abortion is morally right only to save the life of the mother

Abortion is Morally Right Only to Save the Life of the Mother

The birth of a child is supposed to be a joyous event. Often, however, the facts do not conform to that ideal. Currently, about 1.5 million American women are terminating a pregnancy by induced abortion each year (Rubin 1994). Despite these statistics (some might say because of these statistics) the abortion question continues to stir strong emotions. The emerging rights of the unborn, where they conflict with the health and personal interests of the mother, present complex questions, especially where the rights pertaining to viability conflict with the choices of the pregnant woman. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ Committee on Ethics issued a statement in 1987 asserting that “the maternal-fetal relationship remains a unique one, requiring a balance of maternal health, autonomy, and fetal needs.

Every reasonable effort should be made to protect the fetus, but the pregnant woman’s health should be respected” (Speckhard & Rue 96). The well-being of a woman always must be recognized as of intrinsic value in any appeal to intrinsic value in a moral analysis of abortion. There are outlooks that advocate that abortion should always be prohibited, even if it is to save the life of the mother. Other outlooks say that though the value of fetal life is an important dimension of the moral question about abortion, it is not the sole or singular issue. I argue that mother’s physical health is morally significant and is the only factor that may warrant the termination of pregnancy.

From an Existentialism point of view an actual case of moral reasoning needs the simple outline. The outline may even be entertained as a metaphor, depicting our thoughts as we move from deeper rules and principles to practical cases of moral action. The outline is still helpful in arranging various moral arguments for and against abortion. Both sides on the abortion issue, for example, respect human life and accept rules prohibiting the killing of human beings. (Were this not so, abortion would be easier to resolve and less interesting an issue – one side could simply be labeled as killers and the label would be accepted by both sides). The disagreements over abortion occur on minor premises and the role of such premises in deriving either a pro-choice or anti-abortion conclusion.

Two separate and antagonistic ideological trends threaten women’s capacity to come to grips with the morality of abortion and to formulate an adequate ethic of procreative choice. Addressing the moral meaning of procreative choice in women’s lives is the necessary prelude to the evaluation of abortion. Start with the opposition to abortion. The major rule is accepted – “One ought not to kill human beings.” Then two moves occur as minor premises. First, the issue of relevance is settled by an acceptance that the fetus is a human being and has a right to life. Second, very few defeating conditions are allowed. Some (not many) pro-lifers will not even accept self-defense as a justification for abortion, even when the fetus threatens the woman’s own safety or physical well-being. On these two determinations, it is then a straightforward matter to end with the moral imperative, “Do not abort,” since it resembles a standard “Do not kill” imperative.

The pro-choice conclusion follows in logically similar ways. Again, the major rule is accepted. But then two different minor premises are introduced. First, and primarily, the embryo is not accepted as a human being, or the acceptance includes no right to life. Second, as an alternative, some defeat is accepted. For example, self-defense may be claimed. If the embryo poses a physical threat to the woman (causing renal deficiency, for example), then, though the embryo does not intend to harm the woman, a case for aborting is accepted sometimes even by those who accept the fetus as human. Either premise permits abortions by denying the moral imperative routinely accepted by pro-life.

These two patterns of reasoning are skeletal forms. The logic dominating each form, however, is clearly expressed. The pro-life argument extends the no-killing rule from start to finish. The right to life of the fetus sustains the rule through to the conclusion. The pro-choice argument prevents the no-killing rule from yielding a moral imperative. Two tests halt the derivation. Either no human being is present or justifiable killing is demonstrated.

Each point of view – pro-choice, pro-life – is usually fleshed out with additional rules and principles. One helpful way to understand these rules and principles is to imagine oneself in the position of either a pro-life or pro-choice supporter. Then, within the skeletal form of moral reasoning, one searches for those things that will extend and elaborate one’s basic convictions.

Start with the pro-life view. One important rule is the doctrine of double-effect. Stated succinctly, it is a rule prescribing that (1) bad effects not be intended either as a means or an end, and (2) the good effects which are intended should outweigh the unintended bad effects.

For example, penicillin is a powerful drug that can adversely affect the fetus. If, however, a pregnant woman is ill with a serious strep infection, the objective of curing the woman is important enough to warrant use of the drug. The intended good effect – combating the strep infection – outweighs the unintended side effects of the drug on the fetus. In this example, a good effect outweighs unintended bad effects. Use of the drug is justified with the doctrine of double-effect. From the viewpoint of existentialism the greatest benefit is experience.  The mother, who has experience from many years of living, “deserves” more than the inexperienced baby. However, this is not the value of human rights. Of course, experience got by living is something to be treasure, but it cannot be equalized in value with the right to continue living.

The extension of the doctrine of double-effect to abortion is unimpeded. Abortion is wrong because, on the acceptance of the fetus as a human being, it intends (for all practical purposes, especially in the early stages of term) a bad effect – the death of a human being. One particularly controversial implication of the double-effect doctrine for abortion is that medical intervention is not justified even to save the mother’s life. Only the natural outcome of pregnancy is acceptable unless the lives of both mother and offspring are in jeopardy. (Then a greater good – saving one life – is preferable to a passive response that allows both individuals to die.)

The key to all moral principles used in the pro-life position is the starting point for human life. The pro-life position is firmly committed to the view that life begins at conception. Two arguments support this view. One rests on a theory of being. All that any individual has genetically is present at conception. Therefore, in the sense of genetic endowment, a zygote is human. The second argument rests on a theory of becoming. A human conceptus develops into a human being, not anything else. Like acorns becoming oak trees, the process is natural. (Only an external intervention or a deficiency within the process prevents the teleological end-state from being reached.) Thus any effort to abort such a process is, ipso facto, the termination of the end-state (the fully developed sentient being). In one sense, these two arguments are different – one relies on what is, the other on what will be. But in another sense they are not. The fact that a full genetic endowment is present in the zygote is what makes the potentiality argument valid.

The pro-life belief that life begins at conception is supported by the natural continuum of gestation. One famous device used by pro-life supporters is the “slippery slope” argument. The argument is employed against any attempt to mark a stage in pregnancy before which pro-choice is valid, after which abortion is regulated or denied. The strategy is this: pick any point in the development of a fetus from conception to birth. Now if this point is to be a divider between permissible and impermissible abortions, I will choose a point a few hours or days earlier. You must then tell me how your point differs in a morally relevant way from mine. Obviously the “slippery slope” argument is effective because the slope between conception and birth is continuous, without natural demarcations. (Even “trimesters” is an arbitrary division of time.) The developmental nature of pregnancy provides a rebuttal to any assignment of human life to some stages of pregnancy while denying the assignment to others. But the “slippery slope” argument is ineffective toward those who maintain that life begins at birth (or later).

The pro-choice position, as might be expected, is elaborated with different rules and principles. Pro-choice proponents also interpret some of the same rules and principles differently when they extend across both positions. The fundamental moral principle for pro-choice is the right to control one’s own body against social regulation. This right is deeply embedded in Western traditions. John Locke stated that “every man [woman] has a property in his [her] own person. . . .” (Trager 105). Authority over one’s body is a right of privacy, in the most intimate sense. Though many laws prohibit suicide, the right to one’s own body is at the center of what is minimally meant by individual liberty. The pro-choice position again and again comes to rest on this right.

In the case of terminating pregnancy in order to save the life of the mother, the death of a child is an accidental and not a planned result of the act to save the mother’s life. Understanding of consequences that will result from abortion is not the same as planning those consequences. However, if doctors have the technology to save this baby outside the womb, it should be done with emergency c-section and incubation.

In the work I agree that life of the mother is the only exception for abortion. Although an unborn fetus is not considered a full human being until it is born, abortion has to be allowed only where there is a serious threat to the life or health of the mother. In regard to fetal therapy or surgery, if the risk to the mother is very small, she is obligated to allow her fetus to be treated for a correctable medical or surgical condition. If the risk is substantial, the mother is not obligated to endanger her life to save that of her unborn fetus because her life takes precedence over that of the fetus. In some examples the child’s right to life is supposed to be inferior to his or her mother’s right to life. In this situation the mother’s life can be saved only by an immediate attack upon the child. The only ethically justified understanding of this exception says that such circumstance is not an exception at all! It is just an example of a cancerous uterus or the ectopic pregnancy, which allows the surgeon to remove the mother’s damaged reproductive organs with the purpose to save her life. I think that this example should not be used as example of abortion, even though a child’s life is terminated as a result.

Works Cited

Rubin, E. R. (Ed.). The abortion controversy: A documentary history. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Speckhard, A. C., & Rue, V. M. “Post abortion syndrome: An emerging public health concern.” Journal of Social Issues, 48, 1992: 95-119.

Trager, O. (Ed.). Abortion: Choice & conflict. New York: Facts on File, 1993.

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