Phillipa Foot’s “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect” revolves around a principle of good sometimes begets bad. The doctrine provides guidelines that seek to determine the morality of one’s actions in the pursuit of good although it can come with severe results. Concurrently, if an action is both good and bad, it is still moral if; it was the right thing to do, and the immoral results were unintentional (Foot, n.d, par1). Naturally, the principle is applicable to multiple ethical dilemmas, and as Foot reckons, abortion is one of them. Now, there are conditions that an action has to meet for it to be morally acceptable, and supporters of the Double Effect Principle will readily accept the same. The problem is not with the action itself because even if it yields bad results, the set conditions can render it justifiable. Instead, the critics of the Double Effects philosophy concentrate on the four conditions that assume a rule-based form of ethics.
The perfect illustration of Foot’s arguments is evident in the hypothetical scenario of a pregnant woman, which dictates the need for an urgent hysterectomy after discovering her womb is cancerous. Even if a doctor is against abortion, he or she will probably view the termination of the woman’s pregnancy and the hysterectomy as morally permissible (Foot, n.d, par7). After all, in case of illness, it would be logical if doctors administer the necessary treatments and protect the life of the mother, albeit at the expense of the unborn child. In other words, if the doctor performs the operation, he or she would be aiming to save the woman’s life despite foreseeing the death of the unborn child. In contrast, carrying out an abortion will be unethical just because it ends with the killing. The fetus dies while the woman would only remain childless. Thus, unlike in the first case where a hysterectomy eliminates cancer from the mother’s body, an abortion to serve the whims of the mother fails to adhere to the principles of double effect.
According to the four conditions, an action is acceptable if it is moral and aims at doing well and if the ill effects are inevitable, then it must be at par with the good (Foot, n.d, par1). Based on the case mentioned above, the first two rules are naturally a dictation of morality. Having an abortion is wrong because an individual is not at liberty to be morally evil, and there is nothing justifiable about desiring to terminate a pregnancy even if the act is legal. Now, the third and fourth conditions apply to the ideologies of the double effect. Still with the hypothetical cancer patient, the third premise of the double effect theory revolves around the intentions of abortion. If one ignores cancerous cells in his or her body, he or she will undoubtedly suffer a painful death because that is the nature of cancer. When the doctor removes the uterus, he or she intends to spare the woman any pain and the death of the fetus happens to be an unwanted but also unavoidable result. In that sense, the unintended death of the unborn child becomes a tolerable bad effect. In her article, Foot reckons when a desirable action includes one that is either unforeseen or unwanted then the double effect philosophy comes into action (Foot, n.d, par8). Finally, if the woman survives, then abortion meets the final condition that calls for some balance between eliminating the fetus and the goals of the abortion.
As mentioned above, Foot’s explanation of the Doctrine of the Double Effect assumes the nature of rule-based ethics as it provides the systematic method of deciding the morality of an action. Consequently, as it is with moral theories that give explicit instruction on how one ought to deal with a situation, there is a flaw in Foot’s ideologies. Particularly if one takes the rules as universal and attempts to apply them to other dilemmas. Now, as per Foot’s suggestions, it will be ethical to terminate a pregnancy if a mother has cancer but anything else outside that will be immoral. Such notions are evident in the third and second principles that insist a moral action has to have the harmful effect equal to the desirable or at least proclaim it as unwanted. Nonetheless, Foot fails to consider the fact that the mothers are not the sole determinants of abortion. Consider a scenario where doctors discover a child has an incurable illness or a deformation that would forever hinder his or her life. In addition, the mother already has children depending on her, and the finances are so little that sometimes the family sleeps hungry. Naturally, adopting couples would avoid the ill child and after giving birth, there is no guarantee that the baby will have the required medical attention. Based on Foot’s analysis, abortion is wrong, and the mother owes it to the child to try taking care of him or her because that is the moral answer to the dilemma. The argument does not survive the criticism because Foot’s ideologies stem from rigid rules.
Hence, perhaps the best way to deal with an ethical dilemma would be to apply virtue-based ethics that are more flexible. Contrary to rule-based ethics, the virtue-based ethics allow an individual to consider the context of his or her dilemma before making a decision. Hursthouse’s “Normative Virtue Ethics” also deals with abortion but approaches the topic from a cautious angle. Instead of tackling the morality of the reasons, she looks at the morality of the action itself; hence, the context of a dilemma matters. In her views, “an action is right if it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically do in the circumstances” (p.646). It all narrows down to the events and even the emotions pertaining to a dilemma. Evidently, the double effect doctrine is not as simple to utilize as its name implies and would render arguments by both the defectors and defenders baseless.
Foot, P. (n.d.). Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect. Retrieved from http://www2.econ.iastate.edu/classes/econ362/hallam/Readings/FootDoubleEffect.pdf
Hursthouse, R. (2013). Normative Virtue Ethics. In R. Shafer-Landau (Ed.), Ethical Theory An Anthology (2nd ed., pp. 645-652). New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.