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Bronze-level articleAbortion

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Abortion, in a technical sense, is any expulsion of the embryo or fetus from the womb before it is able to survive independently. In most non-medical contexts it refers to a range of medical procedures[1] used to deliberately terminate a pregnancy. This article focuses on this debate about the legality of induced abortion, specifically within modern "Western" culture.

Whether and to what extent induced abortion should be encouraged, permitted, or discouraged is a social issue that has long divided theologians, philosophers, and legislators. In most parts of the world these issues continue to be debated, especially over what specific legal limits should be placed on abortion throughout the pregnancy, how late into a pregnancy induced abortions are legal, and what rights minors have to access abortions.

The debate about the legality of abortion generally divides into two camps. People who believe that abortion should be legal (sometimes with exceptions) are most often called "pro-choice", and are often called "anti-life" by their opposition. People who believe that abortion should be illegal (sometimes with exceptions) are most often called "pro-life", and are often called "anti-choice" by their opposition.


[edit] Overview

[edit] History

See History of abortion for a detailed history of the practice and the legal/social views regarding abortion.

It is likely that the desire to terminate a pregnancy has been around as long as women have understood the cause of pregnancy, basic anatomy, and basic herbalism. It is known that every culture studied has some form of abortifacient[2][3][4], or at least something they believed to be and accepted as an abortifacient. The first recorded cases of the use of abortifacient are from Egypt, 1500 BCE. Chinese writings from 700 BCE which contain lists of herbs that will end a pregnancy, as well as several references in Chinese folklore to centuries old practices both suggest the knowledge for ending pregnancies goes back 5000 years[4]. The Old Testament says abortion or killing of a child under 5 is less serious than murder. The father of the child or fetus should be compensated (not the mother). The compensation is higher if a boy is killed than if a girl is killed. [5] Aristotle, the Jewish Midrush, and 1st century Christian texts discuss the moral aspect regarding how far into a pregnancy it was acceptable to do abortions, and when not. The most common conclusion from antiquity (and one that is generally shared by most people today) found among "medical" people, theologians and legislators was that before there was appreciable movement, (40 days-3 months depending on the culture in question) abortion was considered to be an acceptable choice for women[3].

[edit] Procedure

There are two types of abortion performed by the medical establishment. "Medical" abortion, which is the administering of two drugs over several days to cause the uterus to expel the fetus, and surgical abortion which manually removes the child from the mother. Medical abortions must be done within 50 days of conception, obviously limiting its use to first term abortions. In the US, 17% of abortions are "medical".[6] In Europe and the UK, the percentage of medical abortions ranges from 50 to 75%.[7] Surgical abortions are the only method which can end a pregnancy in the second trimester or later, and include dilation and curettage, dilation and evacuation, and intact dilation and extraction (often referred to in U.S. politics by the emotionally-charged buzzword "partial-birth abortion").

[edit] Debate

Map of abortion laws by country.
Mandatory pre-abortion counselling by state.

[edit] Framing the arguments

It is critical to understand that the abortion argument dances between two competing interests: the mother and the baby. Focusing on the mother engenders arguments about her inherent right to decide who has the right to access her body and use it, when and under what circumstances she will bring a child into the world, and her basic right to control her body. Arguments of incest and rape, financial status, or the snarl word "convenience" are at issue when you focus on the mother. When your argument focuses on the baby, a host of different conversations come up. When does life begin? How far along in pregnancy can a child feel, or become aware? What is the difference (if at all) between an abortion and euthanasia if the child has serious medical problems?

Beyond that, specific arguments have played out in political and moral dialog and in the courts regarding the overall acceptability of abortion.

[edit] Rape, incest, or simple sin

In most arguments discussing a woman's legal access to abortion, especially in the United States and Australia, the woman's personal responsibility in the pregnancy is at issue. If the woman has been raped or if she is the victim of incest, the audience-at-large is more likely to see her as a victim and take the situation more seriously than if she was just out on a Friday night, doing her thing. In almost all situations where access to abortion is limited by law, consideration for exemption is given in cases of rape and incest. The underlying assumption is generally two fold. One, a rape or case of incest (which in a technical sense are almost always rape) is psychologically and often physically traumatic to the woman or child the reality that a pregnancy will simply compound that trauma should be considered. The second issue falls back to stereotypes and ideals of the roles of women in society. In these cases the woman (or girl) has not "chosen" to have sex, therefore she is more pure, clean, and honorable than the woman who has sinned, and should "take responsibility" for her actions. Pro-Choice arguments counter the first claim by saying all unwanted pregnancies are inherently emotionally traumatic, and only an individual woman, in her specific place in life, can "rate" the level of trauma - not a legislature. The second claim they more or less roll their eyes at.

For right to life folks, there is a problem with the logic of the "rape and incest exception" - a problem they rarely bring up, as it makes them look cold and heartless. If a life has value from conception, and if God is in control, then that life is just as valuable if it came from a one night stand as if it came as the result of an act of violence. However, despite this clear inconstancy of their argument, few "anti-abortion" politicians or legislative bodies in the western world have suggested restricting access to abortion for the victims of these crimes.

[edit] Term of pregnancy

The second major framing issue, when discussing the morality, ethics, or legality of abortion, is how far along the pregnancy is. Regardless of where they stand on the issue, or what they think of the legality of abortion, virtually everyone discussing this issue intuitively understands and agrees that an abortion that happens in the first month of the pregnancy is quite different from an abortion that happens in the 9th month. For ease of discussion, most people discussing the issue of abortion follow the medical "trimester" system, and see 5 distinct "term based" limits.

  • Personhood proponents frame the issue of abortion as "life begins at conception[8], and all abortions are equally wrong as they take that life." In the US, proponents of personhood views have recently tried to give legal status to the zygote, though so far, all attempts have failed.
  • First Trimester - This is the single most common view held by adults in the western world. The medical assumptions include the fact that the fetus has no brain and therefore no awareness, by and large, movement can not yet be felt, and the large percentage of natural abortions (miscarriages) in the first trimester (generally given as "around 25%" of all pregnancies) makes an abortion in this trimester more palatable to many who would otherwise challenge a woman's right to abortion.
  • Second Trimester - Because the fetus is becoming more human-like, can be felt moving, gender can be determined, etc., emotional connections to the "fetus" being a true "baby" are far stronger. In most nations that regulate abortion, the second trimester tends to be the "battle ground" between legal and not.
  • Third trimester - In the third trimester, the fetus fully resembles a born baby, at least superficially. The emotional connection is impossible to deny at that point. Few if any nations that allow abortion, allow it during the third trimester unless the woman's health is threatened or the fetus develops serious problems.
  • Always legal - like "personhood" on the other extreme, there are people who feel that the question is not and should not be about the age of the child in the uterus, but about the women's right to control her body and who or what lives inside it. Such a position makes no distinction between a right to abort a 1 month old fetus, or fully to term fetus, as long as the women desires an abortion. This is more of an ideological position, as virtually no abortion has ever been done to an 8 or 9 month old fetus unless complications arise that drastically affect the women's health.

There is another framing regarding "term of pregnancy" that is a bit of a slippery slope due to technological and medical advances. "Ability to survive outside of the womb", or "viability". In 1970s, at the time of the Roe v. Wade decision, this happily coincided with the beginning of the 3rd trimester. But as technology advances, that line is younger and younger. It is highly feasible that in the not too distant future, fertilized eggs themselves can be incubated - making the question of "can survive out of the womb" tricky[9].

[edit] Health of the mother

The final topic that frames the abortion issue is the issue of "health of the mother". It is an undefined, "toss in" term, there to say "We understand that someone is carrying this baby, and we suppose at some point we should make sure she has the right to live".

Health of the mother is an intentionally vague term, that allows pro-life legislators some cover when making abhorrent laws against women. Being so vague it can be addressed on a variety of levels.

  • Any pregnancy will harm the woman, so taken under the most strict sense, the "health of mother" is always an issue, and therefore always a way "out" of the strict laws.
  • Because of the recognition of the first fact, several states in the US, and many countries around the world require that the definition of "health of mother" be strictly regulated. The usual medical-ish terms include "major organ damage", "threat to her long term health" and "immediate threat to her life".
  • In the most extreme case, as found in Kansas, Oklahoma, and South Dakota, women must not only be facing "an immediate threat to her life", but that threat must be confirmed by several (in the case of Kansas, three) doctors before the procedure commences.

The problem with all three of these views is that none of them are actually medical views, and all of them depend on how a doctor defines the terms "threat", "risk", and "chance". Must you be bleeding out at the time, moments away from death? Can you just have hyper tension that sometimes leads to death? Dr. Tiller, prior to his murder, was charged or investigated on no less than 100 cases where he violated the law, because his view of "risk" was different from other doctors[10]. Dr. Hern has expressed great concern that a doctor will hesitate in a critical situation because he cannot be sure that the women's life is "at risk", or the "threat of death" is immediate enough. And this happens in a world where doctors rarely agree with each other, and that in the instant of an emergency, there simply might not be 3 doctors around in rural parts of those states.

The most compelling problem with "health of the mother" and its enforcement is this: Why does the government, and not the woman in question, get to decide what is or is not a worthwhile risk to her own life? Why should it be necessary that she have a 10% risk to her life, or a 50% risk, or an unknown % risk, when it is her life in question? Why must she be told by the state that she requires the input of doctors other than the one she has chosen, when that question is never required for any other medical procedure? If she trusts the doctor she has seen for 10 years, through 2 other pregnancies, why should the state be able to force her to go get a second or third opinion -- and that those opinions must concur?

The egregiousness of "3 doctors who agree" and "must be shown to be immediate and unavoidable" is obvious when it is a real living individual woman who is facing what amounts to taking control of her own life or death.

[edit] Arguments for legal abortion

In general, proponents of legalised abortion and its safe regulation hold that only a woman herself, rather than the state or other group, has the right to assert control over what happens inside her body.[11]

[edit] Argument to protect women's health

The single most critical argument for ensuring that women can find access to legal safe abortion is that women will attempt to abort, legal or not, safe or not. When a woman truly does not want a pregnancy, especially if that pregnancy is potentially problematic to her social or physical situation, and feels for herself, that there are no alternatives, she will try to end it even to the risk of her own life[12]. No amount of moral preaching, ethical discussions, or legal wrangling will change that reality.

With such a reality, it is incumbent on health institution and governments to insure that she has the same access to health care that she would if she wished to bring the pregnancy to term.

Additionally, even if a woman wants to be pregnant, about 1% of pregnancies are ectopic—a dangerous condition which can result in death of the mother and for which the only treatment is abortion.

[edit] Argument from medical privacy

The argument for a woman's right to abortion according to the United States Supreme Court is based on a woman's right to privacy in making medical choices about her body and her reproduction. While articulated differently in Roe v. Wade, the basic premise that most legislative and judicial bodies in the Western World have used is that a woman maintains integrity of her body and of her medical decisions whether those decisions are about reproduction related issues including abortion, or physical issues like plastic surgery, or the right to seek medical attention at all, regardless of what might be "best for her" per the medical establishment or her social community.

In the United States, the breakdown for a legal medical right to abortion rests on these arguments:

  1. Women must have a fundamental right to bodily integrity, but this right must be balanced against the state's interest in the potential for life. This balance is resolved with the "undue burden" test (Casey).
  2. Women (and couples) have a right to privacy in intimate choices (Roe v. Wade; Griswold v. Connecticut).
  3. Discrimination on the basis of biological markers inherent in biological sex is suspect under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and requires strict scrutiny (contra Geduldig v. Aiello, Michael M., which would have to be overruled for this argument to be valid). Otherwise, biological marker-based discrimination enforces stereotypes that the law frowns upon, as seem in U.S. v. Virginia. Further, this type of discrimination is subordinative, and the zeitgeist of the Fourteenth Amendment being anti-subordinative, must be immediately suspect.
  4. Griswold v. Connecticut and its progeny (Eisenstadt) outline a fundamental right to consent in childrearing: this is how contraception is constitutionally vindicated. Disallowing abortion eviscerates this right, reading "consent" or "choice" wherever a condom fails.
  5. Originalist/tradition-based counter-arguments ("no tradition of abortion in the U.S., therefore no right") are unavailing. First, tradition is a poor marker for objective reasoning, since the analysis of "tradition" is based on a conscious choice of what narrative to credit (Balkin, Tradition and Betrayal). Further, tradition may be unjust (Loving v. Virginia) and must be read with a level of "generosity" to ensure a just society (Levinson, Constitutional Faith).
  6. Textualist counter-arguments ("not in the text of the Constitution") are unavailing. Text is a poor marker for valuable meaning: reading text as complete in and of itself eviscerates cultural norms that the law is based on (Holy Trinity). Further, Constitutional text is written at a high level of abstraction: rights are defined broadly, not enumerated specifically (Ninth Amendment, Griswold v. Connecticut), so rights may exist that lie in the "penumbra" of the specifically enumerated rights.

Many opponents of abortion base their position on religious doctrine;[13][14] however, it is possible to oppose the practice on purely humanistic grounds.[15][16][17][18][19][20]

[edit] Argument for the right to evict

Walter Block, an economist and libertarian, proposed a position known as "evictionism". This position relies on separating abortion into two parts; the act of removing (evicting) a fetus from the womb, and the act of killing it. Evictionism as a position states that people are allowed to evict from their property, and this is an unalienable right - in line with most libertarian thought. A caveat adds that this should be done using the least harmful means available. For example, a toddler strolling on your lawn should be escorted off, but an armed intruder in your house usually requires a little more force, potentially lethal force, as this is the minimum required to uphold the right to evict.

As a woman owns her body and her womb, Block's position states that a fetus therein that is no longer wanted is arguably a parasite and intruder. The woman therefore has a right to evict the fetus using what means are necessary while causing minimal harm.

The argument continues that as there is no current means to "evict" a fetus without termination, then termination becomes the de facto least harmful. No other option is available to uphold the right to evict. Should the technological means become available to remove the fetus without a termination (via transferring it to a vat or an additional surrogate), then this would become the least harmful.

[edit] Arguments against abortion

Arguments against abortion generally focus on the right to life, guided by the underlying conviction that life is intrinsically valuable, though pro-life arguments can descend from more practical considerations as well.

[edit] Arguments against a fundamental right of choice

  1. Unborn babies must have a fundamental right to bodily integrity, and abortion infringes that right. (Though one can argue that a sentient being, like the pregnant woman, should have rights, and while a young fetus is alive in the biological sense, it has no capacity to think, feel or be self-aware any more than a sample of flesh from our body)
  2. An unborn baby is as valuable as a newborn, and thus killing them is equivalent.
  3. In the United States, there is no mention of abortion in the U. S. Constitution, or privacy, or family planning. Further, the right is not fundamental to the national consciousness or deeply rooted in American history. Therefore, it is not a fundamental right (applying Glucksberg or Scalia's VMI dissent).

[edit] Religious views

See the main article on this topic: Religion and abortion

[edit] Abrahamic religions

It is known that abortifacients [21] were known in the ancient Middle East[22] so it is likely they existed in ancient Israel. Yet neither the Torah, nor the Bible as it developed over history mentions the practice. Only through interpretation can any link be drawn.

'Pro-life' groups cite the numerous injunctions against murder in both the New[23] and Old[24] Testaments, and argue that this forbids abortion - after all, the foetus was not convicted in a fair trial (it is not judicial execution, which many pro-life conservatives support), and it is not an act of war (under which circumstances most Christians might accept killing), and thus it is murder. With the minimum age at which a foetus can survive outside its mother being pushed back further and further, in some cases past cut-off dates for abortion, such groups thus argue that foetuses are being aborted that could survive on their own (albeit with medical help) - to abort them, therefore, is murder, as mentioned above, and as Biblically prohibited. There is also a tenuous argument for distinct personhood before birth in Jeremiah 1:5 which states that 'before I formed you in the womb I chose you'; this is commonly interpreted by pro-life groups as implying separate existence before birth, but, given the context, is just as likely to refer to divine foreknowledge. (Though wouldn't "before I formed you" imply personhood before conception?)

An argument has developed, on the other hand, that the Bible attaches less 'personhood' to foetuses and very young children. Exodus 21:22, a mere ten verses after the above injunction against murder, states that, if a man hits a woman, causing a miscarriage or premature birth, but no serious injury, he should be subject to a court-mediated fine from the woman's husband. If this was the case, then the act of causing a miscarriage could not be construed as 'murder' (since compensation was not biblically allowed for murder[25]). This, while relying on a fair amount of extrapolation beyond the text itself, would seem to justify abortion, as it does not involve the taking of a human life. Furthermore, Numbers 5:11-31 seems to outline a priest-administered test for unfaithfulness, by administering an abortifacient 'bitter water' that would show if a woman had conceived (presumably out of wedlock).

There is also some precedent for divinely caused abortions: Hosea 9:11-16 (in which Hosea prays for God to cause Ephraim's women to miscarry), for example.

[edit] Unitarian Universalism

The Unitarian Universalist Church strongly supports abortion rights.

[edit] Buddhism

Buddhist views differ, but the Dalai Lama said that abortion should be viewed according to each situation.[26]. He was not advocating a pro-choice position, instead asserting that in many cases, abortion is morally wrong.

[edit] Wicca

Wiccans similarly have varying views on the issue, with no set precedent.

[edit] Pastafarianism

It seems that the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, known as Pastafarianism, takes no formal position.[27]

[edit] Secret ingedient

An unfounded fear common to anti-abortion and anti-vaccination "activists" is that aborted fetuses are used in vaccines. In short: They're not.

Furthermore, there are claims that food and soft drink companies (Pepsi is usually the target) are using aborted fetuses as ingredients. This scare led to a bill proposed in Oklahoma in 2012 to ban the use of aborted fetuses as ingredients in food products.[28] This is also false, of course. The claim comes from the fact that a company that produces additives, Senomyx, is experimenting with HEK 293[wp] cells, which were derived from an aborted fetus in the 1970s.[29]

Not caring about facts, Oklahoma State Senator, Ralph Shortey introduced a bill that would make it illegal to use aborted fetuses in "consumables"[30]. His stated facts rank right up there with some of the best researchers in the country. "I heard about it somewhere on the internet, that some companies were using aborted fetuses in food, and they had to be stopped".[31] He did clarify on the floor, that it was "more complex than that"[32], though his timing seems to suggest he didn't know the first article he found was a serious misrepresentation of the truth.

[edit] See also

[edit] Essays

Abortion is an important and emotional topic. Some of our RationalWikians have some things to say you might want to read. Note that they do not necessarily reflect the views of the community as a whole.

More abortion-related essays can be found here.

[edit] External links

[edit] Footnotes

  1. How an abortion is carried out - NHS (terms specific to UK)
  3. 3.0 3.1 <"History of Abortion" JW Dellapenna - U. Pitt. L. Rev., 1978
  4. 4.0 4.1 "Eve's Herbs" JM Riddle - 1999
  5. What the Bible says about Abortion
  7. MD Creinin - Contraception, 2000
  8. Some would want to have pregnancy (and as such, new life in mother) begins during the menstrual period before conception, but those are the even less sane crowd.
  9. While this example is extreme in its speculation, the youngest child to survive was at 21 weeks (2009), which technically falls a full month earlier than Roe contemplated.
  10. Courts did, eventually, over turn every charge against Dr. Tiller
  11. As seen at Achewood
  13. As can be seen on the website of
  14. Priests for Life/
  15. Atheist and Agnostic Pro-Life League
  16. Kathryn Reed: Feminist, Prolife and Atheist
  17. Atheist revolution: Some Atheists Oppose Abortion Too
  18. LifeSiteNews: Even a "Raving Atheist" Can Be Pro-Life - Interview
  19. Judy Ferris: "Why should atheist be pro-life"
  20. Libertarians for Life
  21. Not necessarily effective procedures, but ones everyone understood had the intent if not effect of ending a pregnancy
  23. Matthew 5:21-22
  24. Exodus 21:12
  25. Numbers 35:31
  26. BBC Religions Buddhism and Abortion
  27. Flying Spaghetti Monster - abortion
  28. Ralph Shortey profile, BallotPedia
  29. Pepsi/Senomyx, Snopes
Abortion articles on RationalWiki
Abortion - Fetus/Fœtus - Gonzales v. Carhart - Nuremberg Files - Pro-life - Pro-choice - Essay:Rhetorical analysis of abortion essays - Roe v. Wade - Schlafly, breast cancer and abortion - The Silent Scream - Barnett Slepian - Essay:Where do you fall in the abortion debate?
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