In 1973, through the landmark case of Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court made first trimester abortions legal in the United States. The decision struck down a host of state anti-abortion statutes and was hailed as a landmark of women's reproductive rights. It also gave birth to a vocal umbrella movement of anti-abortion groups which continue to challenge Roe vs. Wade both on moral and legal grounds.
Almost three decades later, the issue of abortion remains the greatest moral flashpoint facing America today. More than any other moral issue, the question of abortion has divided communities, determined the outcome of many elections and incited quiet citizens to become activists.
Perhaps the only point both pro- and anti-abortion activists agree upon is that the battle over abortion rights has caused needless deaths. People who are against abortion, the self-labeled "Pro-Life Movement," point to the 46 million births that are terminated worldwide each year ("Induced Abortions Factsheet"). Pro-Abortion activists, on the other hand, point out the physicians who have been murdered by snipers and clinic workers who have been killed in clinic bombings.
This paper examines the arguments of both sides of the abortion debate. It evaluates the ethical issues underlying the anti-abortion crusade, with particular emphasis on the rights of the fetus. The paper then looks at the pro-abortion movement, focusing on the constitutional underpinnings of reproductive rights. In the conclusion, the paper argues against criminalizing abortion once again, because making abortion a crime will not stop abortions from occurring. Instead, making abortion illegal will only serve to hurt women's reproductive rights without adequately addressing the central concerns of the pro-life movement.
The anti-abortion movement is a diverse group of people who all share one belief - that a fetus is a person and is therefore entitled to protection under the law.
The idea that a fetus is a person rests on several religious and legal principles. Christian theology believes that personhood begins from conception, based on several biblical theories. Jean Schroedel traces this Christian-based principle to the 1869 edict of Pope Pius IX, who decreed that "the fetus, although not ensouled, is directed to the forming of a man. Therefore, its ejection is anticipated homicide" (19-20).
Appeals to religious theology, however, are the weakest part of anti-abortion arguments because religious beliefs differ. Even interpretations of Christian doctrine vary among different theologians. For example, while most Christians believe that the Bible prohibits abortion, members of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice maintain that a fetus is not a person and that the Bible remains silent on the issue of abortion (Ward).
Recent court rulings, however, have given the anti-abortion movement greater legal standing on the question of fetal personhood. In July 2002, the House voted to outlaw third trimester abortions. The bill would allow the procedure only when it is necessary to save a woman's life. Those who performed the procedure for other reasons -- including to avoid adverse health consequences to the woman -- would face fines and up to two years in prison (Dlouhy 2055). In April 2001, a bill allowing homicide charges against some people responsible for the deaths of unborn babies, passed in the Senate (Eilperin A1).
Both measures do not directly attempt to the overturn Roe vs. Wade. However, the extension of legal protection towards fetuses is a step towards recognizing personhood rights for a fetus. These measures have therefore been hailed as a victory by people who lobby for anti-abortion laws.
Aside from Biblical and legal arguments, there is also compelling medical evidence of fetal personhood that contributes to the continued strength of the anti-abortion movement. For example, at conception the embryo is genetically distinct from the mother. It has 23 pairs of chromosomes, its own fingerprints and its own distinct DNA (Alcorn 56).
In addition, fetuses have heartbeats by the 18th day of conception. They have brainwaves by their 40th day. Heartbeats and brainwaves are routinely used to determine medical death. Therefore, anti-abortion advocates argue that the inverse should also be true - the presence of brainwaves and a heartbeat should be recognized as signs of life (Page 3).
In summary, anti-abortion activists base their stand on a combination of religious, moral and medical arguments that confer personhood on a fetus. Since a fetus is a person, abortion is thus viewed as the taking of a life, akin to murder.
The issue of reproductive rights is a crucial part of the feminist movement, which believes that the right to control one's body is central to a person's dignity and independence. For many feminists, the abortion issue boils down to a question of women's rights. There are many other issues, aside from fetal personhood, that inform the abortion debate. These include, as Anne Roiphe states, "the desire to keep women dependent and at home...to prevent the casual sexual encounter out of puritan sensibility, fear of sexual disorder, fear of a world in which life and death are not just God's domain" (141).
For feminists like Roiphe, the agitation against abortion is an agitation against change. Removing a woman's option to terminate her own pregnancy harks back to the time when women were limited to traditional sex roles. Roe vs. Wade has done much more than making abortions legal. The decision has also affected traditional roles and values and has thus eroded the old moral order. Abortion is a contentious issue precisely because it has challenged prevailing standards and caused a fundamental shift in the societal power structures.
Despite the legality of abortion and its importance to women's rights, anti-abortion activists have successfully curtailed several pro-choice gains. More important, the "pro-life" camp's appeals to a higher moral law have successfully placed pro-choice advocates on the defensive.
However, pro-choice advocates also frame their stand on morality. Forcing a woman to continue and unwelcome pregnancy is ultimately harmful to the mother and the child. The creation of unwanted and uncared-for children has a two-fold effect of limiting a woman's potential for both the present and future motherhood. Becoming a mother is a crucial choice and its imposition makes women into slaves of their biology (142).
Abortion opponents view the termination of a pregnancy as an inherently immoral act. For many others, however, the decision not to have a child when there is little basis for the child's well being is itself a moral and protective choice. It is a decision not to further many societal ills, including violence, poverty and the breakdown of the family (Roiphe 142-143). Seen in this light, abortion far from an immoral act.
In addition to abstract arguments about rights and morality, pro-abortion advocates also point to the dangers of criminalizing abortion. Women were already seeking abortions long before Roe vs. Wade. The only difference was the danger to the health of the pregnant woman.
There were from 200,000 to 1.2 million abortions performed from the 1950s to the 1960s, despite the fact that abortion procedures were unsafe and often life-threatening, in addition to being illegal (Politt, 113). In addition, abortions are practiced worldwide, even in countries where the practice is outlawed. Thus, merely making abortion illegal will not stop the practice.
In the United States, two-thirds of women who have abortions do so because they could not afford to raise a child. Around 11% of women who have abortions have never used birth control, and additional statistics show that the non-use of birth control is greatest among young women, and women who are unmarried, poor, black, Hispanic and poorly-educated ("Induced Abortions Factsheet").
In summary, abortion supporters, including many feminists have framed the abortion question as an issue of women's rights. The abortion issue is contentious because it involves a fundamental shift in societal power relations.
In addition, while the personhood of a fetus is debatable, the personhood of a woman is not. Any law that infringes on a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy is thus viewed as immoral for two reasons. First, that law would deny a woman's personhood and control over her own body. Second, to force a woman to bear an unwanted child contributes to greater societal problems.
Finally, criminalizing abortion would leave many women no option but to seek out unsafe, illegal abortion providers. This would place women - particularly the young, the racially and economically-marginalized and the poorly educated - at risk of medical complications or death.
Both sides of the abortion debate have managed to frame their stands based on moral principles. For anti-abortion advocates, the highest moral principle is the personhood of a fetus. Because a fetus is alive and is a person, the termination of a pregnancy is automatically equated with killing.
Abortion advocates, however, present a more nuanced view of morality, one that is grounded on both individual and societal rights. First, a woman's personhood is viewed as paramount. To impose a law defining a fetus as a "person," granting it rights equal to or superior to a woman - diminishes women. Second, to bear…