Proper Function, Abortion, and Ableism


Evan Jack
4 min readDec 2, 2022

[This is just a speculative inquiry]

I recently saw a completely serious tweet that read something like “Why do we care if a woman does certain substances when she is pregnant? If it is because it results in a baby with disabilities, is that not then just ableism?” I was in disbelief when I read the original poster of the tweet seriously reply to someone in the replies to the original tweet that they were serious and the tweet was not a joke. Either way, people in the comments were acting as if it was deeply held irrational commitments against disability, i.e., ableist prejudice, that explained why we think of the mother’s actions as bad. However, I think this is obviously not the case and that we do have good reasons to not disable babies in the womb.

I will first have to outline some things regarding the ethics of abortion and other relevant things. First, I think that if we do have good reasons against disabling babies in the womb assuming they were to be born, then there is a presumption against doing those actions that disable babies or which are generally recognized to disable babies. The practical conclusion of this is that one should not do those actions that disable a baby in the womb whether one is one second or one hundred days into the pregnancy. I hold that we should have a moral presumption against taking such action not because of the potential of the fetus to become a person or something like that. Rather, we should take such a presumption because if they were to become a person, then they would be disabled by such actions (which is supposedly bad), and, because we are uncertain about if it is to become sentient or not, we should presume as if it is in order to “be safe,” therefore meaning we have a moral presumption against taking such actions. This works with the view that sentience is when personhood starts. Obviously, if someone knew with absolute certainty that the fetus was not going to become sentient (i.e., that they are 100% going to get an abortion), then I think there is no presumption and the pregnant woman can do whatever she likes. However, that certainty does not exist practically, especially considering the current political climate present in the United States of America. Let me provide two cases. In case one, you know that someone is going to walk through a hallway. You set up a bunch of machines that permanently disable them. Is what you did wrong? Certainly. However, let’s say in another case, the person will die from causes not related to you and so they will never walk down the hallway. Is it wrong to put those machines in the hallway? Obviously not, they would just be sitting there, affecting no one. Again, this has nothing to do with potential in the sense “pro-lifers” speak of it. The moral intuition we have is not against terminating the potential of a person being born, rather it is against the potential of disabling a person. Should I do actions that could potentially disable a person for trivial reasons (e.g., the pleasures of drugs and alcohol)? It seems that the answer is no. However, is there anything wrong with actions that end the potential of a person coming into being? It seems not, for every time a breakup happens, for example, that potential is to some degree being terminated, if not weakened at the very least, and it seems nothing immoral is happening here. However, if my breakup had the strong potential consequence of disabling someone else for the rest of their life, then my partner and I should probably not break up. I believe that it is that intuition that explains why it seems wrong to do drugs and alcohol at any time of the pregnancy.

Second, I think a reason that doing drugs and alcohol during pregnancy could be intuited as bad is because of our moral intuitions against drugs and alcohol (see my paper on this). However, I think that this is a weaker explanation than the one above. Let us move on to why it seems to be bad to do acts that disable people.

Disabilities, in general, prevent people from having access to many things that they would have access to if they weren’t disabled. Disabling a person without their consent is surely wrong. So, we can all agree that after a mind emerges in the womb, and personhood is established, one must cease all disabling activities. This has nothing to do with ableism. I believe we can all agree that breaking off someone’s legs, leaving them without the ability to walk for the rest of their life is wrong. It is wrong not because they have become disabled. Instead, it is wrong because you have done something to them without their consent, and even if consent can’t always be gotten, you surely had no reason to presume they wanted you to disable them. But, what is wrong with doing disabling activities before it is born. Well, think back to the hallway analogy. We can see that setting up the disabling devices in the hallway is wrong even though the person has not arrived. The moral consideration is done while the person is arriving, that is, in the process of coming to be at the entrance to the hallway. If the person is not arriving, however, then it seems nothing is wrong with setting up those devices. Just as personhood will soon come to be after the body growing in the womb is ensouled, the person will soon come to be at the entrance of the hall way.

I think I will give this all more thought.



Evan Jack

How sweet terror is, not a single line, or a ray of morning sunlight fails to contain the sweetness of anguish. - Georges Bataille