John August - Abortions: Beyond Access
Delivered 17 May 2006


Some writings on late term abortions in the NSW Humanists newsletter around 2001 were departure point for the reflections in the following article. The reflections are on abortions generally (ideas about ownership, control, responsibility and community), late term abortions, and how the state relates (what should it allow, what should it support/pay for?). I'm making my best attempt to engage with the ideas impartially; but please be sympathetic about the difficult choices needed to fit everything in - and the difficulty in qualifying statements as carefully as I'd like.

Peter Singer (Singer, 2000) thinks a human is only a person if they have self-consciousness - an ability to see the self as continuing in time - and so justifies abortion and infanticide. He challenges birth (or even viability) as giving a child the rights of a person. (Consciousness - experience by itself - is important when we are considering pain, but not life and death.)

Christian anti-abortionists argue the fetus is a person because it has a soul, and has the rights of a person, which trump any prerogatives the woman has about her own body. Humanists think of life as worthwhile, but not because of its "sanctity". Some humanists have misgivings about late term abortions (Tendys 2001). One idea is that the fetus is a person and has rights. Singer's argument, emphasising current self-consciousness, rather than its potential, applies here. Another suggestion is that denying potential children devalues human life and makes us callous and uncaring.

Should we abort deformed children? While we should care for deformed people and children, perhaps it's still important to let the mother decide this herself (Adagio 2001). I'm not going to focus on this, but rather on whether we should endorse abortions generally.

A nurturing outlook on children

If we are to be positive about children, it's important to look at their whole life. Anti abortionists only want to get the child into the world, after which the mother can pick up the pieces while they're pursing their next target. When asked (Cullen, Jan 2001) about providing for the child, one said words to the effect : "God will provide".

A child should be appreciated, so bringing unwanted children into the world which will not be cared makes no sense. But, childless couples seek children for adoption. But why are more people so important? Perhaps we should do more with the people we have.

Why should a raw increase in world population be good? We have plenty of people already "waving the flag" for humanity. This argument, rather than focusing on children, seems to focus on the feelings of the parents. For parents, I'd suggest having children is a "luxury".

Hypothetically, we might want more children for economic reasons or to balance out the age distribution; assuming we want to do this, it would be better to encourage people who can have children in a positive environment to choose to have them.

It's worthwhile to be nurturing and positive to children - for the sake of children and society, not the parents. But do abortions discourage this? There are institutions and conventions which impact severely on children, which should be a higher priority.

Some women might have abortions but plan to bring up a child later on when they're well resourced and able to do a good job of it - and abortion here promotes a nurturing approach to children. Further, a marriage might have more chance of enduring with fewer children, meaning fewer children are better nurtured (Young, 2005).

Defences of abortion

Once a fetus is viable, a woman has three choices about her pregnancy : continue, have an induced birth, or have an abortion - until this time, continuing with the pregnancy or having an abortion were the only options.

One abortion defence is the "violinist" argument (Thomson 1997). It violates your rights to force you to lie in a bed and provide blood transfusions for a virtuoso violinist, assuming that you were one of very few people whose blood could could cure the violinist. Similarly, the argument runs, it is a violation to force a woman to carry a fetus she does not want for nine months. This is valid for a "nine month" period; but the choice between an abortion and a premature birth is a different matter. Thompson makes distinctions between degrees of "good samaritaness"; the cost in having an premature birth is low once you are that far into the pregnancy.

Analytical tools

Before we continue to ascend the cliff-face, take look at the view. We need to review the our tools : how we should label different actions, the notion of "rights", and the prerogative of government / the state to intervene in stopping or forcing particular actions .... Now, let us continue.

Different actions

Singer (Singer 2000) distinguishes between acts which are supererogatory, morally obligatory, and legally obligatory (Stanford 2006). Some acts are criminal (eg rape) and the law prohibts thems. Some acts are immoral (eg having sex with other people when you've made an undertaking of monogamy), but it's sensible to keep the law out; avoidance is morally obligatory but not legally obligatory. A last category are supererogatory acts, which are good to do but not bad if you don't. Giving to charity is an example.

Removal, abortion and ownership of our bodies

It's been suggested a woman has the right to have a fetus removed from her body rather than an abortion (Yap, 2001). Early in term, this could be an abortion, but otherwise the child could be adopted. (Perhaps we're talking about making the fetus available for stem-cell research prior to this ...). If a woman has the right to have a fetus removed from her body, does she have the right to determine what happens to that fetus afterwards?

How much do we "own" our bodies? Most nations assume that we "control" our bodies, but we cannot "sell" them. The justification seems to be the consequences of "selling", with it being another way by which the rich may enslave the poor. Most of this discussion of ownership, however, is about transplants, blood and similar (Kuhse & Singer, 2004)

Unlike an organ, a fetus can become a person. An organ has the potential to save a person, while a fetus has the potential to make a childless couple happy. Apart from kidneys, organs are most readily provided when we die. Blood can be provided while we are alive, and can save lives.

We can see different "ratios" in the inconvenience suffered compared to other's benefit. Blood and organs can save existing persons' lives, but in comparison a fetus makes someone happy and enables a new life. This "ratio" is one guide on the subject of intervention by the state - is it sufficiently high the state should oblige it?

There's "ownership" of our bodies. This depends on what you assume about individual freedom. Nozick emphasises personal freedom, and that the state should only punish those who transgress other's freedom (Nozick, 2006). But without "actively" invading another's freedom, our casual actions might collectively add to something quite destructive. Nozick's freedom is superficial.

Thomson talks about a woman preferring to have a fetus die rather than be put up for adoption, referring to the associated despair. There are other more elaborate ways of justifying the mother's interest in having the fetus aborted (Mackenzie, 1997). The question becomes : do we own/control something because we "own" it - having ultimate prerogative over it - or because of the implications of not having that control - in which case, our prerogatives are more measured?

Perhaps the distinction between ourselves and the society around us is artificial. We rely on the world around us a great deal - we load up language when we are young (with a Chomskian bootloader) from the world around us to communicate with it. It's a person of rare purity who leaves the material world to "get away from its oppressiveness", but does not return to it when they are ill. Perhaps the dream of personal autonomy is just that.


The word "right" seems much abused. Rights only exist in the context of a group of people, a society or a collective, where people might potentially stop each other from doing something. If we are the last person alive, what are our rights? Everything is our prerogative - but it's not meaningful to talk of rights.

Specialisation and transactions

Thomson notes a woman cannot perform her own abortion. It's a specialised operation, so the "law" can easily intervene. If a woman could perform her own abortion, it would be more difficult to regulate - like, say, copyright infringement. RU486 starts on this path - but women cannot readily synthesise their own RU486 from readily available household ingredients - otherwise abortion really would be like copyright infringement. In controlling women's access to abortion, we are limiting their ability to make deals, rather than just limiting personal behaviour.


If a mother can pay for her own abortion, in an "allocation-of-resources" sense, she owes the state nothing. It is wasteful - such an expense of resources could have been avoided by avoiding pregnancy, and we could have allocated the resources more constructively. Sufficiently late in term, adoptive couples will have been denied a child.

But "waste" is a value judgement. Waste is endemic - but rather than involving he law, it would frequently be "immoral-but-not-illegal". Much personal expenditure could be seen as frivolous and wasteful. Some is accidentally wasteful. If we do a heart bypass operation on someone who has been overweight - that's pretty wasteful because they could have kept their weight down. But we allow the operation.

Justifications for state intervention

Mill (Mill, 1869) talks about violence to each other being the only excuse for the state to use coercive power. And normally, violence motivates the law, rather than the selfish possession of something others appreciate.

Aborting a late term fetus might be morally repugnant, but legal intervention might be more repugnant.

Should the state should encourage or support wasteful activity? The argument takes an interesting turn which is rarely appreciated.

Sharing risks - personal responsibility

If the state pays for something, what does the recipient owe the state? We may want to be mutually compassionate - we may decide to share our risks. If something random and unforeseen happens to someone, we normally feel happy to help. If a woman has a deformed fetus, perhaps the state should provide a free abortion. Here responsibility comes in. (I'm assuming a woman has the right to an abortion if she has the money.) The degree of "accident" and "preventability" now influences whether an abortion should be free.

Normally, you have an argument over whether a woman has a right to abortion at all, with some people who embrace the sanctity of life argument relenting in cases of rape. The argument gets muddled, because it does not distinguish between a "right" to something, and an assessment of responsibility which influences what the state underwrites.

Supporting the cost

If a woman wants an abortion, cannot afford it, and we do not have reasons to be sympathetic (rape, deformed fetus, etc), then one possibility would be the woman surrendering her child through for adoption for free (or perhaps with payment), or have an abortion for something akin to a HECS debt.

Some people may reject the way that money is entering the assessment of a child, but I see it as an improvement. Accidental surrogacy with state facilitation? Well, of course - if you want to play with words.

Our world is founded on financial transactions - it is the best way of relating to personal responsibility and sharing risk, particularly when our society really is an exchange between millions of people who will never know each other personally. People do after all seek compensation from the courts in dollars - it would be extreme to throw out this convention.

Uneven distribution of wealth

Our society allocates wealth and choices unequally - some women will be unable to pay for their abortion. Having gathered wealth, it means you have greater freedom to be selfish - abortions included. But, if you're going to challenge this, you have consider conventions our society has about personal freedom and the accumulation of wealth. I'm not dismissing the possibility, but we're now dramatically changing society rather than understanding abortion. (There are of course abortion charities - that's a separate issue.)

Men and women - a significant asymmetry

Most women will be born able to become pregnant, but no man will never have to decide whether they should have an abortion, or whether they can pay for it. One possibility would be to involve the man responsible and share the risk otherwise. The man responsible pays half the cost of the non-sympathetic abortion where we can identify him, and we have a tax on men equal to half the cost of remaining non-sympathetic abortions (sympathetic abortions would be supported by men and women equally). So, men would have an incentive to reduce non-sympathetic abortions. Perhaps that's not so bad ...

Of course, this is an abstract ideal. Governments dislike "tied" funding - they would prefer takings go into consolidated revenue, with "priorities" being set as separately.

Pragmatic responsibility free support

So far I've tried to track notions of responsibility, because it is here that the anti-abortionist argument has the most traction. Regardless of other considerations, it is clear to see that "responsibility" is one notion that the Christians can point to. So, it is worthwhile to engage with the consequences of responsibility, though I see responsibility as a factor influencing support, not access.

Of course, pro-choice advocates will point out that more than 50% of abortions are the result of an attempt at contraception which has gone wrong. This does put the Christian argument into some doubt, though of course it has many other problems anyway.

But, it may well be that dealing with responsibility in the way I have described is quite an administrative overhead, and it would be simpler to have responsibility free state support for all abortions, because it costs more to make an assessment of this. New Zealand has a comprehensive personal insurance system which is fault free; certainly, resources are wasted assessing the degree of fault where this is relevant.

So, on pragmatic grounds, we may decide to underwrite abortions. However, we need to be clear about our motives - is it because of compassion, or because of pragmatics related to administration costs? We're assuming that a woman has the right to an abortion, what we're now determining is how and why the state should support it.

We might want to be sympathetic to women who are too poor to afford abortions, trying to make up for other systematic inequities in society we perceive. However, this inclines us more towards means testing - again, pragmatic considerations about the administration overhead is what prompts us towards responsibility free support.

Another compromise would be to provide state support if the woman signed a declaration that she had attempted to use contraception. I'm not suggesting this be challenged or reviewed in any way - we would take her at her word - but it would at least be a notional barrier discouraging abuse.

While this might seem a bit strange, keep in mind that at present (at least in NSW), the state has to approve abortions, assessing that it is "in the woman's interest". Nowadays, this notion of what is "in the woman's interest" is interpreted pretty broadly, but the point is that even today women do not have an automatic right of abortion - the state is still a "gate keeper" - women cannot decide for themselves what is in their own interest. I'm actually suggesting a lower hurdle than currently exists.

The notion of "abuse" needs clarification. There's a humanist view that abortions are "necessary", but not something to be "encouraged" (Drury, 2005). Further, however risky abortions are, it is claimed that childbirth itself is more risky (Young, 2005). But, clearly the least risky of all options is effective contraception. For this reason, we should have some barriers, even if only notional, in order that abortion is not supported by the state to be used as contraception.

There's the further detail that people have some freedom in society to do risky or harmful things to themselves. The crucial issue here is what the state underwrites, rather than freedom to do risky or harmful things to yourself. But there is insufficient space to go into that here.


A fetus is potentially a child. But, so too are any pair of sperm and ova. Abortions are contentious, but there's no debate on whether men should be obliged to donate sperm. Christian anti-abortionists do emphasise the moment of conception as crucial, but there would be no point otherwise. Still, there's a difference in the effort required to frustrate the potential of a fetus compared to the potential of a sperm.

If the state must intervene

Some humanists seem to so casually see intervention as reasonable, setting limits on the times in pregnancy when abortions can be performed. But this invasion of a woman's privacy feels Orwellian, and gives me the creeps. Further, the ratio of benefit compared to cost seems insufficient.

If we must intervene, we need a citizens charter, so we are aware of our rights and responsibilities. If we do enforce childbirth, we do so from a consistent framework where everyone knows where they stand. Another possibility would be that we encourage women to childbirth rather than obliging them, in the same way as we encourage people to donate blood.

Still, while women can have abortions, it's not something the world is relaxed and comfortable with. A world where everyone was relaxed about abortion and it was "part of the scenery" would be an excellent place to start such promotion. But this is not the world we live in. Anti-abortionists lobby against abortions (otherwise, they wouldn't be anti-abortionists, I guess), and the world at large may tolerate abortions, but feel vaguely uneasy about late term abortions. The current problems with the world overwhelm neat solutions.

Incidentally, a lot of our laws are "imposed" on us, rather than being something we truly own. Yes, we do have democratic government, which is better than nothing, but it's a far cry from true ownership of the principles which constrain us.

So, the issues around abortion are subtle. They're not as simple as the Christian anti-abortionists make out - but equally, there's a lot more to abortions than the naive approval-almost-promote position. And it's worth being aware of these subtleties.


Chomsky suggests a universal grammar which every language fits into, which means that a part of our brain fits the language we learn into a known set pattern - hence, we can think of the universal grammar as being like the "boot loader" in a computer which is fixed in hardware but loads the operating system from the re-writable storage.


Thanks to JB and CW for helpful comments during the development of this article.