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Virtue Ethics and Abortion Essay

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In this essay I will compare the stances of Judith Thomson and Don Marquis on the topic of abortion. Thomson argues that abortion is acceptable in some cases, she believes that everyone has a right to life, but that does not include the right to use someone else’s body without permission. Marquis is similar in the way that he does not swing completely one way on the rightfulness or wrongfulness of abortion. His main point is not that abortion is murder, but that in most cases the wrongfulness of abortion is similar to the reasons why murder is wrong. In the second part of this paper I will explain Kantian ethics and the categorical imperative, and then apply them to the topic of abortion.

Judith Thompson starts her argument by claiming that the fetus is a person, even though she does not personally believe this, she states this to prevent argument and prove that abortion is still acceptable in certain circumstances even if the fetus counts as a person. She introduces the thought experiment of the famous violinist. In this experiment you wake up in the hospital and are the only thing keeping the violinist alive. You were not asked permission from anyone for him to use your body, but you can leave whenever you want. However, if you leave, he dies. She uses various time frames in this experiment, in one you only have to stay with him for a day, in another you have to stay for nine whole months, the time frame is important for people to decide if they really would stay or not if put into this situation. This situation is referring to pregnancy due to rape, just like the violist, he did not receive permission to use the woman’s body. However, Thompson still believes that everyone has a right to life, no matter how they came into the world.

When someone else’s life is at risk, Thompson believes that it is permissible to intervene. If you were told that being hooked up to the violinist would save him but kill you, it is morally acceptable for you to leave. She gives the situation of a quickly growing baby in a tiny house, the baby is growing so fast that it will eventually crush the mother and fill the house, this is related to at risk pregnancies, she believes that abortion is permissible if it will save the mother. While she believes that everyone has a right to life, she believes that the right to one’s own body is precedent to this, and that no one has the right to use someone else’s body without permission. She says that abortion is permissible in cases of consensual intercourse as well, “if I leave a window open, I’m still not consenting to burglars”, this case is all about permission as well. In the end, Thompson concludes that abortion is only sometimes acceptable, and that each case is very different.

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Marquis argues that the reasons that make murder wrong are the same reasons that make abortion wrong, he concludes that they are not the same thing, but they are wrong for similar reasons. Marquis goes through some of the reasons why murder is wrong, such as: brutalization, harm to others, and harm to the victim, but he finds something wrong with each of these ideas of wrongfulness. He settles on the real reason for murder being wrong as the deprivation of any future value. Both murder and abortion deprive the victim from enjoyment, experiences, and anything that the future had in store. He believes that abortion must take place before the fetus is a person to be morally permissible, if this is true, then it would be very rare for an abortion to be morally acceptable. Marquis considers discontinuation and desire for explaining why murder is wrong, but ultimately proves that both theories fall short. He also states that it’s important to know that his argument is not an argument against contraception, and he also points out that there is value in every person’s future, even if that person does not see value in the future for themselves.

Kantian ethics are about intent and the principle behind the action. Central to Kantian ethics is the categorical imperative. The categorical imperative is about “universability,” an action is only permissible if it can be applied to everyone without contradiction, the second part of the categorical imperative states that others cannot be used as a “mere means to an end.” “The basis for our sense of what is good or bad, right or wrong, is our awareness that human beings are free, rational agents who should be given the respect appropriate to such beings,” Kant believed that all rational beings should follow the categorical imperative (Emrys Westacott, 2019). As part of Kantian ethics, the categorical imperative would say that abortion is immoral and impermissible, it fails both parts one and two of the categorical imperative. It fails part one because abortion cannot be applied in every situation without contradiction, and it fails part two because the action is used as a means to an end.

If I had to choose which author is more agreeable, I’d choose Thompson. Although I believe that abortion is permissible in all cases, regardless of the circumstances. I find her argument about having the right to your own body, and no one else having a right to your body, to be most agreeable. I do agree with her that everyone has a right to life, however, I don’t think that life actually starts until someone is born into the world. A fetus is not a person until it is actually out of the body, until then it is only a fetus, not a person with rights. The mother’s rights and choices are completely valid because not only will she carry the burden of the child for nine months but will have to carry the burden of carrying for a child financially, emotionally, and physically for a huge portion of her life. Thompson is right that we have a right to our own bodies, but we should have that right in every circumstance.


  1. Shafer-Landau, R. (Oxford University Press, fourth edition) The Ethical Life: fundamental readings in ethics and moral problems
  2. Westacott, E. (2019, January 24). What You Should Know About Kant's Ethics in a Nutshell. Retrieved from
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