We discussed the issue of whether abortions are morally permissible in my Philosophy and Public Issues class. A number of my students echoed a line of argument you've probably heard before. It's usually stated in the form a single sentence: "She knew the risks of having sex." The point seems to be that a woman should not have an abortion because a pregnancy is a consequence of "risky behavior." One that engages in risky behavior is often saddled with undesirable consequences. (I'm here assuming that since we're talking about abortion that the pregnancy is not desired.) But, so the argument goes, if one is aware of those possible consequences, then one is "on the moral hook," as it were, for those consequences.
Here's another way to put this:
(1) A woman knows that a possible consequence of having sex is getting pregnant and eventually giving birth to a baby.
(2) If a person knows about a potential consequence of a given action and she performs that action in the face of this risk, then she must endure the consequences.
(3) Therefore, a woman who has sex and gets pregnant must endure the consequences and have the baby--and so shouldn't abort the fetus.
The key here is the phrase "must endure the consequences." What does this mean exactly? It has to mean something like that she is morally obligated to suffer through those negative consequences.
I used an example in class that I think shows that this kind of argument is unsound. Consider the various risks we take and the various undesirable consequences that might come about as a result of taking those risks. Are we morally obligated to "endure the consequences"? Consider my driving to work. I risk getting into an accident that damages my car. Suppose I take this risk and get into an accident. It's perfectly morally acceptable to repair my car. I may have to endure consequences like having to call my insurance company, take my car to the shop, etc. But I certainly am not morally required to refrain from repairing my car. This example seems to show that although certain consequences of a risk might have to be endured, others can be avoided. And it's not immoral to avoid those consequences. Indeed, it's perfectly rational to diminish the undesirable consequences of a "risky" action.
If this is correct, then it would seem that a woman does not have to "endure the consequences" of having sex if this means that she must carry an unwanted fetus to full term. She may have to endure various other consequences--consequences that are more difficult to avoid. She might feel guilty, wonder what "could have been," suffer physical discomfort, etc. These potential consequences are harder to avoid than a potential consequence like having a baby. Having a baby can be avoided, of course, by getting an abortion.
I want to make it clear that I'm not here arguing that abortions are morally permissible. (I do think that some abortions are permissible, but this is beside my point here.) All that I'm trying to show is that a very common sort of argument leveled against the moral permissibility of abortions is misguided. Indeed, I think this kind of argument is entirely unconvincing. The fact that a woman engages in "risky behavior" by having sex seems irrelevant to the issue of whether it's morally permissible for her to have an abortion.
Of course, we might think a great deal less of someone if she engages in very risky behavior and is, for example, surprised by the undesirable consequences that ensue. A friend of mine climbs mountains without ropes. It would be rather perverse for her to be in utter disbelief when she suffers a non-lethal, but terrible fall. This is because she knowingly takes a risk. So I do understand that we might judge people for the risks they take and that we have certain expectations of them. But my point remains. It's morally acceptable for her to seek medical care for those wounds, regardless of how foolish we might think she is for rock climbing without the adequate safety equipment. She may be unwise, rash, etc., but it's perfectly morally acceptable for her to do what she can to reduce the negative consequences of her risky behavior.
Comments are most welcome...