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Is There an Obligation to Abort? Act Utilitarianism and the Ethics of Procreation

22 January 2019


Most Act-Utilitarians, including Singer are Permissivists who claim that their theory usually permits abortion. In contrast, a minority, including Hare and Tännsjö, are Restrictionists who assert that Act-Utilitarianism (AU) usually limits abortion. I argue that both Permissivists and Restrictionists have misunderstood AU’s radical implications for abortion: AU entails that abortion is, in most cases in the economically developed world, morally obligatory. According to AU, it is morally obligatory for A to do F in circumstances C if and only if A’s doing F in C produces at least as much total net value as any other action that A could do in C. As mentioned above, AU has generally been seen to be fairly permissive about abortion. A little more exactly, AU is usually thought to hold that abortion is morally permissible in most cases, even during the second and third trimester. But not all AUs are Permissivists. Restrictionists maintain that the value of the future good that the fetus will experience over an entire life is likely to often outweigh the value of the good that its female parent will lose if the fetus is not aborted. Neither Permissivists nor Restrictionists have understood AU’s implications for abortion, at least as it concerns those living in economically developed countries today. First, Restrictionists have failed to recognize the marginal costs that a person in the developed world incurs on future people. One life lived now in the developed world consumes more resources (and contributes more to global warming) than a life lived in the developing world, and in the process makes the prospects of future people considerably worse. Restrictionists ignore these costs when they claim that it is often morally impermissible to abort fetuses. Second, Permissivists have not gone far enough when they have claimed that abortion is morally permissible. Singer and others have argued that we in the developed world ought to redirect much of our wealth to the underdeveloped world because its marginal value is much higher there than here. But the average cost of raising a child in the United States is almost $13,000 per year. Hence, by forgoing a child (including aborting a fetus) one can save and maintain, on average, between 6 and 65 people per year. Thus, AU entails that almost everyone in the developed world who is financially capable of supporting a child should not do so, even if that means aborting a fetus.


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