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Abortion can be defined as a spontaneous or purposeful removal or expelling of the fetus or embryo from the uterus before the pregnancy comes to full term. Spontaneous abortion is usually referred to as a miscarriage, while the term abortion typically stands for purposeful or induced interruption. The latter is often a matter of public debate, judged and deemed as murder by religious groups, and a significant source of distress for women who seek it. In developed countries where national legislation allows abortion on broad indications, including abortion on request and without medical indications, induced abortion is one of the simplest and safest medical procedures if performed by competent and professional health care services. Complications and deaths from abortions are, in those cases, extremely rare. Abortions are also very common. More than 40% of women report having terminated a pregnancy at least once in their reproductive life. Women of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds seek abortions. They are either already mothers or not yet ready to become mothers. Some have children and cannot support another one; others are unable to carry a burden, both psychological and financial, of caring for a child with a disability. Others had a pregnancy forced on them (Berer, 2004). The grounds on which abortions are performed are various, they range from the need to save a woman’s life, preserve her physical or mental health, cases of pregnancy due to rape or incest, cases of fetal impairment, to abortions conducted for economic or social reasons, or even on request.
World Health Organization defines unsafe abortion as “a procedure for terminating an unwanted pregnancy either by persons lacking the necessary skills” (Berer, 2004).
However, when abortion is legal on broad grounds and when appropriate health-care services are readily available, unsafe abortion rates are reduced along with the abortion-related morbidity and mortality. In the United States, abortion was legalized through the Roe v Wade decision of 1973 in hope to make the procedure safer for women and more easily accessible, especially for members of vulnerable populations. Records show that in the United States alone, between 20 and 30 million abortions are performed annually, out of which between 10 and 20 million are done in an unsafe manner. This is the reason why the procedure remains risky and responsible for 75 thousand maternal deaths and a huge number of disabilities annually. Unsafe abortions are done illegally, usually by people lacking the necessary education and skill and/or in an environment lacking the necessary sanitary requirements. Illegal abortions contribute to 14 percent of all deaths in women, which are mainly due to serious complications and inability to address them adequately.
Nowadays, the wide availability of family planning services, provision of sexual education in secondary schools, as well as better accessibility and quality of medical services, has somewhat reduced the incidence of abortion (Jones, Darroch, Henshaw, 2002). Despite that, the number of abortions, including unsafe and illegal ones, continues to be worrying. Although effective contraceptives are readily available, unintended pregnancies still make a large percentage of total pregnancies, and out of these unplanned pregnancies, approximately one half ends in abortion. Regardless of all advances made in health education and provision of health-care services, abortion continues to be a significant issue in the society.
An event that made all the difference in how abortion was seen in American legislation and the American society overall was the ruling by Supreme Court in 1973 in the case of Roe v Wade. Before this case abortion was fully legalized only in four US states, with further 12 having implemented modest reforms allowing abortion under special circumstances, i.e., pregnancy resulting from rape or incest. In all remaining states, abortion was illegal unless it was necessary to save the life of the mother. Women seeking abortion were forced to travel across state lines in order to exercise their right to reproductive freedom, which is now fully guaranteed.
The well-known Roe v Wade case started in March 1970 when an unmarried woman named Jane Roe from Dallas County, Texas, initiated a lawsuit against the county’s District Attorney. She argued that the Texas statute was unconstitutional and in direct contradiction with her right to privacy guaranteed by the First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments. Namely, Jane Roe could not get an abortion for her unwanted pregnancy legally in Texas because her health was not in any way endangered by the pregnancy and that would have been the only case in which it would be legal for doctors in Texas to operate. She was also financially incapable of traveling to another state to secure a safe and legal termination of her pregnancy. Roe attempted to get a court judgment that would rule the criminal abortion legislation of Texas unconstitutional and sought an injunction which would prevent the District Attorney from implementing this legislation. Jane professed that she sued not only on her own behalf but also in the interest of all other women wishing to end a pregnancy for personal reasons.
A further argument linked to Roe v Wade case is that women should not be coerced into childbearing against their wish. If pregnancy is planned and wanted, it’s a source of great joy and fulfillment; however, if it is forced upon women, it becomes a form of aggression, bodily invasion, and is in direct contradiction with American values and traditions (Schwarz, 1990). For that reason, the United States Constitution protects women against forced pregnancy, in the same way as it protects all its citizens from being coerced to donate blood, bone marrow or solid organs.
After having looked into the matters of this case carefully, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Jane Roe and concluded that her rights were, indeed, violated. The Supreme Court issued a decree assuring all women a right to a legal and safe abortion on request. The modern American society viewed this as a huge step towards the advancement of women’s rights. Still, no matter how many years have passed since this case, it remains controversial with attempts being made to reverse the Roe decision. This issue seems to be of a similar magnitude as women suffrage and followed by almost an equal amount of controversy. The ruling has given women freedom of choice, a chance to plan their lives and not be coerced into motherhood; it had allowed them greater independence, and insured that their right to privacy was respected even in cases when they wished to terminate an unintended pregnancy.
The abortion debate has profound social implications. Abortion has not only become cheaper, more available, and safer but also surrounded by far less stigma then before. Before the Supreme Court ruling, which made abortion legal nationwide, women who had abortions risked having severe health consequences following pregnancy terminations performed by unskilled people in unsafe environments, as well as societal rejection and marginalization, not to mention legal prosecution.
There is another point worth mentioning when abortions are concerned. Many women are forced to have abortions against their wishes; they are either coerced by their families or by biological fathers or afraid of losing their jobs if carrying the pregnancy to term, of becoming homeless, having to drop out of school, etc. (Schwarz, 1990).
Abortion motivated by such reasons is often the cause of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It occurs when abortion is experienced as a traumatic event, and as such carries an extraordinary emotional burden, causing psychological imbalance. The consequences include eating disorders, depression and in the most severe cases, there is a risk of suicide. If women make a free decision to have an abortion, if they consider all the possible implications of their decision beforehand, they tend not to feel guilty about their choice. If, on the other hand, they feel pressured into an abortion, it can have a negative impact on them.
Abortion can be discussed as an issue strongly influenced by societal views. An American sociologist and a professor of sociology at Columbia University Charles Wright Mills developed a theory in which he outlined the influence that societal changes exert on our lives. This can be applied to the changes in abortion practice and the ramifications thereof after the decriminalization of abortion by the American Supreme Court. Views held by the general public changed accordingly. Before the 1970s, abortions were tabooed, they were perceived as appalling and shameful. After the law changed, people’s feelings also changed.
Furthermore, to show that abortion is really a social issue, we could examine what a social issue theoretically is, and what it consists of. The social issue consists of two elements: the objective condition, i.e., a measurable aspect of the society, and the subjective condition, i.e., people’s concerns about a certain condition. In the case of abortion, the objective condition would be the question if it is legal, who is entitled to it and under which circumstances (Henslin, 2008). The subjective condition, in this case, would be the strong feeling held by some people about pregnant women having to carry their child to full term, or the torment experienced by some people about women being given an opportunity to end their pregnancy on request. This makes abortion a social issue.
Darwin’s evolution theory, human cloning, and abortion are among the most debated human issues. These are all matters toward which it is hard to stay neutral. Everyone is either for or against something. Compromises are almost impossible. Most religions are opposed to abortions. Christians believe there is an afterlife, and they also believe that life begins at conception. Therefore, terminating a pregnancy means killing a human being. Buddhists believe in rebirth, i.e., reincarnation. On the other hand, atheists do not believe in God and usually support the freedom of choice. However, this can all be boiled down to different perspectives people use to judge an issue as acceptable or unacceptable. If we focus on a pregnant woman, then surely she has the right to privacy and the right to decide for herself. Conversely, if we focus on the unborn child, we can argue that he or she has the right to be born. It is all a matter of perspective. But whatever perspective we chose to take, our views tend to be biased.
People’s feelings towards abortion are usually very strong, they are either strongly pro-choice, meaning for abortion, or strongly pro-life, meaning against abortion. There is no middle ground. Supporters and opponents cannot see eye to eye in this matter. Those with strong religious feelings can never accept a willful termination of human life without strong medical indication. Those in favor of freedom of choice regard it as a constitutionally guaranteed right of a woman to decide over her own body and health. Each opposing group relies on the constitution, the Fourteenth Amendment, and scientific facts to support their claims (Knapp, 2001).As mentioned earlier in the case of Roe v Wade in 1973, the US Supreme Court made a ruling that protected a woman’s right to privacy and allowed her freedom of choice, which gave support to the pro-choice groups and legalized abortion. This had other implications as well; namely, it meant that the fetus had no rights and that it was up to the mother to decide its fate. The rights of a mother supersede those of a fetus or of the State for that matter. In another case, Casey v Planned Parenthood in 1992, the Supreme Court confirmed the ruling of Roe v Wade, prohibiting the State from banning most abortions. However, Casey also ruled that states may intervene in regulating abortions in order to protect the mother and the life of a fetus, with the right to ban abortions of “viable” fetuses. So the constitutional right to an abortion was reaffirmed, but it applied only to abortions performed before the “viability” point; that is, the point at which a fetus can survive outside the womb (Knapp, 2001). Although the case of Casey v Planned Parenthood is less famous than Roe v Wade, it is actually more important. Aside from affirming Roe’s abortion right, it broadened the state’s authority to regulate it.
Lots of resources are expended each day by those campaigning against abortion. Meanwhile, some women are living in total poverty, unable to plan their families and raising more children than they are able or willing to. Pro-choice supporters argue that money spent on protests would be better used for social welfare of these women. Knapp (2000) asserts that every day almost 50000 children die for lack of food, clothing, shelter and not being able to access medical care. With the world’s population estimated at around 7 billion, natural resources in some parts of the world are becoming scarce. If these numbers continue to rise at the same pace, soon there will be more mouths to feed than the resources allow.
While pro-choice supporters maintain that all human beings have the right to political, sexual and reproductive freedom, pro-life supporters are opposed to the belief that a pregnant woman should have the freedom to choose an abortion if she does not want to have a baby. Pro-life supporters are also advocating for their religious beliefs to be protected by law. However, in secular societies, church and state are separated. Any anti-abortion law might mean merging church and state, which is illegal since everyone is guaranteed a personal choice of religious affiliation, while the state respects everyone regardless of their faith.
In Casey v Planned Parenthood ruling of 1992, a woman no longer has the unconditional choice to decide what she wants with her body. The State can intervene in cases of viable fetuses or in order to protect the mother’s health. Pro-choice advocates argue that this can be interpreted as if a woman is less important than the fetus she is carrying. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) compares forcing a woman to carry an unwanted fetus to term with cloning a person in order to save another life with using their organs as spare parts. This would mean using a person’s body against one’s wishes to help another human thrive. Pro-choice supporters assert that a woman’s rights supersede those of a fetus because she is an independent social entity, while a fetus is not. If women are to be granted equal rights as men, which would mean having access to better education, jobs and housing, they would have to be guaranteed personal control over their sexual and reproductive rights.
Pro-choice supporters claim that abortion should be legalized in order to minimize the risk of unsafe abortions. A World Health Organization study shows that most unsafe abortions occur in countries with legislation that significantly restricts abortions (Knapp, 2001). In the Republic of Ireland, for example, abortion is illegal, while in Canada, on the other hand, there are no legal restrictions on abortions, although regulations and accessibility might vary between provinces.
An ethical analysis on abortion is centered on the theme of abortion being right or wrong. Furthermore, it discusses the human value of a fetus vs. that of a mother. As was already shown, a fetus cannot be considered a social entity because it is not aware of the self; it does not think, cannot survive on its own and is, therefore, completely dependent on the mother. Pro-choice supporters argue that this gives the mother absolute rights to decide on the fetus’s fate. Even pro-life supporters are usually not totally opposed to abortion. They have come to accept selective abortion in cases of pregnancy putting a mother’s health in danger, or when the baby is conceived as a result of rape or incest, or indeed if the baby has severe deformities, mental or physical defects due to genetic or other illness. Then, there are also cases of mothers who miscarry due to malnutrition or starvation. By all means, the abortion issue is not an ethically simple one.
When the rights of a fetus are concerned, pro-life supporters contend that fetuses are beyond doubt human and that abortion causes them pain and suffering. If a fetus cannot talk or is still not considered a social entity, this does not make it any less human or diminish its right to stay alive. Pro-life supporters claim that a fetus is a potential life, and any threat to it means breaking one of the basic human rights protected in constitutions of almost all countries around the globe. Moreover, abortion can be considered an act of unjust discrimination to the unborn child, depriving him/her of a potential future he/she might have.
To conclude, before 1973 abortion was illegal in the United States. Women having abortions and abortion providers were arrested and sentenced in Court. Abortion was only legal in cases when the pregnancy imperiled a mother’s life. This all changed with the Supreme Court ruling on Roe v Wade. Women saw this as liberation. Nevertheless, the legalization of abortion came with controversies, and debates on this social issue are ongoing to this date in many countries of the world. However, regardless of abortion, responsible family planning has become a necessity for the world’s population exceeding 7 billion. The available resources are becoming overstretched; economies of many countries are failing to meet their citizens’ needs. Bringing an unwanted child into this world brings along hardships for the whole family. More and more children grow up in absolute poverty, without access to proper education or medical care and deprived of any chance of leading a good and dignified life. Providing the necessary resources to those already alive is perhaps a more just cause than spending resources on campaigns for rights of fetuses who have yet not begun life as social entities.
Berer, M. (2004). National laws and unsafe abortion: the parameters of change. Reproductive Health Matters, 12(24): 1–8.
Henslin, J. M. (2008). Social Problems: A Down-To-Earth Approach. (8 ed.). New York, NY: Longman Publishers.
Jones, R. K., Darroch, J. E., Henshaw, S. K. (2002). Contraceptive Use among U.S. Women Having Abortions in 2000-2001. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 34(6): 294–303.
Knapp, L. (2001). Controversy: The Abortion Controversy. Michigan: Greenhaven Press.
Schwarz, S. D. (1990). The Moral Question of Abortion. Chicago: Loyola University Press.