Abortion and regret

By Anthony McCarthy

Some women regret their abortions. Does this tell us anything interesting about whether abortion is, morally or prudentially, a choice worth making?

A number of empirical papers have assessed the prevalence of abortion regret, reporting that a large majority of women do not regret their abortions. While use of the Turnaway Study data set has been subjected to some critique, not least because of the high dropout rate, these papers have undoubtedly received huge media coverage. Much less well-covered is a study by some of the same researchers using the same data set which found that 96 per cent of women who were refused abortions did not regret having the child 5 years on.

One serious attempt to deal with the subject of abortion regret in terms of moral philosophy is Kate Greasley’s ground-breaking 2012 paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics, to which I recently responded in Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics. Greasley argues that regret over abortion decisions does not neatly track moral and rational justification. She suggests that any discrepancy there may possibly be between regret for abortion and for giving birth can be readily explained by the ‘affirmation dynamic’, an idea deriving from the philosopher RJ Wallace. Adopting this idea, Greasley explains that a pregnant woman will be subject to a parental duty to affirm the life of her child, which will preclude regret over her reproductive choice…there may have been serious objections to continuing the pregnancy. If this was the case, then such objections would continue to stand even if the girl chose to complete her pregnancy, thus finding herself in a position where she could not regret her choice…If the girl has her baby, we know that the non-availability of regret has nothing to do with justification. The presence of regret in the abortion scenario does not therefore take on justificatory significance simply because, had she kept the pregnancy, she would eventually have to affirm her decision.

Greasley argues that a woman who gives birth is morally obligated to love and value her child and therefore (Greasley thinks) is obligated not to regret a decision to have the child – she cannot regret a decision with an outcome she welcomes and should welcome. No such obligation exists for a woman not to regret her abortion.

In response to this, regretting a choice and regretting its outcome can be separated here as elsewhere. For example, can a woman not regret her abortion simply because it has resulted in a new child whom she loves and who would not have existed without the prior abortion? In the same way, a woman who conceived deliberately as a young teenager, a case discussed by Greasley, can reasonably love and welcome her child while still believing she was wrong to seek conception in less than adequate circumstances and morally regretting that she did so.

Moreover, simply because it may be psychologically difficult for a woman to regret having her baby does not mean her testimony should be set aside. Quite generally, if one group of people is, for reasons separate from the justification of a choice they made, less likely to have an opportunity to experience regret, this does not mean that any regret experienced by a contrast group is necessarily unreasonable, or that the possibility of such regret should not influence others’ decision-making.

Think of a group of soldiers who initially believe that use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ is justified in certain circumstances where it can save lives by preventing acts of terrorism. If some are successful in saving lives this way, it may be harder for them to develop regrets – the success insulates them from such feelings – than it is for those who fail to extract information using the same techniques. But that does not mean that any regrets of the second group are irrelevant as evidence as to whether use of the techniques was morally justified. Such testimony can at least assist with discerning whether these techniques are right or wrong, even if those expressing regret are smaller in number than those who express no regret.

While regret is not morally infallible – justified actions can be regretted – regret for actions that end lives or otherwise cause serious harm should be listened to with particular care. And indeed, Greasley herself acknowledges that if at least “most people” experience regret at a decision to end a life, this is something that might “give one pause for thought.”

Greasley believes avoiding regret can be a reason to act or refrain from acting, even if regret’s “persuasive power only derives from the belief that regret will reflect justification”.  However, post-abortion regret is not a mere feeling but relates to a value or values: the woman who regrets her abortion will likely regret ‘what she missed out on’ and/or ‘what her fetus missed out on’ due to the choice she made and this will (or may) reflect a rational judgement as she sees it. In contrast, a woman who goes on to have her baby – even after being denied an abortion –  may regret aspects of her situation but is unlikely to regret having the child.

Even if most women do not regret their abortions, this does not deprive of justificatory moral significance, as Greasley appears to suggest (“regret has very little, if anything, to say about abortion’s moral or rational standing”), the reports of those who do regret their abortions. Nor does it deprive of justificatory moral significance reports of sadness, grief and guilt on the part of women who nonetheless deny regretting their abortions. In making a decision for herself, a pregnant woman who wants to avoid both regret (acknowledged or unacknowledged) and feelings of sadness, grief and guilt is justified in allowing the experience of women who undergo any of these reactions to inform her own decision.


Author: Anthony McCarthy

Affiliation: Bios Centre, London, UK

Competing interests: None declared.

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