Exploring Philosophical Perspectives on Abortion Ethics

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Justice" by Michael Sandel. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is abortion ethical? Approaching the question from the opposite angle, is it ethical to deny women the right to abortion?

Abortion is a morally contentious subject. In his book Justice, American political philosopher Michael Sandel examines the contemporary debates over abortion ethics by contrasting two opposing perspectives: the rational perspective and the moral-centric perspective.

Let’s examine the argument for each.

Rational Perspective

Sandel explains that from a liberal perspective based on reason, it’s not the job of the government to impose a specific way of living or moral code. Therefore, liberals generally argue that the government should guarantee abortion rights. 

(Shortform note: While Sandel proposes that liberalism supports abortion rights, many philosophers actively debate how to interpret abortion ethics using Kant’s categorical imperative. One Kantian argument against abortion rights tries to universalize the question, suggesting that to consent to other people’s abortions you would have to agree that it would’ve been acceptable for you yourself to have been aborted (something that proponents of this argument claim nobody would accept). On the other hand, one Kantian argument in favor of abortion rights suggests that according to Kant, rational thought is a necessary component of personhood. Since a fetus is not capable of rational thought, then, it wouldn’t count as a person and aborting it wouldn’t be morally wrong.)

Moral-Centric Perspective

However, Sandel says a moral viewpoint would argue that the government should legislate abortion rights (either banning, limiting, or guaranteeing them) because it’s morally right. Sandel briefly notes the main moral arguments for and against abortion: Moral-centric arguments against abortion rights often claim that life begins at conception and that abortion therefore kills a living person. Moral-centric arguments in favor of abortion rights, on the other hand, often argue that abortion bans are an attempt to punish people (especially the poor or less fortunate) for having sex.

(Shortform note: Sandel appeals to moral arguments more broadly here instead of specifically to Aristotle—abortion as we now know it didn’t exist during Aristotle’s lifetime. However, both Aristotle’s views and his culture’s conception of childbirth did not support reproductive autonomy. Aristotle believed that women were biologically inferior, “flawed” versions of men. Other ancient Athenian medical writers viewed the womb as an independent thing that would “wander” around the body or dry out if not attended to regularly by men through intercourse. All of these views pointed to the broader belief that women couldn’t function autonomously on a fundamental, biological level, and they therefore needed men to control and manage their lives and reproductive health.)

Exploring Philosophical Perspectives on Abortion Ethics

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  • A philosophical look at the goal of our society and its laws
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  • Sandel's suggestions for how to create a more moral world

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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