We are 100% user-supported!
Without you, there is no RationalWiki!
|Goal: $5000||Donations so far: $2890|
Help and donate today!
|One of many articles on|
|In the back alley|
The morality of abortion is a hotly contested issue. This is a detailed breakdown of the major arguments for and against the legality of abortion.
 Framing the arguments
It is critical to understand that the abortion argument dances between two competing interests: the mother and the fetus. 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.
 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.
 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, 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
 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.
 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. No amount of moral preaching, ethical discussions, or legal wrangling will change that reality.
With such a reality, it is incumbent on health institutions 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.
 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:
- 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).
- Women (and couples) have a right to privacy in intimate choices (Roe v. Wade; Griswold v. Connecticut).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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). Second, tradition may be unjust (Loving v. Virginia) and must be read with a level of "generosity" to ensure a just society (Levinson, Constitutional Faith). Third, appeals to tradition boils down to "Keep things the way they are because they're the way they are."
- 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.
 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.
 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.
 Arguments against a fundamental right of choice
Arguments against a choice to abort typically rest on one or more of the following premises:
- 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, simply because its brain is not developed enough to the point where it can feel or understand the aforementioned qualities)
- An unborn baby is as valuable as a newborn, and thus killing them is equivalent.
- 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).
 The equilibration of rights
Whether we should override the mother's right to choose or the fetus's alleged rights is a contentious issue and pro-life advocates generally place the fetus's rights above the mothers in all but the most extreme cases.
Pro-choice advocates often cite risk of maternal death or pregnancy by rape as justifications for abortion. However, the pregnancy-related mortality ratio was 17.8 deaths per 100,000 live births in the US in 2011 (most recent year for which CDC data is available). The same 2005 study found that only 12% of women cited a "physical problem with health" as a reason for abortion and only 13% cited "possible problems affecting the health of [the] fetus", indicating that abortions are generally performed for reasons other than concern for maternal or fetal health. Finally, the argument from rape aborts the fetus for the actions of his or her father.
 The argument from potentiality
The argument from potentiality asserts that we ought to respect the rights of the unborn, specifically the right to life, even if they are not yet persons.
The probability that we terminate the life of a fetus who would otherwise be born alive is a morally relevant consideration.
 Argument Side-by-Side
|Arguments for the banning of abortion||Arguments for the legality of abortion|
An abortion results in the death of an embryo or a fetus. The terms embryo and fetus do not refer to nonhumans, but to humans at particular stages of development. There is no rational basis for distinguishing the fetus from a newborn infant; each is totally dependent and potentially a member of society, and each possesses a degree of humanity. It is not "scientifically incorrect" to call the embryo an unborn child, as virtually every human embryologist, every major textbook of human embryology and almost all medical textbooks and scientific reference works consistently agree that fertilization marks the beginning of the life of the new individual human being.
Only through mind-numbing stupidity could someone suggest that when human sperm and human eggs unite, life cycle may start but the start of "life" is something else. A life cycle describes the series of stages that an individual organism passes through until the time it produces offspring of its own. This series of stages is referred to as a life cycle because offspring pass through the same series before they produce their own offspring. As it's said in Encyclopædia Britannica: "Although organisms are often thought of only as adults, and reproduction is considered to be the formation of a new adult resembling the adult of the previous generation, a living organism, in reality, is an organism for its entire life cycle, from fertilized egg to adult, not for just one short part of that cycle."
Of course, when given the evidence that human life begins at conception, the proponents of abortion try to draw a distinction between human being and human person. But the right to life is based on a being's natural or inherent capacities. Drawing a distinction between human being and human person is saying that a living being can undergo a radical, essential change in its nature during its lifetime. But if the change was biologically inevitable from conception, then this change is not a change in essential nature, it must have been in its nature from the beginning to do so. If it is in its nature to do so, then despite any changes in such characteristics as independence, place of residence or physical development, what the being is in later life is what the being is from the beginning of its life.
Think about yourself: You didn't really come from an embryo, you once were an embryo, likewise you didn't come from an adolescent, you once were an adolescent. And if your mother had had an abortion, she would have killed you. This "you" in question would have been an existing person with a valid claim to life.
Besides that, even if there was uncertainty as to whether the fetus has a right to life, then having an abortion is equivalent to consciously taking the risk of killing another person.
In a very real sense, "life" does not begin at conception since both egg and sperm are "alive". However, the potential for a new and distinct human being begins at conception. A pregnancy is defined as the implantation of a fertilized egg into the womb. This distinction is important since modern scientific research suggests that well over 50% and more likely 75-90% of all fertilized eggs are discarded before they implant. An abortion by definition ends a pregnancy. At least 25% of pregnancies end in miscarriage and mostly within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Following the pro-life logic, God allows anywhere from 25-75% of children to die before they are ever born. There has been a noticeable lack of campaigning directed towards stemming this appalling tide of infant death.
Whilst the start of the life cycle might possibly be best put at the point of conception the start of "life" is a far more complex issue. For example, given that the end of life is near universally measured as the cessation of meaningful brain activity, it is scientifically and logically valid to define the start of "life" as the start of meaningful brain activity. This viewpoint, which places the start of "life" at around twenty four to twenty seven weeks after conception is as valid, in scientific and logical terms as any other.
However, for legal sakes, a line has to be drawn. Knowing full well the difficulties of the decision and the strongly felt feelings around it, in most countries that allow abortion, scholars and judges have come to work with viability as a common and discernible line, noting that before 20 weeks, a fetus' chances of survival outside the womb are nil. However well formed its little fingers, it can not be considered an independent entity in any meaningful sense. Realistic viability is attained at around 25 – 26 weeks and few countries permit abortion after 24 weeks, except in cases of clear risk to the life of the mother.
Illegal abortion works as well as prohibition tends to: it doesn't. The highest abortion rates exist in countries in which abortion is illegal, such as the countries of Latin America and Africa. It does not help women's mortality rates though since most of the procedures end up being clandestine and unsafe.
Anti-abortion activists claim that abortion has serious health and psychological consequences for the woman. National Right to Life (whoever they are) emphasizes the risk of complications without presenting statistics on the frequency, though they admit that the vast majority are temporary and treatable. They claim that abortion increases the risk of ectopic pregnancy and doubles the risk of future sterility, and they claim that these risks increase with multiple abortions. Andy Schlafly, who has degrees in engineering and law and teaches kids in a church basement, uses this expertise to claim on his blog Conservapedia that there is a link between abortion and breast cancer.
National Right to Life claims "a growing body of scientific evidence that having an abortion can cause psychological harm to some women." They admit to a lack of information on the prevalence of serious psychological consequences, saying only that, "a Los Angeles Times survey in 1989 found that 56% of women who had abortions felt guilty about it, and 26% 'mostly regretted the abortion.'"
There simply is no breast cancer link; see this article by a real doctor (!). Since 2000, when the FDA came out with guidelines for early (within 49 days of conception) non-surgical abortions under a doctor's supervision, only 7 deaths have been reported to the CDC. Of those, the FDA ultimately concluded that one had occurred due to medical reasons entirely unrelated to the patient's abortion. According to Planned Parenthood the risk of death in a medication abortion is 1 in 100,000, about the same as the risk of death from miscarriage, and that from an early vacuum aspiration abortion is roughly 11 times safer than carrying a child to term, the risk of which is 1 in 10,000. They flatly dismiss any link to future childbearing difficulties.
On psychological issues, Planned Parenthood notes the lack of scientific proof for assertions of a widespread "post-abortion syndrome." They claim that the occurrence of long-term emotional problems is similar to that associated with childbirth.
Pregnancy is a life changing event. Women will necessarily have serious medical risks and will endure serious pain and suffering carrying a child to term and giving birth. Yet no one proposes laws to stop pregnancy for "women's health" concerns. Women who are pregnant will necessarily face emotional and physical changes regardless of the outcome of the pregnancy. Women who give a child up for adoption may one day think it was the best decision, and may on a different day wish they had raised the baby. Women who have children may look at the life they live and have days they regret the whole thing. No one is cautioning them not to have children much less make it a law. Women who are pregnant and poor, risk their own life and health as well as the baby's life and health - but the cries for help go largely unheard by the society at large. The only time "pro life" camp offers "health to the woman" as a national issue to be addressed is when abortion is the topic.
Most pro-life arguments rest on the idea that a fetus is a full human being from conception, and that a fetus shares the same rights as any other human being. This argument is often linked to other "respect-for-life" issues such as euthanasia and the death penalty in advocating a "Culture of Life" to replace what advocates see as a "Culture of Death." These ideas were articulated in this form by Pope John Paul II in the encyclical Evangelium Vitae. The Roman Catholic Church has declared the Church's near total opposition to the death penalty.
|The unthinking preference for quantity of life ignores any consideration of quality of life. Furthermore, many pro-life activists and politicians who use this language show a particular disagreement about the "sanctity of human life" when the life in question belongs to a felon or a foreigner. Of course, this simply makes them hypocrites but doesn't prove that their point is wrong.
As for what the Pope says, the Church has a long and distinguished history of taking a *hard* line (oftentimes, a hard, throbbing line) on the welfare of young altar boys, so the depth of its concern for the lives of children is suspect, at best. Moreover, to argue that something that has the potential to be human should be given the same right to life as a human is bad logic. The logic follows that something that has potential to be something should be given the rights of the thing it would become. For example: "I, as a young adult, have the potential to be a religious leader. Somehow I doubt that I'll receive tax exempt status."
|More than one person's rights are involved in a pregnancy. The “right to control one’s body” argument has no validity if the unborn is a human being, because in this case the "right to control my life" becomes the right to hurt and oppress others for my own advantage. The embryo also has the right to control of his or her body. The embryo has a right not to be killed.
In an unwanted pregnancy, someone's rights are going to be trampled. But the severity of that violation of rights must be taken into account. Which is a greater violation of rights - forced pregnancy and childbirth, or violent death? Privacy is never an absolute right, but is always governed by other rights. The right to live is superior to right to privacy. Birth has definitely life changing effects on a woman's life, but the one-time choice of abortion robs someone else of a lifetime of choices and prevents him or her from ever exercising his rights. Therefore, the embryo's rights are violated by abortion to a much greater extent than the woman's rights are violated by pregnancy.
Pregnant women usually continue with their social life and career, instead of becoming some kind of unanimous and passive life-support system for someone else. And it is reasonable for society to expect an adult to live temporarily with an inconvenience if the only alternative is killing a child. There is no equality, if one person's convenience takes precedence over another's life, provided only that the first person has more power.
|Advocates of pro-choice generally believe that a human being's body is inviolable, and the state should not regulate it. Specifically, women should never be forced to be "incubators" for a fetus. Furthermore, adoption is not a viable alternative to abortion because it does not address the problem of unwanted pregnancy; only the problem of unwanted parenthood. Abortion addresses both. And while adoption can spare a woman the burden of child-rearing, it cannot insulate her from the psychological distress, which can be severe, of giving up a child her instincts tell her to keep.
Furthermore, comparing the rights of the embryo/foetus against those to the mother depends heavily on whether the embryo/foetus can be considered a person capable of having rights. For all the 'life begins at conception' arguments defining the start of personhood is far more complex and many authorities - especially non religious ones - place it beyond the limit for normal legal abortions at around 25 weeks. Ancient Judaism and most non-orthodox Judaism places the "start of a baby's rights" at 40 days (the quickening), and places the "human individual" as the moment the child takes its first breath. Ancient Roman and Greek laws allowed that the fetus had no rights until an outsider could feel it move (2-4 months). Ancient Christians banned attempts to "avert the pregnancy" after god had made the pregnancy known to the town, arguing that prior to that it was in the hands of god and the woman's husband (ok, so it wasn't totally liberal). Even as far as the 1500's when the tides began to turn, abortion was still considered a misgiving, a misdemeanor, but not murder. It has only been since the late 1800's, and the early 20th century (coincidentally, exactly the era women were beginning to demand more and more equality), that the aggressive over-reach of the law commenced. Additionally, even if the fetus was considered a person, women would still be able to terminate their pregnancies, for there is no human right that allows a human to legally obtain the bodily resources of an unwilling human for the purpose of survival.
Dismissing pregnancy as a "temporary inconvenience" which will hardly affect a woman's social life and career fails to understand the massive, life changing effects that pregnancy and parenthood have on a woman's life. Pregnancy is a serious medical condition that can cause severe mental and physical harm, especially when it's unwanted. Something that can maim or even kill someone should never be described as an "inconvenience". This argument also fails to address the very reality of day to day life for women, and denies them the right to put themselves in the best position for their personal success. A woman on Broadway, a NASA astronaut, any Military Academy cadet, a politician running for office, a mother with 2 jobs and 2 kids who is interviewing for a new job with bennies, a teacher in a rural town, a 16 year old facing a scholarship to college, would all reasonably stand to lose major events in their life for the sake of a child they did not want.
Although it takes two to make a child, it's always the woman who's left holding the baby. If this can be prevented before the embyo/foetus becomes a person then this could be said to be a positive outcome.
 See also