NOTES on Sissela Bok (born 1934): Abortion


Abortion is definitely a controversial subject in applied ethics. To know that, one has only to look at the protests that the two groups on opposite sides of the issue have made. Both the pro-life and the pro-choice groups have protested in large numbers in Washington D.C.

The first point I want to make is that the morality of abortion is not as simple as the pro-life and pro-choice groups may make it appear. I believe that in at least one situation abortion is morally wrong and in at least one situation abortion is morally right.

Let’s take a situation in which abortion is morally wrong. Imagine a couple whose wife is nine months pregnant. The mother is healthy, the nine-months-old fetus is healthy, and both parents want to have the child. In this situation, I believe that abortion is morally wrong.

Now let’s take a situation in which abortion is morally right. Some pregnancies, if allowed to develop, will result in a 100 percent chance of death for both the mother and the embryo. One example is an inter-tubal pregnancy, in which the egg is not in the mother’s uterus but is still in one of the mother’s fallopian tubes. In this situation, the sperm cell travels up the fallopian tube and fertilizes the egg. If the fetus is allowed to develop, the result will eventually be death for both the mother and the fetus. In this situation, I believe that abortion is morally right.

Since it’s simplistic to say that abortion is morally right or that abortion is morally wrong, we need to decide which factors make one abortion morally right and another abortion morally wrong. One philosopher who has provided a plausible answer is Sissela Bok in her article “Ethical Problems of Abortion” (Hastings Center Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1, January 1974).

Ms. Bok’s strategy is to list reasons for protecting life, then determine if and when these reasons are relevant to life in the prenatal period. The reasons we have for protecting life are these:

1) “Killing is viewed as the greatest of all dangers for the victim.”

2) “Killing is brutalizing and criminalizing for the killer.”

3) “Killing often causes the family of the victims and others to experience grief and loss.”

These three considerations lead to this conclusion:

All of society, as a result, has a stake in the protection of life.

Whether these reasons for protecting life are relevant to life in the prenatal period depends largely on how long the woman has been pregnant. Very early in the pregnancy, the reasons for protecting life are nearly absent. Ms. Bok writes:

Consider the very earliest cell formations soon after conception. Clearly, most of these reasons for protecting human life are absent.

This group of cells cannot suffer in death, nor can it fear death. Its experiencing of life has not yet begun; it is not yet conscious of the loss of anything it has come to value in life and is not tied by bonds of affection to other human beings. If the abortion is desired by both parents, it will cause no grief such as that which accompanies the death of a child. Almost no human care and emotion and resources have been invested in it. Nor is a very early abortion brutalizing for the person voluntarily performing it, or a threat to other members of the human community.

The later the pregnancy progresses, of course, the more the reasons for protecting life are present and applicable to life in the prenatal period. Certainly, infanticide — deliberately causing the death of an infant after it is born — goes against the rules for preserving life. The question becomes when abortion can be morally permitted and when it cannot. In deciding this, a continuum showing the progress of a pregnancy can be helpful.

Ms. Bok writes, “Since most abortions can be permitted earlier or later during pregnancy, it would be preferable to encourage early abortions rather than late ones, and to draw a line before the second half of the pregnancy, permitting later abortions only on a clear showing of need.” In determining these limits, Ms. Bok suggests using the concepts of quickening and viability.

Quickening occurs when the fetus can be felt moving. Before quickening, Ms. Bok believes that the reasons for protecting life are largely absent and thus that the embryo can be aborted on request. Viability occurs when the fetus is able to live on its own outside the mother’s body. Between quickening and viability, abortion should require special reasons before it is performed. After viability, Ms. Bok writes, “… all abortions save the rare ones required to save the life of the mother, should be prohibited ….” Indeed, if possible, at this late stage, instead of an abortion, premature birth should be induced so that the fetus is not harmed.

There is a problem with stating the times in a pregnancy that quickening and viability occur because they vary from fetus to fetus and because science is helping fetuses to survive outside their mothers’ bodies earlier and earlier. Ms. Bok believes that we should use the conventional definition of validity (survival outside the mother’s body without the aid of scientific devices). If we accept this, then quickening occurs at 10 to 12 weeks, and viability occurs at 24 to 26 weeks.

One thing to note is that Ms. Bok is in general agreement with the Supreme Court decision in the case Roe v. Wade. According to that decision, abortion is legal if performed early in the pregnancy. Later in the pregnancy, the state is allowed to regulate abortions and not let them be performed on demand.

Note: The quotations by Sissela Bok that appear in this essay come from her essay “Ethical Problems of Abortion,” Hastings Center Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1 (January 1974): 33-52.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved



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