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The problems with utilitarian conceptions of personhood in the abortion debate
  1. Daniel R A Cox
  1. Correspondence to Daniel R A Cox, University of Bristol, Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, 39-41 St Michaels Hill, Bristol BS2 8DZ, UK; dc5771{at}


This article seeks to explore utilitarian conceptions of personhood which for a long time have been employed as part of a rational moral justification for the termination of pregnancy. Michael Tooley's desires-based rights approach to personhood presented in his work Abortion and Infanticide is considered and, it is argued, is found wanting when one considers unconscious adults and their ability to desire life. This article will offer that unconscious sleeping individuals only have the potential to regain the capacity to value their own life and, as such, under Tooley's formula for personhood, temporarily lose their status as a person. Following this, John Harris's utilitarian views on the status of the sleeping adult will be considered and deconstructed to show that, like Tooley, his ascription for personhood falls down at the sleeping adult. This article illustrates that utilitarian conceptions of personhood leave the sleeping adult human devoid of the rights of a person and hence render the value of this consquentialist theory, with regard to the idea of personhood, in severe doubt. The paper argues that utilitarian conceptions of personhood do little more than obstruct the worthy debate over the morality of abortion.

  • Personhood
  • abortion
  • human rights
  • utilitarianism
  • philosophical ethics
  • embryos and fetuses
  • newborns and minors
  • general

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  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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