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X Factor Abortion: Is it Wrong?

by Julian Savulescu

Paije Richardson's dreams of a new life were crushed tonight as the public voted him from the X Factor final rounds. On Dec 9, the fate of another young hopeful will be decided by the people’s choice. But this time it will be a life and death choice. A couple have allegedly given the life of their baby over to popular vote; they are considering having an abortion and have created a public poll which will decide whether they have an abortion or not (–decide-U-S-couple-set-website-unborn-child.html) 

The abortion vote has been described as “spine-chilling.” The baby is 17 weeks gestation and a healthy boy called “Wiggles.” One pro-lifer was outraged:

'This is shocking.The first thing that came to my mind when I heard of this was the Roman Colosseum, when the mob picked who lived and who died. They are talking about a baby that is 17 weeks old, it has a beating heart, its brain is working and nerve endings throughout its body' 

Deciding human life by vote is shocking, but is it wrong?

An Argument in Favour…

Here is one crude argument why it is not wrong. If abortion is available on demand, then any reason suffices to ground a right for abortion. One could have an abortion if one was raped, became unintentionally pregnant, or because the public voted for it. 

Consequentialists or utilitarians hold that what matters is the consequences of actions. On these ethical theories, how or why abortion occurs does not matter, apart from their consequences. Either abortion is wrong because a fetus dies or it is permissible because a fetus is not a being with moral status. It would not be more wrong for at least crude consequentialists and utilitarians for a couple to have an abortion because the public voted for it than it would be for any other reason, such as rape, career pressure or the desire for a holiday.

Most people claim not to be consequentialists or utilitarians. They will be concerned with the motivations and reasons of this couple. Virue ethicists are concerned with people's characters, deontologists such as Kantians are concerned with their motivations. So what are their reasons? 

Mrs Arnold “fears the pressure of juggling motherhood and a career could cause her to have a nervous breakdown.”

She wrote: 'I'm not convinced that I want to change the status quo. I feel that as I age I've actually gotten more selfish and set in my ways.

'I'm afraid that I will eventually regret starting a family and "settling down", as they say.

'I fear that the constant pressure to be the perfect wife and mother while maintaining a full-time job will eventually cause my brain to implode and lead to a nervous breakdown.'

This couple have apparently desperately wanted to become pregnant: they have suffered two miscarriages in the past ten months – the first at 16 weeks and the second at five weeks. Despite falling pregnant for the third time, the couple are now getting cold feet at the prospect of a life time of parenthood, “unsure whether to proceed because they have put off having a child for so long.”

Mr Arnold said: 'We've put off having a kid for so long that I worry there is stagnation in our desire to do so. 

'At first we put it off to finish our childhood, and then I decided mine was not going to end without a push. 

'By that time Alisha had just gotten a new job and was getting settled, so we put it off longer. 

'Now, nearly ten years after our marriage the prospect of being in my 50s when a kid graduates childhood is a bit unnerving.'

If one did have finely balanced reasons for and against having a child, it would be reasonable to ask the advice of a friend. What about a popular vote?  The Arnolds state: 'Voting is such an integral part of the American identity. We vote on everything from the best singer on American Idol to who the next leader of the free world will be.

'Wouldn't it be nice to voice your opinion and have it actually make a difference in the real world? Why not vote on whether to continue or abort an actual pregnancy?'

Utilitarians would surely approve. The utility generated by satisfying these “external preferences” would be a reason in favour of the vote. Indeed, the Arnolds appeal sympathetic to utilitarianism: they want to 'make a difference in the real world'.

If it would be reasonable to either have an abortion or not have one, then the reasons are finely balanced. If the decision were finely balanced, employing some other mechanism which provides external utility is not merely permissible but desirable in virtue of the external utility it provides. If you could reasonably wash your car or read a book, there is nothing wrong with giving the decision over to someone else if they enjoy making the decision for you. The X Factor without the public vote would virtually worthless.


There are two objections to this line of argument. Firstly, the difference between voting for President and voting on the Arnold’s abortion is that we are all a part of a democracy and should vote for our leader who represents us. Yet the Arnold’s abortion is their affair and one which they should take responsibility for.  There is a blurring of the public and private, in a rather perverse manner. It is a failure to take responsibility and a failure to act autonomously that is their problem, the objection goes. As one blogger wrote, voting for abortion,

'If you're dumb enough to let random strangers on the internet decide the fate of your family, then you are certainly not mature enough to be parents. You need professional help.'

To be an autonomous person, or an autonomous couple, is to take the responsibility for one’s own decisions. John Stuart Mill, the champion of liberty and autonomy, famously argued that the one freedom we do not have is the freedom to become slaves to another’s will. That is the very antithesis of freedom. The Arnolds, by placing a decision about their lives and their family’s lives, are slaves to the will of a majority. 

However the Arnolds are evidently intelligent people. They are not going to necessarily abide by the vote … 

'It's kind of like Congress. They might vote for something, but the president has the final veto. 

'If it's overwhelming one way or the other, that will carry a lot more weight.'

 The second objection is that, although the Arnolds have reasons, those reasons are not strong enough to favour abortion, or deferral to a vote. That is, based on the reasons that they provide, they should have the baby. Their reasons are not good enough to warrant an abortion or, a fortiori, a vote. After all, they have wanted a baby, suffered two miscarriages in one year, have good jobs, and the only reasons they give are selfishness and their older age. But older age is a consequence of delaying child-rearing to establish financial security and is still perfectly compatible with having family successfully. There is nothing wrong with being in your 50s when your children are 20. My own father was 53 when I was born. Aren’t they just being superficial, selfish and narcissistic? Aren’t they just the epitome of the consumerist, materialist modern American who puts themselves ahead of family, children, fundamental values and even life itself?

Here the distinction between law and ethics is important. Ethics is about what people have good reason to do; law is about what people should be compelled to do. It is very difficult for us to evaluate the quality of other people’s reasons and their strength. It may be that the Arnolds have more reason to have the baby. But from a perspective of law and public policy, whether they can have an abortion, or whether they should be compelled to raise a child, should not be determined by some external scrutiny of their reasons because we do not have the public or external means to adequately evaluate their reasons. People can have an abortion for all sorts of reasons, including because they want to have a holiday in the Bahamas. That is the price of liberty – people will make bad or wrong choices. But this is far preferable overall to a system where the state required us to justify our choices and the quality of their reasons and some individual, committee or body was charged with evaluating whether these were good enough to have or not have a family.

The Arnolds may be making the ethically wrong choice, and we should then criticise them, but they should be free to make such a choice. Perhaps that is what they are seeking to demonstrate.

For my own part, I personally believe we have a reason to have children who expect to have good lives: the goodness of the life of a future person. I think abortion is wrong not because it kills a being of moral status but because it deprives the world of being with a valuable life. I believe one must have a good reason to have an abortion.

How strong is this reason to have children? It is not overriding and must be weighed against our other reasons. We can have reasons related to other children or our own lives, or our commitments to the world. But we must be able to cite these for our decisions to be justifiable. The point of being a rational and good person is being able to act on the basis of good reasons and to weigh competing reasons to decide overall what to do.

Somebody who decided to have an abortion just because a coin came up heads would be acting wrongly. The famous novel, Dice Man, tells the story of a man who lives his life by assigning options to a die and follows the throw of a die. It becomes a life of disintegration and incoherence, not a human life.

So, ethics requires that abortion should be for good reason; but from a legal perspective, abortion should be available for any reason.

So much for the arguments … what is really going on?

One thing I have learnt in practical ethics is that there are the arguments and then the rest: the emotions, the real motivations, the politics. What is really going on?

The couple could, of course, really be uncertain and genuinely concerned for people to make a difference …

Or it could be an attention-seeking stunt.

The couple are both in the IT industry and keen bloggers. This is a good way to get hits.

Usually when the competing explanations are incompetence or conspiracy, incompetence is the best explanation. But let’s explore the conspiracy theory in this case.

The Arnolds told U.S. website Gawker: 'We are taking this very seriously. It's definitely not a pro-life campaign, we believe in a woman's right to choose.’ However, on her Facebook page, Mrs Arnold, a methodist, it states she is a fan of right-wing commentator Glenn Beck. 

Mr Arnold, a non-practicing Catholic, has made comments in the past in support of former US President George W Bush, who is pro-life.  The abortion vote will run right up to 2 days before the legal limit in that state (20 weeks) for an abortion. It is hard to see how one could be organized in 2 days. The couple have had two miscarriages within a year then backflip on their desire to have a child. Their stated reasons are precisely those which would be roundly criticized by prolifers: selfishness, superficiality, failure to grow up and immaturity. This is a calculated extreme version of abortion on demand.

So far, the latest results have favoured abortion, with 43.71 percent voting to keep the baby and 56.29 percent wanting the couple to have an abortion. But the couple have retained the right to veto the final result. It will be interesting to see if they do have abortion if the people decide they want one. My prediction is that they won’t.  Just as it is difficult to evaluate the quality of another person’s reasons, it is difficult to ever know their real motivations.

Questions for Students

1.Is abortion wrong?

2.For which reasons is abortion permissible?

3.Is the X- Factor Abortion wrong?

4.Should people's motivations matter when considering whether they should be allowed to have an abortion?

5.When should other people be allowed to decide for us?

How would you vote? Why?


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5 Comment on this post

  1. The common objections raised against preference satisfaction based utilitarianism seem to apply in this case. Despite the info provided, presumably the voters (perhaps with the exception of those voters who know the couple very well) are not suitably informed about forming a decision on this matter.

    In addition, the mere cultural perversity of this vote strikes me as evidence that counts against the ability of the couple to make appropriate choices. Although I normally dislike and try to resist resorting to the following thought, maybe we should reconsider and take seriously Hugh LaFollette’s arguments about licensing parents, a revised version of which is forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Philosophy and the 1980 version of which is here:

  2. From my side I’d be interested to know more about exactly which “common objections raised against preference satisfaction based utilitarianism” David is referring to here. I think it would have to be a fairly crude form of preference utilitarianism to fail to take into account the difference between (i) how one might vote, and (ii) to what extent one has a significant “preference”, and how fundamental that is.

    So let’s forget about the “questions for students” (after all we’re not would-be initiates here, we’re members of the public trying to have a high-quality rational debate about ethics, right?) and consider what various forms of moral philosophy actually say about this issue. The most common justification for abortion is that the fetus is not yet a person. Clearly this argument, if one buys it in general, also applies in this case. But this certainly doesn’t mean that utilitarians must “surely approve” of the vote, as Julian claims. I think one can be a utilitarian and still be worried about the “rather perverse blurring of the private and the public”. One can worry about what this says about the values of both the parents and those voting, and what *consequences* (the ultimate utilitarian concern) this might have for our future society. I know I do, and while I haven’t yet decided whether or not I’m really a “utilitarian”, it will take more than this to convince me that I am not.

    One positive side effect of this vote, which I didn’t see reflected in Julian’s post (but I may have missed it), is that it will give us a novel perspective on people’s attitude towards abortion. Great caution will be needed in interpreting this social experiment, but it’s probably unique in giving people a chance to vote on an actual, individual human life (not just a principle), but which is basically not known to them personally. Despite my reservations, I’m curious to see how this turns out.

  3. Hi Julian,

    I enjoyed reading your article. One point that struck me in particular, and one that I think lies at the foundation of the debate was

    “I think abortion is wrong […] because it deprives the world of being with a valuable life.
    I believe one must have a good reason to have an abortion.”

    Which, as a consequentialist, I think will be justified or not depending on whose utility we value the most – is it the utility of the couple or the utility of the world?

    My reasoning is as follows. Suppose that a couple considering an abortion estimates that having a baby will result in a net loss of N utility (a number that could either be very high, or fall just below the break-even point). So if we say that the average utility that the world gets from one human life is AU (a number that both of us would probably estimate as very high), your argument could be rephrased as:

    If (N > AU) then abortion is justified. (As the couple has a ‘good reason’ for it – the total utility of the world would decrease if they had the baby).
    And as a consequence: if (N 0 their own utility will decrease as a result of childbirth, that decraese is smaller than the total increase of utility for the world as a whole, and is therefore a ‘petty’ or unjustified reason for making such a decision.

    Therefore, if I am correct in assessing your reasoning so far, your argument rests on the premise that the utility of the world as a whole is more important than the utility of the couple (because if 0 < N < AU then the couple will still suffer some (probably minor) discomfort at having the baby, but will be forced to 'tough it out' for the good of all). I would like to put that premise into question: Is it justifiable to force a couple to go through with a childbirth, that on the whole will be detrimental to their own lives, just because it benefits everyone else? I would argue that it is not, but I am interested to see what you think. And you can probably infer my answers to these already, but... 1.Is abortion wrong? No. 2.For which reasons is abortion permissible? Abortion should be permissible to person X for any reason Y that the person X finds permissable. (To rephrase: It's entirely a subjective decision by the person involved and no one else should have a say in the matter). 3.Is the X- Factor Abortion wrong? No - in fact I think the idea can have certain benefits since if the couple is indeed uncertain about the decision then it would allow a greater prolifiration of ideas between a large amount of individuals, and ultimately that may give the couple more information to base their decision on. 4.Should people's motivations matter when considering whether they should be allowed to have an abortion? I think it's all about total resulting utility, so no. 5. When should other people be allowed to decide for us? A good question. If I think hard enough I can certainly imagine a few situations that even I would agree with, rare as they might be. I could say that such intervention would be justified in cases of, say, temporary delusions brought up by an illness, but I think that would be cheating as the argument so far rested on the assumption of rational choice. So... I think I would state my answer as "People should be allowed to make their own choices (and mistakes), so long as the consequences of those choices(and mistakes) don't exceed a certain limit of harm (N) to others". So again, it's a question of whose side do we take. Someone who values society far more than the individual would set N quite low and say that society is justified in intervenig with the individuals life in a lot of cases. Personally, I would set N quite high - probably much higher than most people - but even I would agree that such a limit must exist. How would you vote? Why? Before I wrote this post I was going to say that I wouldn't vote at all, as I originally assumed that their decision to either have or not have the baby wouldn't have any impact on my own utility whatsoever and therefore voting would be meaningless (for me). However... once I accepted your premise that the total utility of the world would indeed increase as the result of their decision to keep the baby, it made sense for me to vote "Yes", because if the utility of the world increases it will spillover to increase my own utility as well. So, I wonder what matters more? That my final choice was something that a 'good person' would choose to do... or that I made it for entirely selfish reasons?

  4. I strongly recommend having a look at the couple’s website at It gives a fascinating insight into their motivation for doing this, and what happens when you do. The couple’s reflections on the exercise also usefully highlight the need to distinguish between whether women should indeed be allowed to choose and how they should exercise this choice. This distinction tends to get lost in the polemic “pro-life” vs “pro-choice” debate.

    In the mean time I have a real problem with the idea (which I missed on my first reading of Julian’s post) that the main reason why abortion is wrong is that it deprives the world of a valuable life. For one thing, this would make any form of family planning wrong (including abstinence); for another, there are arguably too many people on this planet anyway. A much stronger argument against abortion, from my perspective, is that it infringes the (otherwise) widely accepted taboo on taking human life, and this is not something that should ever be done lightly.

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