The practice of abortion – interrupting a pregnancy by destroying an unborn fetus – has actually been practiced for hundreds of years in many cultures, and did not actually become a “moral” issue until the mid-nineteenth century. Today for many reasons that include politics, women’s rights and control over their own bodies as well as racism and fear of a falling birthrate, abortion has become a “hot-button” issue, along with that of contraception (Pollitt, 1997).
What exactly is at the center of this controversy? Is it indeed of matter of “morality”? Is the life of an unborn fetus any more or less important than that of live human being? Who has a right to make the decision, and what are the implications for all parties involved? How much of it has to do with an unjust and lopsided economic system that denies health care to those unable to pay exorbitant fees while at the same time, it has become increasingly difficult for families and single women to make family wages in the U.S.?
In the following paragraphs, this issue and its societal implications will be examined in greater detail, including their relationship to women’s rights.
Abortion is defined in the dictionary as “termination of a process.” When it comes to a human (or conceivably any mammalian) pregnancy, it refers to the medically or chemically-induced expulsion of the fetus prior to viability, i.e., before it is able to survive outside of the womb. By the end of the twenty-eighth week of pregnancy, the fetus is generally able to survive outside the uterus, which is why in states in which the procedure is legal, it cannot be performed beyond that time (most laws disallow the procedure after the first trimester.
Abortion may occur naturally. This is technically known as a spontaneous abortion, but is usually labeled as a miscarriage. This can happen as the result of an injury from an accident, illness of the mother, or for genetic reasons. An abortion that is performed artificially through medical or chemical means (including certain herbal substances) is known as an induced abortion. When performed because of threats to the mother’s life or health, it is called a therapeutic abortion.
Abortion became illegal in the United States because of political pressure in the wake of large waves of immigration during the nineteenth century. As larger numbers of Catholics and other groups from Eastern and Southern Europe arrived, Protestant families of Northern European ancestry were pressured to produce offspring in greater numbers. This, in turn placed additional pressure on Catholic families to do the same thing (Mohr, 182-190). Eventually, prohibition against abortion became solidified into both civil and canon law (despite the fact that abortion is mentioned nowhere in the bible, which – along with many other cultures – actually defines the beginning of life as being with the first breath, i.e., “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” [Genesis 2:7]). In addition, the use of contraception – even between married couples – was outlawed under the Comstock Act against the sending of “lewd and lascivious material” via mail. These laws began to be relaxed in the wake of a potential syphilis epidemic following the First World War, when men could get condoms with a doctor’s prescription.
With the advent of the “Sexual Revolution” in the 1960’s, oral contraception became easily available, and certain states allowed the practice of abortion under limited circumstances.
It is important to understand that the controversial Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 was about privacy, not abortion. The decision however did open the way for a woman’s right to a safe, legal abortions in the U.S. The decision has since polarized U.S. society into two opposing camps: the “pro-choice” group who support a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have the procedure, and the group which calls itself “pro-life,” who believe human life begins at the moment of conception. The Roe decision was reviewed in 1989. While the Supreme Court upheld the decision, but allowed individual states to impose some restrictions as to how, when and where the procedure can be performed (Head, 2004).
Most countries have laws similar to those of the U.S., and some even consider it to be a contraceptive measure. Other countries allow therapeutic abortions, but limit induced abortions to cases in which conception results from rape. In strongly Catholic countries such as those in Latin America and until recently, Ireland, abortion is illegal under any circumstances and carries harsh penalties.
Today, abortion continues to be a volatile issue, and to date, no consensus has been reached. The Roe decision, along with Doe v. Bolton, stated that a woman had the constitutional right of privacy when it came to the control of her own body – which included the right to terminate a pregnancy in its early stages (Rubin, 2001). Two subsequent developments have had some impact on this issue; one is the Webster v. Reproductive Health Services decision which upheld a Missouri state law that banned the use of public funds and facilities for abortions (Colker, 128-130, 132); the other was the rescinding of a “gag rule” by then U.S. President William Clinton that had prevented health care providers from discussing abortion services with clients in nonprofit agencies.
It is estimated that one in ten pregnancies will end in a miscarriage, or spontaneous abortion. Usually, this happens because of an abnormality in the fetus that makes its survival impossible. Other causes include disease, hormonal imbalance, physical abnormalities of the mother, or even stress. Indications include vaginal bleeding and severe cramps. Miscarriages usually occur toward the middle or end of the first trimester. Sometimes, these may be prevented with bed rest and medical treatment.
Bioethicists – those who deal with the ethics, or “moral issues” surrounding medicine and life sciences – and theologians make a clear distinction between an “indirect” abortion and a “direct” one. The former is performed in order to save the mother when carrying a fetus to term would pose a life-threatening situation, or when it is clear that a defective fetus (such as an encephalic one in which the brain has not developed) cannot possibly survive. When a fetus may be viable, but conditions force a choice between saving the life of the mother and that of the fetus, this creates a very difficult ethical situation as far as the “pro-life” view is concerned. If such a situation is foreseeable – for instance, if there is a known genetic condition that might cause such a condition – it would be best to prevent pregnancy from occurring in the first place. Otherwise, an almost untenable situation results, with no good outcome.
“Direct” abortion performed for purposes of limiting family size or population, or even because the mother lacks the economic means to care for a child is considered unethical by the “pro-life” community. In this view, life – if not consciousness – begins at the moment of conception, therefore the fetus is a potential human being with a literal right to its existence, like any other human being.
Those in the “pro-choice” camp do not deny the value of life; indeed, many “pro-choice” advocates are also personally opposed to abortion and would never think of having the procedure themselves. What they are against is the involvement of government in a decision that is highly personal and often painful. In “pro-choice” arguments, quality of life issues often come up as well. It is right to bring a child into the world who will not have enough food to eat, adequate shelter and clothing, and no access to health care? What if the child has a medical or genetic condition that condemns him to live in constant pain and/or discomfort, or preclude the possibility that s/he will ever be able to take care of herself, requiring perpetual – and expensive – medical care? As advances in medical science permits babies to survive that may have died even twenty years ago, these are some very real – and difficult – ethical issues that will need to be considered.
If looked at strictly from the viewpoint of Judeo-Christian views of morality, the issue becomes one of sexual behavior. Those on this side of the argument believe that if the sexual act were confined to marriage, abortion would not be an issue (economic issues notwithstanding). It can legitimately argued that a fetus should not be made to pay for the “reckless” sexual behavior of its parents. On the other hand, the sex drive is an incredibly powerful one in humans; despite repeated efforts by governmental and theocratic authorities to regulate sexual behavior over the centuries, human biological drives are virtually impossible to overcome completely.
One cannot judge a woman who chooses to have an abortion, particularly if one is not a woman and cannot get pregnant (pundits have said that if men could get pregnant, abortion would not even be an issue). It is the woman who conceives and it is her body that carries the fetus – and feels the pain in giving birth. To most, that pain is well worth the joy of motherhood. To others – especially those who have been abandoned by the father and a society that while claiming it is a “culture of life” would rather spend many billions of dollars on instruments of death than even a few million on social programs that would make abortions unnecessary – it can be a matter of survival, as well as quality of life for the child.
In any case, it is an intensely personal and difficult decision that like any moral or ethical decision, must in the end be left to the individual’s conscience.
Colker, Ruth. Pro-Choice, Pro-Life, and American Law. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.
Head, Jeanne E. “Does Abortion Access Protect Women’s Health?” The World and I 19.6 (2004).
Mohr, James C. The Origins and Evolution of National Policy, 1800-1900. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Pollitt, Katha. “Abortion in American History.” Atlantic Monthly 279.5 (1997).
Rubin, Eva. Abortion, Politics, and the Courts: Roe V. Wade and Its Aftermath. New York: Greenwood Press, 2001.