The issue of abortion has a long history of both legal and ethical dispute trailing behind it. Whether on the side of pro-life or pro-choice, the fundamental debate is whether the practice of abortion constitutes the deliberate killing of a human being. I would like to critically assess the claims made by pro-lifers against abortion, and will attempt to give reasons that support an ethical defense for the practice.
Pro-life advocates argue that abortion is morally reprehensible because it is the intentional killing of an unborn human being. For this reason they deem the practice unethical and propose that it should be prohibited. Perhaps the first question we should ask is what exactly constitutes a person. The law may choose to define personhood in a certain way, but there is also an ethical component involved in it. To call someone a person is not to simply use “a descriptive word- it is also honorific”1. It is a term that denotes respect for the human mind and mental capacities. A non-viable fetus, that is a fetus that cannot survive outside of the woman’s womb, “does not yet have the capacity for consciousness and does not have a mind, although it does gradually develop these abilities”2.
Pro-life supporters embrace a founding principle that most of us would agree with. That is, that “the right to live is the most fundamental of all rights”3 and every human being has a claim on it. We must though, make a distinction between potential life and actual life. A fetus constitutes potential life, as it is not yet fully developed. Some claim the fetus is, in fact, conscious because “it responds in various ways inside the womb”4, but these responses may only be physiological and are not sufficient evidence for the existence of a human mind.
Some pro-life defenders argue that the rights of the potential person outweigh the rights of the actual person, because “they have not even begun their lives yet”5. This claim is built upon sloppy logic and unfair unreasoning. The right to life is one that is equal to everyone, and does not come in degrees. This is not to say that the fetus is not valuable, or should not respected. It only means that we should not prioritize the right of the fetus over the grown woman’s right to self-determination. If we, as human beings, collectively choose to value potential life more than those already living, then we are declaring that there is not much value in being born in the first place.
Again, this is not to suggest that the fetus has no rights, but rather that it does not yet have the extent of rights that the developed woman has. It is absurd and implausible to insist that all potential life be carried out to full term. That would suggest that “every sperm and egg, and every potential disease and bacterium ought to be brought to fruition”6. This is a standard that we cannot reasonably meet, or justify, because it doesn’t take into account all of the various circumstances of each individual woman. For this reason it is objectionable to call oneself an absolutist about anti-abortion beliefs, or to polarize abortion as a black and white issue. Let us examine some of the reasons presented by pro-life supporters against abortion, and attempt to give a counter-argument for each of them.
One reason given for condemning abortion is that women who get pregnant do so knowingly, and of their own free will, and this therefore obligates them to carry their baby to full term. It is not difficult to see why this premise is severely flawed. It assumes, quite mistakenly, that it is always the woman’s choice to fall pregnant. This theory turns a completely blind eye on cases of rape or incest. A woman who is raped, and becomes pregnant as a result of that rape should have every right to abort the baby. This is because, in the first place, she may be (and likely is) in no position to raise the child efficiently. Many women are raped at a very young age, some even by members of their own family. It would be abusive to force a girl as young as 12 to carry a child when she is still a child herself. Secondly, because the child will always be a reminder of a traumatic experience in her life that she could not control, and this could have devastating psychological consequences. An abortion in such cases could in fact be therapeutic to the woman as it may “relieve the unbearable psychological trauma after a vicious sexual assault”7.
It is true that it is a couple’s responsibility to make sure they are using protection when engaging in sexual intercourse, but there are cases, however rare and far between, of contraceptives failing. It is unreasonable to force a woman to have a child in such cases, because she did not intend to fall pregnant, and took the necessary precautionary measures to ensure she would not.
It is insensible to label women who fall victim to these circumstances selfish for choosing to have an abortion. On the contrary, it would be selfish of them to bring a child into the world without concern for how they would nourish, educate or provide them with security and stability. Women do not simply abort a fetus because they wish to “avoid the inconvenience and discomforts of pregnancy and child rearing”8. They do so because they are in positions where they are incapable of properly raising the child, or providing them with adequate living conditions.
In other cases, pregnancy may be a serious risk to the woman’s health. For example, women who are found to have a ectopic pregnancy, where “the fetus is lodged in a fallopian tube instead of the uterus”9, or in cases of a cancerous uterus. It would seem to be our ethical duty to allow women an abortion in these cases. A woman should not have to die, or have her health jeopardized in order to save the fetus, and should have every right to defend her body and abort the baby. Even if she chooses abortion, she can most likely become pregnant again in the future, at a time when the birthing process will not be a risk to her life.
The same ethical principle should apply to women carrying a fetus with a genetic deficiency. It would be morally wrong to allow a fetus in this situation to be brought to full term, as its existence would be burdening and meaningless. An example would be a fetus found to have anencephaly- a condition where there is “partial or total absence of a brain”10. A child born with this condition would not be able to live for more than a few hours. When considering abortion, it should be taken into consideration that death can sometimes be a preferable alternative to a doomed existence. If we are to be concerned with bringing another human being into existence, we must also be concerned with providing them a life filled with happiness, comfort and hope outside of the womb. It would be insidiously righteous of us to convince ourselves that we are doing the noble thing by having a child who we cannot even devote ourselves to sufficiently.
Equally imperative to take into account is that some women are psychologically, or physically incapable of parenting a child. Some women are “mentally handicapped or emotionally or otherwise seriously dysfunctional”11 to the point that they cannot be depended upon to responsibly care for a child. Women in this situation do not have the means to support a child, as they often cannot adequately support themselves, and should be granted an abortion.
Another argument that pro-choice individuals use to support their reasoning is that women, by nature, have a duty to procreate. Advancing this argument in the 21st century is frankly demeaning, as it is founded on misogynistic and ignorant thinking. The purpose of a woman is not to serve merely as a tool for breeding. Women are living, feeling, human beings with individual aspirations, goals and experiences, and there are far worse choices they can make than to not give birth to a child they could not raise properly in the first place.
Some argue that all women are maternal by nature. This is another woefully misguided notion ingrained in our stereotypes about gender. Actually, there is no evidence to support this claim, as history, literature, and examples from our own daily society have demonstrated countless examples of women who were unfit to be mothers, and who abused their offspring both mentally and physically. Being a woman is not a sufficient condition for being maternal, or a good mother. Women have no innate duty or ability to breed or raise children, even if we as a society tend to idealize those qualities in a woman. Their only duty is a human one, and it is to properly and honestly reason whether they are equipped to provide a child with a stable life.
Some contend that even if the woman is unable to raise the child properly herself, she always has the option of adoption, and therefore should not have an abortion to take the easy way out. This argument makes adoption sound as though it were a quick remedy for relief, and utterly disregards the complexities of the process. Adoption can, in fact, be an “extremely cruel and heartbreaking”12 act, which quite often produces regret and bitterness in the future.
It has been suggested that legalizing abortion would result in a slippery slope effect, consequentially allowing it to become a form of birth control. This argument is a weak one, because it is an obvious exaggeration. Just because pro-choice advocates believe that abortion should be a woman’s right, it does not mean that they are encouraging women to abuse that right. An abortion is far from a pleasant experience, and often the methods used when undertaking one can cause trauma to the woman’s body. Not to mention that a woman’s fertility rate decreases with every abortion she has. Many women have become infertile as an outcome of having too many abortions. That said, “to be pro-choice is not necessarily to be pro-abortion”13, or to view abortion as a game. It simply means that we believe the woman should have the right to judge for herself whether her circumstances will allow her to fulfill the obligations of being a mother.
If we are to be concerned with the large number of women who die every year from abortion, we should be equally concerned with the many women who “are put at risk around the world each year by having illegal abortions”14. It is clear by evidence of these numbers that even if we would illegalize abortion, women who are determined enough to have one will find a way to. Since it is futile to ban a practice that will inevitably occur anyway, we ought to make it our moral duty to ensure that these women can have an abortion in “the cleanest, most medically sound facilities that we can provide”15.
As Dr. Ornstein’s principle of ethics stated, “we should let those who must live with the consequences be the ones who decide”16. Each woman is governor over her own body. We have no right to deny her an abortion and force her to carry and give birth to a child she does not want. Some hold the belief that “abortion degrades the value and respect that we should hold for all human life”17, but on the contrary it is prohibiting abortion which does this. We must determine the greater evil between terminating what is potential life, and giving a life to a being regardless of whether it will be filled with neglect, poverty, suffering and lack of education. In my opinion, it is the latter which is far more unjust.
If we choose to condemn the women who are our mothers, sisters, friends and educators to carry an unwanted child, then we strip every baby who is born a woman of a vital human right. It is meaningless to value the right to life if living as a woman means being deprived of this fundamental right over one’s own body. We will never understand the complexity of abortion if we choose to dismiss it as a thoughtless act of evil and equivalent of murder. Before we decide to demonize it as such, perhaps we ought to imagine a world in which abortion was prohibited everywhere and in all cases. Imagine what the lives of children who were born to parents who could not feed, clothe, educate, and love them would amount to. Imagine a society where it was the accepted norm for babies to be parented by rape and incest victims, or more simply, people who did not want to raise them in the first place. Every pregnant woman’s circumstances are unique, and we must always reflect on each one individually. We should have respect, and not resentment, for the women who are brave enough to admit that they cannot provide for a child and be its parent, especially in light of how many neglected children there are in the world already.
By Sophia Trozzo
1Ornstein, J. Dr. O’s Lesson 6 Notes: What is Person? Page 1.
2Ornstein, J. Dr. O’s Lesson 6 Notes: What is Person? Page 2.
3Ornstein, J. Dr. O’s Lesson 7 Notes: Abortion. Page 1.
4Ornstein, J. Dr. O’s Lesson 7 Notes: Abortion. Page 31.
5Hide. Lesson 7: Abortion. Video. Concordia University.
6Ornstein, J. Dr. O’s Lesson 7 Notes: Abortion. Page 28.
7Ornstein, J. Dr. O’s Lesson 7 Notes: Abortion. Page 9.
8Ornstein, J. Dr. O’s Lesson 7 Notes: Abortion. Page 3.
9Ornstein, J. Dr. O’s Lesson 7 Notes: Abortion. Page 9.
10Ornstein, J. Dr. O’s Lesson 7 Notes: Abortion. Page 22.
11Ornstein, J. Dr. O’s Lesson 7 Notes: Abortion. Page 31.
12Ornstein, J. Dr. O’s Lesson 7 Notes: Abortion. Page 27.
13Ornstein, J. Dr. O’s Lesson 7 Notes: Abortion. Page 30.
14Ornstein, J. Dr. O’s Lesson 7 Notes: Abortion. Page 27.
15Ornstein, J. Dr. O’s Lesson 7 Notes: Abortion. Page 27.
16Ornstein, J. Dr. O’s Lesson 1 Notes: Ethical Concepts, Principles and Theories. Page 16.
17Ornstein, J. Dr. O’s Lesson 7 Notes: Abortion. Page 24.
Ornstein, Dr. “Lesson 1 Notes: Ethical Concepts, Principles and Theories.” Phil 235. Concordia
University. 23 July 2010.
Ornstein, Dr. “Lesson 6 Notes: What is a Person?” Phil 235. Concordia University. 23 July 2010.
Ornstein, Dr. “Lesson 7 Notes: Abortion.” Phil 235. Concordia University. 23 July 2010.
“Mr. Hide. Lesson 7: Abortion.” Video. Concordia University, 2010.