So, a bit of a forewarning here: this is going to delve into a controversial topic. I hope we can keep this civil, but this is the internet so who knows. Ideally, this also won't take a political tack, just thinking about the concept, but this is the internet after all.

Anyways, here's my question. I have run into a bit of a contradiction when thinking about the topic of abortion from a utilitarian perspective. So there are two main arguments that come to mind. First off, a fetus is not a person and can't feel pleasure/pain. Particularly in cases where the mother's life is in danger when giving birth the suffering of the mother will be far outweigh any pain the fetus may feel (if any) during the process, so if a woman doesn't want the baby it is morally right ok to have an abortion. On the other hand you have the argument presented here: https://www.econlib.org/archives/2015/04/where_are_the_p.html The argument basically goes like this: A pregnant woman is only pregnant for nine months whereas a fetus (if allowed to develop) would experience a lifetime of happiness. How does the nine months outweigh the lifetime?

My initial thoughts on this were that it's not just nine months, it's potentially a lifetime as well as the mother will need to care for the kid, possibly sacrifice career options and dreams for the kid, likely resent the kid, and is more likely to neglect or not care as much for the kid as the could if they had wanted to have the kid. This leads to a rather unhappy childhood for the kid which has carry over effects into their adult lives and potentially makes their children or families worse off down the line. However, I am not sure if a) that is a strong argument or not, b) it ignores the case of adoption, and c) it doesn't resolve this contradiction I mentioned earlier between the two branches of utilitarian thought.

So in short, my question is what does utilitarianism say on abortion? Which strand of thinking better fits with the philosophy?


Also since this came up in one of the comments I want to address it really quick here. By no means am I trying to minimize the personhood of the woman involved. I was just asking from a purely utilitarian point of view, which would include the woman's feelings and happiness. The one argument presented would indicate that even if the mother was stuck with the kid for 18 years, in principle the kid could go on to live for several more decades in happiness. Yes, that could ruin the mother's life but does utilitarianism indicate that it is justified? It certainly doesn't feel like it does, and there is another utilitarian way to look at it, hence this contradiction I mentioned. To be clear, I am factoring in the woman's happiness, but I am dealing with totals. Not trying to minimize people. I apologize if it came across like that.

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    A fetus is not a person, but they have a nervous system, and so can feel pleasure and pain, at least in the late stages. The second argument is fallacious. A non-conceived fetus can also potentially have a "lifetime of happiness" if only they were conceived, so if it worked we should then have unprotected sex everywhere all the time.
    – Conifold
    Apr 15, 2020 at 20:58
  • I feel like if there was an obvious way to compare the utility of these, we would see it brought up more often. This seems like the type of thing that you could argue for either way; but I don't see how you could come to a good conclusion. There's too many variables across the board, and I feel like you could come to very different conclusions depending on how you choose to weigh them.
    – JMac
    Apr 16, 2020 at 14:28
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    You do realize that after nine months of pregnancy, there is another eighteen years in which a woman is socially, financially, and legally obligated to clothe, feed, educate, and care for the child, 24/7, without pay. Right? Adoption is not as easy as you seem to think (unless the mother is white, healthy, and blue-eyed). this is not less than a year of physical discomfort; this is a third of a woman's adult life in indentured servitude. Why don't people ever think about the 'personhood' of the woman involved? Apr 17, 2020 at 6:04
  • @TedWrigley. You are right that it is critical to think of the personhood of the woman involved, and by no means am I trying to minimize that fact. My question is, since utilitarianism takes into account everyone's happiness (including the potential person), even if it took a decade for adoption (or if the mother had to raise the kid), how does this discomfort of that compare to the happiness of 80 potential years. However, if you look at if from another way, perhaps it is justified. I am not trying to minimize the personhood of the woman at all, I apologize if that's how it came across. Apr 17, 2020 at 15:13
  • @Robotic_Cow: it's argumentative to assume that those 80 un-lived years are going to be happy. They could be 80 years of misery, or 80 years of sheer boredom. We have to treat the potential life of an unborn child as having neutral valence (neither good nor bad). By contrast, each woman knows for herself whether 18 years of servitude to another will be a joy or a horror. Do we get to say to a woman: "You must live a life you think is horrible for so many years on the far-from-certain chance that a child will be happy enough to outweigh your misery"? Apr 17, 2020 at 16:34

2 Answers 2


Utilitarianism suggests that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should guide conduct. So in your question you have proposed a ledger. Fair enough. Here are a few things you did not consider:

The woman has emotions that exceed the 9 months of being pregnant. (You did include this.)

We have no idea what the would be child’s life would be like. So we should count it as neutral perhaps. I understand that there is a position that any existence and every second of existence is positive, and that those who take this position tend to overlap with those who oppose abortion rights.

The reduction of happiness in all of the females (>3.5 billion) in the world that would come with the knowledge that they have not complete control over their bodies. People who look at it this way tend to overlap with those who support abortion rights.

My point is if we are going to do a mathematical calculation to come up with the right answer per utilitarianism, we need to decide what goes into the equation.


First of all we should try to agree on a definition of personhood.

Putting that aside to answer the question, the foetus (person or not) would still feel pain and pleasure in the nine months of pregnacy and would continue to have emotions and feelings thereafter.

Personally I agree that the life of the mother should outweigh the development of a foetus, including in the case where the foetus could have severe handicaps that would limit the utilitarian pleasure for the parents and the child itself.

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