Table of contents
1 The controversy
2 The central dilemma
3 The many and varied positions about abortion
4 Modern arguments about the legality and morality of abortion
5 Related articles

The controversy

The morality and legality of abortion is an important topic in applied ethics and is also discussed by legal scholars and theologianss. Important facts about abortion are also researched by sociologists and historians.

Abortion has existed in most societies, although it has often been opposed by institutionalized governments and religions. In the 20th century abortion became legally accepted in most of Europe and in the United States (Even though in some countries, such as Germany and Spain, abortion is technically illegal—even in the first trimester—prosecution typically does not occur.) Additionally, abortion is legal and accepted in China, India and other populous countries.

The Catholic Church remains opposed to the procedure, however, and in certain countries, notably the United States and the (predominantly Catholic) Republic of Ireland, the controversy is still extremely active, to the extent that even the names of the respective positions are subject to heated debate. While those on both sides of the argument are generally peaceful, if heated, in their advocacy of their positions, the debate is sometimes characterized by violence.

The central dilemma

The central dilemma in the abortion debate is the clash of presumed or perceived rights. On the one hand, is a fetus an "unborn child" or "growing baby" (as those opposed to abortion commonly term it), a human being with an inherent right to life? On the other hand, is a fetus not a person or even a individual human being but rather a disposable part of a woman's body and therefore subject to a woman's right to control her own body?

The question remains, at what point does the fetus become a person? Or, at what point should it be regarded as a "human being with legal rights"?

How does one balance these respective rights, or do they both exist?

The extreme "pro-life" argument is that an embryo (and later, a fetus) is a human life–innocent and worthy of protection–from the moment of conception and, possessing a right to life that should be respected. Therefore, abortion under any circumstance is the killing of an innocent person--murder--and thus wrong.

The extreme "pro-choice" argument is that a woman's right to control her own body always outweighs any right claimed for the fetus, and that abortion is acceptable under any circumstance.

Underlying this debate is another debate, over the role of the state: to what extent should the state interfere with a woman's body to protect the public interest, or to what extent should the state protect the general interest, even if it means controlling a woman's body? This is a major issue in a number of countries, such as India and China, which have tried to enforce forms of birth control (including forced sterilization), and the United States, which historically has limited access to birth control.

The many and varied positions about abortion

The competing labels for positions tends to blur over important differences in what can be advocated about abortion. In discussions of abortion it is of paramount importance to distinguish the variety of conclusions that can be advocated on the subject. First, consider the unequivocal positions:

There is clearly a difference, for example, between the views that abortion is immoral and that it should be illegal. It is possible to hold the views both that every instance of abortion is immoral and also that it should never be illegal.

There are, in fact, several other positions that represent even greater extremes than these, though they are not, strictly speaking, positions about abortion per se. On the one hand, there are some persons who believe, virtually always on religious grounds, that birth control is morally impermissible; they argue that the choice of whether a child should be created should always be left to God. On the other hand, there are persons such as professor Peter Singer, who think that infanticide is morally permissible and should be legally permissible, and there are cases of persons actually committing infanticide. And some take the position that abortion ought to be compulsory, either in certain situations — the Twelve Tables of Roman law required that deformed children be put to death — or as a population control measure, as in the People's Republic of China.

There are also several more qualified positions about abortion, which represent mid-ground between the relatively extreme positions that abortion is always moral, or never, and that it should always be legal, or never. That is, the qualified positions are that abortion is sometimes moral and at other times not, and in some cases it should be legal and in other cases not. Examples of these positions are:

  • Abortion in the first trimester (or before the embryo or fetus is viable outside the womb) is morally permissible; abortion after that time is immoral.
  • Abortion in the first trimester (or before the embryo or fetus is viable outside the womb) ought to be legal; abortion after that time ought to be illegal.
  • Abortion up to the third trimester (so-called late-term abortion) is morally permissible; in the third trimester, it is immoral.
  • Abortion up to the third trimester ought to be legal; in the third trimester, it ought to be illegal.
  • Abortion should always be illegal, except in some special circumstances—for example, when the mother's long-term health or life is at stake, when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, or when the infant is deformed or likely to be born disabled.

The latter position represents a point of serious controversy among abortion foes, who feel that, in those cases where the completion of a pregnancy would likely result in severe permanent physical injury or death for the mother, abortion is morally permissible and/or should (continue to) be legally permitted. Some oppose even this exception, however. Similarly, when pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, the situation created—where the mother is bearing a rapist's child, or her close relative's—is regarded as so morally repugnant that there is no moral obligation, and should be no legal obligation, to continue the pregnancy. Again, some people will not make an exception even in such cases. Some justify this with the severe depression, anxiety, and regret women may experience post-abortion.

The political debate tends to center on questions of legality, though such debates are often based on moral questions. In the United States, the political debate centers on two questions:

  1. Should "partial-birth abortions" (or "Intact dilation and extraction") for medical reasons related to the mother's health [1] continue to be legal?
  2. Should first-trimester abortions on demand continue to be legal? In the United States on a federal level, this is tantamount to asking, "Should Roe v. Wade continue to be supported?"

As of November 5, 2003, United States President George W. Bush signed into law the "Partial-birth Abortion Ban Act" which makes it illegal for anyone to perform the procedure. However, some abortion practitioners represented by the ACLU have already filed a lawsuit protesting the law. So, at present, the question still has a viable political life in the United States.

The second question is a matter of deep concern for many, but the chances of Roe v. Wade being overturned are low at present. Related issues such as requiring parental consent for minors, waiting periods, and education, are also in contention in some states. Other questions, such as federal funding of abortions, and acts such as the "Unborn Victims of Violence Act" also are in contention in the United States.

In many countries, but most strikingly in the United States, the scientific, religious, and philosophical communities have remained polarized on most of these issues. The controversy over abortion remains a very emotionally charged issue, and difficult to resolve.

[1] The issue is actually more complicated than this, as opponents to a "health of the mother" exception contend that legally this would create a loophole legalizing any abortion. These opponents also claim that the procedure which is being banned is never necessary to preserve a woman's health.

Modern arguments about the legality and morality of abortion

Briefly, the basis of the view that all, or almost all, abortion should be illegal is the belief that the life of a person—and all political rights attending it—begins at conception. Given that, one is invited to consider the common assumption that each innocent person is entitled to the protection of society against the deliberate destruction of its life by another person. The latter is a rough statement of the right to life, which is guaranteed in many basic legal and political documents such as the United States Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and is the basis of laws against murder. Thus, the pro-life view is that elective abortion is the deliberate killing of an innocent person and therefore not morally justifiable, regardless of the law. But since the law should be consistent with morality, elective abortion ought to be regarded legally as murder. Again, this is the basic argument against the legality of abortion. There exist people who morally disapprove of abortion but who, for other reasons, deny that abortion should be legally proscribed. This will be explained below.

One could also oppose the legality of abortion on nonreligious grounds, which is a strategy employed by those who believe that their personal religious considerations have no proper place in public policy debate. One could say, for example, that the proposition that all humans are persons and that because a human life begins at conception so too does personhood--and the moral rights that entails. This is a genetic view of "human life" which begins with the union of parental gametes that creates a new individual with a distinct genetic identity, initiating the process that ends with death. Proponents of this view recognize that there is a period of several months during which the child is biologically dependent upon the mother to sustain its life, but they regard the obligation of a parent to protect the life of its child as one which ought to be an uncontroversial societal norm. Opponents argue that biologists are by no means unanimous in their agreement about when a human life begins. Other views of the human identity place the beginning of human life at later time. For example, the embryological view holds that individual human life begins when an embryo no longer is capable of forming twins, approximately 12 days after conception.

Those who believe that abortion is morally permissible, and should remain legally permissible, typically have a different view of the issue as to when a human becomes a person that deserves a right to life. Many hold that an embryo or fetus which is incapable of surviving outside the mother's womb (a status generally reached no sooner than 17 weeks into gestation) is not recognizable as a human life separate from the mother's body, while others hold that human life starts with the development of a nervous system. Those opposed to abortion at any stage counter by saying that it is arbitrary when an embryo or fetus is to be considered a separate human life, and that future technology may make it possible for a human life to develop entirely outside of a mother's body. Others argue that a fetus does not have the capacity for thought, self awareness, etc. required for personhood and thus does not have a strong right to life.

For those who believe that abortion should be legally permissible (regardless of its morality), one of the most common arguments is based on privacy rights. Abortion rights advocates hold that a woman's right to determine what happens with her body (including whether to carry a pregnancy to term) is private, is not to be interfered with by outside influences, and negates all rights of her offspring. This point was given an interesting formulation by the philosopher Judith Jarvis Thompson: if one were to find oneself suddenly attached to another, adult human being, and in such a position such that, if one were to remove oneself, that other person would die, it is by no means clear that one would be obligated, morally or legally, to continue to be attached to that person. Against this argument the objection is frequently made that in about 97 percent of all cases (rape and incest account for about 3 percent) it was, after all, the mother who made a choice which caused an embryo to become attached to her, and therefore the analogy is imperfect. Others respond by modifying the analogy, arguing that women who become pregnant unintentionally were certainly not choosing to become attached to a fetus, and thus have a right to abortion.

Another common argument is political pragmatism. Where abortion is illegal, some women nonetheless seek to end their pregnancies and will resort to unsafe methods that endanger their own lives—so-called "back-alley" abortions. Since modern medical testing makes it possible to estimate early in pregnancy whether a child might be born with severe defects, some abortion rights advocates also argue that requiring such children to be born would be an unnecessary burden on society as well as the parents--and might even be an immoral offense to the childen themselves. This, however, raises another contentious moral issue of "selective" abortion, where parents might choose to terminate a pregnancy based on desired traits of the child (such as sex) that can be determined before birth.

Some abortion rights advocates point to global population pressures which many hold responsible for endemic hunger, overcrowding, and environmental impacts; they believe that making abortion illegal would result in further such pressures and would exacerbate these problems. They also sometimes refer to the difficulties and often miseries experienced by the children and their mothers, when the mothers are often single and impoverished. An increase of children born to such situations could result in an increase in social ills, including increases in crime, broadening of the population base of those living below the poverty line, and ballooning of the state welfare rolls. Abortion opponents observe that a related rationale led China to adopt its "one child" policy, which has led not only to increased abortions and sterilizations, but also to live baby daughters being secretly abandoned in hopes that the next child will be a son. When the answer to social ills is to reduce the number of people, the argument goes, other even less palatable ways of reducing existing populations may begin to look attractive as well. Abortion opponents also point out the abortion proponents rarely suggest killing infants and todders as a solution to hunger, overcrowding, and environmental impacts. In response those that favor legalization of abortion point out that sex selection is possible in the United States but no preference for either sex is seen, rather families generally choose balanced sex ratios—sometimes using abortion to achieve this result. Moreover, many proponents of abortion believe that babies are persons and thus infanticide would be immoral.

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