You have not enabled cookies! This site requires cookies to operate properly. Please enable cookies, and refresh your browser for full functionality.


Read part I and part II of this series.

January 3, 2011 ( – Being pregnant when you don’t want to be can be frightening and humiliating. Even a wanted pregnancy can be rather scary. Pregnancy profoundly affects your body and emotions as well as the way others see you. Is a woman morally obligated to bring a pregnancy to term when she got pregnant by mistake and really doesn’t want a baby? It is her body after all.

Putting the problem in this way is misleading. If abortion affected only her body it would not be so controversial. But it does not. As discussed in the first article in this series, pregnancy involves one human being living and needing to live inside another. If embryos could be removed from one woman’s womb and transplanted into the womb of another or raised in artificial wombs, maybe things would be different. But they can’t. If removed from its mother’s womb, the embryo/fetus will die – at least before viability (now 20-22 weeks gestation).

To think of the situation as analogous to that of a landlord (the woman who owns the womb) and a tenant (or perhaps a burglar), is to misunderstand pregnancy. We don’t own our bodies; we are our bodies. And although the embryo is not just a part of the woman’s body, but a separate and distinct human individual, the two are bound together in a very intimate relationship which can best be understood as a kind of natural solidarity. From the very beginning of pregnancy, the woman’s hormonal system is powerfully affected by the presence of the embryo; mother and baby become intertwined and attuned to each other in complicated ways as the pregnancy progresses. What helps or harms the mother helps or harms the baby and vice versa.

In light, then, of the unique and intimate relationship between a pregnant woman and the embryo/fetus in her womb, there are three reasons why the woman is morally obligated to bring the pregnancy to term. First, abortion would cause the death of an innocent human being – one that the mother alone is in a position to sustain. If she exercises her control of her body by having it removed, it will certainly die (at least until viability).

Second, the tiny human individual is her own offspring (and that of the father). Parents have a special obligation to care for their children, and shedding the blood of a family member has always carried a special taboo. The Furies, for example, were powerful and terrifying Greek goddesses who avenged the deaths of those who had died at the hand of their own kin (as they relentlessly hounded Orestes for killing his mother Clytemnestra). The reality of this primal level of blood guilt remains with us still. For example, a woman who had had several abortions described herself as pursued by “baby furies.” Buddhist women frequently offer sacrifices to the spirit of the baby (and they would call it a “baby”) in order to placate it and prevent it from taking revenge.

Finally, in consenting to sexual intercourse the woman has knowingly exposed herself to the risk of pregnancy (the case of rape will be considered in another essay). Couples know that even if they were trying to prevent conception, there is no 100% effective way to avoid it. Using contraception can give a false sense of security, and when it fails to prevent conception the couple may feel that this pregnancy is somehow unfair and that therefore they are entitled to abort it. This is not true. Taking a risk of bringing a new human life into existence brings responsibility with it. She and the man she had intercourse with are responsible for the embryo/fetus being inside her womb. It didn’t drop down from Mars or get delivered by a stork. And as its parents they are obligated to care for it, or at least deliver it into the hands of other people who will do so adequately.

We do not and cannot have total control of our bodies or our lives. Many of the most important things in our lives, both good and bad are out of our control. We may get diabetes. We may win the lottery or be hit and maimed by a bus. We must take responsibility for our own actions and play the hand we’ve been given. The unwanted pregnancy when accepted with grace may result in a child who becomes a source of love and meaning in its mother’s life (and hopefully its father’s as well). Or if not its biological parents’ lives, the lives of would be adoptive parents now longing in vain for a baby to become available.

Note: Celia Wolf-Devine is an extensively published author and lecturer in Philosophy. She, along with her husband Phil Devine are co-authors of a book on abortion published by Oxford University Press.