“I think abortion is evil, but it is a necessary evil.” Discuss.


This blog doesn’t discuss evil very often because it is not a term appropriately associated with ethics. Evil is a concept related to morality. In an ethics discussion, I would take evil to mean something extremely, irredeemably unethical by any ethical analysis or system. The statement “I think abortion is evil, but it is a necessary evil” appeared parenthetically in a comment by Beth, a frequent commenter on Ethics Alarms who is a mother and a lawyer, regarding the Planned Parenthood videos. Though the news media appears to have successfully distorted that story by focusing only on whether the videos were evidence of illegal “trafficking in body parts” by Planned Parenthood, that was not the reason I posted the essays, and it is not the reason those videos are significant in the ongoing debate over abortion rights. Two high ranking individuals in the organizations casually discussed the crushing and crunching of the heads and torsos of living and helpless individuals with the sensitivity I would associate with stepping on a roach. If this doesn’t disturb you, it should. If it does disturb you, as it did Beth, what does that mean?

Abortion is one of the most important and difficult ethics issues in the culture, indeed in world culture. It involves millions of lives and millions of deaths, law, bioethics, religion, social policy, science, human rights and feminism, as well as society’s ultimate respect for life itself. I have written about the ethics of the abortion debate frequently (you can find most of the relevant posts here), but to summarize the Ethics Alarms views on the topic:

1. Abortion is an ethics conflict, meaning that there are ethical principles in opposition to each other, requiring society to set priorities.

2. The absolutist position on the anti-abortion side is that abortion involves the taking of innocent human life, which begins from conception, and is thus unethical in all cases. It is a strong position if one accepts the underlying assumption.

3. However, no absolute position is really absolute. Every ethics absolute has an exception, or several: there must be some circumstances when abortion is necessary and right. (This is not true of moral absolutes, since moral absolutes are self defining. If the power dictating a moral precept says it is absolute, it is so.)

4. The absolutist position on the abortion side of the argument holds that a woman’s right to have complete dominion over her body, reproductive activity and health justifies abortion in all cases. This is not a strong position, and in fact is one that cannot be honestly argued or sustained. It supports abortion on demand for any purpose or preference, entirely at the mother’s discretion.

5. To make that argument, extreme pro-abortion advocates have had to deny the humanity and human rights of unborn children, even to the point of arguing that they are not individuals at all, but mere “parasites,” or “tumors.” The removal of a second life from the equation that is at the core of the abortion problem makes the abortion decision easy and guilt-free; it also settles the debate by pretending the central issue doesn’t exist. That issue is that there is another life involved, not just the mother’s.

6. The debate over the ethics of abortion has been handicapped by the tactic of both sides to pretend a legitimate interest championed by the other doesn’t exist. A woman’s ability to control her own life, career and what happens to her body is an important societal issue, yet the term “pro-life” ignores it entirely. It is not the only important interest involved in the abortion decision, however, as the term “pro-choice” suggests.

7. Neither absolute position, whatever its theoretical virtues, is practical from a policy perspective. Desperate women who are pregnant will seek abortions, people will help then (or exploit them, or kill them), and public policy cannot pretend otherwise. Society will not tolerate punishing women for aborting their unborn children, whether they deserve to be punished or not. Yet allowing mothers to have unborn children killed on a whim leads to the callous, ugly, dangerous attitude toward innocent life on display in the Planned Parenthood videos. Callousness toward any human life, history has shown us, is a slippery slope with the potential of doing terrible harm to the culture.

8. Roe v. Wade was a premature Supreme Court decision and a badly reasoned one. Until and unless it is overturned, abortion is a right. That does not mean, and never meant, that abortion necessarily is right.

9. Because absolutism fails here, abortion is a problem that demands utilitarian analysis–balancing of interests and values, in the best interests of society, long and short-term, and everyone in it, according to the facts as we understand them.

10. Balancing requires an honest acknowledgement that there is something to balance. The “pro-choice” and “pro-life” dichotomy doesn’t acknowledge that in their most extreme incarnations, and since abortion is currently a right, the pro-choice lobby detects no reason to yield to logic, science and reality.

When Beth wrote her comment, I immediately saw the value of discussing the abortion problem from the perspective of her assessment of it, even though I am not certain I agree with her. I am not certain that abortion is “evil” in all cases, and if it is, I do not agree that it is “necessary,” again, in all cases. The statement however advances the discussion, and the discussion needs advancing. I admire the fact that her statement acknowledges the need for balancing outcomes: the very designation of a “necessary evil” evokes utilitarianism over absolutism, which would hold that an “evil” is never ethical, and thus is never “necessary.” This is a starting point for debate and eventually consensus, because to have a productive debate, the pro-abortion forces have to be willing to accept and admit that there is an objective wrong in this equation—it doesn’t have to be called evil—the taking of innocent human life, however undeveloped, limited, or “potential.”

If abortion is evil, then calling it a necessary evil places the act in the same category as war. War is extreme utilitarianism: so vital is some interest that it justifies thousands if not millions of wrongs. However, not all wars are necessary. Are all abortions necessary? If an abortion is not necessary, is it then just evil, as in horribly unethical, and worthy of criminalization? Is a promiscuous individual using abortion as a primary means of birth control necessary if its is completely irresponsible? If abortion is inherently wrong (“evil”) as Beth holds, then does it not mean that it should be avoided in favor of other alternatives when possible? Isn’t allowing the child to live and allowing other parents to raise him or her preferable to the “evil” in most cases? Is abortion “necessary” or even defensible if, for example, the child is being aborted because it is female, or “not perfect,” or black, or, as may be possible to determine in the near future, it has been determined to have “the gay gene”? Necessary? Like World War II?

Or “necessary” like the Iraq War?


And thanks, Beth.

228 thoughts on ““I think abortion is evil, but it is a necessary evil.” Discuss.

  1. Back to the utilitarian argument — which most people are refusing to acknowledge.

    Yes, deliberately terminating a pregnancy (absent medical reasons) is evil, but there is a greater evil in bringing an unwanted child into this world.

    “In the U.S. 397,122 children are living without permanent families in the foster care system. 101,666 of these children are eligible for adoption, but nearly 32% of these children will wait over three years in foster care before being adopted.” http://ccainstitute.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&id=25&layout=blog&Itemid=43

    “More than 16 million children in the United States – 22% of all children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level – $23,550 a year for a family of four. Research shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses. Using this standard, 45% of children live in low-income families.” http://www.nccp.org/topics/childpoverty.html

    The vast majority of children that are raised in foster care or in poverty have lower IQs, lower high school graduation rates, and fewer opportunities in life. Many end up in poverty and not only continue, but grow this cycle.

    In my own family, I have a close relative with drug issues — she also has a below average IQ. She ended up having babies while she was practically still a baby. At least one baby was taken away from the State, one didn’t make it out of infancy, and another grew up to be a sociopath (I am using that term literally) and was in prison (where he will no doubt remain) once he turned 18.

    So, yes, it is better for society as a whole if the vast majority of children come into this world with loving and financially stable caregivers to provide for them. Do I think it would be evil if I had an abortion (absent some extreme medical reason)? Absolutely. For me, it would merely interrupt my career (again) and worst case scenario, I have to pull my privileged kids out of private school. Big deal. Do I think abortion should be outlawed for women like me? No — and in any event most women in my situation have reliable and affordable birth control available so we don’t seek them. But, do I think safe and accessible abortions should be made available to women who want them? Yes. even though it still falls in the “evil” category, it is necessary for the well-being of the women and for society.

    Once we don’t have hundreds of thousands of children waiting for adoption, and multiple millions living in homes with food scarcity issues, then maybe we should debate the ethics of abortion some more. But my guess is that if we even reach that lofty goal, abortions will be something that is rarely talked about, because few women will need them.

    • I hear you, but couldn’t it also then be said that the millions of children in Africa, who arguably live under the most extreme privation and brutality imaginable, should be killed in their sleep for their own good?

      • No — but wouldn’t it be grand if those women had access to reliable birth control and safe abortions (if necessary).

        • I don’t think anyone disagrees with that. But what is the excuse for the women who have access to those and choose not to use them?

          • They don’t have an excuse, but it still shouldn’t be illegal. The last thing this world needs is more unwanted children.

            • I really don’t care for that argument. Many pregnancies are initially unwanted. That does not necessarily mean that the children resulting from these pregnancies are unloved or unwanted. Let’s say 50% of initially unwanted kids who get to be born end up being loved and cherished by their mothers. (I think that’s a low estimate.) It is worth killing all unwanted unborn to prevent the 50% that won’t be wanted after birth from living? Presumably some of those unwanted children will have productive lives even being unwanted by their parents. So we should allow, say, 100 unborn children to be killed, knowing that 50 or more of them would in fact be glad to be alive? Do you like that arithmetic?

              I would say that we have the presumed consent of every child to let it have a crack at life, unpromising though it may be, than no life at all.

              • See my stats above Jack. Just in the US, there are hundreds of thousands of children who don’t have homes — and multiple millions live in extreme poverty. Given that the US is one of the largest countries in the world with a growing population generally, we don’t need to continue to add to these dismal numbers above. Just about everyone is glad to be alive, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t make civilization worse.

                  • Once the unwanted children walking around already are taken care of, then I’m willing to discuss bringing more unwanted, malnourished, and under-educated children into this world.

                    Re-focus the outrage.

                    • So abortion is like drowning kittens, essentially. Got it.

                      See, I’m pretty sure every single one of those aborted kids, if given the chance to weigh in on their fate, would say, “Thanks for your concern, really…no, I mean it, I’m grateful…but if you don’t mind, I’d rather have a crack at life than never existing at all, please. I mean, if it’s all the same to you.”

                    • No one is advocating for children to be aborted — but for a woman who is unwilling or unable to care for a child, then the option should be made available.

                      Kittens can take care of themselves after 8 weeks — although they do better in loving homes with routine medical visits. But animal shelters do euthanize approximately 2.7 million animals a year. Why? Because our society can’t absorb them all. Is it awful? Of course it is. But without that euthanization, that number would rise to tens of millions of animals who are suffering, neglected, and reproducing. My guess is that any suffering kitten or child who could advocate for themselves would ask for a loving, caring, home. But we can’t do that for the kittens and children who are already here. Given that everyone (absent mental illness) is biologically programmed to survive, asking someone if they are glad to be alive is ridiculous.

                    • “See, I’m pretty sure every single one of those aborted kids, if given the chance to weigh in on their fate, would say, “Thanks for your concern, really…no, I mean it, I’m grateful…but if you don’t mind, I’d rather have a crack at life than never existing at all, please. I mean, if it’s all the same to you.”

                      I still don’t see why a non-existant person’s hypothetical wishes and desires should outweigh the rights of the woman.

                    • Logical mobius strip. If the person is non-existant, then what’s the abortion for? There is an existing human being that will be prevented from gaining sufficient power and influnece to defend himself and have the state respect his right to exist. “Non-existent person’ is a rationalization and a false construct devised to relieve aborting parents from honest ethical evaluation of their actions. An existing human life is being ended. Start there, and I’m open to any number of compromises. But start there.

                    • Jack, you’re the one who suggested that the fetus was a non-existant person:

                      “…I’d rather have a crack at life than never existing at all…”

                      I suppose you just weren’t careful with your words, so I don’t want to treat this as a “gotcha.” But your framing seems to acknowledge that the fetus is not yet capable of thinking at all; yes, the fetus is an existing human being, but the fetus does not yet have any existing consciousness, therefore I don’t believe it has yet attained the status of a person. That the fetus will, if uninterrupted, likely develop consciousness is irrelevant to me. There is nothing “there” yet, and at that point the mother’s rights to bodily autonomy outweigh the fetus’ right to life.

        • But if quality of life and whether or not a child is wanted is what makes abortion right and good, what’s the difference?

            • No, or at least I hope it isn’t. I hope that these people don’t honestly justify the extinguishing of life based on whether or not THEY think that it’s a life worth living. My God! But yeah, that’s what I was pushing toward. I recall hearing about a proposal to open up an abortion clinic with a spa theme. Massage, manicure, drinks, the whole works. I think that’s brilliant, and I truly hope they do it. Why should a woman have this done in a medical environment? That’s supposed to be a place of healing. No, a spa is much more appropriate, where a woman can go to get pampered, and reminded that what’s occurring is all about Wonderful Me, and no one else.

  2. These posts have gotten too numerous, but I wanted to make one final observation before dropping out. There isn’t a lot of middle ground or compromise when it comes to abortion — my view (the subject of Jack’s original and thoughtful essay — thank you Jack) is about as close as you can get. This makes me unpopular with both the pro-life and pro-choice crowd. But until and unless we can have this discussion without talking in absolutes, we aren’t going to get very far. I think that: (1) the pro-lifers need to acknowledge that there are very real benefits to women (and society in general) by allowing safe and accessible abortions (and increased sex education), and (2) the pro-choicers need to own up to the idea that a fetus is not some lump of clay — especially with medical advances regarding the viability of pre-term fetuses.

    • Your pro-abortion stance is unpopular with the pro-abortion crowd?

      Gosh I didn’t notice any pro-abortion people clamoring to refute you at all…

      Probably because your stance isn’t a compromise stance it is just a pro-abortion stance caveated by saying “but I’d never get an abortion”.

      Come on Beth, you aren’t fooling anyone.

  3. If this blog discussion doesn’t illustrate the futility of purely rational discussion on the issue, I don’t know what will.

    I think Beth and Jack’s original statement is hard to improve on.

    And I suggest everyone take an entirely different look at this, by looking at 3,000 years of human history and seeing what we can glean from it.

    Wikipedia is pretty thorough on this:


      • Texagg, what I gleaned from the history was, basically, nothing new under the sun. It’s always been a contentious issue, batted about by three forces:

        a. religion
        b. nation state-level population policies
        c. gender politics, i.e. men want to control their progeny, and are more often purely against abortion than women are.

        History has not been happy with abortions; yet no one is satisfied with its unavailability either. As someone put it, we want abortions to be available, and infrequently used.

        What did you glean from it?

        • You also should have gleaned a letter (d)

          d. people who don’t want their free and “happy” lives encumbered by humans they were responsible for creating.

          • I don’t know where you get that from.

            The idea of carefree women happily using abortion as a lazy girl’s morning after pill exists mainly in the minds of older men, near as I can tell. Hardly anyone in history or present is blasé or cavalier about it. The women I know who’ve had them take it very seriously and often mourn what might have been.

            Seriously, where did you find d as a conclusion along with the other three from the Wikipedia piece?

            • So why do they get abortions then, if it isn’t because the presence of a child will make their lives more difficult (understanding of course that a woman’s life being threatened by the pregnancy is an exception)?

            • Come on: you must know that d), in less flip terms, is a frequent justification for abortion. I am hardly privy to a lot of such decisions, but in college alone I knew of double figures on instances where a co-ed at an elite college had an abortion to avoid interfering with her education, disrupting or delaying career plans, or having to continue a relationship she would rather not. In all the cases, the woman has a support network and resources. She would have been able, had she been willing, to have the child as a young and healthy woman in her early 20s and have it adopted by loving parents. “It’s not the right time”—as in “inconvenient’ was the reason. Some of these women had more than one such abortion. “Happily” isn’t a good word—they were not “happy” about the situation. They were happy they had the option. Perhaps “insufficiently serious” is better.

              It is deceptive to say that such abortions are simply males fantasies. I knew one co-ed who said she would have had the baby if it didn’t mean giving up a role in an opera she had always wanted and that would get her exposure. Another didn’t want to stop playing on the lacrosse team. Are these, on balance, worth a life? Nor will the negative answer only come from men. Even at the time, many women who knew about these situations were appalled.

            • I think it might be more accurate to say that some, maybe many, approach it in a cavalier manner, and very often feel guilt, shame, and emptiness afterwards. It’s a most unnatural act that violates a woman’s innate need to nurture, and I’ve heard that it’s particularly problematic for women who end up having families, but have aborted their first child.

  4. “make their lives more difficult…”

    Texagg, do you admit of gradations of “difficult” below death? In effect, you’re raising the gender politics issue, which has been under-dsicussed here.

    Males are far more likely than women, throughout history, to consider abortions as “inconvenient,” but unless life-threatening, hardly enough to counter the ethical arguments in favor of “life.” Women, not surprisingly, have very different gradations of “difficult,” from “inconvenient” to “ruinous of several lives.” And they see a difference, where often men don’t.

    As any good socio-biologist will tell you, the most common ethical arguments against abortion are remarkably favorable to the male of the species, and remarkably unfavorable to the female.

    Basically men pass on their genes by being promiscuous, and by controlling the outcome where possible. Something like half of Mongolia today is descended form Genghis Khan, who made the most of both sides of that equation. Men are statistically way more likely to murder their step-children than they are their own progeny. Since men can’t reliably control their parentage, it’s in their evolutionary interest to prevent abortion.

    Women, on the other hand, can only birth a small number – two digits max – of children in their lifetime. Their ability to pass on their genes depend on quality care, controlling who they mate with, being able to nurture and give advantage their progeny. Evolutionarily speaking, men don’t much care about all that, finding immortality in quantity, not quality.

    Women are victims of rape far more often than men; the definition of rape is culturally difficult for women to prove. And, society has funded women’s birth control a lot more than men’s.

    There a ton of reasons women get pregnant, and every male reading this dialogue knows the meaning of ‘thinking with the little head.’ We men can be very persuasive.

    If, as a result, a woman finds she’s faced with someone not willing to marry or protect her children, or must give up a career to raise a child, or can’t give a child a two-parent home, or can’t otherwise provide a quality of life for a child, let’s not forget who the nurturing gender is, and it’s not men.

    Women make tough decisions, wanting their children to have quality lives. It is, in the gender politics wars, incredibly self-serving of men to insist on “life begins at conception” and to pontificate on how it’s unethical to abort children, no matter how ruinous their lives or their children’s lives may be

    It’s no wonder that the history of abortion is heavily colored by the battle of men to control women’s bodies, for the most fundamental of evolutionary reasons; and for women to fight back, for their own equally fundamental reasons.

    • 1) This is either really helpful in identifying the kinds of biases transcendent people must overcome to analyze the subject of abortion on ethical terms


      2) This is a huge argumentum ad populum, in which case, it’s a logical fallacy.

      I can certainly assure you, my conclusions on abortion do not derive from evolutionary impulses as premises.

      3) And yes, there may be gradations of “difficult”. Cool. Not child-killing worthy however, lest the far end of the “difficult” spectrum (where mother’s lives are threatened) is reached.

      I mean, I suppose in Leftopia it makes sense to off child #3 if it means you can’t afford an Xbox for children #1 and #2.

  5. http://www.timesdaily.com/news/crime/da-parental-rights-issue-will-have-bearing-on-abortion-request/article_4d3bd36e-856b-5c4f-b523-714b2329539b.html

    “Connolly said during the hearing he was opposed to the ACLU’s request, and that he had filed a petition to seek the termination of parental rights.

    He pointed out that his opposition to the ACLU’s request was because the inmate is facing a charge of chemical endangerment of a child.

    Connolly said an Alabama Supreme Court ruling in 2013 stated chemical endangerment cases apply to an unborn child.

    “It was in that ruling that the (Alabama Supreme Court) said it is the policy of the state of Alabama to protect unborn and born children in Alabama,” Connolly said.

    Marshall said the state court proceedings, no matter what the ruling is, will not affect his client’s “constitutional right to an abortion.”

    “Even if the (termination of parental rights) petition goes forward, it cannot override a favorable decision from Judge Kallon,” Marshall said. “We will work to ensure that (the inmate) gets the health care she needs.”

    The inmate maintains she is in the first trimester of her pregnancy. She said in the lawsuit she learned of her pregnancy before she was sent to jail.”

    • “On Thursday night’s “Daily Show,” Jessica Williams travelled to the Yellowhammer State to meet a fetus attorney and find out just how he does his job, including how he meets with his clients.

      “You have a crazy-ass job, sir,” Williams said to attorney Julian McPhillips.

      That led to several surreal exchanges, including this one:

      Williams: “How do you know if a fetus is innocent?”

      McPhillips: “I think it’s a safe assumption that most fetuses, if not all fetuses, are innocent.”

      Williams: “What about a fetus that eats its own twin in utero?”

      McPhillips: “Well you know that would never happen.”

      Williams: “It’s a real thing. A fetus can eat its twin in utero. If that doesn’t sound evil, then what is?”

      Laws made on the grounds of religious beliefs that take no account of biological realities are leading to, in a very real sense, sex slavery which is life-threatening.

      I hope it never gets to the stage where a foetus that absorbs a twin can be charged with murdering a child – for that is the inescapable conclusion of this “foetus is an unborn child” BS.

      And I really, really hope that there’s no law that forces them to be “tried as an adult” for such a “crime”. There seems to be no limit to this insanity.

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