In the United States one of the most controversial and emotional topics of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has been abortion. “Pro-lifers” hurl accusations at those in favor of abortion, calling them baby-killers, while “pro-choicers” reply that to outlaw abortion would be to restrict the freedoms of the woman. Both sides often resort to hurling epithets at their opponents, asserting that their god would not allow it, or dismissing the issue by saying that they simply feel a proclivity toward one side or the other.
Reflecting this sentiment, abortion’s legal history has been a tumultuous one. Prior to the twentieth century, abortion was uncommon because at the time it was dangerous, and a premarital pregnancy generally resulted in a couple’s marriage. However, the public was tolerant of abortion, and it was often a practical solution to the hard times faced by any family who doubted whether they could financially support a child (Langum 5). At the beginning of the century, however, it became anathema to many, and with the emergence of the American Medical Association, many legislators were pressured to criminalize abortion (Langum 4). Although experts argue on the exact date that widespread abortions became common, during the 1960’s women’s rights groups began calling for the decriminalization of abortion (Pollitt). In 1973, the Supreme Court reached its verdict on the status of abortion, legalizing it in the monumental Roe v. Wade case (Mauro 1). Although it has been legally resolved, “pro-lifers” continue to bomb abortion clinics, and those in favor of abortion feel the need to qualify their position by supporting abortion “before the third trimester.”
One may wonder why, after a century of quibbling, the populace has not yet reached a verdict on the issue. The answer is that one often dwells on the specifics, such as whether or not abortion is a safe practice. That abortion is safe for a mother is beyond dispute, given the medical advantages we enjoy. The issue is simplified if we take a more fundamental approach to it and ask whether or not abortion is morally permissible. Leaving behind our emotional predispositions, we can reach a logical conclusion. Abortion is morally permissible in all circumstances; therefore, it should remain legal.
So-called “pro-lifers” are quick to point out that a fetus looks like a human and performs some of the basic biological functions of a human being; it should be pointed out, however, that ninety percent of abortions are performed in the first trimester, meaning most fetuses can’t even be considered biologically human (Back-Alley 2). I am willing to agree with them, but I stipulate that a fetus is not a person in morally relevant respects. According to philosopher Mary Anne Warren, a being must meet some basic criteria to be considered a person, such as “consciousness (of objects and events external…to the being);…the developed capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems; self-motivated activity;…the capacity to communicate; and the presence of self-concepts” (4). Thus, there is a difference between being human and being a person. Some human beings aren't people, and some non-humans are people (Warren 4). It is reasonable to assume that if a being cannot satisfy any of these criteria, that being is not a person. A fetus cannot reason, communicate messages, or engage in “self-motivated activity.” Likewise, even a fetus of seven or eight months lacks the ability to reason or possess self-awareness (Warren 5). According to Warren, “in the relevant aspects, a fetus, even a fully developed one, is considerably less personlike than is the average mammal, indeed the average fish” (5). The act of removing the fetus from the womb is not tantamount to slitting a person’s throat. While the latter involves the direct termination of an autonomous being’s life, the former is more like removing a parasite or a tumor.
Although a fetus is clearly not a person in the true sense of the word, having an abortion would still be morally right even if we were to assume that the fetus were a person. My opponents talk about the sanctity of human life or a “right to life” and argue that it is always wrong to kill another person. Similarly, they will say that it is wrong to knowingly allow another to die when one could intervene and save that person. However, killing a person is different than allowing that person to die. A person’s right to life does not allow him or her to take the life of another; correspondingly, a person’s right to life does not hold any claims over others. In Judith Thomson’s classic defense of abortion, she compares a fetus to an unconscious man hooked to an unwitting woman while she sleeps. Surely, she reasons, most would have no problem with unhooking the annoying person even if it meant he were to die (Thomson, par. 4). One could treat any fetus like this unconscious pest and logically reach the same conclusion. Although this draws the obvious parallel to circumstances involving rape, if one were to agree that the fetus produced by rape were less of a “person” than the one produced by consenting adults, as most abortion opponents do, we would see the logical inconsistency in my opposition’s argument. Though it would be generous to allow the man to stay attached to one’s organs, his right to life does not override one’s right not to be inconvenienced. In the same manner, Thomson writes, “if the only thing that will save my life is the touch of Henry Fonda’s cool hand upon my fevered brow, I have no right to receive it” even if it will only slightly inconvenience Mr. Fonda (par. 10). Thus, a woman is morally permitted to have an abortion even if she were not to be harmed by bearing the fetus.
Another reason why abortion is justifiable is that a potential person has no value. Those who would seek to outlaw abortion use the misguiding idea that it would be evil to deprive a potential person of his right to live a life in the future. Taken to its logical extreme, this ludicrous belief would treat birth control as a crime, mourn a vasectomy as a loss of potential people, and even advocate polygamy on the grounds that it helps create more people. The idea is logically unfeasible; the idea of a potential person is a paradox. If a person is a being that is conscious, the potential to be conscious does not constitute personhood. Thus, we need not take into account the possibility that someday a fetus could become a person. As most philosophers agree, an actual person has more importance than any number of nonexistent “lives” (Warren 9). As Warren asserts, one need not be inconvenienced even slightly even if many potential lives were at stake, for “so great is the margin by which one actual person’s right to liberty outweighs whatever right to life even a hundred thousand potential people have” (9). The contradiction central to the so-called “pro-lifers” is the assertion that they value life; but what they actually value is the fantasy of a life that does not by any means exist nor will ever undeniably exist. To value a life that is not a life is illogical. The only people that should be taken into account when deciding to have an abortion are the mother and father, the people who will undoubtedly be affected by it.
Slippery slope argument begins--hell, the other side does it too. While abortion is clearly a desirable and acceptable practice for all those involved, criminalizing or outlawing abortion would result in a number of grave evils. My opponents mistakenly claim that allowing abortion results in the devaluing of human life. In actuality, the reverse is true. Prohibiting women from exercising freedom over their bodies depreciates respect for human rights. Refusing abortions to women is equal to treating them as mere incubators and not recognizing their ability and right to make rational decisions. If abortion were to be outlawed, our society would place a premium on fetuses over women’s rights. It is not inconceivable that soon thereafter pregnant women would be required to meet government health standards and submit regular blood tests to guarantee that a fetus would not be harmed.
Just as making abortions illegal would cheapen human life, criminalizing the practice would cause physical harm to those set on having abortions. For this reason, it is in the best interest of society to keep abortion legal. While antiabortionists claim that outlawing abortions would prevent the practice, this is clearly false. Ideological opposite abortion historians Marvin Olasky and James Mohr both agree that during the years of abortion’s criminalization, incidences of abortion actually increased (Langum 6). Illegal “back-alley” abortions became a common practice, resulting in increasingly dangerous procedures. The practice of back-alley abortions often involves rudimentary tools and a lack of anesthetics, usually resulting in the death of the woman. As Dorothy Fadiman, a back-alley abortion survivor, says, “no woman should have to go through this” (qtd. in Coale par. 2). Fadiman was denied an abortion by a bona fide medical establishment and received an abortion, “blindfolded and unanaesthetized,” from a back-alley abortionist; she later fell ill and nearly died from blood poisoning and peritonitis (Coale par. 4). Like many other pregnant women with no place to turn, she decided to receive an abortion despite its illegality and suffered greatly for it. Women will continue to receive abortions even if they are illegal, but the practice itself will once again become unsafe.
Coale, Kristi. “When Abortion was Illegal.” Progressive Aug. 1995: 16-24.
Langum, David J. “A Personal Voyage of Exploration through the Literature of Abortion History.” Law and Social Inquiry Spring 2000: 693-704.
Mauro, Tony. “Roe v. Wade, 30 Years Later.” Texas Lawyer 20 Jan. 2002: 23.
Thomson, Judith Jarvis. “A Defense of Abortion.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 1971: 47-50.
Warren, Mary Anne. “The Moral and Legal Status of Abortion.” The Right Thing To Do. Ed. James Rachels. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw, 2003: 97-106.
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