The Moral Permissibility of Abortion

Posted: November 7th, 2023

The Moral Permissibility of Abortion

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The Moral Permissibility of Abortion


Advocacy against abortion is often based on the premise that a foetus represents a human being from conception. Such a traditional view makes it morally unacceptable for a woman or a girl to terminate a pregnancy. Through an analysis of the metaphysics of pregnancy, this paper highlights the gaps in the common argument. Consider the development of a human being from conception to birth to childhood. The growth process is continuous, which makes it difficult to draw a line and state that this is where a thing transforms into a person. Supporters of the parthood view claim the mammalian embryo is only part of the organisms that creates it. On the other hand, the containment view contests that the foetus is only contained within the mother. First, the paper assesses the functional integration of foetuses (fosters) to the mother (gravida) to outline both the containment and parthood views require substantial support. Secondly, the report assesses topological continuity in organisms to highlight why the parthood view generates the most solid psychological, philosophical and biological considerations in favour of abortion. While the foetus ultimately grows into an individual, it does not represent an autonomous being before birth, meaning the mother still has a complete say over what should happen to her body.

The Functional Integration of Foetuses

            One of the main themes in biological discussions about when a foetus becomes an actual human being center on physiological autonomy and functional integration. The human body works as a unified system geared toward a common goal, which is the survival of the species (Finn, 2021). The human body results from centuries of competition, adaptation and selective reproduction. Therefore, in conditions similar to those of early man, an organism is desired to behave in ways that safeguard its inclusivity. The conditioning means that the functional behaviours of different parts of a being are symbiotic and need to be understood in reference to the distinct organism itself (Finn, 2021). For example, apoptosis or planned cell death will be considered the final life stage of a cell if science thinks cells are independent and exclusive. However, when it is considered that cells are interdependent, science acknowledges that planned cell death is self-sacrificial and part of physical growth. Functional integration provides a basis for determining if a foetus is autonomous or part of an organism.

The way humans maintain homeostasis and control their metabolic function proves that a foetus is not another whole. Proponents of the parthood view claim that a foetus cannot be granted the right to life because it does not exist as a separate being (Meincke, 2022). A close analysis of the human metabolic system explains why this assertion is true. During gestation, the foster is metabolically linked to parts of the gravida (Meincke, 2022). For example, the foetus relies on the mother to dispose of waste. The foster is also reliant on the gravida for temperature regulation. The mother is bound to experience an increase in appetite to better provide heat for the foetus. Science highlights that the gravida actively integrates the fetus into its metabolic system to ensure sustenance (Meincke, 2022). For example, the placenta facilitates the exchange of food, water, oxygen and waste material between the foster and the gravida. Mothers are also expected to experience an increased heart rate for enhanced metabolism during pregnancy. The complex interplay between the two negates arguments of autonomy used claims against abortion.

Functional integration for continued existence is equally evident in immunology. Another way of determining the distinctiveness of an organism is by assessing what the creature immunologically tolerates (Pradeu, 2012). A key question is whether the gravida immunologically tolerates the foster. Pregnant women not only deal with swollen ankles, cravings and fatigue but also become more susceptible to illnesses, such as the common cold and flu (Pradeu, 2012). The female body has to lower its immune system to not attack the foetus as an external invader. The body’s natural disposition to lower the immune system is akin to biological signaling of the gravida acknowledging the foster as one of its components. Important to note is that changes in the immune system are not induced by the foetus but by the gravida. The act shows that mothers immunologically integrate the foster to facilitate their continued existence throughout gestation. Therefore, it is more fruitful to consider the placenta as part of the gravida’s immune regulation.

Critics might argue that the foetus is not functionally integrated with the mother because it does not contribute to her well-being but diminishes her quality of life and chances of survival. As aforementioned, the human body is a biological system working towards the continuation of the species. According to Woollard (2021), questioning why women get pregnant despite the challenges is irrelevant. Evolution via natural selection does not result in creatures that live for their survival. Instead, the organisms work towards their inclusive fitness. Inclusivity and continuation of the species both require reproduction. The rational choice theory outlines that men and women consider the epistemic implications of pregnancy and still engage in procreation (Woollard, 2021). Pregnancy is perceived as a transformative experience that inspires all organisms to partake despite the risks. Survival is only a means of reproduction. The trade-off between survival and procreation is abundant in the natural world. For instance, Wildebeests migrate thousands of miles, crossing rivers filled with crocodiles and grasslands full of predators only to reach green plains where they can mate.

It would be bizarre to reject the notion that reproduction is the main function of organisms. Proponents of the containment view claim that only parts working towards survival are functionally integrated into the foster (Finn, 2021). Such a claim diminishes the quality of life and chances of continuity for a species because it excludes reproductive organs at a minimum. The penis, testicles, ovaries, and womb are all organs active in the functional integration of the foster to the gravida. Another possible scenario applied to reject the functional integration of the foetus is a case of fatal maternal conflict (Finn, 2021). An example is a condition that results in the foster’s death and significantly risks the gravida’s life. Critics might argue that the death of the foetus and the mother’s continued existence shows the two are separate beings. Such an argument does not cover the universal truths of pregnancy. While a pathological malfunction in the foetus might cause its death and not the mother, a collapse in the gravida’s biological system will always result in the demise of the foster. Foetuses that kill their mothers during pregnancy stand minimal chances of survival, proving the existence of functional integration.

One might object to the existence of functional integration using the overlap view. According to the philosophical principle, there are parts of the gravida and foster that overlap. For example, there is a scientific basis for believing that the baby and the mother compete for resources. The muscles and brain compete for oxygen, whereas the gut competes for sugars. The sharing of resources outlines why some philosophers consider pregnancy as a line between neither two individuals nor one (Meincke, 2022). Biologically surprising is that this type of competition does not exist during pregnancy. Both the gravida and foster are designed to limit and suppress competition for unity. The sharing of resources is successfully balanced, catering to the well-being of both the foetus and the mother (Simkulet, 2021). One can argue that organisms living in an environment where competition is balanced are fitter compared to those where there is extensive low-level competition. The successful control and suppression of competition between the foetus and the mother is evidence of functional integration. The foster is more likely to survive by becoming part of the gravida to access resources.

Topological Continuity

Common criteria used in accounts delineating human life center on organisms being physically continuous. Wilson and Barker (2013) analyze organisms to conclude that they show spatial-temporal continuity. In debates over the moral permissibility of abortion, the question to consider is whether the foetus is spatially continuous with the mother. Foetuses cannot be considered fully autonomous organisms because they do not have the capability to maintain an active environment. People opposing abortion often use viability as a pregnancy stage for considering a foetus a person (Glover, 1977). Viability is the phase when the embryo can survive independently outside the womb. Physical dependence is presented as a reason not necessary for survival. However, consider the hypothetical scenario where a fertilized egg is removed from the mother and grown separately in a lab. The embryo relies on technology and human skill to create conditions necessary for growth and development (O’Dowd, 2006). Therefore, it does not survive independently. The foetus does not establish spatial continuity, meaning it is not a person.

Homeostasis is grounds to believe there is no spatial discontinuity between the foster and the gravida. Organisms are expected to maintain a state of relative growth and development within a range of parameters (Kingma, 2019). For instance, acidity, body temperature, waste and osmotic pressure are narrowly controlled by an organism’s metabolic activities. A debate concerning the spatial control of the internal environment is irrelevant to a foetus. The small organism cannot contribute to spaces discussing the nose, lungs, air pipe, urethra or pores. The homeostatic parameters of the gravida entirely regulate the foster’s state. It is scientifically complex to delineate the extent to which foetus’ influence and maintain its internal environment (Kingma, 2019). The boundaries are unclear, and the foster relies on the mother for most of its physiological functions. A lack of spatial discontinuity negates a foetus’ right to life since it is not a complete being.

A foetus’ right to life is also weakened by its inability to distinguish life from death. The argument is not that fosters do not have natural rights. The truth is that all persons have a right to life (Kingma, 2019). However, given that a foetus depends on the mother’s cognitive and functional capabilities, the right to life remains with the gravida. A foster is too early in its brain development to know the value of life or death. Moreover, it has no distinct desire to live (Kingma, 2019). It is often the case that the mother decides whether the pregnancy should reach its full term. The woman also decides whether to conceive or not. An example is the use of IUDs and other contraceptives to prevent conception. The foetus has no autonomous contribution to this decision (O’Dowd, 2006). Therefore, abortion does not breach the principles of killing. If a foetus were granted the right of life from conception, some contraceptive measures would be akin to murder. For instance, using the morning-after pill to terminate a fertilized egg would be murder since the one-day embryo is a complete being.

Topological continuity begins at birth. The last stage of pregnancy is when a foetus develops into an actual being. Therefore, it is also after birth that abortion satisfies the principles of killing (Thomson, 2019). An infant is born into a larger community and is the first time people detect signs of a unique personality. A baby can see and hear. It can also begin crying to inform of the need to breastfeed. Such actions show no functional integration because the infant is autonomous in physiological development. However, Glover (1977) believes there is no difference between a foetus and a baby born into the world less than half an hour ago. The philosopher highlights the dangers of setting a boundary when a foetus develops into a protected being. The potential costs to the gravida will be too high, and opportunities for enhancing welfare for both parties will be lost if there is a clear line of when a foster becomes an actual being during gestation.

The potentiality argument highlights that a fetus is not yet a fully developed human being. According to the theory, even the most undeveloped human beings contain the potential to become self-aware and rational (Fieser, 2021). The potential acts as a qualification for moral personhood and the subsequent right to life. Having moral personhood mandates other people to acknowledge individual worth. The concept explains the value assigned to persons that belong to special communities, including pets. However, like infants, developing animal babies do not have the cognitive capability to be self-aware. Therefore, they cannot be assigned any value or right to life. Fieser (2021) laments that the problem in abortion is determining the specific features that make an adult human a member of the moral community. That is, what are the measures for moral personhood. Philosophers, politicians and the general public look out for a single criterion for moral personhood despite human existence being characterized by several traits, including consciousness, capacity to communicate and reasoning. In most parts of the world, mere ‘animal or human life’ is not a measure of personhood that people adopt.

Five conditions are necessary to illustrate topological continuity in human beings. Thomson (2019) is correct in stating that abortion is not a morally serious deed but rather an extremely unfortunate development. The claim is abortion is permissible even in late-stage pregnancy because the foetus is not a person. Even when pregnancy is coming to a close, a foetus will not have consciousness, reasoning, self-motivation, the capacity to communicate or the presence of self-concepts (Thomson, 2019). The lack of any of the five conditions on personhood negates a foetus’ right to life. If abortion was morally wrong under the five measures, then killing any potential person would equally be wrong. Such an argument is heavily applied in reference to women using contraceptives. With the purpose of sexual relationships being reproduction, using IUDs and morning-after pills should also be considered morally incorrect.

Moral Dangers in Setting a Distinct Line for Abortion

            Ethics is based on promoting and maintaining good in human society regardless of situation. Foot (2012) states that one of the main reasons people feel confused about abortion is because they are torn between assigning unborn children the same rights as adults. It is no doubt that the problem is one of society’s greatest dilemmas, but it is not the only one. Other people understand there are special circumstances that require the termination of a pregnancy. When considering such unique situations, the argument for abortion is not based on the need to save the mother if the pregnancy threatens their life. Contrastingly, it is based on the doctrine of the double effect (DDE). The theory states that all factors held constant, harm intended is more difficult to justify than harm foreseen (Foot, 2012). Certain scenarios justify the termination of a pregnancy to counter foreseen suffering. Setting a line for when a foetus becomes an actual being reduces the possibility of addressing forecasted pain. As per the DDE, abortion to cause suffering to either the mother or foetus is what cannot be justified.

Setting a clear line for abortion provides doctors and nurses with an impossible decision in the provision of medical care. Given that the Supreme Court recently overturned Roe v. Wade, experts lament that many physicians will find themselves in a bind, unable to fulfil their professional oaths to pregnant mothers due to restrictive state laws (Simmons-Duffin, 2022). Medical personnel take an oath to do no harm and promote individual and community welfare. The professionals ensure that they remain updated with new medical practices and standards of care. The objective is to always provide the patient with the opportunity to decide what they consider right or suitable. However, with federal law granting foetuses the right to life, conversations with pregnant mothers will sway towards navigating the maze of legal requirements instead of personal values and health (Simmons-Duffin, 2022). For instance, in Texas, the six-week abortion window provides little time for mothers to know they are pregnant to get a legal termination. The fact that the foetus negates the mother’s autonomy and right of self makes restricting abortion morally incorrect.

People who advocate against abortion endorse a non-consequentialist account of the right of action that cannot distinguish between promoting a value and respecting one. The problem with the non- consequentialist is that they cannot make and justify moral claims (Woollard, 2017). For instance, the consequentialist cannot endorse people or an agent to not lie, even if it represents the best way to mitigate misrepresentation. The same theorists cannot cheat customers even if cheating is the best way to reduce overall theft. In the same way, the non-consequentialist fails to ask a pregnant mother to terminate the pregnancy even if abortion is the only way to secure her life (Woollard, 2017). The non-consequentialist provides a moral basis for allowing abortion. The goal is not to have a strict definition of what measures justify termination of pregnancy because there are exceptional scenarios that require the procedure. The extra-ordinary circumstances offer support to the doctrine of doing and allowing. Society has to permit abortion because it is an unfortunate but necessary procedure.


No single point or criterion can validate that a foetus has acquired the right to life assigned to full human beings before birth. Conception and viability do not have clear instances where the foetus can achieve human rights. The growing embryo relies entirely on the mother for food, oxygen supply, and waste management. The complex interplay between the two negates arguments of autonomy used claims against abortion. The mother’s body dramatically changes, including lowering the immunity, to accommodate the infant. The biological transformation is indicative of functional integration. In cognitive function, a foetus’s right to life is also weakened by its inability to distinguish life from death. An embryo does not have consciousness, reasoning, self-motivation, the capacity to communicate or the presence of self-concepts. Therefore, it does not meet the criteria for personhood. Even though criticism for functional integration and topological continuity will ever be present due to cultural and religious inclinations, it is evident that foetal life cannot hold the same value as a fully grown child. It should be concluded that abortion is morally permissible, given the mother makes the decision and provides direct consent.


Fieser, J. (2021). Abortion. In Moral Issues that Divide Us. University of Tennessee Martin.

Finn, S. (2021). Methodology for the metaphysics of pregnancy. European Journal for Philosophy of Science, 11(69).

Foot, P. (2012). The problem of abortion and the doctrine of the double effect. In Shafer Landau, R. “Ethical theory: An anthology.” ProQuest Central.

Glover, J. (1977). Causing death and saving lives. Penguin Books.

Kingma, E. (2019). Were you part of your mother? Mind, 128(511), 609-646.

Meincke, A. S. (2022). One or two? A process view of pregnancy. Philosophical Studies, 179,1495–1521.

O’Dowd, S. (2006). The moral permissibility of abortion. California State East Bay,

Pradeu, T. (2012). What is an organism? An immunological answer. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 32, 247–267.

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Woollard, F. (2021). Mother knows best: pregnancy, applied ethics and epistemically transformative experiences. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 38(1), 156-172.

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