• Society of Bioethics and Medicine

An Interesting Account of Abortion

Written By - Ishraq Nihal, Edited By - Anling Chen

Abortion remains today one of the most divisive and controversial topics in the sociopolitical sphere. As educated citizens as well as future healthcare practitioners, we are obliged to stay well informed on the prominent arguments in the debate.

Steven Ross is a Professor of Philosophy at Hunter College. In his essay, “Abortion and the Death of the Fetus” (1982), Ross presents a defense of killing the fetus in abortion. He begins by proposing that abortion as practiced today consists of two logically separable actions: terminating a pregnancy and killing the fetus. He believes it would be possible to terminate a pregnancy while still keeping the fetus alive and developing in some other viable environment (an action marginally possible today). Such an action, he says, seems unobjectionable compared to its alternative, ie. both terminating the pregnancy and killing the fetus. If this is so, then the current practice of abortion would only be acceptable because the two are currently inseparable.

However, as Ross points out, terminating a pregnancy while keeping the fetus alive elsewhere is likely not a welcome compromise to many parents. He says that if women at a clinic were notified that their fetus could be taken from their womb, kept alive elsewhere, and placed in a good home afterward, many of the women would be unsatisfied. This is because they conceivably want the fetus to be killed. To some, this may understandably be viewed as a strange or perhaps malicious reaction, yet this reaction is anticipated due to the supremely unique relationship between a fetus and its parents.

One of the most popular arguments today in defense of abortion is that women have a right to terminate a pregnancy even if it results in a person’s death because “anyone has a right to terminate any dependency relation he or she has not willingly entered” (Ross, 234). Ross offers philosopher Judith Thompson’s example of the violinist who needs our kidneys for nine months to survive. The violinist is dependent on us for survival and is offered as an analogy to a fetus and its mother. The underlying assumption in Thompson’s example however is that the violinist is a stranger. Ross suggests that such analogies oversimplify the relationship between a fetus and its mother. The fetus after all is no stranger. The parents of the fetus, for one, feel a host range of emotions toward the fetus that is not yet born. Furthermore, unlike the violinist, the relationship with the fetus does not end after nine months, it continues on forever.

According to Ross, these women at the clinic want their fetus to die because they do not want any child of theirs to be born in the first place. They are seeking to avoid the complication that comes with knowing they have a child in the world, even if someone else is gladly raising them. He says, “they do not want there to be a child they fail or succeed in raising” (238). They are not merely trying to avoid pregnancy or having to raise a child.

While Ross does not consider the fetus to be a person, he acknowledges that the fetus has moral worth as a potential person. If the fetus had no connection to the parent, it would be unjustifiable to kill it. However, the fetus’ relationship with its parents is a special circumstance. Ross says, “The fetus is the only thing that someone - a parent - may with equal comprehensibility and legitimacy care for or want dead.” (Ross, 236). In any matter, Ross argues that the unique relationship between a fetus and its parents and the psychological complications that come with it to be the main justification for abortion (both terminating a pregnancy and killing the fetus). It is a more equivocal matter regarding whether this justification translates into the right to kill the fetus.

If justifications for abortion do hold up, in the future, societal attitudes towards abortion may become more lax. This sense of change can already be seen in the general acceptance of babies born out of wedlock. Nonetheless, the possibility of a baby being born in an artificial environment poses a direct challenge to killing the fetus, and has interesting implications on male and female dynamics when it comes to jurisdiction over the fetus. Currently, the woman carrying the fetus holds the authority to choose to abort the fetus or not, regardless of the father’s intentions. However, one can imagine in the future the government raising unwanted fetuses in artificial wombs to prevent them from being killed. In such a world, women along with men would effectively be denied the ability to choose to kill the fetus. In this way, women would be put in the same situation men are in today.

The question of abortion is a difficult one, and while it seems like a timeless question, our perceptions of it may change sooner than we thought. Ross offers, if not powerful, an accurate account for the justification of killing the fetus in abortion, and only time will tell how attitudes towards this will change in the future.


Ross, Steven L. “Abortion and the Death of the Fetus .” Philosophy & Public Affairs , vol. 11, no. 3, 1982, pp. 232–245.