he analyses Don Marquis’ famous argument that what is wrong about killing adults is that it deprives them of a future like ours, and that since killing a foetus also deprives it of a future like ours abortion is a kind of wrongful killing.

The “future like ours” argument has already been extensively discussed in the literature and it would have been tempting to believe that everything that could be said about this argument had already been said, but Carson Strong has managed to find new and interesting problems in the argument.

Why should this be of any interest? Hasn’t the abortion issue been decisively settled? Well, the US Presidential election campaign shows that there is at least one major world power in which the issue has not been settled and current European debates concerning abortion tourism shows the problems that can arise if different jurisdictions regulate abortions in very different ways.

It is simply not the case that there is agreement about abortion or about the merit of the various arguments in the abortion debate.

Strong’s paper shows how an incisive critique can be combined with academic courtesy and is a model of how the abortion debate can be taken forward.

Go read!

1. Herrmann JR. Retsbeskyttelsen af fostre og befrugtede æg – Om håndteringen af retlige hybrider. København: Jurist- og Økonomforbundets Forlag, 2008

2. Marquis D. Why abortion is immoral. J Philos 1989;86:183-202.