Gadis Arivia paper entitled Understanding Abortion as Social Issues (Kompas Newspaper, September 29, 2009) in response to an opinion by Roman Catholic Priest, Benny Phang  criticizing the legalization of abortion as stated in the Law of Health of Republic of Indonesia (articles nr. 84-85) does not make the abortion issue became more apparent. Both the writers depart from a different ethical approach.

First, arguing from deontological point of view, Benny Phang could be said as stand in the pole of pro life against abortion for any reason. In the frame of deontology one should say that only the human action that performed for the sake of obligation that could be categorized as moral act. To make it clear, an action would be an impartial duty if the justified principle has the feature of universalizable. Following still deontological principles, people should be treated not as means but as an end in itself. Consequently, abortion is never be justified by the fact that its underlying principles simply cannot be universalized as obligatory principles for every rational being.

Second, based more on teleological approach, Gadis Arivia seems to believe that every act against abortion should not be based on the reason for the future life of the fetus, but for social reasons such as high maternal mortality, poor maternal and child health, or low quality of life due to poverty. Not to mention the problem of unwanted pregnancies of women, such as rape, incest, and so forth. How this debate can be understood in properly?

Not Just Different Approach

Although both writers reject the legalization of abortion, Arivia’s denial of considering fetus as human individual raises serious ethical problems. Arivia’s critique to Benny Phang should not be address if she read the thoughts of the priest from the perspective of deontological ethics, or rather Catholic moral views about abortion. Moral tradition adopted by Father Benny places the fetus as person. Since fetus is person (individual), aborting a fetus is killing a person. In this moral sphere also—Catholic moral views—that the use of contraception or other kind of medical treatment to prevent fertilization will be place also in the same category.

Gadis Arivia’s argumentation, in my point of view, contained two serious weaknesses. First, to reject abortion because of social reasons such as high rates of maternal mortality or poor economic conditions indirectly legalizes abortion themselves. The mode of argumentation seems to tell us that that abortion can be done if social conditions have been supporting, let say if there has been the improvement of maternal health, improved economic conditions, or when the medical technology has been progressed in such a way that abortion does not endanger anymore the health of the mother. Reject abortion for this reason cannot but demeaning women themselves.

Second, for Gadis Arivia, the fetus is not a person (an individual). Again this was done in order to defend the rights of mothers, that mothers have the right to decide, including whether they want to abort their fetus or not. By that Gadis Arivia stands clearly for utilitarianism ethics by which abortion is allowed if by doing so one help to attain the greatest good for greatest number of people. Since fetus is not a person, aborting it will not have a great impact for the community compare to the happiness and safety attained by the mother whose continues life obviously affecting the other children, her husband, her extended family, or even the surrounding community.

Should we not consider the rights to life of the fetuses only because they are not persons? Peter Singer, a utilitarian ethicist, has argued that fetus is not a person because it does not have “self-awareness, self-control, a sense of future, a sense of the past, the capacity to relate to others, concern for others, communication, and curiosity (Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 1979: 75). This way of thinking allows the killing of a fetus, even those with disabilities, because they are not persons.

Utilitarian philosophers usually are not consistent with their ethical views. In addition to persons, they also believe that sentient being should be considered as moral consent (those whose interests should be considered in all moral action). Thus, utilitarian philosophers defend bravely the rights of living animals or plants, because animals and plants are sentient being. They identify themselves as the defender of the right to life of every sentient-being—even through legislation and political moves in order to issue the law that govern the rights of animal. They do it wholeheartedly only because they believe that sentient being has ability to feel pain and entitled to happiness.

This paradigm of thinking should be operated also in understanding the problem of abortion. For me, deontological ethicists have more clear view and irreplaceable, that the fetus in any conditions, cannot be killed because they are human. Utilitarian ethicists should also reject abortion, if not as rigorist as the deontologists do, they at least understand that fetuses are also sentient being. By this, our last strike would be why the utilitarian philosophers do not defend also the interests of fetuses as sentient being?

Now, if Gadis Arivia refuses fetus as person, would she reject also fetus as sentient-being?

Jeremias Jena, M.A, Lecturer at Atma Jaya School of Medicine, Catholic University of Atma Jaya, Jakarta, Indonesia (www.atmajaya.ac.id)



  1. Maryam Kurniawati Oktober 26, 2010 / 5:33 am

    Sebuah refleksi tentang kehidupan dan kematian yang memberi pencerahan. Terimakasih pak Jere. Soli Deo Gloria.

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