The Challenge

Pro-lifers ought not in principle make any distinctions between early and later abortions, yet it is plain that they, like other people, often do. There seems to be some confirmation to the gradualist or developmentalist view. The further along the path towards birth, the more protection we think the human fetus should have, or the more serious the reason must be for abortion. 1)
  • Not challenge this common intuition that Warnock talks about
  • But going to challenge the gradualist or developmental view, that human beings gain moral value throughout pregnancy as they develop
    • Gradualism: the value or worth of a human being increases over time with gestation
  • Going to challenge the view that pro-lifers ought not in principle make any distinctions throughout pregnancy
    • Namely, distinctions between early (first trimester) and later (second or third trimester) abortions2)
  • Briefly
    • Affirm the idea that human beings through all stages of development have equal basic moral status
    • Affirm that the intentional taking of human life at any stage of development is intrinsically evil
    • Deny that all abortions, both early and late, are ethically identical in every way

The Differences

  • Distinction between intrinsically evil and equally evil
    • Two actions can be intrinsically evil, but not equal in every way3)
      • Because of an additional deformity, e.g. Aquinas: stealing a chalice is stealing and sacrilege
      • Because of circumstances, e.g. To steal $10,000 is intrinscially evil, but it's worse to steal it from a widow on a fixed income than from the Queen of England or from J. K. Rowling
      • Culpability of the agent, e.g. murder, drunken husband comes home and finds wife in bed with another man versus cold-blooded assassin who plans for months
  1. An action that's evil in itself can be made worse by an additional evil
    • e.g. all murder is wrong, but torture before killing would be an additional evil
    • all abortions are wrong, but there could be an additional evil, e.g. if the fetus would suffer pain
    • (could be exceptions, e.g. if fetus is anesthetized, but not common practice)
  2. The more easily an obligation can be met, the worse it is not to meet that obligation
    • e.g. if I could save someone by walking two blocks and I refuse to do so, that's worse than if I fail to save someone by running 10 miles
    • The later in a pregnancy a woman gets, the less effort is needed to bring that pregnancy to birth. Early in pregnancy, a relatively greater effort is needed.
    • (could be exceptions, e.g. health problems discovered later in pregnancy, but still true in general)
  3. The later in pregnancy a woman goes, the less likely it is that there is inculpable ignorance
    • Very early in pregnancy, it's more plausible to mistakenly believe that abortion is just the removal of a bunch of cells, but later in pregnancy, almost everyone is aware of the humanity of pre-born children (e.g. through ultrasound images, fetal movements, etc.)
    • (could be exceptions, e.g. a personal well-versed in fetal development may well know that a human being in earlier stages of developments may well know early on, or someone who is extremely ignorant or has a mental disability may not know later in pregnancy)
  4. Fear diminishes culpability
    • The shock and fear of a crisis pregnancy lessens the culpability, so there is less culpability when abortion is chosen in the initial period of shock than later in pregnancy as the emotions of fear and shock lessen
    • (could be exceptions, e.g. health problems that arise later in pregnancy, or pregnancies discovered later, or self-denial earlier in pregnancy, etc.)
  5. The longer a relationship endures, the more ethically problematic it is to end it
    • Worse to end a marriage after three decades than after three weeks; later miscarriage is often more traumatic than early miscarriage
  6. People have an ethical obligation to avoid unnecessary risks to their health
    • Abortion later in pregnancy carries more health risks for the mother

We can accept Warnock's intuition that later abortion is more problematic than earlier abortions, but not accept the grounds for this that the human fetus gains moral status throughout development, i.e. accepting the intuition without accepting the gradualist view.

Other Grounds for Gradualism

  • The gradualist could recognize that any individual characteristic is insufficient to grant personhood
    • e.g. sentience (the ability to experience pleasure and pain), there are human beings who are already born who do not experience any pain whatsoever, with chronic insensitivity to pain syndrome (FIXME well, this doesn't response to preference utilitarians, who would say that someone who's born may still have preferences even if they can't feel physical pain, or they may experience emotional pain, etc.), e.g. Abby Gingras
    • other characteristics: viability, conscious desires (FIXME this is the response to preference utilitarians), mobility, etc. – they're either over-inclusive or under-inclusive, (FIXME Kaczor's book)
  1. Instead, they say, “Okay, perhaps singularly, sentience or conscious desires or viability or whatever doesn't make you a person, but when you add up these characteristics over time, they make you more and more like a person until finally personhood kicks in; individually they don't account for much, but collectively they do”
    • like a rope: one thread is easily broken, but a rope is very strong – by birth, you have a very strong rope
  2. This analogy actually fails because a thread does have some strength, but an unsound argument doesn't have any strength at all
    • If sentience is irrelevant to moral worth, than adding sentience to other characteristics is also irrelevant
    • e.g. I'll show you that African are not full persons with moral worth
      • they have dark skin
      • they're polytheistic
      • they're poor
    • But those are horrible arguments!
      • skin colour has nothing to do with personhood or moral worth… and not all Africans have dark skin…
      • that has nothing to do with moral worth or rights… and not all Africans are polytheistic…
      • being poor has nothing to do with your moral worth… and not all Africans are poor…
    • “Okay… well, taking individually, each one of these things doesn't really work… but if you put them all together as threads in a rope, then collectively they work.”
      • It obviously doesn't work. An unsound argument is a zero. You can add up as many zeroes as you want and it doesn't work.
  3. Others defend a gradualist view by appealing to other sorts of rights, e.g. right to drive, or purchase alcohol, or serve as an elected representative, etc., so maybe the right to life is gradually gained
    • The right to life is radically different: in order to drive or vote or hold public office, we have corresponding duties to fulfill
    • there's no corresponding duty with a right to life
  4. Casting gradualism as a golden mean between extremes
    • Pro-lifer extremists say all human life is equally valuable, and abortion advocates say abortion is okay all the way through pregnancy, but gradualism is a golden mean – not extremely pro-life or pro-choice
    • It is a sort of mean, but is it the virtuous mean?
      • Take theft: the mathematical mean between stealing from 100 people and stealing from no people would be to steal from only 50 people, but clearly the mathematical mean is not the moral mean
  5. Jeff McMahan: Almost everyone does distinguish between “full blown murder” of an adult, and abortion. People who are pro-lifer don't really think that the fetus has equal status to an adult
    • Pro-lifers can hold that all killing of an innocent human being is wrong without holding that all killing is equal
    • Killing an adult is, because of other factors, circumstantially worse than abortion
      • Killing an adult thwarts the plans and the dreams of the one who is killed, whereas a fetus doesn't yet have plans or fears
      • Killing an adult engenders fear and terror in other people that abortion doesn't normally entail
    • The culpability of the agent can also present serious differences
    • It's a little bit like the difference between killing an average person on the street and killing a President or a Prime Minister
      • They're equally bad in one respect: killing the innocent
      • But killing the POTUS could have unbelievable effects on millions of people, could cause wars, financial collapse, etc., versus killing a regular citizen

Why We Should Reject Gradualism

  1. Human physiological development continues well after birth
    • Gradualists should hold that it's worse to kill a 20 year old than a 10 year old, or worse to kill a 10 year old than a 2 year old
  2. Some human beings before birth are more physiological developed than other human beings after birth
    • e.g. a pregnancy that continues two weeks past the due date, versus a baby born prematurely at 25 weeks
      • by any reasonable standard, the baby born at 25 weeks is less physiologically developed, but no one would hold that infanticide is okay for the pre-term baby, yet that would follow from the gradualist view

FIXME I think Ainslie wanted to argue a gradualist view until some magical plateau is reached (or until there's enough of a rope) somewhere in the middle of pregnancy, and would side-step pre-term delivery by saying perhaps there isn't proportionate reason to kill the child once born because the issue of a mother's bodily autonomy is off the table (rather than weighed against a gradually developing right to life)


  • People who hold the same basic moral status of all human beings can draw ethical distinctions between early and late term abortions
  • This is important common ground. Pro-lifers and many pro-choicers with different views on abortion can work together to curtail late term abortions, without in any way compromising the view that all human beings ought to be respected by law and have the same moral status
  • Consider history: many times, we've drawn distinctions between two classes of human beings – those with rights, and those that don't count or have full, equal, moral status. Every single time we've made this distinction between human person and human non-persons, we've made a catastrophic moral mistake. The only reasonable position is that all human beings should be granted basic moral rights, basic moral status – to reject the gradualist view against the weight of history.
Mary Warnock, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Ethics
Andrew J. Peach, “Late- vs. Early-Term Abortion: A Thomistic Analysis” in The Thomist, January 2007
e.g. Aquinas: if someone steals a chalice, it's stealing, and sacrilege