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Abortion, in its most commonly used sense, refers to the intentional early termination of pregnancy, resulting in the death of the embryo or fetus. The term can also refer to the early termination of a pregnancy by natural causes (spontaneous abortion), or to the cessation of normal growth of a body part or organ. This article will discuss, in as unbiased a fashion as possible, abortion in the most commonly used sense of the word.

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

The controversy

Abortion as the termination of pregnancy became a controversial topic in 20th century politics in the United States and Europe. In most first world countries, particularly within Europe, abortion became commonly accepted by the end of the 20th century. Additionally, abortion is legal and accepted in China, India and other populous countries. The Catholic church remains opposed to the procedure, however, and in other 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. Though true of both sides, this is more marked on the side of those opposed to abortion, because of what they see as the gravity and urgency of their views.

The United States Supreme Court, in the decision of Roe v. Wade, has declared that the issue of abortion and abortion rights falls under the rubric of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States as a matter of a person's right to privacy in his or her person and papers. Hence, the court holds that a first-trimester embryo or fetus carried by a woman falls within her right to determine for herself, privately, what is to occur with her own body. The court further ruled that the state could intervene to restrict abortion in the second trimester of development, and could outlaw it altogether in the third trimester (about 4/5 of US states forbid third-trimester abortion except as necessary for the mother's health). A prime aim of abortion opponents in the United States is to have Roe v. Wade overturned.

Opponents of abortion describe their position as pro-life, so that they are called pro-lifers, while supporters describe their position as pro-choice. Of course, abortion advocates may strongly deny that they advocate ending human life--which is what the "pro-life" title seems to imply. Similarly, abortion foes deny that they wish to restrict any legitimate choices that ought to be open to people. A possible compromise that is sometimes suggested by pro-life advocates is to refer to abortion advocates as pro-abortion and abortion foes as anti-abortion. However, this is unacceptable to some pro-choice advocates, since the label "pro-abortion" makes it sound as if they think abortion is a good thing, which they might not; they might think it is a sad, painful affair, but not one that should be illegal.

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:

  • Abortion is always morally permissible.
  • Abortion is always immoral (morally impermissible).
  • Abortion ought to be legal in every instance.
  • Abortion ought to be illegal in every instance.

There is clearly a difference, for example, between the view that abortion is immoral and that it is 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, two 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 who practice infanticide. There are also some who think that infanticide is morally permissible and should be legally permissible, such as professor Peter Singer.)

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.

  • 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, or when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.

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.

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 late-term abortions (and particularly those performed by the partial-birth abortion technique) for medical reasons related to the mother's health continue to be legal?
  2. Should first-trimester abortions continue to be legal? In the United States, this is tantamout to asking, "Should Roe v. Wade continue to be supported?"

At present, only the first of these questions has a viable political life in the United States. (We need a few more sentences here about "partial-birth abortion.") The second question is a matter of deep concern for many, but the chances of the 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.

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

Apologies for the focus on the United States here. General information about debates in other countries would be very appropriate to add.

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 a human life--and all political rights attending it--begins at conception. Given that, one is invited to consider the common assumption that each innocent human being 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, guaranteed in many basic legal and political documents such as the United States Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the basis of laws against murder. Thus, the pro-life view is that abortion involves the intentional killing of a human being and therefore constitutes murder, or what 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.

The view that life begins at conception is often, but not necessarily, based on religious belief. For example, the Catholic Church--one of the most vocal opponents of abortion--holds that the soul enters the zygote at conception (or a soul is then created, etc.). The official Catholic view (articulated in Humanae Vitae), shared by some other Christians, is that interference with the human reproductive process is sinful and therefore forbidden--when souls are to enter and exit the world is a matter for God to determine, not man. Abortion should never be used as a method of birth control, they say. In the more traditional religious view, an acceptable limited means of practicing birth control would be to abstain from intercourse outside of marriage; commonly, the "rhythm method" and sterilization are advocated for those for whom other forms of birth control are forbidden by religion.

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 properly have no place in public policy debate. One could say, for example, that the proposition that each human life begins at conception is a fact of biology. On this view, the term "human life" is used in a straightforward, uncontroversial way to refer to the life of an individual human, which begins with the union of parental gametes that creates a new individual with a distinct genetic identity, initiating the process of growth and change that ends only 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 what ought to be an uncontroversial societal norm. Opponents of the view argue that biologists are by no means unanimous in their agreement about when a human life begins--though, of course, the life of the zygote undoubtedly begins at conception. They say that the issue is not one that is or can be adjudicated by science, and that scientists are in the same boat as philosophers and religionists.

Those who believe that abortion is morally permissible, and should remain legally permissible, typically have a different view of the issue as to when human life begins. They 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 cognizable as a human life separate from the mother's body. Abortion foes 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. This latter point rubs both ways, however, because once it is claimed that the beginning of human life is arbitrary, or a matter of convention, a new controversy is possible, namely, what the convention ought to be.

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, and not to be interfered with by outside influences. 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 most cases it was, after all, the mother who chose to "attach" herself to the embryo developing within her, and therefore the analogy is imperfect.

Another common argument is political pragmatism. Where abortion is illegal, 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 determine early in pregnanacy that a child will be born with severe defects, some abortion rights advocates also argue that requiring such children to be born would be a unnecessary burden on society as well as the parents. 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.

Methods of performing abortion

There are two methods of performing abortion:

(Note: "morning after" or "emergency" contraceptive drugs that are taken within 72 hours of sex interfere with the release of eggs from the ovary or with fertilization, and so are not generally considered abortion--even though they may also interfere with implantation of a zygote if taken later).