Evaluating Jane English's View on Abortion


[This is my first article I ever wrote on the topic of abortion. I wrote it for J.P. Moreland in a summer Ethical Issues course he taught in June 1991 at Talbot School of Theology. I have taken the liberty of making a small handful of edits.]

This paper will attempt to evaluate the view put forth by Jane English concerning the ethical issue of abortion (English, 1990). The subject of abortion is very broad indeed, and thus, I will limit my evaluation to those specific problems I deem relevant in her article.

Summary of English's View

English begins her article by claiming that there are two extremes concerning the abortion issue. The first is the conservative extreme, which understands human life beginning at conception, and consequently holds that every abortion is murder. The second is the liberal extreme, which understands human life beginning at birth, and consequently holds that a woman may do to her own body as she pleases. The former tends to forget that not all killings of humans murders, whereas the latter tends to forget that one cannot legally do anything to one's own body if it affects other people adversely and that even if the fetus is not a person, this does not give a mother the right to do whatever she wants to with her own fetus.

Thus, English arrives at a somewhat unique position in claiming that "our concept of a person cannot and need not bear the weight that the abortion controversy has thrust upon it" (English, 1990, p.158). If the fetus is a person, abortion may be justified sometimes; and if the fetus is not a person, abortion may not be justified sometimes.

How does she arrive at this position? Like Wittgensteins's teaching concerning the notion of "game," English believes that the concept of "person" cannot be tied in a strait jacket of necessary and/or sufficient conditions. The notion of "person" is, instead, a cluster of features which biological, psychological, logical, sociological, legal, and other such features are merely part. These may be more or less typical, but there is no single core of necessary and sufficient features which constitute what it really means to be a person. Necessary or sufficient conditions may be given, but instead of "falling inside a sufficient condition or outside a necessary one, a fetus lies in the penumbra region where our concept of a person is not so simple. For this reason I think a conclusive answer to the question whether a fetus is a person is unattainable" (English, 1990, p.159).

Furthermore, throughout history, there have been a variety of opinions as to when a person comes into existence. Thus, one should not expect there to be a clear and obvious case for when a person comes into existence.

English now proceeds to demonstrate a counter example against this notion that it is the personhood of a fetus that determines whether or not it may be aborted or not. In other words, even if a fetus is an innocent person, it does not follow that killing an innocent person is always wrong. Her example is of a mad scientist who hypnotizes innocent people to jump out of bushes and attack with knives pedestrians. Killing these hypnotized innocent people is certainly a justifiable way of protection from these people.

In the same way, an innocent fetus may pose a threat to the woman in such a way that she may justifiably take its life. Quite obviously, if the fetus poses a slight threat to the woman’s interests, then self-defense could in no way justify an abortion. But if the threat was somewhat equivalent to “a serious beating or a loss of a finger, she may kill the fetus that poses such a threat, even if it is an innocent person” (English, 1990, p.161). This self-defense model demonstrates that a woman has a right to be free from the fetus.

From here, English takes the example one step further to demonstrate the plausibility of this notion of abortion on demand. She invites you to suppose you are a surgeon who is kidnapped by one of these innocent hypnotic attackers. The latter claims not to hurt you, but instead claims that he has been instructed to bring you back to the mad scientist who plans on hypnotizing you with a permanent mental block of all your medical knowledge. The result of this would be the abolishment of your career, which would also entail a serious impact on your family, your personal relationships, as well as your happiness. In such a case, it would seem justifiable to shoot the innocent attacker on the basis of self-defense. Just as there would be a drastic injury to your life-long prospects, so there would be the same results if you had an unwanted pregnancy.

This self-defense model, it is claimed, sets up an important difference between abortion and infanticide, even if a fetus is a person from conception. Many approaches which attempt to justify abortion without justifying infanticide look for some significant characteristics of personhood held by an infant that a fetus does not hold. This ignores the relation between the fetus and the woman. English realizes that it is possible that some time after the fetus is born, the woman may decide that the baby is a threat to her sanity or her life goals. What can she do at this point? Very simply, she can, quite literally, run away from her problem. Now the woman may defend herself through a less drastic means than killing the baby. Thus, the self-defense model which allows for the active taking of life may only be used to justify abortion, not infanticide.

But why is it ultimately that we prohibit or condone a certain action such as torturing person-life nonpersons (which fetuses quite possibly may be)? English claims, “An ethical theory must operate by generating a set of sympathies and attitudes toward others which reinforces the functioning of … moral principles” (English, 1990, p.163). Thus, these principles are based on our psychological constitution.

When we notice the striking similarities of a nine month old fetus and a newborn, we have a “coherence of attitudes” (Ibid.) that psychologically liken abortion to murder. But in the very early stages after conception, “a fetus is very much unlike a person” (Ibid.), and thus we do not psychologically liken abortion to murder.

As a result, English concludes,


It would be wrong for a woman who is seven months pregnant to have an abortion just to avoid having to postpone a trip to Europe. In the early months of pregnancy when the fetus hardly resembles a baby at all, then abortion is permissible whenever it is in the interests of the pregnant woman or her family. The reasons would only need to outweigh the pain and inconvenience of the abortion itself. In the middle months, when the fetus comes to resemble a person, abortion would be justifiable only when the continuation of the pregnancy of the birth of the child would cause harms--physical, psychological, economic or social--to the woman. In the late months of pregnancy, even on our current assumption that a fetus is not a person, abortion seems to be wrong except to save a woman from significant injury or death (English, 1991, p.164, emphasis added).


Critique of English’s View

I agree with English that just because one is an innocent person does not necessarily exclude him or her from a possible justified execution. It is imminently plausible that an innocent individual may have been hypnotized to attack other innocent individuals, or that one may be honestly deceived into believing one’s leaders are just and as a result is motivated to fight for them and one’s country. In both cases, it would be perfectly justifiable, though regrettable, for an individual to defend oneself by killing such an attacker. If what is meant by the “conservative view” is that it is never justified to take a fetus’ life, then many who are otherwise against abortion would agree with this extremely rare occurrence.

As such, it may be argued that English is committing a straw man. If that is the case, then this is not really a conservative view, since a conservative view would claim that abortion may only be performed if the mother’s life is in danger. Under this circumstance, pro-lifers 1) either don’t consider this abortion as such (it is certainly not abortion on demand) even if it involves the intentional immediate destroying of an unborn child (Moreland and Geisler, 1990, p.38) or 2) even if it involves the intentional removing a living embryo or fetus. The latter may be done without the former even though in many cases, certainly not all, natural death will obviously imminently occur no matter how much life sustaining assistance there is for the embryo or fetus.

I also agree with English that the liberal view is too extreme as well. To say that moments before birth the fetus is not quite a person is strange indeed. Thus, one cannot do whatever one wants if it adversely affects others (viz., the fetus). And furthermore, even against all odds the fetus is not a person, this does not ipso facto mean one has the right to do whatever she wants to this “person-like nonperson.”

However, simply because I agree with English on certain points, it does not entail that I agree with her concerning the nature of abortion. I find her view to be unjustified for four main reasons. First, she denies that whether the fetus is a person or not, or that it even has any kind of nature to it, makes much of a difference. Second, she claims that even if it did make a difference concerning the nature of the fetus, there would be no way to clearly tell (i.e., whether it is a person, a human, both, or neither). Third, she claims that the fetus’ life may be taken for reasons other than the mother’s life is in danger. Fourth, she claims that our moral principles concerning whether abortion is right or wrong in particular situations) are ultimately based on our sympathies and attitudes toward others (viz., our psychological constitution).

In response to English on the nature of the fetus, if it can be established that the fetus (and embryo for that matter) is in fact a person, then of course this would weigh quite heavily on how we, as a society, treat and value it. Simply because it is difficult to determine is far from saying it is impossible to determine. She seems to commit the mere is/ought fallacy when she states that throughout history, people have been divided on when a person comes into existence, and therefore we ought not expect a clear answer (English, 1990, p.160). Many pro-lifers have made defenses of the personhood/humanness of a fetus (e.g., Moreland and Geisler, 1990, pp. 34-42). If their views begin to be accepted in the general public, then of course the public will increasingly accept that since the fetus is a human person, the fetus ought to be afforded the rights given in the community of fellow persons. One of those basic rights would be that of life. Of course this right may be revoked in certain cases of self-defense or in cases of capital offense, but clearly not by the capricious standards set down by English. Just because it was at one point difficult to determine whether slaves were fully persons or not does not get us off the hook. In the same way, it should neither get us off the hook for determining the personhood of the fetus.

Further, if there is no way to clearly tell what a fetus is by nature and we simply have to leave it to our malleable psychological constitutions, then there is also no way to tell the same for an infant. English is drawing one’s focus away from what things intrinsically are to what they may become for one’s own use or disuse. There is no reason infants should not be treated similarly other than a Humean habit.

English started out getting us to empathize with self-defense, but afterwards, she began running from it. Self-defense for abortion no longer means an act of the woman to protect her own physical life from death. Now it is broadened to mean an act that will protect her “well-being, life prospects or health, mental or physical” (English, 1990, p.161).

The problem for English now becomes, how much or what kind of “well-being” is required for the mother to have to carry the fetus through to delivery? How many or what kinds of “life-prospects” are required for the mother to carry the fetus through to delivery? How much “mental or physical health” quality is required? The answer turns out to be completely subjective. The standard becomes “her interests” (Ibid.). In this case, “[Wo]man is the measure.”

English claims that if the fetus poses “a slight threat to her interests, it seems self-defense cannot justify abortion” (Ibid., emphasis added). Why not? Because her analogy was drawn from a life situation in which we could not inflict death on an attacker if he or she posed a slight threat to our interests. At this point, one needs to ask what is meant by the term “slight.” English implies that this is anything less than a “rape, a severe beating or the loss of a finger” (Ibid.). So even though the fetus is innocent, one may only abort if one feels it is “on a par with” (Ibid.) it.

There are basically two main problems with this example. The first is that it is a false analogy. There seems to be a problem with identifying the innocent hypnotized attacker as the fetus. If it really is an attacker to create the initial problem, this would be more analogous with the rapist himself. Of course one would defend herself against the attack of this innocent hypnotized rapist. She would defend herself even to the point of killing her attacker. However, it is still the rapist she would be killing, not her non-life-threatening fetus.

Even if the fetus is life-threatening, it is always possible to go to a place where the pregnant woman would be protected (i.e., a hospital). There, her protectors (i.e., the nurses and doctors) could just take the innocent attacker out of its mother. If it dies afterwards, then sadly it dies, but given the law of double effect, the act is justified in saving the life of the mother who acts in defense.

The analogy also does not seem to fit with the woman being permanently damaged on a par with the loss of a finger. The woman may be permanently damaged psychologically (e.g., she may be traumatized that she got pregnant at such a young age or out of wedlock), but having an abortion will not erase the past. As such, it is not the fetus who was really the attacker; it was the rapist or it was the woman who attacked herself by getting involved in a sexual relationship which has the potential for an unwanted pregnancy as a natural byproduct. The innocent child should not pay with its life for the irresponsibility of others.

If it is assumed the attacker qua fetus will leave permanent damage by the mother being tied down with it, then there is an obvious problem. Sure the woman may always be traumatized by a rape, but it should be obvious that the woman may always put the fetus/infant attacker up for adoption if the mother cannot learn to heal and live with her tragedy. The fetus/infant attacker would not be permanent damage if it is put up for adoption. The only potential permanent damage that would remain is the memory of the whole experience… rape as well as gestation.

The second problem with English’s example is one that she brought up in her article. She asks, “What if, after birth, the presence of an infant or the need to support it posed a grave threat to the woman’s sanity or life prospects?” (Ibid., p.162). I could not have stated the problem better myself. English responds by claiming the victimized mother could simply run away. As a result, she assumes this does not entail the death of the child as the more “drastic” means of killing the infant like abortion does (Ibid.).

However, suppose the victimized mother is a single parent. May she also leave the kid lying in its crib? Why not? Because obviously the kid will die without proper care. So English would allow an infant to die via natural causes, but prior to birth under certain circumstances, it is perfectly acceptable to butcher the kid limb from limb. And why must infanticide be any less “drastic” than abortion anyway? Why could not the now victimized parent take a knife to the kid’s throat, dump it in the trash, and subjectively get on with her goals and living what she takes to be a “sane” life--like selling illegal drugs, prostitution, being a rock star, or just hooking up with more men to repeat the process all over again?

It seems fairly clear that whatever argument one may give against infanticide may apply equally well against abortion. Most people are against infanticide. Why? Because it is killing an innocent person or at least a human being who is continuing to develop in all its capacities. And yet many of these same people refuse to see that there is no essential (notice the nature term here) difference between a fetus and an infant. Location, size, and the way it is now fed have nothing to do with its nature. It is still the same thing… a human being that is continuing to progress through all its various stages of development. Even English admits she has a real problem here when she says,


I think that antiabortion forces are indeed giving their strongest arguments when they point to the similarities between a fetus and a baby, and when they try to evoke our emotional attachment to and sympathy for the fetus. An early horror from New York about nurses who were expected to alternate between caring for six-week premature infants and disposing of viable 24-week aborted fetuses is just that--a horror story. These beings are so much alike that no one can be asked to draw a distinction and treat them so differently (Ibid., p.163).


Consequently, why is it that we judge infanticide to be murder? Or why is it that we judge abortion in the very late stages of pregnancy to be wrong (i.e., murder)? Again, English claims we naturally form a stronger moral sentiment of sympathy and compassion the closer p resembles a person. It is really our psychological constitution that allows the ethical system to work.

There are two main problems here. First, how is p ever to gain sympathy if we do not know what to resemble it to? English would say something like, “I have told you… a person.” However, she already claimed that we do not really know what a person is at its core. How do we know that whatever she is resembling p to is really a person? By whatever definition she may give (e.g., rationality), I can give a counter-example (e.g., a computer exhibits or mimics rationality, but we should know it is not a person). I agree that persons do in fact possess rationality, but determining what things really possess that feature prima facie is not always clear-cut.

Further, the basis for personhood finds its basis in a particular nature. Within human nature, there are all sorts of different humans and each of them are persons. Of course certain persons are not exhibiting higher levels of cognition, but given they have a human nature, they still at least have the capacities for those higher levels. As such, embryos, fetuses, infants, toddlers, kids, tweens, teens, and adults all share humanness and thus, personhood in common. All humans are persons, but not all persons are humans (e.g., God and angels).

English has no room for all these metaphysical notions. Without them, whose psychological constitution is right? One psychological constitution is tolerant of abortion and another is not. The result seems to be an unsatisfying relativism.




J.P. Moreland and Norman Geisler, The Life and Death Debate: Moral Issues of Our Time (NY: Praeger, 1990).

Jane English, "Abortion and the Concept of a Person," Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Moral Issues,  Stephen Satris, ed., 2nd ed. (Guilford, CT: The Dushkin Publishing Group, 1990).

Rob Sivulka
June 14, 1991


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