Too Many Abortions?

Question for the day: Can/should someone who is pro-reproductive rights/pro-choice say “there are too many abortions”?

Well, here’s an argument (from Ann Furedi, chief executive of BPAS, the UK charity providing abortion and contraceptive care) that such a claim is incompatible with being truly pro-choice:

“There are many positive reasons why abortion numbers can increase – because women are more easily able to access the services they need, because more abortion care is funded by the NHS, and because more women now believe abortion is an acceptable option if they are faced with an unintended pregnancy.”If you are opposed to abortion in principle, these changes will be unwelcome, but if you believe that women should be able to make decisions about their reproductive future, then these are positive changes.”Of course its better to prevent an unwanted pregnancy than to end one in abortion. I’ve never met a woman in a BPAS abortion clinic who didn’t want to not be there. No woman aspires to have an abortion.”But abortion is not in itself the problem. The problem is the unwanted pregnancy and abortion can be the solution to that for many women. There’s no right or wrong number; we need as many abortions as are necessary to solve the problem pregnancies that women face.”

Everything Furedi says seems right. But if it’s true that it’s better to prevent an unwanted pregnancy than to have an abortion, and also true (as I’m sure Furedi would agree) that we could do a better job of preventing unwanted pregnancies through increased knowledge about and access to contraception, then it also seems true that there are too many abortions. Surely we’d be better off with fewer unwanted pregnancies and fewer abortions.

I think this apparent puzzle hinges on what possibilities we’re comparing with the real world when deciding whether “there are too many abortions” is true. Here are two options:

(1) To evaluate the truth of “There are too many abortions”, we should compare the actual world with one in which everything is the same but fewer women get abortions. If that world is better, then there are too many abortions. No pro-choice person should agree that there are too many abortions on this reading– because that would mean it would be better to have just as many unwanted pregnancies and fewer abortions.

(2) To evaluate the truth of “There are too many abortions”, we should compare the actual world with all of the other options that include fewer abortions. If some of those are better, then “there are too many abortions” is true. Plenty of pro-choice people could agree with “there are too many abortions” on this reading. A world with fewer unwanted pregnancies due to better contraceptive access is better than the actual world, for example.

The problem is that when a pro-choice person says “there are too many abortions”, it’s far too easy to be misinterpreted, quoted out of context, and interpreted as wanting to restrict access to abortions. So can a pro-choice person agree that there are too many abortions? Yes, on the right understanding of the claim. Should they do so, strategically speaking? Maybe not, unless explain themselves very well, and they’re very confident that all their reasons will be properly quoted. With an ambiguity this big and important, one needs to be careful.

25 thoughts on “Too Many Abortions?

  1. I really prefer to go with “too many unwanted pregnancies” for the reasons that you outlined. The problem isn’t that there are too many abortions per unwanted pregnancy, the problem is that there are two many unwanted pregnancies per wanted pregnancies. As someone who finds the abortion itself to be morally neutral, the abortion is not what I’m concerned with, other than the fact that surgery always sucks. It’s the fact that women who don’t want to be pregnant are getting pregnant that I want to fix.

  2. “…because that would mean it would be better to have just as many unwanted pregnancies and fewer abortions.”

    Why couldn’t a pro-choice person say it is better to have fewer abortions and more adoptions (and keeping the number of unwanted pregnancies the same)?

  3. Cara,

    As someone who finds the abortion itself to be morally neutral…

    As in: other things equal, it’s just as good to have an abortion as to not?

  4. Jender’s distinction between the two readings is excellent.

    I’m wondering, should pro-choicers be careful about accepting the following claim, too?

    Some Shouldn’t (SS): Some abortions that occur should not occur.

    Given that some women are forced to have abortions that they do not want to have, I would think that everyone will agree with SS. And I doubt it’d be practically advisable to deny SS.

    But SS seems to entail:

    Too Many(TM): There are too many abortions.

    Go to the nearest world where everything is held constant, except that unwanted, enforced abortion does not occur. That’s a better world than this one. (I think this’ll force us to disambiguate different readings of (1).)

  5. Macht,

    You’re welcome to say what you think, but I would not say that. I think there is a big difference between abortion and adoption: pregnancy. As a matter of fact, I think that’s exactly how some “pro-life” people frame the issue. To me, the choice in “pro-choice” is not between abortion and adoption — which would basically equate abortion and infanticide — but is about control over pregnancy. The latter is a lot to go through, too much to gloss over by clever framing. Strictly as far as unwanted pregnancies are concerned, that’s why I think contraception is better than abortion because it is more about control and least traumatic. I can’t even compare adoption and abortion.

    That said, my position does reflect the fact that I don’t think abortion is infanticide. To be honest, I think I’d still be pro-choice even if I granted that, because I hold that risking one’s life and limb to save someone else is a choice, and I consider an unwanted pregnancy to be more demanding than that.

  6. The distinction’s one that comes up in ethics in many areas, isn’t it? When we’re asking whether such and such ought to have been the case that’s often ambiguous between ‘ought it to have been the case given what’s gone before?’ and ‘ought it to have been the case per se?’. Something might be morally impermissible in the sense that it would occur in no morally perfect world, but morally obligatory in the sense that it occurs in all the morally best worlds that keep fixed the actual past.

    Armed with this distinction I think we can see why even someone who does incline to the anti-choice intuition that the foetus has moral status should not be so quick to conclude that abortion is impermissible. It may well be that abortion occurs in no morally perfect world. If so, there is a perfectly good sense of ‘morally impermissible’ in which abortion is impermissible. But it’s not the important sense – it’s not the sense that is action guiding. For in the very same sense, it is morally impermissible to ever imprison anyone. In no morally perfect world is someone imprisoned, because it’s wrong to imprison people who don’t commit crimes, and no crimes are committed in morally perfect worlds. But the morally best worlds that keep our actual crime-ridden past fixed do contain imprisoned people. So in the important sense of what’s permissible – the sense that tells us what we should do given how things in fact are – it is permissible to lock people up. Likewise, perhaps, no abortions occur in morally perfect worlds because there are no unwanted pregnancies there. But given that our world actually contains unwanted pregnancies the only question relevant to guiding our actions is whether or not there are abortions in the morally best worlds that keep these sad facts concerning the existence of unwanted pregnancies fixed. And one can agree that there are whether or not one thinks it’s a pro-tanto moral badness to abort a foetus.

    One of the worst thing that gets taught to people RE ethics, in my opinion, is that two wrongs don’t make a right. There’s a sense in which it’s true: if no morally perfect world contains X and no morally perfect world contains Y then no morally perfect world contains both X and Y, so you can’t do something impermissible and make something that was impermissible okay as a result. But there’s a perfectly good sense in which two wrongs can make a right. If something bad happens then it may be that the best thing to do is something that would have been bad had the first thing not happened.

    We may well want to fight the anti-choicers on their assumption that the foetus has moral worth and that abortion is not morally neutral. But we also should fight them on the move from this assumption to the conclusion that it’s never okay – given how the world in fact is – to have an abortion.

  7. Excellent points, one and all. There are so many complications here. Macht– If it is the case that even one woman who has an abortion would be happier giving birth and having the baby adopted (perhaps the social stigma of being pregnant then not having a baby to show for it makes her have an abortion), then it would certainly be a better world if that person had an adoption rather than an abortion. So I take your point. Sort of. My worry is that it’s very important to specify why it is that some abortions are replaced with adoptions. A pro-choice person can support this if it’s a product of women really having the freedom to choose what they want, but not if it’s a product of banning abortion. John– you’re absolutely right. If the “less abortions but just as many unwanted pregnancies” world is a result of not having a forced abortion, it is better. In both cases, we see that number of abortions isn’t the issue– genuine freedom to abort or not abort is. And we can go further, too, considering worlds in which some of the people who now choose abortion because they can’t afford kids are able to afford kids due to better welfare policies, and this is the reason for reduction. Again, a better world. So really, as Cara says, number of abortions isn’t the issue. But I do disagree that abortion is just another operation. Other operations don’t come with the huge stigma of abortion– people are rarely hesitant to tell their parents that they need e.g. an appendectomy. Ross– all really good points, and I agree completely. And I guess the position you describe fits one that a lot of pro-choice US politicians take, esp. Catholic ones– “I personally think abortion is wrong, but abortions need to be available.” Though of course it never gets spelled out as clearly as you’ve done!

  8. Okay, you’ll be able to see I’m an ex-recluse because I haven’t spoken to anyone about this for 3 years. But shifting the focus around a little never hurts. My initial response to the abortion debate is is to back way off for a look, and I always see that it has nothing in it about the men who were necessary for this unwanted pregnancy to occur. It’s an important topic to wrestle with, but not just one half. After the pregnancy, it’s one thing. Before…well there’s a male in the background somewhere, as I’m pretty sure pregnancies from artificial insemination aren’t unwanted.
    Without that missing content, I just get stuck in a thought round-about, and no amount of critical thinking applied to just the woman avoiding unwanted pregnancy will solve anything for me. Not without the rest of the puzzle.

  9. I totally agree with Cara.

    I also think saying there are too many abortions is pretty much saying you feel you’re doing something wrong in the first place.

  10. As in: other things equal, it’s just as good to have an abortion as to not?

    Yes. At least with early abortion. I personally start to have some qualms about particularly late abortions, but would never, ever wish to outlaw them. My moral discomfort is not the issue. I believe in allowing women to make their own choices, period.

    But yes, if we’re going to discuss my personal moral thoughts. I find a woman who does not want to be pregnant and has an abortion to be no more or less moral or to have performed a no more or no less moral act than a woman who wants to be pregnant and does not have an abortion. I don’t see either as wrong or right, and the only way in which I might even begin to gauge them would be in terms of whether they were the wrong or right choice for the woman in question. Which isn’t really mine to judge, anyway.

    And again, I’m not saying that abortion doesn’t suck. It’s surgery, which means that it’s not cheap, it’s not fun, and it’s at least somewhat painful. But that doesn’t make it immoral. And giving birth has all of the same downsides associated with it, too.

  11. Stiletto,

    “…saying there are too many abortions is pretty much saying you feel you’re doing something wrong in the first place.”

    This neglects the distinctions that Jender made in the original post and others have made in the comments.

    It can be true that there are too many abortions, but at the same time be true that most (strictly speaking, all but one!) abortions are permissible.

    Indeed, given suitable readings of “too many” and “permissible,” it could turn out that all actual abortions are permissible (because given the actual non-ideal circumstances, they’re not morally prohibited), while at the same time there are too many abortions (because in a perfect world there’d be none).

  12. Cara,

    Thanks for your response.

    You responded by making distinctions in terms of right and wrong.

    My question, though, was about relative goodness. It seems to me that differences in relative goodness needn’t automatically translate into differences in right vs. wrong. It might be that not having an abortion is better than having one, while at the same time it is not better enough than having an abortion to make having one morally wrong. (I here restrict myself, as you did, to early abortions.)

  13. I totally agree with Stiletto, and was about to say the same thing before reading her comment.

    That “too many abortions” statement IS saying that there is something wrong with having an abortion. And the only reason it is an issue is because our laws/morals are based on religious beliefs, and we’ve had these beliefs burned into our brains (brainwashing) not because we embrace those beliefs, but simply because there’s no getting away from them, it’s all infused into our society, our laws.

    Otherwise our freedom would be so clear-cut that this would never even be an issue, it would never be discussed — it would be nobody’s damn business except the human being with the basic human right to choose regarding her own body. Period.

    My counter to this statment, “Too many abortions,” is a more reasonable “Too many people” in a world already frighteningly overpopulated.

    There is NOTHING more important than our basic right to freedom, and the freedom of a woman is so readily and casually tossed about with issues like this (prostitution is another, also clearly about religion) regarding, gawd, her own body. It’s the height of arrogance…it’s reprehensible, it’s unacceptable.

    “Too many abortions” is a ridiculous statement, what number is too many, what number is just the right amount? As has been stated, women don’t view this as a birth control method, that notion also is ridiculous. As innocent as it seems, it is statements like this that show the insatiable need that we have to control other human beings. Look at our history, it starts as a little spark that ultimately becomes a roaring fire.

    A fetus is not a human being, and even if it was, it should never override its host’s right to govern her own body. It most assuredly, no matter how far along she is, should never be a crime.

    “In a perfect world there’d be none.” That’s your version of perfect.

    Mine… In a perfect world, there would be no religon and consequently we would actually have freedom, and we’d have people who weren’t so self-loathing (per religion telling them they are lowly wretches and sinners) that they’d allow a group of people (religion-based government) to govern another (any)human beings body.

    Imagine no religion, we don’t need it to tell us what is right and wrong. It’s not complex, it’s obvious. Freedom is right, ya’ don’t harm others is right, controlling the lives and bodies of others is wrong. Nothing overrides any of that, there are your laws…spin your “morals” as you like from that.


  14. Dove,

    This needn’t have anything to do with religion. It needn’t have anything to do with criminalizing abortion. It needn’t have anything to do with controlling other humans.

    That “too many abortions” statement IS saying that there is something wrong with having an abortion.

    It might require that there be something wrong with an abortion, but it does not require that there be something wrong with every abortion, most abortions, or even many abortions.

    Here’s an argument.

    Some women are forced to have abortions that they do not want, as I’m sure you know. Enforced abortion is wrong. Therefore, at least some abortions are wrong. If some abortions are wrong, there is an obvious sense in which there are too many abortions.

    What’s wrong with the argument?

  15. “This needn’t have anything to do with religion. It needn’t have anything to do with criminalizing abortion. It needn’t have anything to do with controlling other humans.”

    You don’t seem to get it, I don’t “frickin'” care what YOU

    It might “needn’t have,” but it has everything to do with all of that. My motivation is my own freedom and freedom of all women. You seem to be all lost in your desire to be what you believe is meticulous in your argument. Enjoy. But with regard to this topic, I am more at risk, as a woman :)

    There’s no question in my mind that the statement “Too many abortions” is truly a judgment about all abortions. And, again, that’s spurred from religion. Regardless, my point is, it’s not relevant. Our freedom and our right to control our own bodies is. No one should have the right to make that “too many abortions” call, it shouldn’t be an issue.

  16. “Some women are forced to have abortions that they do not want, as I’m sure you know. Enforced abortion is wrong. Therefore, at least some abortions are wrong”

    Yes, forcing someone to do what you want them to do is clearly wrong. Thank you for pointing this out.

  17. Hi all,

    This is getting to be one of those unfortunate times when people who are (really, whether you see it or not) all people of good will on roughly the same side start attacking each other. Happens a lot on political blogs, though not fortunately on this one very often. So can I please ask that we stop it now? I think you’re all talking past each other quite a bit, and it’s not going to get any better.

  18. I do meticulous.
    With the proposition “Enforced abortion is wrong” it’s the qualifier “enforced”, NOT the term “abortion” that makes me agree to its wrong-ness. The end conclusion about “abortion” drops the essential moral condition of force. Since the only condition that made the second proposition true is gone, I don’t follow into “some abortions are wrong”.
    Forced abortions occur, and forced abortions are wrong. And yet I conclude instead 1.therefore enforced pregnancy (abortion) is also wrong; or simply, 2. Therefore using force on others is wrong, something that doesn’t push wrong and abortion together with specious logic.
    It’s only obvious that ‘some’ does NOT indicate a sense of ‘too many’. Both terms indicate a quantity greater than one. But ‘too many’, in addition refers to a surplus. Which in turn demands the existence of an acceptable number of X that has been exceeded.
    If there are “too many” there are, undisputedly, “some”, but logic only exists in that one direction. The word “some” creates the possibility of “too many”, but it’s a leap of logic that I need to see bridged….with more than “in a sense”.
    Heh, “Too many abortions”-it really sounds like a surplus, there aren’t enough women to give all these extra abortions to. The demand side must be too low.
    I’ll only agree to the statement “There are too many forced abortions”.

  19. I was attacking no one, I was simply endeavoring to emphasize my point :) And I will reiterate that neither John’s nor anyone else’s view as to what is or is not right or wrong for MY BODY is not (should not be) relevant. Nor is John’s opinion that my words here are in no way beneficial… And I find it interesting that freedom for women, and for all people the right to govern their own bodies, is referenced as MY cause. Alrighty then. Trust me, John, if we aren’t all free, none of us are :)

    And I didn’t respond to the “forced abortion” statement, because that seemed like a no-brainer :) Forcing/controlling is our fearful world’s way and that’s most assuredly the wrong way — no matter what you’re forcing upon a human being. It’s like capping a volcano, it’s gonna blow eventually :) Nah, forcin’ ain’t good. Our world’s mega ills are, in large part, a potent reflection of all that forcing. We are beings that were meant to be (need to be) free, not rigidly controlled as we are.

    But as stated above, that factor has nothing to do with the issue of abortion being right or wrong. And again, my motivation here is not to establish whether it is or not. I’ll state again, it is not (should not be) relevant whether or not another person, or group of people, feels that how I govern my own body is right or wrong.

    YOUR BELIEFS (e.g., that a fetus is a “baby” and that makes it more important than MY FREEDOM) are of no consequence (or shouldn’t be) when it comes to my body. That includes if I choose to end my own life, sell my body or extract anything from it. None of that is (should be) the government’s or anyone else’s business — it’s my body. The government has long stepped way beyond it’s authority in that regard — especially when it comes to women. Laws that override ones basic human right to govern their own body aren’t true law. Such laws are totally bogus, religious BS.

    And this statement “too many abortions” is simply a continued reflection of that arrogance via religious white men and their equally brainwashed counterparts who feel they have the ultimate right to govern a woman’s body.

    Additionally, “too many abortions” seems to suggest that “some” are okay, acceptable per this person’s assessment. But other abortions should have been run by him (or the like) first, so that he could have made a supposedly wiser decision regarding those particular women’s lives. Like these women are incapable of making the right choice in this regard, ya’ know, not quite astute enough for something that lofty. So the solution is? Ah, since these particular women are lower (even less valuable) than your average woman, force them, like cattle, to have these unwanted children. Make them raise these unwanted ones, or do the adoption thing. Doesn’t matter, it’s all about lowering the number of otherwise acceptable abortions. ‘kay

  20. It’s certainly true that far too many people DO hold these views, but there’s absolutely no reason to attribute beliefs (e.g. a fetus is a baby and more important than your freedom) like these to John. Let’s stop this thread, OK?

  21. What is someone has had 5 abortions, and is going for a 6th? What if they already have one child, was manipulated by a self-centered man who does not helpher emotionally, or financially and this woman can not do it on her own? What then?

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