Bioethics, Pro-Life

The “Dependency” Argument for Abortion: A Dilemma

PersonhoodSupremeCourtOne common argument for the pro-choice position is what I shall call the “dependency” argument for abortion. This argument suggests that because the unborn is dependent in a unique way upon the mother, abortion is permissible. For example, one might argue that because a fetus cannot survive without the direct use of the mother’s body, the unborn does not have a right to life. The status of dependency upon another being in such an intimate and unique fashion means that abortion is permissible, according to this argument.

One way to respond to this argument is to show that the dependency of the unborn upon the mother is not relevantly unique. For example, one may cite the dependency of a newborn upon his or her parents, of a person hooked up to an artificial heart or some other dependency-creating situation. However, here we will consider what I think is a more direct and intractable problem for the abortion advocate. Namely, that the dependency argument yields an inescapable dilemma for their position.

The Thought Experiment

Suppose we were able to create artificial wombs–something which doesn’t seem all that preposterous given that it’s being worked on right now–to which we were able to move the unborn at any point up to birth and allow to grow there. In this case, the growing being is not dependent upon its mother or even any woman or person. We may cut out the people doing maintenance on the artificial wombs by having some kind of automated maintenance system.

The Dilemma

Would it be permissible to terminate the unborn within the artificial womb?

If so, then the grounding for abortion on the notion that the unborn is in a relevantly dependent situation related to the mother cannot be correct. For in this case the unborn is not in that dependent situation, yet the pro-choice advocate still maintains a right to abort. If it is not permissible, then there must be some reason why it is not permissible to abort once the unborn is no longer within the mother, and this reason would have to be one that could, in a way that is not ad hoc, not apply to the unborn when inside the mother.

I think this is a serious dilemma for those who use the “dependency” argument in order to ground objections to abortion.

Answering the Dilemma

Perhaps one might try to answer the dilemma by embracing the second horn of the dilemma and suggesting that once the dependency situation is removed, then the right to abort is also removed. However, the same type of dependency which the unborn is in with the mother has simply been transferred to an artificial womb. Perhaps, however, one cannot be relevantly (morally) dependent upon a machine. But this is to effectively beg the question, for the very grounds of the pro-choice argument is that it is dependency which creates a state of permissive abortion. Perhaps they could modify their stance and say that it is actually dependency upon the mother alone. But here is where the danger of an “ad hoc” stance rears its ugly head, because the relevant criterion–dependency–is maintained while it is the location of the unborn which has shifted. If dependency is alleged to be enough to ground abortion rights, then smuggling in additional premises alongside dependency defeats the initial argument.

The point needs to be emphasized: I think this is the best route for the pro-choice advocate to try to go to avoid the conclusions of the dilemma, but if they do go down this route it raises even more questions for their position. First, if we suppose that dependency must be on a person to be morally relevant, than it undermines the notion of dependency as the reasoning for allowing abortion to begin with. For, in this case, it would be the person grounding the moral status, not the dependency. Second, to embrace this horn means that the pro-choice advocate is effectively granting that the unborn has some right to live, so long as it is not in this relevant state of dependency. This is a startling admission, and it must be emphasized that this means, frankly, that according to the pro-choice advocate a being with a right to live has that right suspended so long as a valid “dependency criterion” can be met. The implications of this would be enormous.

Moreover, if we grant that the second horn may be embraced by means of saying that if dependency is removed, then it follows that any possible way to remove the dependency situation, if such a way could become reality, makes abortion impermissible.

Free Wombs?

Now, suppose further there were a foundation that was willing and able to pay for anyone (anywhere and anytime) to move their unborn into an artificial womb rather than abort the fetus. For the sake of argument, we will assume this is a risk-free type of procedure, with relevant clinical test results, etc., etc. This strengthens the dilemma posed above because at this point, there is effectively no dependency upon mothers beyond conception. For, the moment a woman finds she is pregnant, she could phone this foundation and transfer the unborn to an artificial womb, relinquish any claim to parental rights, and be done. But if this were the case, then dependency would in a sense no longer exist. The unwanted pregnancy could immediately be ended without the termination of the fetus.

Once again, it seems that in this situation only the location of the unborn remains relevant, should the pro-choice advocate wish to maintain the right to abort. The mother could choose to end her pregnancy by transferring the unborn and all rights/knowledge of/etc. thereof elsewhere at any point.

I realize that some may object and say that having a surgical procedure is an inconvenience, no matter how safe, quick, successful, secret, etc. it might be. But at that point I must wonder where the line is drawn for abortion. After all, if the scenario envisioned above really did exist, and someone really did want to maintain the right to abort, what they would have to be saying is that something thought to be inconvenient alone is enough to abort. Setting aside the fact that abortion is also a procedure–and one with risks–at this point I think I would point out that the dependency argument has been shown to be mistaken, because the pro-choice advocate must now base his or her argument upon the “convenience” of the mother.


It appears to me that the only recourse the pro-choice advocate has with regard to the dependency argument is to argue that location really is a relevant criterion for allowing for abortion. But in that case, dependency ceases to be the factor which grounds the right to abort, and thus the dependency argument fails.

I’m fairly sure I’ve read a similar argument to the one I present here somewhere. However, I do not remember where I may have read it and regret to omit a reference to it here.


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Pro-life– I have written a number of posts advocating the pro-life position. See, in particular, “From conception, a human” and “The issue at the heart of the abortion debate.”

The image is courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.



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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


4 thoughts on “The “Dependency” Argument for Abortion: A Dilemma

  1. How ironic. Look at the blowback on any and all ‘artificial’ reproductive technologies. Where does it come from? Usually, the religious. And why might that be?

    Good luck with your artificial wombs. Until then, we still face the reality of competing and incompatible legal rights where the anti-choice crowd continues to insist that Mom is merely a womb over which she has no rights if it houses a fertilized egg and that the egg ought to be recognized as legally supreme so that the anti-choice position can be what it really is: a forced birth movement antithetical to respecting the necessary rights for legal autonomy.

    Posted by tildeb | April 13, 2015, 9:42 AM
    • First, I’ve asked you time and again to use the accepted terminology. I do not refer to you as anti-life; do not refer to me as anti-choice. Any future comments in which you do use such terminology will not be approved. You may refer to the “pro-life” position and grant other people the same level of respect I grant you by using your preferred terminology of “pro-choice.”

      Second, your comment amounts to hand-waving. You have not denied any part of the dilemma. You have not interacted with the argument. If you’d like to comment further, perhaps you could tell me which horn of the dilemma you embrace to try to get past the fact that your primary argument for abortion actually undercuts itself.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | April 13, 2015, 10:24 AM
  2. What competing rights does an artificial womb have (other than whoever owns it) compared to a woman? As far as I can see, none. This so-called dilemma is imaginary.

    Look termination of pregnancies occurs in about 7 or 8 times out of ten. I don’t see the lobby that tries to reduce the rights of women by limiting or eliminating their reproductive choices (that goes under the term ‘pro-life’… as if anyone against this reduction and elimination of choice in this debate is therefore implied to be either anti-life or somehow less pro-life) working as hard to improve fertilization rates by improving environmental factors as they are active in this reduction and elimination of choices.

    And that says far more about how ‘pro-life’ this lobby is than a thought experiment about artificial wombs.

    Posted by tildeb | April 14, 2015, 12:00 PM
    • First, I already addressed your response by pointing out that the argument you offer thus undermines the use of dependency as the grounding for the argument and instead puts forth the personhood of the mother. Thus, your counter-response actually grants the point of the dilemma.

      Your second paragraph is a red herring, once more equivalent to hand-waving. Moreover, plenty of pro-life persons are working in these areas, and I would (and have elsewhere) explicitly argued that we must be consistently pro-life and work to reduce poverty, improve conditions, etc. for families across the board. But again, your argument is effectively a red herring: “Look at this other completely separate area that I think pro-life people are inconsistent about.” But in what way does that address the argument presented here? It doesn’t.

      Finally, I appreciate you using the term pro-life but you can drop the scare quotes. All I’m asking is that you meet the minimum level of civility I ask–granting others the right to self-define. Any comment you make that cannot meet this minimum level of civility will not be approved.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | April 14, 2015, 9:04 PM

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