Contraception and abortion have always been thought to be controversial by our generation, but every Christian faith “consistently opposed any interference with the God-given natural fecundity of the nature of conjugal relations” (Notare, 2008) until 1930 when the Anglican Church first permitted the use of artificial birth control in marriage. Moral values have been constantly eroded by the individual freedoms sought in the secular world, and because of this erosion, society now places more emphasis on a woman’s right to choose birth control rather than a child’s right to life. When considering the use of birth control, an ethical egoist will always focus on what is best for them personally, but the person with a utilitarianism viewpoint will consider the best result for the greatest number of people affected by their decision. When making their initial decision to use birth control, the utilitarian must also rely on virtue ethics in order to determine the greatest number of people affected by that decision.
Although someone may try to approach the use of birth control from a utilitarian viewpoint, the justification for using birth control, whether in the form of contraception or abortion, is contradictory to utilitarianism because the choice of using contraception, as well as abortion, always has a detrimental affect on one-half of the people affected by the decision. “Utilitarianism argues that, given a set of choices, the act we should choose is that which produces the best results for the greatest number affected by that choice” (Mosser, 2010). When choosing to use birth control, the mother is, sometimes inadvertently, declaring that her right to use birth control is more valid that her child’s right to life. By choosing to prevent the conception of new life, or choosing to terminate the life of the child forming in her womb, the mother has made a decision that does not generate the best result for the greatest number of people because she has chosen to end the life of one-half of those affected by her decision. From a strictly utilitarian view, birth control and abortion would never be considered if the utilitarian possessed some form of virtue ethics in making their initial determination regarding the rights of their unborn child.
“The rights of human beings do not depend on the circumstances of their conception: for example, the child conceived from rape must be respected no less than any other child” (Stephens, Jordens, Kerridge, & Ankeny, 2010). Although every human being deserves the same basic human rights and dignity, many people who support the use of birth control will cite various statistics to support their position. They attempt to justify their position by claiming that many “unwanted” children would be raised in low-income or single parent families. They claim that children produced by rape would cause misery and be a detriment to the mother’s mental well-being. The same could be said about every child born, but what could be worse than ceasing to exist in the first place? No matter how a child is conceived, any decision to terminate the pregnancy produces a negative result for the child, and is not producing the best result for the greatest number of people involved, no matter how those children may or may not be raised once they are born. While many feel the use of birth control revolves around a woman’s right to choose, doing so could show they have “the wrong attitude not only to fetuses, but more generally to human life and death” (Hursthouse, 1991).
The choice of whether or not to use birth control, in utilitarianism terms, should always take into account the best results for the most people involved in the decision. The only way the decision to use birth control, or to obtain an abortion, can be made from a utilitarian viewpoint is when people hold the belief that, “There is room for only one person with full and equal rights inside a single human skin. That is why it is birth, rather than sentience, viability, or some other prenatal milestone that must mark the beginning of legal parenthood, and of legal personhood” (Porter, 1994). Although a woman may enjoy a carefree lifestyle, with no thought of the potential result, that lifestyle may lead to decisions that are simply not utilitarian in nature. When choosing to use birth control she prevents a potential child from developing, or worse, she terminates that child’s life. Because the utilitarian always considers the greatest good for the greatest number of people, their decision to use birth control should also rely on their belief that the child developing inside them has the same right to human dignity that they themselves enjoy. Setting all moral values and virtue issues aside, it all boils down to the acknowledgment that a young child’s life is at stake, and the reality that their life is just as valuable as the life of their mother.
On the other side of this issue is the ethical egoist argument that contraception and abortion increase our ability to live a sexually pleasurable life and birth control as well as abortion enable us, as individuals, to live the life we want, therefore we should be permitted to use them as desired. This belief, that “if something promotes my own happiness or helps me reach my desired goals, I should do it” (Mosser, 2010) outweighs the moral concerns for the possibility of conception, or the termination afterward, because the ethical egoist is only concerned with the self, or the “I factor”. As a society becomes more secular, the “I factor” plays a vital role in what is accepted throughout that society.
In writing about abortion, contraception, and euthanasia, Pope John Paul II, wrote, “Broad sectors of public opinion justify certain crimes against life in the name of the rights of individual freedom” (Pope John Paul II, 1995). Individual freedoms are much more attractive to the ethical egoist than others because ethical egoists are focused on their own happiness and those individual freedoms provide a layer of self-justification for their own decisions, no matter how bad those decisions may be. Pope John Paul II also added, “Choices once unanimously considered criminal and rejected by the common moral sense are gradually becoming socially acceptable” (Pope John Paul II, 1995). Remember, for more than 1,900 years birth control was considered immoral by all Christian faiths, but in the past 80 years the decision to use birth control has not only become “moral” to some Christians, but it has become an acceptable and common practice for many others, all in the name of the advancement of individual freedom.
For the ethical egoist, individual freedoms belong to the woman who may conceive, or is carrying the child; therefore she alone has the right to choose whether or not to use birth control or obtain an abortion. The increase in the belief that birth control is an individual freedom has had a tremendous impact on the destruction of numerous human lives. Although the ethical egoist does not consider the affect of their decision on others, Pope John Paul II points out several societal reasons why these choices no longer seem taboo to many people. He states, “no less grave and disturbing is the fact that conscience itself, darkened as it were by such widespread conditioning, is finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish between good and evil in what concerns the basic value of human life” (Pope John Paul II, 1995). The ethical egoist considers their own happiness, their own well-being, and their own concerns, rather than the concerns of others, when making the decision to use birth control. Because they focus solely on their own self, and ignore the needs and benefits to others, they are, in essence, ignoring the basic value of the human life of the child who is affected by their decision. As long as ethical egoists remain focused on themselves and continue to ignore the basic value of human life, the state of their own conscience will continue to decline and the moral standards of society as a whole will continue to decay as the relevance of human dignity becomes less recognizable.
The secularization of our society has allowed the thought that individual freedom outweighs the ‘greater good’ because we deserve to be happy, we deserve to do what we want, when we want, and how we want. The “I factor” has become such a prominent cornerstone of secular belief that many people focus solely on themselves and their desires rather than the moral standards that used to guide them in making decisions that could ultimately impact others and the world around them. By remaining focused on their own individual freedoms, the effect of their decision on the world around them does not matter to the ethical egoist. The “I factor” may allow them to think of birth control and abortion as the “incidental means to some desirable state of affairs” (Hurthouse, 1991), but taking this approach “is to do something callous and light-minded, the sort of thing that no virtuous and wise person would do” (Hursthouse, 1991). The freedom of choice and the very definition of ‘individual freedom’ calls into play several more ethical questions that could have a cascading effect on our society, therefore it is important for the ethical egoist to keep their argument focused on the individual we can see physically, rather than the one forming in the womb that may cause a potential moral dilemma simply by entering into the argument.
Those who consider the decision to use birth control as a personal choice often rely on revisionist theories and secular propaganda to ignore any possible ramifications for their actions. They justify their actions by clinging to their rights of individual freedom and completely ignoring the intrinsically evil result their actions will create. With that said, the utilitarianism position is the position that is closest to my own position because the choices made, whether or not to use birth control, revolve around what is best for the greatest number of people affected by the decision. The ethical egoist ignores every factor that does not benefit the person making the decision, and justifies their decision based solely on their own happiness and reaching their own desired goals. Although I have discussed this issue from a utilitarian and ethical egoist point of view, I feel the decision to use birth control cannot be made without some level of virtue ethics entering into the equation. When a woman makes her initial decision to use birth control, or to obtain an abortion, she must first make the virtuous decision whether or not to engage in sexual activity in the first place. If she chooses to engage is such activity, she must then also decide whether the child that might develop inside her, or is developing inside her, is indeed a person. If so, this new person should be entitled to the same basic rights of human life and dignity that she herself is entitled to.
Some people claim, “life imposes harsh conflicts between fundamental interests of mothers and their unborn children; or between the value of life and the wish to avoid extreme misery” (Barilan, 2009). As I stated earlier, those who support the individual freedom to ignore the right to life attempt to justify their position by pointing out the horrible or miserable conditions that would exist if the woman was ‘forced’ to be responsible for the child developing inside her. For many, except the ethical egoist who would not even consider it within their argument, it is easier to justify the use of birth control and abortion in the name of preventing a horrible life for the child rather than justifying the child’s basic human rights and standing up for the right for all human life and dignity. John Paul II wrote, “a person who, because of illness, handicap, or, more simply, just by existing, compromises the well-being or lifestyle of those who are more favored tends to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated” (John Paul II, 1995). When we consider that more than 55 million children have been eliminated through abortion since 1973 (Ertelt, 2010), and a majority of women of reproductive age in the United States are now using birth control (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011), this statement could not be truer today.
The utilitarian would never choose to terminate a child’s life because the prevention of life, or the death of the child, would not result in the best outcome for the greatest number of people involved. When considering the best outcome, the utilitarian would be compelled to consider the life of the child that would be affected by their decision. By considering the best outcome, the utilitarian would be upholding the basic right of human dignity for their child as well. If everyone approached this issue from a utilitarianism viewpoint, rather than from ethical egoism, our society would be more responsible today.
Personally I feel if a woman holds the thought that a child may inhibit or impose conflicts on her lifestyle, before she engages in sexual activity, she would never find herself in the situation of having to make that choice in the first place. In fact, I feel it goes much deeper than that. When we consider human rights and dignity, “moral rights and responsibilities interact in a dynamic dialectical fashion. Caring relationships provide the moral ideal; a respect for rights provides the moral floor, a minimum protection for individuals which remains morally binding even where appropriate caring relationships are absent or have broken down” (Porter, 1994). Decisions based on the greater good, such as those made by utilitarianism, would highlight the respect for rights of the unborn child and provide a moral floor for all other moral rights and responsibilities. Therefore, I agree with a utilitarian approach to this issue, because any decision made must benefit not only the mother, but also the child.
Just over 80 years ago every Christian faith found the use of birth control to be immoral (Notare, 2008). With the constant erosion of moral values, individual freedoms are now emphasized in our society placing a woman’s right to choose to use birth control in the forefront, while altogether ignoring a child’s right to life and human dignity. Ethical egoists support the propagation of the “I factor” as they remain focused on what is best for them personally, ultimately hindering personal responsibility and promoting the decay of moral standards within our society. As society becomes more secular the “I factor” will become more commonplace which will eventually negate the utilitarianism viewpoint all together. In fact, the effect of this decay will result in the constant erosion of human dignity until moral rights and responsibilities as well as the definition of good vs. evil are blurred to the point that they are unrecognizable to those who used to hold them so dear.
Barilan, Y. M. (2009). Judaism, Human Dignity and the Most Vulnerable Women on
Earth. American Journal Of Bioethics, 9(11), 35-37.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2011). Unintended Pregnancy Prevention: Contraception. Retrieved from
Ertelt, S. (2010). Analysis Shows 52 Million Abortions Since Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade Decision. Retrieved from http://www.lifenews.com/2010/01/22/nat-5910/
Hursthouse, R. (1991). Virtue Theory and Abortion. Philosophy & Public Affairs , Vol. 20, No. 3 (Summer, 1991), pp. 223-246
Mosser, K. (2010). Introduction to Ethics & Social Responsibility. Retrieved from
Notare, P. (2008). “A revolution on Christian morals”: Lambeth 1930-Resolution #15. History & Reception. Retrieved from http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=1650925941&sid=1&Fmt=2&clientId=79356&RQT=309&VName=PQD
Pope John Paul II. (1995). Pope John Paul II on Abortion, Contraception, and Euthanasia, Population and Development Review , Vol. 21, No. 3 (Sep., 1995), pp. 689-696
Porter, E. (1994). Abortion Ethics: Rights and Responsibilities. Hypatia , Vol. 9, No. 3 (Summer, 1994), pp. 66-87
Stephens, M., Jordens, C., Kerridge, I., & Ankeny, R. (2010). Religious Perspectives on Abortion and a Secular Response. Journal Of Religion & Health, 49(4), 513-535.