Anscombe Bioethics
Vatican Double Helix Staircase
Bioethics Centre
Click here to subscribe to the Anscombe articles RSS feed to keep track of the latest changes... RSS Icon

Living Together: Pregnancy and Parenthood (2002)

Helen Watt responds to claims that the fetus is not (or not always) human, that abortion is about "choice" and "controlling one's body", and that women and children benefit from the practice of abortion. A pdf of this article is available here.

Before focusing on these moral arguments, it is worth noting that abortion raises emotional, as well as intellectual problems. Many people are personally affected by abortion, or fear they may need to resort to abortion at some time in the future (for example, if their contraception fails). The idea that abortion could be morally wrong is one which may be personally very challenging. What would it mean? That we would need to look again at our own past abortions? At our sexual relationships? Accept any child we may conceive in the future, however difficult that may be? Change our job, if there is a link to abortion? Alienate our friends?

Controlling our bodies

Bodily attacks

We need to ask: does not the fetus - assuming it has the moral status of a human being - have a right to have its body respected, and not deliberately attacked? Undeniably, it does have this right, if it has full human status. Just as the woman has a right not to have her body attacked - for example, poisoned or pulled apart - the same is true of her unborn child.

Condemning women?

There is no avoiding the central moral question posed by abortion: does the fetus have the moral status of any human being? Before looking at this question, however, there is one point which needs to be made clear. It is often assumed that any suggestion that abortion is morally unjustified implies a harsh and hostile view of those who have abortions. This is not the case: there are many reasons why a woman who has an abortion may not be fully aware of what abortion involves. And even if she were aware, this does not mean she should be harshly judged by other people. Abortion is arguably at least as harmful for the woman herself as it is for her child: women who have had abortions need more, not less, support on that account. (Such support is available in Britain from organizations such as British Victims of Abortion, which are run by women who have had abortions themselves.)

Status of the fetus

Living human persons

This approach fails, however, to recognize the bodily nature of the human moral subject. We are not purely spiritual beings, even if we have a spiritual aspect. Rather, we are living human organisms: animals of a special kind. We belong to the rational human species, and are fulfilled by (among other things) using the powers we have to develop rational abilities. To ask when the human being or person begins, we should ask when the human animal begins. The answer to this will normally be: at fertilization. Admittedly, not every embryo is created at fertilization: twins can be created when cells are separated from an existing embryo. However, whether an embryo is created from sperm and egg, or from cells of an existing embryo, each embryo is the first stage in the life-cycle of a human being.

We need to remember that people are morally important, not just their thoughts and feelings. In fact, thoughts and feelings are important precisely because they are good (or potentially good) for the human being who has them. It is good for me, as an embryo, fetus, and infant, to grow up to have thoughts and feelings of a kind I cannot have for many years. If the fetus is me, why is it not bad for me to be deprived of my life? And why is it not morally wrong for me to be deliberately deprived of my life - at least if I am innocent of crime or aggression?

Abortion and disability

Some claim that disability is (or can be) so burdensome for the family of the disabled person that this alone justifies abortion of a disabled unborn child. This approach tends to underestimate the suffering involved in losing a child by late abortion - to say nothing of the risk of miscarriage caused by tests used to detect medical conditions in the womb. It also fails to recognize what countless families of disabled children have discovered for themselves: that the disabled child can be experienced as a blessing -a gift which enriches the family. There is much we can learn from the experience of caring for a disabled child about the meaning of life, and of love as unconditional acceptance. In contrast, what we learn from abortion is that children need not be accepted unconditionally - and may even be killed if they fail to meet our standards of health.

Abortion and medicine

Legal issues

How, then, should the legal system respond to the practice of abortion? If it is true that abortion is lethal to one human being, and also harmful to another, this is not something towards which the law can afford to be indifferent. We all expect the law to protect us from homicide at the age we are now. We also expect the law to protect those who are younger and more vulnerable than ourselves - for example, newborn babies. So why should the law not protect those who are still younger, and still more vulnerable - to say nothing of protecting their mothers from a harmful, non-therapeutic procedure?

Backstreet abortion

It is often said that making abortion illegal will result in many women dying every year from backstreet abortions. In fact if we look at figures for maternal deaths, in Britain and elsewhere, we see that they were falling in number before permissive laws on abortion were passed, and went on falling at a similar rate after the passing of such laws. It was better medical care, such as the use of antibiotics, which reduced maternal deaths. Of course, there will always be some illegal abortions, whatever the law on abortion. However, the same can be said of other forms of violence, such as child abuse or rape. Would we make these practices legal, just because they still go on, despite laws against them?

Unwanted children

The argument that we must avoid the birth of unwanted children, who will then be ill-treated by their parents, is also not supported by the facts. Leaving aside the logic of killing a child to protect it from abuse, child abuse rates have gone up, not down, with the legalization of abortion. In contrast, it is well-known that parents who were horrified to learn of a pregnancy can be delighted once the child has been born. While adoption is, of course, a possibility for those who really cannot cope with a child, most people are able to cope with, and love, their own children. If they can be helped through the initial period of rejection, whether by friends or family or by counselors, they can be very affectionate parents, even if they still need support.


What has happened to society, more than three decades after the passing of the Abortion Act in Britain? Society has not become more welcoming of children, or more celebratory of pregnancy. Women have not been encouraged to accept, and use responsibly, their reproductive powers, but have rather been encouraged to reject both their children, and themselves as parents. In the same way, men have been encouraged to back away from their responsibilities for their partners and their children.

First published in Abortion: Whose Right? (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2002).