Article Text

Download PDFPDF

Within the limits of the defensible: a response to Simkulet’s argument against the pro-life view on the basis of spontaneous abortion
  1. Henrik Friberg-Fernros
  1. Department of Political Science, Gothenburg University, Gothenburg, Sweden
  1. Correspondence to Dr Henrik Friberg-Fernros, Department of Political Science, Gothenburg University, Gothenburg SE 405 30, Sweden; henrik.friberg-fernros{at}


In a recent article, William Simkulet has argued against the anti-abortion view by invoking the fact that many human fetuses die from spontaneous abortion. He argues that this fact poses a dilemma for proponents of the anti-abortion view: either they must abandon their anti-abortion view or they must engage in preventing spontaneous abortion significantly more than at present—either to the extent that they try to prevent induced abortion or at least significantly more than they do today. In this reply, I acknowledge that, if the latter would follow, the anti-abortionist view would imply implausibly strong obligations. My aim with this reply is to demonstrate that anti-abortionists can hold on to their view without having implausibly strong obligations to prevent spontaneous abortion. My conclusion is that Simkulet clearly overstates his position by not sufficiently considering the differences between the act of killing versus death by natural causes and between positive and negative rights.

  • abortion
  • moral status
  • reproductive medicine

Statistics from


In a recent article, William Simkulet has argued against the anti-abortion view, according to which abortion is seriously morally wrong due to the fetuses’ (high) moral status, by invoking the fact that many human fetuses die from spontaneous abortion.1

In essence, he argues that proponents of the anti-abortion view either should:

(1) abandon the moral claim that fetuses are morally comparable with adult human persons and in doing so, abandon their antiabortion stance, or (2) re-evaluate their priorities and work to prevent both spontaneous and voluntary, induced abortions (Simkulet, p. 785).1

According to him, ‘[e]ither horn of the dilemma seems to show that contemporary opposition to abortion is misguided’ (Simkulet, p. 785).1 While (2), as he formulates it here, does not necessarily ‘show that contemporary opposition to abortion is misguided’, I nevertheless believe that his interpretation of the meaning of working ‘to prevent both spontaneous and voluntary, induced abortions’ is in conflict with the standard abortion view as he seems to claim that (2) means that proponents of the anti-abortion view ‘have comparable moral obligation to oppose spontaneous abortion’ as induced abortion (Simkulet, p. 785).1 i The aim of this reply is to demonstrate that one can hold on to an anti-abortion view while still rejecting (2).

Simkulet’s defence of the spontaneous abortion argument against its critics

Simkulet organises the responses into six different categories: the numbers response, the control principle response, the visibility response, the causing/allowing response, the weak obligation response and, finally, the asymmetrical response (Simkulet, p. 785).1 I will set the former three aside, as I think that they have no (the visibility response), quite weak (the numbers response) or some, but not sufficiently strong (control principle response), normative force and focus entirely on the latter three.

Taking these last three issues in the order in which they appear in Simkulet’s article, I will start with the causing/allowing response. This response claims that there is a morally relevant difference between causing, compared with allowing, something to happen. However, as Amy Berg seems to observe in a recent article, in the context of this argument, the question is not primarily about the difference between performing an abortion or allowing a spontaneous abortion to occur; the question is rather about the difference between preventing induced and spontaneous abortion.2 The central question here is not whether anti-abortionists perform or allow abortion, but rather whether they make sufficient efforts to prevent abortion to be induced or to (spontaneously) occur. In order to defend the anti-abortion view, the causing/allowing response needs to undermine the plausibility of Simkulet’s claim that anti-abortion proponents have a comparable moral obligation to oppose spontaneous and induced abortion. The question is therefore: Can this response justify the prioritisation of preventing induced rather than spontaneous abortions?

Taking one of the most striking differences between induced and spontaneous abortion into account, the answer concerns whether there is any morally relevant difference between preventing events caused by moral agency and events not caused by moral agency—granting that embryo losses are not caused by a moral agency. Most obviously, while the former category of actions involve an actor, this is not the case in the latter category, which, in turn, means that concerns about the actor or future actors can justify a differentiation between the cases. This difference seems relevant indeed in relation to how anti-abortion proponents should prioritise between preventing induced and spontaneous abortion respectively: while the former category involves (from their point of view) two kinds of tragedies—the death of a human person and the human act of killing a human person, the latter ‘only’ involves the death of a human person.ii 3 By prioritising induced abortion, anti-abortionists can consequently prevent two kinds of tragedies while efforts to prevent spontaneous abortion only address one kind of tragedy. The following thought experiment illustrates the intuitive appeal of this differentiation:

You have three brothers. One brother is dying from a disease while the other two brothers are involved in a terrible fight in which one brother is about to kill your other brother. You are stuck in a horrible situation: either you can provide medicine which would heal the sick brother or you can stop one of your brothers from killing your other brother.iii

I grant that almost everyone would choose to prevent the killing rather than providing the medicine. Surely the choice is harder if you have to choose between saving five brothers from dying from diseases or stop one brother from killing another, but I do not think it is unreasonable to also choose to prevent the latter in such a situation.

I consequently believe that the causing/allowing response in this version alone undermines Simkulet’s claim that proponents of the anti-abortion view have a comparable moral obligation to oppose spontaneous abortion—if we, by ‘comparable’, mean equal. However, the normative force of the objection from spontaneous abortion can be maintained if its claim is revised: instead of a comparable obligation, the implication of the anti-abortion view can be claimed to be that our obligations to prevent spontaneous abortion are sufficiently significant to justify a radical redistribution of medical resources (Simkulet, p790).1 Also in this revised version, the argument from spontaneous abortion challenges the plausibility of the anti-abortion view, and the question is whether the other two responses under consideration can offer support.

Actually, both the weak obligation response and the asymmetrical response address this question. According to the weak obligation response, at least two aspects can potentially save the anti-abortion view: (1) that the strength of the obligation is weakened by its very nature and (2) that the actions required by the obligation is not far-reaching.

For the sake of the argument, I will assume that (2) is incorrect. The question is therefore: What kind of actions are we obligated to take? Here (1) comes into play. Many prominent anti-abortionists defend their view by invoking the fetus’s negative (prima facie) rights of not being killed.4–6 However, Simkulet seems to assume that the anti-abortion view implies this and that unborn and born human beings are ‘comparable’ beyond this basic right to life.iv 7 Here, I think that Simkulet is wrong. One can certainly hold that born humans have stronger positive rights than unborn humans and still maintain that they share a basic right not to be killed. One way to justify that is to invoke the asymmetrical response. Simkulet explains this response aptly:

…there is an asymmetry between human fetuses and normal, adult human persons that often makes the loss of many human fetuses a lesser loss… (Simkulet, p. 785).1

Referring to my position, Simkulet explains how this asymmetry can be defended:

…the life of one adult, human person might outweigh the lives of many human fetuses because while normal adult human persons have strong time-relative interests… human fetuses lack time-relative interests (Simkulet, p.789).1

Consequently, this response, if sound, provides justification for differentiating between human fetuses and born humans with regard to our efforts to prevent their deaths. Proponents of the anti-abortion view can therefore maintain that the fetus has the right not to be aborted, but simultaneously deny that we are obligated to make the same amount of effort to prevent the death of a fetus and an adult because the latter has more far-reaching rights due to their stronger time-relative interests. Consequently, while the variations in magnitude of disvalue which are generated by the death of a born person compared with a fetus justify the fact that the anti-abortionists are prioritising the former, they still can maintain that the fetus and the born person have the basic right not to be killed. Such a differentiation is not odd. For instance, we can acknowledge that Citizen X and the President both have the same right not to be killed, but still maintain that we should make greater efforts to prevent the death of the latter compared with the former, which means that we defend the President’s positive rights more than an ordinary citizen’s positive rights (Kaczor, p. 89).4


What does this leave us? First, I think that anti-abortion proponents are justified in differentiating between induced and spontaneous abortion since there are differences with regard to the causes and effects. While induced abortion involves the death of a human being and a terribly wrongful act—the killing of a human being – spontaneous abortion ‘only’ involves one tragedy. Second, I believe that anti-abortion proponents are justified in differentiating between the efforts, we should put into defending born persons’ positive rights compared with the effort we should invest in defending unborn persons’ positive rights due the former’s stronger time-relative interests. Does this imply that anti-abortionists are currently addressing spontaneous abortion with a sufficient degree of concern? No, it might be the case that anti-abortion proponents should pay more attention to the question of how we can prevent spontaneous abortions. Modestly rephrased in this way, Simkulet has a point, even though he clearly overstates his position by not sufficiently considering the differences between: (1) the act of killing versus natural death and (2) positive and negative rights.



  • i I assume that Simkulet by ‘comparable’ means something like ‘equivalent’.

  • ii It should be noted that some proponents of abortion reject this claim even though it is granted that the embryo is a human person.

  • iii I am aware that the situation described in the thought experiment is disanalogous to the abortion situation as the anti-abortionists seldom know the one who is about to perform an abortion and never know the fetus, but I do not think that this difference is morally relevant from the perspective of most anti-abortionists. They can claim that we in an abortion situation should care for the one who is going to perform an abortion as we should care for the brother who is about to kill his brother.

  • iv Also, Toby Ord draws this conclusion and is consequently vulnerable for the objection pursued here, see Ord 2008.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent Not required.

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

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.

Linked Articles

Other content recommended for you