The utilitarian perspective applied to the abortion issue would focus on whether
permitting or prohibiting elective abortion would contribute more positively the interests of society (Mill, 2003 p160). The principal difference between the utilitarian and deontological perspectives is that utilitarianism is wholly unconcerned with the underlying motivation for decisions. Whereas deontological formalism values the state of mind of the individual, utilitarianism focuses on the ultimate consequences of the act, irrespective of motivation (Russell, 2002 p 99).
Within the utilitarian ethical perspective, rule utilitarianism would promote the choice associated with the overall benefit to others and to society if it were adhered to religiously in all circumstances, irrespective of isolated cases in which the rule produced a negative result (Russell, 2002 p101-2). For example, in a society where relative birth and death rates were such that the continuation of society were in jeopardy, the utilitarian perspective might require a prohibition of abortion for the benefit of society even at the expense of the reluctant mother.
Under application of rule utilitarianism in that situation and many others, abortion would be considered immoral in many circumstance under the initial assumption that prohibiting abortions outright would benefit society more than allowing elective abortions. On the other hand, if the rule of allowing abortions could be demonstrated to benefit society more than prohibiting abortions, then, rule utilitarianism would consider abortions perfectly moral.
Act utilitarianism is a much more flexible approach to morality in human life,
because it solves the primary flaw of rule utilitarianism: specifically, it allows for the use of a general moral rule that recognizes exceptions that justify its suspension in isolated
situations (Russell, 2002 p105). If it were determined (first) that abortion is much more often a bad thing than a good thing, inflexible rule utilitarianism would prohibit abortions even where medically necessary to save the life of the mother. Conversely, act utilitarianism would distinguish that situation from the general rule without violating that general rule (Dershowitz, 2002 p109).
Therefore, even in the society where abortion is generally prohibited under general utilitarian principles, abortion would be justified in specific cases where that choice would benefit society more than the alternative. Still, even in that case, the outcome of utilitarian analysis would always depend on the initial definitions of various relative benefits and harms associated with abortion. Where, for example, the pregnancy involves an infant affected by severe birth defects that will necessitate care at great cost to society, act utilitarian analysis would support the moral choice to abort even where the same utilitarian perspective condemns abortion in general.
Initially, the utilitarianism of Mill and Bentham presupposed the necessity that benefit or "utility" of human actions be evaluated based on their capacity to benefit the greatest number of individuals, even to the extent of sacrificing the welfare of the individual to serve the greater purposes of the many (Russell, 2002 p104-5). In its more recent formulation, utilitarianism has dispensed with the element of the greatest number, primarily because that resolves one of the major flaws of that moral perspective
(Dershowitz, 2002 p111). Specifically, the strict application of classical utilitarianism would justify the forced dominance and even the subservience of the minority for the benefit of the majority, and inherently immoral concept by objective measure
(Dershowitz, 2002 p112).
Therefore, the contemporary utilitarian approach to morality in human life is to consider other definitions of "goodness" and "benefit" rather than equating morality with the interests of the greatest number. In many respects, that is the perspective exemplified by the modern American justice system (Dershowitz, 2002 p112). Under that view, the moral rightness or wrongness of elective abortion would seek to weigh the manner in which permitting abortions might benefit society and how that decision would affect all of the individuals directly involved in specific situations. If the initial assumption is that society is benefited by the respect for the autonomous rights of individuals to make personal decisions about abortion without interference from the state, utilitarianism would support the freedom to make that decision.
Under the act utilitarianism perspective, therefore, certain types of abortions (such as in cases of rape, incest, or medical necessity for the life of the mother)