Throughout history, induced abortions have been a source of considerable debate and controversy. An individual’s personal stance on the complex ethical, moral, and legal issues has a strong relationship with the given individual’s value system. A person’s position on abortion may be described as a combination of their personal beliefs on the morality of induced abortion and their beliefs on the ethical limit of the government’s legitimate authority.
Abortion debates, especially pertaining to the legal ramifications of abortion laws, are often spearheaded by advocacy groups. These groups tend to fall into one of two camps, with people in favor of legal abortion describing themselves as pro-choice, while those against legal abortion call themselves pro-life. Both “pro-choice” and “pro-life” are loaded terms designed to make the opposition unappealing (anti-choice and anti-life). Individuals are also usually classified as either pro-choice or pro-life, thus reducing what may be complex views to slogans.
In reality, both pro-choice and pro-life are too simplistic to encompass the full complexity of the debate. A person may be personally uncomfortable with, and morally opposed to, abortion (thus being pro-life) while believing the option of abortion should remain legal (thus being pro-choice as well). Furthermore, individuals often place different value on the lives of zygotes, embryos and fetuses at different points in gestation, putting different methods of abortion in different moral lights.
Underlying this debate is another debate, over the proper role of the state: to what extent should a government be allowed to interfere with a woman’s reproduction? This is a major issue in a number of countries, such as India and China, which have tried to enforce types of birth control (including forced sterilization), and in the United States, which has historically limited access to birth control. A parallel question also runs through the debate over legalized abortion: to what extent is the right to life a basic human right that the state has an interest in protecting?
The debate also touches upon such related (and themselves controversial) issues as contraception, feminism, gender roles, teen pregnancy, and sexual morality. Some opponents of abortion are social conservatives, and are motivated not only by concerns about embryonic life but also by unease with, and opposition to, the modern lifestyle choices that they see the procedure as facilitating. Other opponents of abortion, such as the progressive activist Nat Hentoff, see the protection of unborn life as an essential element in the campaign for universal human rights.
The abortion debate has a prominent place in political campaigning in many countries. In the United States, the Democratic Party tends to campaign in support of the legal right to an abortion, while the Republican Party tends to campaign against legal abortion. These positions are often part of a more general “culture of life” stance regarding such related subjects as sex education, birth control, stem-cell research, euthanasia, and (though less uniformly) capital punishment.
The debate is generally heated but nonviolent, though there have been a small number of cases where violence has been used.
Some of the most significant and common issues treated in the abortion debate are:
The beginning of personhood (sometimes phrased ambiguously as “the beginning of life”): When is the embryo or fetus considered a person?
Universal human rights: Is aborting a zygote, embryo, or fetus a violation of human rights? What about fetuses with genetic disabilities? On the other hand, is not allowing a woman to terminate her unwanted pregnancy a violation of the woman’s human rights?
Circumstances of conception: How important are the circumstances of conception to the ultimate fate of the embryo or fetus? Does pregnancy induced by rape or incest, or by poor or non-existent birth control use change the permissibility of abortion?
Alternatives to abortion: Is adoption a viable and fair alternative to abortion? Are there resources available to aid mothers who are unprepared for parenthood, but who may wish to keep their child?
Limit of government authority: Are laws controlling abortion violations of privacy and/or other personal liberty rights?
The central dilemma in the abortion debate is the clash of presumed and perceived rights. On one hand is the embryo or fetus’s presumed right to life, and on the other is a woman’s presumed right to control her body (though the debate over the issue has become so complex that each of these terms has itself been extensively debated). One aspect of the issue involves defining at what point an embryo or fetus qualifies as a person, and gains the legal and/or moral right to life. Even if that could be agreed upon, that right would still need to be weighed against the rights of the woman. Yet another debate is the use of fetal and embryonic remains, such as in stem cell research, the chickenpox vaccine, and even the treatment of patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
There is also controversy over the rights of individuals other than the pregnant woman and the embryo or fetus. Debate focuses on whether a pregnant woman should have to notify and/or have the consent of others in the following distinct cases: a minor her parents; a legally married or common-law wife her husband; or a pregnant woman the biological father. In a 2003 Gallup poll in the United States, 72% of respondents were in favor of enforced spousal notification, with 26% opposed; of those polled, 79% of males and 67% of females responded in favor.
There are a variety of positions regarding the timing of abortions. These include:
- Abortion should always be legal.
- Abortion up to the start of the third trimester should be legal; abortion in the third trimester (so-called late-term abortion) should generally be illegal.
- Abortion should be legal until the fetus is viable outside the womb.
- Abortion in the first trimester should be legal, but thereafter generally illegal.
- Abortion of an embryo should be legal, but abortion of a fetus should generally be illegal.
- Abortion should generally be illegal at all stages.
- Abortion should generally be illegal at all stages, and so should other forms of birth control and contraception.
For each of these timing alternatives (except the first), there may be exceptions in some special circumstances—for example, when the woman’s long-term health or life is at stake, when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, or when the infant has no long-term viability, or is likely to be born severely disabled.
While both sides have sought to influence public opinion (pregnant women, doctors, lawmakers, voters) the main concern has been with influencing the law, and hence attaining legal support for their positions. Both have likewise drawn their rhetorical arguments from various domains, such as religion, philosophy, law morality and social pragmatism. Every aspect is controversial — the lethal nature and personal, social, and moral effects of the procedure are compared against the social burdens, and sometimes physiological dangers, of carrying the fetus to term.
Many of the terms used in the debate are controversial and often seen as incomplete or dishonest. For example, the word “choice” glosses over which specific choice is being considered, and opponents sometimes argue that the usage of this term negates any consideration of the developing embryo or fetus. Likewise, the word “life” doesn’t specify what sort of life is being talked about, whether living cells or a living person. For pro-life activists, the implication is that the fetus is “alive” as a separate individual, and therefore deserving of culturally-determined personhood. Pro-choice activists, on the other hand, often disagree with the usage of the term because in such a context it does not take into consideration the life of the pregnant woman herself. Furthermore, the terms used by both sides to designate the embryo or fetus can cause heated debate: the clinical term “fetus” is seen by some as a dehumanization tactic, whereas the term “unborn baby” goes in the opposite direction, equating a fertilized cell with a newborn. Similarly others feel that calling a pregnant woman a “mother”, adds emotionalism to the debate.
In the case of the murder of a pregnant woman, some U.S. states have passed laws which respect the status of fetal being as a living person — charging separate counts for woman and fetus. Note that there are people who agree that killing a woman who is known to be pregnant qualifies as a two counts of murder but also support the choice to abort. However, due to polarization, pro-choice advocates who might otherwise support these laws often feel the need to oppose them due to the precedent they create, which might then be turned against abortion rights.
Pro-Life advocates make a silent complaint in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. Pro-Life advocates make a silent complaint in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.
The “pro-life” argument is that an embryo (or, in later stages of development, a fetus) is a human being — entitled to protection — from the moment of either conception or implantation and therefore has a right to life that must be respected. According to this argument, abortion is homicide. Many take it a step further and say that, unless this homicide is somehow justified, perhaps because it is necessary to save the life of the woman, then abortion is murder.
Some Pro-life advocates argue against comprehensive sexual education on the grounds that it encourages extramarital sex and thus sends mixed signals to teens, especially girls. Some pro-life advocates also say that there is a positive correlation between widespread comprehensive sex education in schools and an increase in teen sexual activity. Claims that sex education results in a rising rate of teen pregnancies, abortions, and sexually transmitted diseases are not supported by empirical evidence. Some Pro-life advocates can also promote other issues such as maintaining strong families and community advocacy of abstinence until marriage.
Because a large percentage of the women who seek and obtain abortions in developed nations such as the U.S. are poor and/or members of racial minority groups, it is also sometimes argued that abortion (and by extension contraception) are intended or unintended tools for the genocide of racial or demographic “undesirables”. Pro-life advocates sometimes point to Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger’s involvement in the eugenics movement to buttress this argument.
Pro-life advocates sometimes claim that many women, particularly adolescent females, are pressured by boyfriends, husbands, family members, or counselors at abortion clinics to go through with an abortion about which they are ambivalent or opposed to. This claim, which suggests that women are often offered too few practical alternatives to abortion, is perhaps meant to undermine the “pro-choice” label adopted by supporters of legalized abortion.
Pro-choice activists on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, to rally for abortion rights on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Pro-choice activists on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, to rally for abortion rights on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
The “pro-choice” argument is that a woman’s right to control her pregnancy outweighs any right claimed for the embryo or fetus, which pro-choice advocates see as not yet having the full rights of a person. The pro-choice side sees abortion as a private medical decision that must not be made by the government. This was the essential holding in the landmark Supreme Court of the United States 1973 decision, Roe v. Wade, and it is accepted by most in the pro-choice community.
Pro-choice advocates regularly argue in favor of comprehensive sex education in high school, contraceptive use, and greater involvement by parents in the lives of their teens as the three best ways to reduce unintended pregnancies and therefore the need for abortions. (Many pro-choice advocates draw the line, however, at parents having a legal right to be notified when their minor daughters are about to obtain an abortion. Some pro-choice advocates view parental involvement in this decision as an abridgement of the minor’s right to obtain an abortion. See the separate article about parental notification.) They may not necessarily endorse teen sexuality, but pragmatically recognize that it will exist even under “abstinence-only” sex education. They also note that teens taught abstinence-only education are less likely to use forms of contraception should they have sex, and therefore are more likely to become pregnant and develop STIs.
Some religious groups oppose abortion; some support access to medically supervised abortion; some oppose government restrictions on abortion; and some have no opinion.
Christians, including both the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical Christian churches, usually oppose abortion. Some Christian churches that have become more theologically liberal in the last century hold a pro-choice stance.
Buddhists also usually take an anti-abortion stance, citing the Pali Canon which states that life begins at conception. Moreover, in Buddhism killing of, say, a mosquito, would be a direct breach of the precept which forbids destruction of life. However, since killing a mosquito is not as serious as killing a person, ending the potential life of a fetus may not equate to murder. In addition, they consider that abortion is preferable if the woman’s life is at risk.
Islam generally has the stance that if the woman’s life is at stake, abortion is permissible under the principle of Shari`ah, the lesser of two evils. Moreover, there are a number of traditional scholars which state that quickening is a sign that the soul has entered the fetus. Otherwise, there is a wide range of positions within Islam. Abortions are usually not prohibited through the fourth month.
Judaism traditionally holds the life of a fetus as sacred, and does not permit abortion on demand. However, it sanctions (or mandates) abortion under some circumstances, namely when the woman’s life is threatened or when the woman is under significant stress from pregnancy. Some distinguish between Judaism’s view of what’s wrong and a Jew’s view of what should be legislated as wrong. Many Jews, including Orthodox Jews, believe in separation of state and church (e.g., because Jews historically fared better in the societies whose political views were not influenced by religious views), and believe that unless something that is prohibited by Judaism can be logically proven to a non-believer in Judaism, it cannot be legislated — otherwise, eating non-kosher food, violating of Shabbat, masturbation, homosexuality and the rest of prohibited activities should be lobbied to be illegal.
A middle view says that although all Jewish laws cannot practically be lobbied to be legislated, those that can be (due to an already existing strong public opinion, such as in case of abortion) should be lobbied thus promoting Torah’s view when practically possible.
A number of churches and religious groups in the United States of America support the limited right of women to obtain a safe, legal, medically supervised abortion. A partial list of those organizations.
Historically, it is unclear how often the ethics of induced abortion were discussed, since few ancient writers wrote about childbirth. Abortion and infanticide are thought to have been commonplace. Among ancient writers opposed to abortion are Hippocrates of Cos and the Roman Emperor Augustus. The early Christian churches generally opposed abortion, drawing upon early Christian writings such as the Didache (circa 100 A.D.). Since ignorance about pre-natal development prevailed, bans against abortion were in many western countries directed only to the period after “quickening” (the time when fetal movement begins to be felt, approximately the second trimester).
By the mid 19th century, abortion was illegal in the US and much of Europe. In the 1960s and 1970s laws against abortion changed in some parts of the world. In South American and Central American countries and most of Africa, elective abortion is not legal. Abortion is legal, and even sometimes encouraged in China and India. In a few countries, such as China, the government sometimes forces women to have abortions.
History of the debate in the United States
The signing of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act was seen as a major political victory for the pro-life movement, though it was soon declared unconstitutional by some federal courts and has yet to be considered by the Supreme Court. The signing of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act was seen as a major political victory for the pro-life movement, though it was soon declared unconstitutional by some federal courts and has yet to be considered by the Supreme Court.
In the United States, as in many countries, the scientific, religious, and philosophical communities have remained polarized on most of these issues.
During the early part of the twentieth century, illegal abortions in the U.S. were commonplace — often with the knowledge and tacit sanction of officials. The general rule had been that an abortion would not be performed if the child was “quick” or perceptibly moving within the womb — which generally happens after about four and a half months of gestation. In the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, limits on abortion were established according to gestational trimester periods, establishing a cutoff at the third trimester unless the woman’s health was at risk. In subsequent rulings, the Court rejected the trimester framework altogether in favor of a cutoff at the point of fetal viability (Cf. Planned Parenthood v. Casey).
The political debate tends to center on questions of legality, though such debates are often based on moral questions. In the United States today, the political debate centers on two questions:
1. Should “partial-birth abortions” (or “Intact dilation and extraction”) for medical reasons related to the woman’s health continue to be legal? 2. Should parental notification be required before a minor can have an abortion?
There are also those who believe that all abortion should be illegal. This most likely could only be accomplished by a constitutional amendment. Despite widespread belief to the contrary, the Supreme Court reversing itself by overturning Roe v. Wade would not outlaw abortion, but rather make the issue a province of the individual states, likely resulting in a patchwork of laws varying from a complete ban in some states to a full guarantee of abortion rights in others.
On 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 partial-birth abortion. However, members of the pro-choice community, represented by the ACLU, filed a lawsuit protesting the law, noting in part that the law does not make clear what acts it is criminalizing, and the act has been blocked. At present, the matter is unresolved; however, on February 21, 2006, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
At this time, it is uncertain if Roe v. Wade would be overturned, but opinion polls consistently show that most Americans accept the court decision as necessary to protect a woman’s rights. However, recent shifts in the composition of the high court may change things, especially regarding partial-birth abortion, which was previously reaffirmed via Stenberg v. Carhart. That decision struck down a Nebraska law which banned all partial-birth abortions. The vote was 5-4, with Justice Kennedy dissenting though he otherwise supports abortion rights. Justice O’Connor (who voted with the majority to strike down the law) has been replaced by Justice Alito (who some believe will uphold laws banning the practice).
Related issues, such as requiring parental consent for minors, waiting periods, education, and the “Unborn Victims of Violence Act” are also in contention in some states.
On February 22, 2006, the South Dakota State Senate voted 23 to 12 to ban all abortions in the state except in cases where the woman’s life is endangered. The proposal was signed by the governor on March 6, 2006. The South Dakota law is viewed by some to be a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade. If it goes to the high court, Roe v. Wade could be overturned by new, conservative Justices. However a statewide referendum to repeal the bill was passed by voters by a 55-45 margin, resulting in this law being repealed.