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Abortion and the Theory of Act Utilitarianism Essay

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Updated: Jan 17th, 2022

In the modern world, much attention is paid to the problem of abortion, which causes not only medical but also social, juridical, and ethical concerns. Some people are critically sensitive to abortion, associating it with immorality and selfishness. Others consider it justifiable and complementary with the modern state of science and morality. Both negative and positive attitudes to abortion may have hidden pitfalls. Political laws on abortion forbiddance may result in the act of civil disobedience – illegal abortion. Some positive or neutral attitudes may ignore different sides of the problem and could be just giving the moralists a dig for their disapprobatory public mood. Therefore, the issue should be considered about ethical and social frameworks helping elaborate the proper approach.

One possible philosophical approach to the problem of choice in such sensitive issues as abortion is the theory of Utilitarianism measuring the moral value of the action. The theory, usually associated with the works of Bentham and Mill, is a reaction to the fragmentary nature of our knowledge and beliefs. Utilitarianism is closely connected to the idea of equality and welfare. As Hayry (2013) states, “general well-being and equality among individuals have been focal to social and legal reforms since the rise of classical utilitarianism in Britain” (p. 1). However, the political systems opposing each other started applying the theory and that caused the challenging mess-up of values and approaches. Political and philosophical conflicts of collectivism and individualism began distorting the theory. Although, the initial theory is much about the happiness and well-being of each individual and the totalitarian-based understanding of public good seems hostile to the interests of individuals (Hayrey, 2013, p. 2).

There is no use in savoring the principles of abstract common good while concerning the utilitarian ideas of modern society as much attention is paid nowadays to the rights of individuals and minorities. This tendency is particularly true for the Western world. According to Hayrey (2013), “the American pioneers of applied ethics especially believed that it is more effective to challenge … racial, ethnic or gender-related discrimination by direct appeal to human rights … than by indirect references to the greatest general good” (p. 2). In the sense of individual action, act utilitarianism welcomes actions that can bring as much happiness to a person as it is possible. Although, this happiness may concern not only the idea of libertarianism based on the principle of persons’ freedom to act as they will. The initial idea of act utilitarianism concerns the greatest good to the largest number of people.

The abortion problem cannot stand alone in the world struggling for human rights and personal liberty. However, act utilitarianism is complicated enough to give an absolute answer to all the sensitive questions. It will be a possible solution to analyze the problem both regarding “ego-centric utilitarianism” and the theory in the context of maximum good to the greatest numbers. Firstly, abortion should be considered from a health point of view. According to Kaszor (2014), “in addition to the issue of physical well-being, the question of whether abortion is good … could be approached in terms of psychological well-being” (p. 10). Any assumptions about women’s well-being regarding the abortion problem must have a medical basis. However, another aspect of the person-based approach is the philosophical question of whether personhood begins before birth. If the fetus can already feel pain and have a desire to live, another ethical problem arises. As Kaszor (2014) states, “should a conflict arise between the rights of persons to health, happiness or freedom and the rights of potential persons, the rights of persons prevail” (p. 42). Thus, one of the core ethical problems of abortion is finding out whether a fetus has the right to life.

Another perspective to act utilitarianism is a common good perspective, which may refer to the problems of human rights, gender equality, and sustainable development. From this perspective, legalized abortion along with contraception, decreasing child mortality, and highly available education may change the situation when society runs on half of its brainpower. Participation of women in the labor force and their choice to gain a good education without having the responsibility of carrying the burden of undesirable motherhood are also crucial. As the theory of act-utilitarianism is correlated with the goals of sustainable development, one should pay attention to the Millennium Development Goals set by the UN and find out what problems have priority over morality and some health problems underlying abortion.

Undoubtedly, our perceptions of abortion should rise not only from morality and particular ethical concerns. To understand and evaluate the scale of the problem, it is better to focus on act-utilitarianism, which aim has been to introduce an adequate notion of good. In the highly- interrelated world, happiness could be both common merit and an individual’s concern. Both a comprehensive ethical insight and scientific research are needed to address not only the problem of abortion but different challenges of the world setting common goals to reduce child mortality, empower women, improve maternal health and ensure environmental sustainability.


Hayry, M. (2013). Liberal Utilitarianism and Applied Ethics. New York, NY: Routledge.

Kaszor, C. (2014). The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice. New York, NY: Routledge.

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