It has been depressing to see the issue of abortion being politicised again in the UK, when a hard-won, decent and humane settlement has been in place. And it is particularly depressing for a philosopher to see that usual dreadful arguments (on both sides, it has to be said) trotted out again. Here’s one way of thinking about the issue which hopefully sheds some moral light.
Consider the following “gradualist” view: As the human zygote/embryo/foetus slowly develops, its death slowly becomes a more serious matter. At the very beginning, its death is of little consequence; as time goes on, its death is a matter it becomes appropriate to be gradually more concerned about.
Now, this view seems to be the one that almost all of us in fact do take about the natural death of human zygotes/embryos/foetuses. After all, very few of us are worried by the fact that a very high proportion of conceptions quite spontaneously abort. We don’t campaign for medical research to reduce that rate (nor do opponents of abortion campaign for all women to take drugs to suppress natural early abortion). Compare: we do think it is a matter for moral concern that there are high levels of infant mortality in some countries, and campaign and give money to help reduce that rate.
Again, very few of us are scandalized if a woman who finds she is pregnant by mistake in a test one week after conception is then mightily pleased when she discovers that the pregnancy has naturally terminated some days later (and even has a drink with a girl friend to celebrate her lucky escape). Compare: we would find it morally very inappropriate, in almost all circumstances, for a woman in comfortable circumstances to celebrate the death of an unwanted young baby.
Similarly for accidental death. Suppose a woman finds she is a week or two pregnant, goes horse riding, falls badly at a jump, and as a result spontaneously aborts. That might be regrettable, but we wouldn’t think she’d done something terrible by going riding and running the risk. Compare: we would be morally disapproving of someone badly risking the life of new born by carrying it while going in for some potentially very dangerous activity.
So: our very widely shared attitudes to the natural or accidental death of the products of conception do suggest that we do in fact regard them as of relatively lowly moral status at the beginning of their lives, and of greater moral standing as time passes. We are all (or nearly all) gradualists in these cases.
It is then quite consistent with such a view to take a similar line about unnatural deaths. For example, it would be consistent to think that using the morning-after pill is of no moral significance, while bringing about the death of an eight month foetus is getting on for as serious as killing a neonate, with a gradual increase in the seriousness of the killing in between.
Some, at any rate, of those of us who are pro (early) choice are moved by this sort of gradualist view. The line of thought in sum is: the killing of an early foetus has a moral weight commensurate with the moral significance of the natural or accidental death of an early foetus. And on a very widely shared view, that’s not very much significance. So from this point of view, early abortion is of not very much significance either. But abortion gradually gets a more significant matter as time goes on.
You might disagree. But then it seems that you either need (a) an argument for departing from the very widely shared view about the moral significance of the natural or accidental miscarriage of the early products of conception. Or (b) you need to have an argument for the view that while the natural death of a zygote a few days old is of little significance, the unnatural death is of major significance. Neither line is easy to argue. To put it mildly.
We can agree however that killing a neonate is, in general, a very bad thing. So the remaining question is how to scale the cases in between. That’s something that serious and thoughtful and decent people can disagree about to some extent. But note it is a disagreement about matters of degree (even if any legal arrangements have to draw artificial sharp lines). All-or-nothing views, on either side of the debate, have nothing to recommend them.