Abortion is one of the most contentious ethical issues faced today. It is the issue of whether abortion should or should not be legalised. This essay will critically analyse whether or not abortion should be legalised by incorporating ethical theory. The two theories, which will be highly examined, are Utilitarianism and Deontology. Throughout this essay, it will be argued, from a utilitarian perspective, that abortion should be legalised. Several key scenarios will be examined, such as abortion in the case of rape, restrictive laws on abortion and the effects, and the effects of unplanned pregnancies with regard to the financial burden on families. These scenarios will be reinforced by statistics, theories, and recent research in the area of abortion explaining the negative impact of keeping abortion illegal in societies.


As abortion is one of the most contentious ethical issues in Australian society today, it is therefore necessary to analyse abortion through the ethical perspective, in particular Utilitarianism. Under the consequentialism framework, Utilitarianism states that actions are to be evaluated solely on their consequences (Mills 2010, 2). Jeremy Bentham, known as one of the first individuals to fully develop the system of utilitarianism, believes that we should tally the consequences of each action we perform and establish whether an action is morally right or wrong on a case by case basis (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2005, 1). This is also known as act-utilitarianism. The second key point of Bentham is that we should tally the results of our actions in accordance to pain and pleasure, which Bentham believed should determine our moral conduct (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2005, 1). Another aspect of utilitarianism, called rule- utilitarianism is thought to be a more developed consequentialist theory. This theory accentuates the view that the right action should follow from rules that would maximise wellbeing universally (Mulgan 2007, 129). One philosopher who is aligned to rule utilitarianism is John Stuart Mill. Mill states “an act is morally right if and only if that act causes the greatest happiness for the greatest number” (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2005, 1).

The differences between act and rule utilitarianism lie within the assertion that torture, under act utilitarianism, may be morally acceptable if the benefits outweighed the non-benefits. This is in comparison to rule utilitarianism where moral acts should only be permissible if they were to be universalised (International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2012, 1).

Aborting in the case of rape

In addressing the issue of legalising abortion, there are instances where women are raped and as a result, a pregnancy has occurred. This is a sad situation and as anyone can imagine, the victim would be in a very vulnerable situation. Not only is this vulnerability detrimental to the mother, but it may also be detrimental to the child if it were to be born. In many cases, a number of psychological issues arise after a rape has occurred. According to Holmes et al. (1996, 321) post traumatic stress disorder is identified as a major issue relating to rape in 35% to 50 % of all victims in the United States. In addition to post- traumatic stress disorder, many victims have been known to suffer from depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, sexual dysfunction, marital discord, and suicide (Holmes et al. 1996, 321). As Walker (1999, 72) suggests, “Pregnancy due to rape acts against the women’s liberty and in some sense, it’s a perpetuation of the aggression of the rapist. Regardless of the practical problems of pregnancy, rape is a major trauma, and the pregnancy complicates this further”.

first point

From a utilitarian perspective, it is clear that the nature of the scenario brings about many issues; for example, the happiness of the mother and also the happiness of the child if pregnancy were to be proceeded. It is clear that rape is harmful in so many ways, especially for the mother. One may argue that it is perhaps just as harmful for the child to be brought up by a mother who has been the victim of rape. A utilitarian may argue that based on the principle of greatest good for greatest number, the pregnancy should be terminated. As previously stated; utilitarianism encompasses consequentialism, which focuses on the consequences that arise from actions. In this scenario the consequences are the possible mental and physical harm of mother and child. One could imagine the effects caused to the child if it was exposed to such traumas. Also, one must take into account the guilt that the child would bare once finding out that they were the product of rape. Many argue that the effect of guilt is not only illustrated within the child, but society is also seen to often treat children of rape as guilty (Walker (1999, 77).)

Deontology point

An ethical perspective that is highly critical of abortion is that of deontology. The principles of deontology are based on idea that moral action is derived from duty and respect (McNaughton 2007, 271). Deontologists argue that when an ethical decision needs to be made one must have a duty to treat others with respect and fairness, and to abide by certain rules (Hayes, Stobbs and Lauchs 2006, 10). To follow the law at all times is a great example of deontology because it is deemed the “right” thing to do. In addition, deontologists believe that you should never treat anyone as purely a means to an end but treat people as ends in themselves (Preston 2001, 49). Therefore in light of the scenario, a deontologist would argue that having an abortion would be treating the foetus as a means to an end. Even in the case of pregnancy caused by rape, a deontologist would argue that the mother has a duty to continue the pregnancy and preserve the life of the baby. A deontologist would justify this by arguing that to be a moral agent, one must perform their duty, acknowledge rights of others, and eliminate any thought of the consequences (reference).

Whilst deontology has merit in its argument, the issue from a utilitarian perspective lies within the premise that there is no thought for the possible consequences of actions. This is a direct violation of the utilitarian perspective, which focuses on the consequences of actions and bringing about the greatest good for the greatest number. Also, the duty should not be allocated to the mother as she was not in control. An example that clearly illustrates this situation from a different picture is Judith Thomson’s analogy. This is about a random person who is attached to a violinist for 9 months in which will ultimately save that violinists life (Singer 2011, 132). The parallels with this example are very similar to that of the case of pregnancy due to rape; however, Singer suggests that many individuals would not see an ethical dilemma if the random were to remove themselves as it was not their duty (Singer 2011, 133).

Abortion 2nd point- Bad abortions killing women

A further argument to legally allow abortion is for the purpose of eliminating unsafe abortions. Many argue that the restrictive laws in many countries are severely detrimental to livelihoods of pregnant women. The World Health Organisation found that in 2008, over 49% of abortions was unsafe worldwide (Sedgh et al. 2012, 625). Whilst the statistics don’t place emphasis on why the unsafe abortions occur, places such as Argentina (peter singer reference) have expressed their position by suggesting the countries high maternal death rate is a direct sign of criminalising abortion (BBC 2012). The issue is very much a severe scene in Zimbabwe where over 20,000 Zimbabwean women are dying annually as a result of illegal abortions and the countries stance on keeping abortion illegal (New Zimbabwe 2012). Whilst a mother’s death is undoubtly devastating effect of unsafe abortions, long-term consequences are also evident. The World Health Organisation estimates that “approximately 1.7 million women have become infertile as a result of unsafe abortions, and an estimated 3 million women suffer from reproductive tract infections”(Singh 2010, 851). Not only are the effects of unsafe abortions terrible for women, but the effects can also stem through a nations economy. This is evident when you take into account the immediate upfront health costs from unsafe abortion practises, not to mention the long-term health issues that affect the productivity of countries (Singh 2010, 849).

A utilitarian perspective would justify abortion in this circumstance. Whilst one would take into account a mother’s happiness, a utilitarian would also take into account the nation’s interest. As it has been highlighted, the economic consequences that occur from illegal abortions would no doubt create unhappiness illegal abortions negatively affect a nations economic prosperity. Therefore one can argue that its effects create more unhappiness than overall good.

Deontology point

A deontologist would argue that once must uphold their duty and abide by the law and to do what is ‘right’. This would mean not participating in an illegal abortion which entails breaking the law. Kant would state that this action would be unethical because it would violate the categorical imperative. This is because it would be difficult for abortion to become a universal law. Kant states that for the categorical imperative to formulate you are to “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2008). Therefore, a deontologist would argue that the maxim, which is to allow abortion, could not be universalised, as it is a contradiction to the law of Nature. This is because the human race would consequently become extinct(reference).

Utilitarian point

The issue with the deontological argument is that it blind sights itself and does not look at a scenario in an overall perspective. It is clear that the consequences of restrictive laws on abortion can be seen to affect a vast population negatively. As previously stated deontology lacks in this regard to observe the consequences of actions. Philosopher Phillipa Foot accentuates her view by stating “what make consequentialism so compelling is the rather simple thought that it can never be right to prefer a worse state of affairs to a better” (Freeman, 1996, 315).

Argument 3- Financial burden which may result in criminal behaviour

Many argue that forcing women to continue their pregnancies will create a economic burden to families which many perceive it will affect the child, and society. According to Rae (2009, 233) “Without safe and legal abortion, these women will be condemned to a life of poverty and financial burden, which is also unfair to the children that they bring into the world”. Whilst financial burden directly affects the families, society as a whole may also be affected, especially when looking at from a justice perspective. According to Weatherburn and Lind (1998, 2) parents of low income tend to be less caring and less likely to adequately supervise children. A Longitudinal study from 1939 to 1979 investigated the link between parenting styles and later criminality. It found that juvenile delinquency was higher amongst rejected and neglected boys (50%) than those from loving families (11%)(Stewart, Dennison and Waterson 2002, 4). In addition, they are also more likely to hand out inconsistent and harsher disciplinary action. This consequently results in a weak parent-child bond in which later amounts to juvenile and adult crime involvement (Weatherburn and Lind, 1998, 3).

Utilitarian point

As you can see, the ripple effect of keeping a child in financially tough situations not only affects the immediate family but also may affect society. By applying a utilitarian approach, it is clear that legalising abortion will bring about the greatest good for the greatest number. A Utilitarian would justify this by acknowledging the mother happiness as a result of the abortion due to the elimination of economic hardship, and also acknowledging the child’s unhappiness if they were to be born, and thirdly; acknowledging society as a whole would be benefit as crime would not occur as a result of an abortion.

Deontology point

A familiar objection to the utilitarian argument is often seen within the deontological argument. Kant accentuates the view that emotions can never be incorporated in making an ethical decision. He also claims that individuals have the capacity to put aside their feelings and emotions when making an ethical decision (Hayes, Stobbs and Lauchs 2006, 10). Therefore, a deontological argument would not allow abortion for a number of reasons. Once again, a deontologists would argue that we have a moral duty to preserve human life and that we should not use anyone as a means to an end. Secondly, if the mother were to abort for her own self interests it would breach the principle of being impartial in ethical decision making.

Utilitarian point

Whilst deontology is seen as consistent in it’s ethical approach, a utilitarian cannot agree with such principles. It is clear that in this scenario, no good consequences arise. It is essential, from a utilitarian perspective, that we incorporate the overall happiness and utility to determine an ethical decision. In this scenario the consequences are far more beneficial if abortion was to be legalised, not only for the mother but also the unborn child, and community. The Canadian Royal Commission into the Status of Women reinforces this notion as they state, “A law that has more bad effects than good ones is a bad law”(Singer 2011,129)


The aim of this paper has been to critically analyse if abortion ought to be legalised whilst incorporating ethical theory. The theory of utilitarianism was discussed and the topic analysed, whilst also discrediting the theory of deontology. Nonetheless, this essay has demonstrated that abortion needs to be legalised for the sake of women, their families, and also society. It is clear that by not legalising abortion, severe consequences can occur.

Therefore, the proposition that, from a utilitarian perspective, the nature and extent of police corruption since the Fitzgerald Inquiry has decreased appears to be correct.


BBC News. 2012. “Argentine court decriminalises abortion in rape cases” BBC News, March 14. Accessed April 20, 2012.

Better Health Channel.2012. “Abortion.” Accessed April 12, 2012. http://www.b

Caldwell, J. 2004. “The Legal Status of Abortion in Australia.” Accessed April 12, 2012. ofabortioninaustralianew.pdf.

Chan, Annabelle and Leonie C. Sage. 2005. “Estimating Australia’s abortion rates 1985- 2003.” Medical Journal of Australia 182 (9): 447-452.

Cica, N.1998. “Abortion Law in Australia: Law and bills digest group.” Accessed April 14, 2012. Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp9899/99rp01.

Freeman, Samuel. 1994. “Utilitarianism, Deontology, and the Priority of Right.”

Philosophy & Public Affairs 23 (4): 313-349.

Gilda, Sedgh, Susheela Singh, Iqbal Shah, Elisabeth Ahman, Stanley Henshaw and Akinrinola Bankole. 2012. “Induced abortion: incidence and trends worldwide from 1995 to 2008.” The Lancet 37 (9): 625- 632. Accessed April 20, 2012. DOI:10.1016/S0140-6736(11)61786-8.

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