go figure: a play in one act
on abortion and its permissibility
In this paper, I will discuss the moral permissibility of abortion with reference to Margaret Little’s paper “Abortion, Intimacy, and the Duty to Gestate”. In her paper, Little argues that much of the mainstream debate about abortion fails to capture the intimacy of gestation (Little 295). She describes this intimacy as a type of “physical enmeshment” and claims that “for a fetus, to be alive is to be occupying someone’s body, to be using it, to be living in a particularly intimate physical relationship with another” (Little 299). In this essay, I will be leveraging Little’s view to argue for the permissibility of abortion. Gestation can be good or bad, depending on how the woman views her relationship with the fetus. Someone who wants to be a mother would not see the pregnancy as a harm, but someone who does not want a child would. Forbidding someone from having an abortion is thus forced gestation – a forced physically intimate relationship. Forcing anyone into an unwanted relationship is wrong. Thus, I argue that abortion is morally permissible because forced gestation is wrong.
If we do not think it is permissible to force anyone into unwanted relationships, and we take that gestation is a physically intimate relationship, then mandated gestation is morally wrong. It is true that there are many women wish to be mothers, but this does not mean that all women do. “For many women, gestating their babies is experienced not as an intrusion but as wonderful and loving enmeshment; the intimacies involved (if not all the physical symptoms) are cherished” (Little 302). Obtaining a woman’s consent to this intimate physical relationship is thus morally relevant because without it, we would be infringing upon her right to liberty. An example Little uses in her paper is sex – an intimate physical act. “Just as sexual intercourse can be a joy under consent and a violation without it, gestation can be a beautiful experience with it and a harmful one without it” (Little 302). Pregnancy to women who wish to be pregnant is a meaningful and beautiful relationship; but to those who do not wish to be pregnant, mandating them to do so would be infringing upon their liberty. A woman should not be subject to this unwanted relationship with a fetus if she is not ready for the commitment of gestation and the future responsibility of motherhood, so she should be allowed to have an abortion.
Some people believe that we have a moral obligation to preserve (human) life when possible. They would argue that if a relationship with a child is not something the woman is interested in, then she can simply choose to give the child up for adoption once she gives birth to it. She need not abort the fetus and end its life before it even begins. To these people, abortion would be morally impermissible as it ends life unnecessarily. They would claim that the fetus is a type of being which has right to life and its right to life is infringed upon when we value the woman’s choice over it. To them, abortion is needless when adoption –the preservation of life -- is an option. After all, getting pregnant and carrying the fetus to term does not entail that the woman must continue to be present in the child’s life once it is out of her womb. Instead of aborting the child, she could simply choose to let it live and pass this responsibility of motherhood to someone else who would want it.
I think it is worth emphasizing that it would be wrong to subject the woman to the physical and mental harms that could occur during gestation as this is something concrete that people who are anti-abortion cannot deny. It is an empirical fact of our world today that pregnancy comes with risks. Suppose, however, we were in a world where there no known risks for pregnancy and that we can ensure the process would be painless. Little suggests, and I agree, that gestation without consent is still a harm in and of itself (Little 303). Imagine having an unwelcomed stranger in your home who has overstayed their visit. Whether or not they damage your house, the stranger would have used your utilities and resources. Likewise, even if the pregnancy goes well, being forced to do something without your consent takes away your liberty, and there is just something that is intrinsically wrong about that. “However joyful or pregnancy under consent may be – yearned for or tolerated as a means to an end you endorse – gestation mandated against consent is itself a harm” (Little 303).
Abortion should be permissible because a pregnant woman does not immediately have a “personal relationship” with, and in turn, a “moral responsibility” to a fetus (Little 306). Some people believe that pregnancy “taps into expectations of motherhood” which women are “ideally” supposed to want (Little 302). This ideal, however, seems like a byproduct of our current society, and has no reflection on what is or ought to be the case. Little suggests that “perhaps it is what (the woman) actually wants and agrees to that determines the status of (her) enmeshment” (Little 303). Tasking a pregnant woman the responsibility with the (potential) life of a fetus, without considering how she feels, would then be a premature decision. Most people believe that a mother has some obligations to her child, but we should not conflate a mother’s responsibility to child with a woman who is deciding whether to continue a pregnancy. If she has not decided to be a mother, she does not owe the fetus anything. Only in choosing to be a mother and pursue a further relationship with a fetus does pregnant woman take on the moral responsibility for the fetus’s life.
There are people who believe that once a woman engages in sexual intercourse, that she accepts the risk of pregnancy, and as such, accepts some responsibility that she may become a mother (Little 303). These people would argue that, at the very least the woman should have some responsibility over what happens to the fetus because she has engaged in risky behaviors. To an extent, motherhood is a choice, but a woman must face the consequences of her action and own up to at least some moral responsibilities towards the fetus. In opposition to abortion, they would likely insist that even if the woman only owes the fetus some moral responsibilities, that a fraction of responsibility would entail that she acts in the most beneficent way towards the fetus by preserving its life when there is an option to do so at little cost to her.
In keeping consistent with Little and as discussed in lecture, I would argue that perhaps the only moral responsibility that a woman who does not want to be pregnant has to a fetus would be to consider, with an open mind, whether to continue an intimate relationship with it (Rulli Lecture). This consideration of the fetus’s interests is where the moral responsibilities of engaging in sexual intercourse should end. We should not hold the woman accountable for the fetus’s life until she has chosen to be a mother because parenthood, according to Little is a “lived, personal relationship” that ideally involves “a lived emotional interconnection, and a history of shared experiences” (Little 306). In considering the fetus’s interests, a woman accepts consequences of her action and evaluates whether having a child and committing to the moral responsibilities of motherhood – such as the protection of the child’s interest – is something she is ready for. This leaves it open for the woman to decide whether or not she is ready without forcing her into any decision by prescribing moral responsibilities that she has yet to agree upon.
In this paper I have shown that mandating a woman to gestate is clearly wrong as it harms a woman’s right to liberty. The choice to gestate or abort lies in the hands of the woman because of the physically intimate nature of her relationship with the fetus (Little 301). A woman who has found herself pregnant ought to have a say in the kinds of relationships she partakes in and she ought not be subject to moral responsibilities she did not sign up for. In giving women the choice of what to do with their bodies, we affirm their right to liberty not to be occupied without consent. Therefore, if we value a woman’s liberty, we must believe that abortion is morally permissible.
Little, Margaret Olivia. "Abortion, Intimacy, and the Duty to Gestate." Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 2.3 (1999): 295-312.
Rulli, Christina. "Maggie Little Lecture." 24 Jan. 2019, University of California - Davis, Davis. Lecture.