The Ethics of Abortion Essay

The Ethics of Abortion

We may be living in the 21st century, an epoch typified by a remarkable change in worldview from conservatism to liberalism, but the issue of abortion remains a most controversial one. The subject has remained in the limelight for a considerable period of time, and will be probably argued by future generations. Particularly since the 1950’s when the women rights movement picked momentum, there have been increasing calls to have abortion legalized. Whilst it has been received by some people as basically a rights issue where the mother should be at will to have the baby or terminate the life of the unborn fetus, others have strongly condemned such acts, terming them as unquestionable evils that can not be justified on any grounds. As a result, two dialectically opposed sides have emerged: the pro-life, and pro-choice. While those who subscribe to the former school of thought are totally objected to abortion under any circumstances, the latter articulate that women have a right to decide whether or not to have a baby or abort. Each of the two sides offers different solutions in as far as abortion decisions are concerned.

The pro-life group advocates that a mother ought to have the baby and live with it, articulating that abortion does not offer any meaningful solution. On the other hand, the pro-choice side has advanced a collection of arguments that depict the act of abortion as appropriate and even desirable (Alcorn, 2001). The existence of this diverse reasoning explains why some countries especially those in the developed world have legalized the practice, while such efforts aimed at legalization have failed in others. None of the arguments raised by the two sides can be dismissed as irrational, or unfounded, as this would be undermining the intellectual predispositions of either the proponents or opponents. Despite the fact that the debate on abortion largely remains a legal discourse focusing on whether it should be treated as murder of the human person, or a legal right and choice that should be available to all women (Steinbock, Arras, and London, 2002), a closer look at the available body of evidence reveals various underlying ethical dilemmas that require redress. Although some analysts postulate that law does not exist to justify morality, it is also true to point out that all desirable legislations have their foundation in moral values. Considering that the failure to discuss the values underlying abortion could actually obscure vital discussions, it is imperative that the morality issues surrounding abortion be thoroughly addressed.

Before delving into the ethical issues related to the subject, it is imperative that the act of abortion be conceptualized from a scientific point of view. Abortion has been defined as entailing the deliberate termination of a pregnancy by removing the unborn child (embryo or fetus) from the womb, thus resulting into its death (Steinbock, Arras, and London, 2002). The act can be carried out by the mother herself, a professional physician in legally recognized clinics, or in the back alley. While it could result from physiological complications, the term is mostly used to refer to the induced expulsion of the fetus. When it occurs spontaneously, it is often referred to as a miscarriage. From this definition, it is clear that abortion is not a natural occurrence, but an intentional attempt to have the fetus expelled from the mother’s womb. In essence, this fact is at the core of the controversy that the topic elicits among different institutions and personalities. According to those opposed to the rights reasoning as a justification of carrying out an abortion, what should determine whether the act is unethical is the legality of the fetus. Should the fetus qualify as a person, pro-lifers argue that abortion equals murder, hence the reason as to why it should be declared illegal. On the other hand, the pro-choice activists highlight a mother’s bodily autonomy as central in considering whether an abortion can be justified (Baird and Rosenbaum, 2001).

Abortion as Unethical Treatment of the Fetus

The status of the unborn child constitutes an important aspect of the abortion controversy. Notably, the question of whether or not a fetus growing in a mother’s womb is a person dominates debates on the legality as well as the morality of the practice. Majority of those who hold a favorable view of abortion articulate that since the embryo’s growth is terminated before birth occurs, then it should not be perceived as a complete human being. To this end, they argue that referring to abortion as the termination of life is rather too harsh and an oversimplification of the issue (Baird and Rosenbaum, 2001). However, the pro-life group has cited scientific reasoning as providing useful insights as to why abortion actually results in the death of a human person.

On the one hand, those who support abortion point out that the fetus can not be regarded as a complete human being. The common view is that of portraying the fetus as merely a lump of growing cells. They emphasize that at the initial stages of development, the human fetus bears primitive biological characteristics, just as for those of other animals like fish or apes. From an anatomical point of view, the brain of a fetus is also undeveloped. Particularly the fact that it has no capacity for consciousness makes it dissimilar to human beings, who have these biological attributes in plenty (Baird and Rosenbaum, 2001). In essence, the growing cells can potentially develop into a human being if preserved, nurtured, and fed by the mother. However, pro-abortionists highlight that the full development of the fetus into a human being solely depends on the mother’s willingness to carry the pregnancy to full maturity. This is why the life of the fetus (portrayed as biologically undeveloped) is depicted as secondary to that of the mother (seen as a fully developed human being) by those who favor abortion.

On the contrary, there is also a significant body of scientific evidence that indeed highlights the fetus as a human person. From a biological point of view, every new human life starts at fertilization. This refers to the process where the male female gametes (sperm and ovum) fuse to form a zygote. This applies for all animals, be it human beings or apes (Steinbock, Arras, and London, 2002). From this biological fact, it is evident that a fetus can not be simply dismissed as inhuman, considering that it a growing life. This argument constitutes the fundamental opposition to abortion by religious sects and faiths. Majority of faiths, and more particularly the Roman Catholic and protestant fundamentalists hold the view that the embryo must be treated as a person right from conception, and that it is created through a divine action (Alcorn, 2001). The second physiological view shedding light on the controversy is the fact is that all species reproduces after their own kind (Larsen, 1998). Immediately after the fertilization process is over, what results is a living creature that has the physiological attributes of a human being. Based on these two biologically proved arguments, pro-lifers have been able to draw one concrete conclusion: that abortion puts an end to the life of a human being. Notably, a number of pro-abortionists have conceded to this fact. For instance, Naomi Wolf, a strong supporter of women’s right in abortion emphasizes the need for those with views like hers to consider moral framework as an inseparable part of the debate. She observes:

Clinging to a rhetoric about abortion in which there is no life and no death, we entangle our beliefs in a series of self-delusions, fibs and evasions. And we risk becoming precisely what our critics charge us with being: callous, selfish and casually destructive men and women who share a cheapened view of human life…we need to contextualize the fight to defend abortion rights within a moral framework that admits that the death of a fetus is a real death (Alcorn, 2001, p.95).

Indeed, Wolf agrees that the death of a fetus is real death (Alcorn, 2001).  From the ongoing biological discussions, it is apparent that abortion apparently terminates the life of a growing life. Thus, a physician or clinician who assists a woman to carry out an abortion is party to a murder crime. This is irrespective of the underlying circumstances surrounding the abortion act.

A significant number of those opposed to abortion raise objections when it is particularly carried as the late stages of pregnancy, deeming it outright immorality. This view is also shared by a number of moderate pro-choice activists. Such objection is based on the strong belief that the fetus has developed anatomical features quite similar to those of a human being. In essence, pro-lifers have a strong point when they point to such evidence. Nevertheless, reducing abortion to the question of whether or not an unborn fetus is a human person tends to obscure the more implicit ethical realities that surround the issue. Although the fact that the fetus is biologically undeveloped at the initial stages of life arguably makes it less human, it does not necessarily imply that it lacks a moral standing.

Virtually everyone concurs that human life is precious, and none wants to die before their. From a practical point of view, those who perpetrate murder receive outright condemnation, and are inevitably forced to face the law. Besides, those who commit murder are seen as selfish individuals, who lack human feelings, and are often portrayed as threatening the fabric of the society. Evidently, abortion is perceived from a morally different angle. In addition to being portrayed as excusable under certain circumstances, the way the unborn fetus is eliminated from the uterus raises numerous moral concerns. Crude methods such as piercing using sharp objects are still in use today in some parts of the world. Other techniques mostly involve the use of chemicals that either make the uterus conditions unbearable for the embryo’s growth, or immediately terminate the growing life. All these show the cruelty involved when a pregnant woman decides to embrace this path. Thus, pro-life activists have questioned why their opponents have remained impartial to such cruelty and the universally accepted biological facts underlying abortion. Considering that human life once lost can not recovered, the former group has relentlessly championed for a reexamination of ideology and morals.

Abortion and Individual Autonomy

            Another controversy surrounding the abortion debate concerns the issue of individual autonomy and rights. In majority of the states that advocate individual freedom and democracy, the ethical claim to personal, bodily autonomy is regarded as fundamental in determining the ethics of decision and choices (Ruth, 1992). However, the extent to which this autonomy should be exercised without exceeding the moral confines remains a subject of debate. Arguably, abortion can be viewed as a woman’s right to control her body as well as that of the unborn fetus. Choosing to terminate the life of the fetus is sometimes seen as an unavoidable consequence that exemplifies the mother’s unwillingness to carry the pregnancy to full term.  According proponents of abortion, abortion constitutes a moral right which ought to be left to the sole discretion of the woman involved (Baird and Rosenbaum, 2001). To them only the mother has the right to determine the disposition she is to make in as far as the functions of her body are concerned (Baird and Rosenbaum, 2001). Thus, any decision she makes has to be viewed as an autonomous consideration that has to be respected.

            Besides the issue of individual rights, there is also the ethical question of forcing women to carry pregnancies to term. Notably, illegalization of abortion means that a country’s laws force mothers to carry pregnancies to full term. By implication, they women are obligated to provide a haven where a fetus can develop into a baby with complete human attributes, besides the possibility of years of forced support (Baird and Rosenbaum, 2001). This situation precipitates an ethical dilemma. On the one hand, prohibiting women the choice of reproduction and pregnancy in particular is seen as incompatible with justice principles. To the extent that illegalization of abortion to the exercise of individual freedom, it is unethical, irrespective of the status of the fetus.

Ethical Obligations to the Fetus

            Another consideration made in abortion-related discussions is whether or not a woman has an ethical obligation to the fetus. This issue also elicits mixed responses from various quotas. Majority of pro-life supporters highlight that pregnancy implies the presence of a growing life inside the womb of the mother. This fact serves to place some sort of obligation on the woman, irrespective of whether or not the fetus fits the description of a complete human being. According to Alcorn (2001), such an obligation may not be strong enough to eliminate abortion as a matter of choice, but is sufficient in limiting the circumstances under which abortion can be embraced as an ethical option (218).

Another ethical consideration often cited when evaluating the existence of a moral obligation is the sexual act that results in pregnancy. In the view of some analysts, the ethics of sex itself constitute a very important part when considering whether or not abortion is ethical. The common contention amongst many of those opposed to abortion is that sexual activity ought to carry consequences, chief among them being pregnancy (Ruth, 1992). To strict pro-life activists, the prevention of such consequences, in this case through abortion is inherently unethical. However, the modern and liberal views of sexuality have tended to dissociate sex from traditional consequences, a scenario which has tended to depict the practice of abortion as involving less ethical obligation on the mother (Baird and Rosenbaum, 2001).

Pregnancy and its Associated Risks

The ‘necessary evil’ argument has also been frequently cited in support of abortion. This implies that though the practice could be summarized as a social vice, women at certain time have no choice but do it. The notion of legalizing abortion as a necessary evil is based on a number of commonly echoed sediments. One of them is the argument that there tends to be more deaths in countries or localities where abortion is legalized than where it is unlawful. Those who feature as the main advocates highlight that illegal abortions tend to be carried out in extremely perilous circumstances, for instance overseen by unqualified personnel, a factor which definitely puts the mother’s life at great risk. Thus legalization abortion is perceived to enhance the survival chances of mothers, in addition to reducing hospitalizations associated with ectopic pregnancies (Steinbock, Arras, and London, 2002). Although these articulations can not be merely dismissed, it is also necessary to examine contradictory evidence. In 1972 for instance, it was shown that 27 women died as a result of legalized abortion, as compared to 39 who died out of illegal abortions (Steinbock, Arras, and London, 2002). Though modern medical advancements have made abortion a safer ordeal, the practice remains a risky practice, whether legal or illegal. Another myth is that even before the practice was legalized in the U.S., millions of women were engaging in it. The desire to save the life of the mother is indeed a humanitarian gesture. However, pro-life activists question whether this must always be dome at the expense of the unborn child’s survival. Most anti-abortionists argue that advocating for abortion as a way of saving the life of a mother who is in potential danger is belittling of the fetus’ life, and thus a merciless act of selfishness.

Abortion and the Issue of Unwanted Children

Besides the life-saving hypothesis, those who advocate for abortion highlight emotional and psychological consequences that could emanate from having the unborn child. Though a child in many social settings is seen as a blessing to the parent(s), there are circumstances when the opposite occurs. For instance, cases of incest and rape are on the increase, a factor which has led to an escalation in unwanted pregnancies. Unplanned teenage conceptions have also become common. Abortion precipitated by such circumstances is deemed necessary by pro-abortionists, and even a section of liberal pro-life activists. However, a good number of those who have had abortions do so for economic reasons, for example, the inability to afford the care of a child or when pregnancy poses an obstacle to career advancement. Delivering the baby in such cases is thought to pose inherent psycho-emotional disturbances, a factor which could put the child’s life in jeopardy (Baird and Rosenbaum, 2001). For instance, pro-abortionists believe that it would be hard to show love to the baby, thus predicting child neglect in future. Thus, pro-choice activists see abortion as an ethical decision that should be embraced by women who feel potentially unable to raise their babies as good mothers. On the contrary, anti-choice activists view condoning abortion as one way of encouraging people to indulge in violence so as to achieve selfish ambitions.


From the ongoing, it is evident that the ethics of abortion are indeed complex. Both pro-life and pro-choice activists have advanced strong cases, and thus no one side can be merely dismissed as inconsequential. It is evident that abortion inevitably touches on numerous ethical issues such as the nature of human relations, individual rights and autonomy, and personhood. It also involves several dilemmas, chief among them being the question of how far state authority should influence personal choices. My position regarding the topic of abortion stands to be challenged. A prejudice-free analysis of the ethics surrounding the abortion ought to enlighten those who engage in the practice out of ignorance. In a nutshell, the fact that abortion equals the elimination of human life even at the very initial stages of development ought to tickle the consciousness of pro-choice activists into reconsidering their stance on the subject.


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