Abortion is healthcare (Part I): a brief introduction to some of the philosophical arguments supporting abortion

The American supreme court overturned Roe v. Wade on Friday the 24th of June 2022 in a 5-4 decision. This landmark ruling from 1973 established a constitutional right to abortion during the first two trimesters of pregnancy in the United States. Following the controversial ruling that removed a legal, constitutional, and protected right to abortion for millions of women in America – severe consequences have started emerging. It is a sensitive topic with a long history that has been debated politically, by researchers, ethicists, philosophers, religious leaders and lay members of society.



We were initially going to post this article the day after the ruling to raise awareness and address the topic while the issue was receiving the most attention. But after a discussion among ourselves we decided to wait, do some more research, and gain some insight into the consequences of the ruling. We anticipated that many people would rightly be devastated and want to rally behind the issue, write articles, donate money, protest, argue and fight to get their rights back. But equally, we feared that the focus would disappear from the media after a few months, especially as other international events dominated the headlines, such as the war with Russia, the energy crisis and climate change.

We are aware that articles like these may have limited impact, but every little helps. This article will defend the statement that abortion is healthcare by summarizing some central philosophical theories. It will present the most common reasons for having an abortion and see this in context with other (predominantly) quantitative data on health outcomes. In addition, it will address some of the consequences the ruling has already had in the first few months.



Whilst the topic of abortion is a complicated one, the views on both sides can be summarised into key messages for each opposing viewpoint.

Those that want all abortion to be illegal tend to claim that:

  • a human being is ‘created’ at the moment of conception
  • an abortion is the killing of the unborn human and is a violation of its right to life
  • the law should prohibit violations against the right to life

The opposing view follows a similar logic claiming that

  • women have a right to have control over what happens in and to their own


  • an abortion is an exercise of this right
  • the law should not criminalise the just exercise of the right to control your own body

A central argument separating both sides is whether an embryo is a person. Mary Anne Warren – American writer and philosopher, argued in ‘on the moral and legal status of abortion’ (1973) that we might be able to separate a ‘person’ from a ‘biological human’ by identifying what it is that characterises a person, examples included sentience (having conscious experiences), emotionality (to capacity to experience emotions), reason (problem solving), communication, self-awareness (conceptualising oneself as an individual, a group member etc.) and moral agency (regulating one’s actions in accordance with moral principles / ideas).

Warren argues that at least some of these characteristics must be present in an individual to define a biological human as a person. As an embryo does not possess any of these, abortion of the embryo is permissible, as it is not a person.

Opponents of the theory have tried to refute the argument– for instance by referring to comatose patients and people with genetic disorders that affecting emotion or ability to sense pain. These ‘persons’ would not meet Warren’s criteria. Some people argue that to be a person, one simply needs to have a ‘natural capacity’ to develop/possess such abilities, they do not need to be immediately present – as is the case with embryos and patients with severe Alzheimer’s. Marquis (1989) argued abortion was wrong because we are depriving the foetus of the ‘potential’ of a valuable future – which he labelled the deprivation argument. Killing an adult human is morally and seriously wrong because we deprive that adult of the potential for a valuable future. By aborting a foetus, we are doing the same thing – but this is effectively the original ‘a foetus is a person’ argument but it does highlight a specific point of the argument.

Another author known for addressing the philosophical implications of abortion was Judith J. Thomson, also an American academic who wrote extensively on philosophy, metaphysics. Her most compelling piece was written in 1971 – ‘a defence of abortion’, a moral philosophical essay. Thomson presented her essay shortly before the historical Roe vs. Wade case in America. Thomson also addressed the topic of privacy and we can recommend her article ‘The right to privacy’ (1975) for further reading.

While the initial arguments have evolved since ‘a defence of abortion’ in 1973, it laid the groundwork for a new model for supporting abortion known as ‘the bodily rights’ argument. In it, Thomson begins the essay by assuming, for the sake of argument, that an unborn foetus has a right to life. Following a series of thought experiments, she goes on to argue that the foetuses right to life does not imply, include, or entail the right to use the pregnant person’s body to survive. Thomson was specific in her argument – the pregnant person does not have a right to insist upon the death of the foetus, here Thomson separates the act of aborting the foetus (removing the foetus from the pregnant person’s body) from the termination of the foetus’ life – i.e., should the foetus somehow survive the abortion, the pregnant person has no right to insist the foetus’ life is then ended.

Thomson introduces several thought experiments to illustrate this. The best known is likely ‘the violinist’. You are asked to image you are kidnapped by an international music society. The world’s greatest violinist is sick, and you are the only one with the blood type to save them. You wake up connected to a dialysis machine designed to keep them alive, you are asked to stay there for 9 months to save their life, after that you can be safely disconnected. Is it morally objectional of you to disconnect yourself from the machine? Thomson argues that one is permitted to unplug oneself even if this kills the violinist. Their right to life does not grant them permission to use your body – disconnecting the violinist does not violate his right to life but deprives them of the use of someone else’s body. These justifications also demonstrate how careful philosophers are with their choice of words when reasoning a conclusion.

‘The Violinist’ lays the foundation for the argument that abortion is permitted, and one could interpret this as concluding abortion is permitted at a minimum following sexual assault / rape / incest. However, therefore, one could also infer that abortion in all other (the majority) of cases abortion is not permitted. Following the overturning of Roe v. Wade most opponents of abortion in American states are not making a distinction for cases of rape or incest. Thomson addresses cases of involuntary pregnancy following voluntary intercourse. She does this through further thought experiments and introduces the concept of ‘people seeds’:

Peopleseeds drift about in the air like pollen, and if you open your windows, one may drift in and take root in your carpets or upholstery. You don’t want children, so you fix up your windows with fine mesh screens, the very best you can buy. As can happen, however, and on very, very rare occasions does happen, one of the screens is defective; and a seed drifts in and takes root. Does the personplant who now develops have a right to the use of your house?’

The argument creates several questions the reader is asked to reflect upon: did the woman, through voluntary intercourse, invite the foetus in, and does that foetus now, automatically, have a right to her body? If she took all reasonable contraceptive precautions, but a ‘people seed’, or ‘burglar’ (a charming man or sexual partner), got through her ‘defences’, is the woman responsible? If so, the implication is that the only way to protect against an unwanted pregnancy is to either have a hysterectomy, completely abstain from all sexual activity, walk around with personal security at all times etc. It is worth noting Thomson does not advocate for abortion in all cases regardless of context. The conclusion is that whilst she abortion should be permitted, there is a spectrum of ethical considerations to consider – from never leaving your home or having a hysterectomy to avoid getting pregnant, to a woman who is seeking a late term pregnancy to avoid the inconvenience of missing a holiday.

Several rebuttals have been written over the years. These often utilise the same circular reasoning presented in the introduction of this essay: killing people is a violation of their right to life, an embryo is a person, abortion is a violation of the embryos right to life – this is the central tenant in philosophical argument against abortion. However, Warren and Thomson are still the most cited and compelling defences of abortion to this day.

Another argument for abortion being permitted could be made by looking at the percentage of the population that are in favour of abortion being permitted and available. This is not a strong argument from an ethical perspective, in argumentation theory it is known as argumentum ad populum - in Latin: appeal to the people. It is the idea that the truth (or goodness) of a statement or position can be concluded because the majority believes it to be so. It is considered a ‘fallacious theory’ – an argument based on false reasoning – just because many people believe something to be true, does not make it true. It is never the less worth noting that there is broad support for abortion being available. 84% of non-religious people in America say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, as do 66% of Black Protestants, 60% of White Protestants and 56% of Catholics.

This has been a brief introduction to some of the philosophical arguments supporting abortion, further reading is available at the internet encyclopaedia of philosophy. The next article will address some of the reasons people chose to have abortions, and present quantitative data on health care outcomes in places that provide abortion access vs. those that do not. We will not cover the bioethics behind the decision to provide or not provide abortions in this section, but instead focus on well documented data, collected by reputable, international large scale health organisations.