Abortion debate

debate about whether and under which circumstances should woman be allowed to abort a fetus

The abortion debate is a longstanding, ongoing controversy that touches on the moral, legal, medical, and religious aspects of induced abortion. In English-speaking countries, the debate most visibly polarizes around adherents of the self-described "pro-choice" and "pro-life" movements. Pro-choice emphasizes a woman's right to bodily autonomy, while the pro-life position argues that a fetus is a human deserving of legal protection, separate from the will of the mother. Both terms are considered loaded in mainstream media, where terms such as "abortion rights" or "anti-abortion" are generally preferred.
Each movement has, with varying results, sought to influence public opinion and to attain legal support for its position. Many who take a position argue that abortion is essentially a moral issue, concerning the beginning of human personhood, rights of the fetus, and bodily integrity. The debate has become a political and legal issue in some countries with anti-abortion campaigners seeking to enact, maintain and expand anti-abortion laws, while abortion-rights campaigners seek to repeal or ease such laws and expand access to the procedure. Abortion laws vary considerably between jurisdictions, ranging from outright prohibition of the procedure to public funding of abortion. The availability of safe abortion also varies across the world and exists mainly in places that legalize abortion.


Albert Wynn and Gloria Feldt at the U.S. Supreme Court to rally in support of Roe v. Wade
Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa
The October 2020 Polish protests were caused by severe changes to abortion laws
Members of Bound4LIFE in Washington, D.C. symbolically cover their mouths with red tape.
The 2004 March for Women's Lives near the Washington Monument
  • Earlier this month, Brazilian health minister Jose Gomes Temporao voiced support for a referendum in order to amend existing abortion guidelines. Gomes Temporao said he considers abortion as a "matter of public health" rather than a "religious debate." The minister stated that close to 200,000 Brazilian women have to seek medical treatment following unlawful abortions every year, adding, "From the public health standpoint, I am in favour of legalization."
  • The Argentinean legislature is currently considering legislation that would expand legal abortion rights by modifying the country’s law that currently allows abortion in only very limited cases. Belden Russonello Strategists LLC (formerly Belden Russonello & Stewart) conducted public opinion research for Catholics for Choice regarding Argentineans’ attitudes on abortion, the proposed new legislation, and the influence of Catholic bishops in the abortion debate. The findings reported here are from a survey of 1,002 Argentineans over the age of 18 in cities with a population of 50,000 or more, conducted by telephone from September 9th to 30th .
    Abortion in Argentina is technically legal in very limited circumstances but is generally unobtainable. However, three in ten Argentina residents know someone who has had one, eight in ten think it should be legal in at least some cases, and more than six in ten think political candidates should ignore the views of the Catholic bishops when making policy decisions. These are some of the findings of a new nationwide survey in Argentina commissioned by Catholics for Choice.
  • My examinations of the legal double standard concerning the bodily integrity of pregnant and nonpregnant bodies, the construction of women as fetal incubators, the bestowal of “super-subject” status to the fetus, and the emergence of a father’s-rights ideology will reveal, I believe, that feminist anger and frustration are far from paranoid or anachronistic. I hope they will demonstrate, as well, that the current terms of the abortion debate-as a contest between fetal claims to personhood and women’s right to choose-are limited and misleading. In the context of my analysis in this essay, the current battle over reproductive control emerges as an assault on the personhood of “women”.
  • Here are some of the women's rights arguments in favour of abortion:
    *women have a moral right to decide what to do with their bodies
    *the right to abortion is vital for gender equality
    * the right to abortion is vital for individual women to achieve their full potential
    *banning abortion puts women at risk by forcing them to use illegal abortionists
    *the right to abortion should be part of a portfolio of pregnancy rights that enables women to make a truly free choice whether to end a pregnancy
    This argument reminds us that even in the abortion debate, we should regard the woman as a person and not just as a container for the foetus. We should therefore give great consideration to her rights and needs as well as those of the unborn.
    Pro-choice women's rights activists do not take a casual or callous attitude to the foetus; the opposite is usually true, and most of them acknowledge that choosing an abortion is usually a case of choosing the least bad of several bad courses of action.
  • The strong stance taken by the Roman Catholic Church has underpinned many of the pro-life groups which have been formed to challenge the legalisation of abortion.
    The Church itself has played a major part in the politics of the abortion debate throughout the world.
  • A pregnancy may only be terminated under section 1(1)(a) of the Abortion Act if it has not exceeded 24 weeks. c The majority of abortions carried out in England, Scotland and Wales take place within this time, over 90 per cent of which are carried out at 13 weeks or earlier. This percentage has remained relatively constant over the past decade. Early abortion is generally seen as medically preferable due to the lower risk of complication.
    Amendments made in 1990 to the Abortion Act replaced a pre-existing link to the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 which made it illegal to “destroy the life of a child capable of being born alive”, with an assumption that a child was capable of being born alive after 28 weeks’ gestation. Accordingly, terminations carried out under the remaining grounds may be performed at any gestational age (section 1(1)(b) to 1(1)(d) of the Abortion Act).
    Periodically, calls are made for the legislation to be amended to reduce the 24-week time limit for abortion.
    The concept of viability underpins much of the parliamentary debate around this time limit, despite it being difficult to define. Viability – which takes into account gestation, as well as aspects such as birth weight and underlying medical conditions – is just one factor, however, when considering the abortion time limit.
    Despite provisions for abortion post 24 weeks for serious fetal abnormality under the Abortion Act 1967, there are concerns that women are sometimes encouraged to make decisions before the 24-week time limit due to doctors’ anxieties about the risk of criminal prosecution if their clinical judgment is challenged in relation to a later abortion. This is compounded by the fact that conditions can sometimes not be evident or develop until after 20 weeks; and some hospitals only arrange for pregnant women to have the fetal anomaly scan at 22 weeks when organs and structures are sufficiently developed to permit detailed examination by ultrasound.
    The BMA believes it is critical that women are given the time to make the right decision for them, whether to continue or end a much wanted pregnancy in the second or third trimester, when a diagnosis of a serious or fatal fetal abnormality is made.
    The BMA has longstanding policy that opposes any change to the current time limit for abortion. BMA policy agreed in 2013, holds that in light of the technical limitations of screening at earlier gestational stages, it would be unacceptable to change the time limit for abortion.
  • Roe v. Wade transformed abortion from an unsafe, clandestine procedure to one performed under safe, medical conditions. The 1970s thus saw a reduction in abortion-related complications and deaths as safer options became available to American women choosing to terminate an unplanned pregnancy. Since Roe v. Wade, a full generation of Americans have come to expect abortion services to be available alongside other health services.
    However, the topic of abortion remains one of the most controversial areas of public policy. The intense public debate has allowed us to know more about legally induced abortion than about any other procedure. Although the available medical evidence does not directly address society's moral issues, it allows an objective insight to the health effects of wider access to legal abortion. Despite polarized opposition to the choice of legal abortion, the public health data have helped guide judicial rulings, legislative actions and surgeon general's reports, which have together allowed safer choices for American women of reproductive age.
  • Most providers believed that they experienced at least some level of marginalization within the medical community. Voicing frustrations over medical professionals being discriminatory and unsupportive, providers said this limited their practice, financial gains, and development.
    “Although abortion work is necessary and challenging, I don’t command the same respect or professionalism. I’m tired of being regarded a lesser physician” – Provider.
    Providers expressed that this was more deeply felt because it came from within their own profession. One provider working within a hospital setting described her colleagues as acclimatized to a culture of silence around abortion. Other providers reflected this through their concerns about the absence of medical professionals in the abortion debate.
  • THE TERM ABORTION refers to "any procedure performed primarily for the purpose of terminating a pregnancy."
    Today there is a wide divergence of opinion among lay persons and members of the medical profession on the subject of abortion. Is it ethical and moral for a woman to have an abortion if it is not strictly necessary for her physical or mental welfare? Is it ethical or moral for a physician to perform an abortion? Who has the right to make the decision? And at what point in the pregnancy? Although such questions remain either unresolve or a dilemma for many, abortion laws-once considered inviolable-have been liberalized in a number of states. In recent years, though public and legal opinion has moved in the direction of making abortion decisions a matter between physician and patient, the issue is still often hotly debated.
    In January 1973, the United States Supreme Court lifted all restrictions on a woman's right to a physician-performed abortion during the first three months of pregnancy, saying that during the first three months, the decision to have an abortion lies with the woman and her physician; the woman has a "right of privacy" in which the State cannot interfere. It added that "the abortion decision in all its aspects is inherently and primarily a medical decision, and basic responsibility for it must rest with the physician." The court stressed that a physician cannot be required to perform an abortion if against his judgment or moral principles. The Supreme Court decided that states may "regulate the abortion procedure in ways reasonably related to maternal health" beginning with the fourth month of pregnancy.
    • "Abortion". Where We Stand—CMA Position Papers. 119 (6): p.43 December 1973. Retrieved 24 May 2007.
In another sense, the anti-choice movement has already won: the abortion debate now is being waged not on questions of women’s equality, dignity, and self-determination – these have already been sacrificed by the law as supposedly incompatible with the status of pregnancy.
What is at stake now – what was being debated in court on Wednesday – is how much women can be forced to suffer, how much danger they can be placed in. ~ Moira Donegan
  • The fact of the matter is that the distinction that the anti-choice movement seeks to make, between “life-saving” abortions and merely “health-saving” ones, is empirically impossible to determine: medical risks in pregnancy escalate quickly and unpredictably, meaning that a medical emergency can become life-or-death with little warning. It is unclear whether this fictional distinction is one the court will enshrine in law. But in another sense, the anti-choice movement has already won: the abortion debate now is being waged not on questions of women’s equality, dignity, and self-determination – these have already been sacrificed by the law as supposedly incompatible with the status of pregnancy.
    What is at stake now – what was being debated in court on Wednesday – is how much women can be forced to suffer, how much danger they can be placed in. The anti-choice movement, and its allies on the bench, have shown once again that there is no amount that will satisfy them.
  • The cry is familiar to one of our nation's most divisive debates, but now there is a stranger among the voices. In an October 16, 1995 article in The New Republic, prominent feminist pro-choicer Naomi Wolf sent tremors through the abortion rights movement when she broke ranks by casting abortion in life and death terms, placing it within the moral context that attaches accordingly, and calling upon her fellow activists to do the same.
    Arguing for a new "pro-choice rhetoric," Wolf appeals for the termination of all euphemism and denial in the hope of securing to the pro-choice movement the essential "ethical core" that it has lacked. She believes it both a necessity and an obligation that there be "an abortion-rights movement willing publicly to mourn the evil - necessary evil though it may be - that is abortion." The movement's refusal to do so, she claims, has sacrificed a mass of political support; but more importantly, it has produced "a series of self-delusions, fibs, and evasions," forcing the men and women who are part of it to run the risk of losing what "can only be called [their] soul." For human beings, "[g]rief and respect are the proper tones for all discussions about choosing to endanger or destroy a manifestation of life."
  • For those of us who approached, and, more importantly, who depart from, Wolf's project with pro-life convictions, the response is of course bittersweet. To be sure, Wolf's honesty is refreshing and welcome: someone at the forefront of the pro-choice movement is finally willing to publicly acknowledge what the legitimate elements of the pro-life movement have always taken as their starting point: the humanity of the unborn child.
    But though presumably some pro-lifers will find the urge to utter a few "I told you so's" irresistible, the somber reality is that Naomi Wolf, much like supposed-pro-life-convert Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe), remains, at heart, pro-choice. Granting the evil that is abortion, Wolf and McCorvey remain willing to believe and to say that a woman must be free to choose it; and Wolf at least - we're not sure about McCorvey - is willing to say that such a choice is in some circumstances the right, even obligatory, decision. Clearly, she and we still part ways, even if it is somewhere farther along in the debate than previously.
  • As polarizing a topic as abortion can be for the general public, it roils the disability community even more. Many of the families know what it’s like to face the difficult decisions leading up to continuing a pregnancy, even if a child’s health could be at risk.
    Such legislation would make those decisions more fraught and tenuous for them. Some argue the measures would protect them, or their children. Others counter the bills takes aim at the core issue of the disability rights movement, the right to make decisions about one’s body. 
  • Philosophically, selective abortion is challenging for people who are involved in disability rights. 
    In places such as Denmark and Iceland where prenatal testing is available to every woman, the rates of children with Down syndrome have plummeted. In the U.S. about 6,000 children with the disability are born annually. 
    “The ethics implications are complicated,” said Corye Dunn, Director of Public Policy for Disability Rights North Carolina, who explained that Down syndrome is one of the first genetic conditions that could be detected by prenatal testing, and it’s relatively simple to diagnose accurately.
  • The National Down Syndrome Society has also waded into the deep end of the debate with statements on its website in support of prenatal screening to allow “for advanced awareness, adoption or pregnancy termination considerations.
    “Whether or not to undergo a prenatal screening or diagnostic test is a personal decision, and expectant parents must make the choice that is best for them.” 
    As in so many debates about abortion, the conflict comes down to a collision of rights to liberty between the fetus and the woman. 
  • In 1992 the Christian Life Commission (CLC) of the BGCT released a pamphlet entitled "Abortion and the Christian Life." Harsh criticism of the CLC resulted; in the course of ensuing debate the CLC revised the paper and released a modified version in 1994. The revised version remains controversial among Texas Baptists. The following analysis will first review positive aspects of the paper and then examine negative aspects.
    • Johnston, Wm. Robert (24 December 2002). "Evaluation of the BGCT Christian Life Commission's "Abortion and the Christian Life"". Committee Report. First Baptist Church, Brownsville, Texas. Archived from the original on 11 April 2007. Retrieved 2 September 2016.
  • In the debate over abortion we see various exceptions under which abortion is proposed to be permitted. The following represents a list of some representative exceptions in roughly decreasing order of acceptance by Americans:
    1. to save the physical life of the mother
    2. in the case of rape or incest
    3. of a baby expected to die of congenital/developmental defects
    4. endangering the physical health of the mother
    5. of a baby with severe congenital/developmental defects
    6. endangering the mental/emotional health of the mother
    7. of a baby who will enter an abusive or poverty-stricken family
    8. of a baby of an adolescent too young to be a "mother"
    9. of a baby conceived out of wedlock
    10. for birth control
    11. of a baby of undesired gender
    Many pro-lifers allow no exceptions, arguing that weighing one life against another should only be left to God. Most Americans accept exception #1; the Southern Baptist Convention has passed several resolutions making this exception, and at least one officer of the SBTC has made statements accepting this exception. Recent SBTC resolutions on abortion, if taken literally, do not condone this exception, however. Probably a majority of Texas Baptists accept exceptions #1 and 2. The CLC position paper accepts #1-6. Most Americans reject exception #11. No exceptions whatsoever is the trademark of the pro-choice (i.e. pro-abortion) position--and is also prevailing law in the United States.
    • Johnston, Wm. Robert (24 December 2002). "Evaluation of the BGCT Christian Life Commission's "Abortion and the Christian Life"". Committee Report. First Baptist Church, Brownsville, Texas. Archived from the original on 11 April 2007. Retrieved 2 September 2016.
  • Devon Mihesuah quotes an American Indian woman who was present at the takeover at wounded Knee: “In your culture you have lots of problems with men. Maybe we do too, but we don’t have time to worry about sexism. We worry about survival.” Reading through these country studies, one finds that many of the women are doing just that-surviving. Poor women’s resistance to patriarchal norms is usually less obvious than the loud protests and lobbying organize by largely middle-class activists, who have the luxury of being politically engaged. A common misconception persists that women, particularly poor women, are apathetic or ignorant about their own rights. While it is true that women are not very visible in the public debates in a few of these countries, one must not underestimate the role of human agency. Even under difficult circumstances, women employ sophisticated ways of resisting and rebelling against unjust systems in their lives. However, even though they are invested in making independent decisions, it is far more difficult to do this successfully within a larger system that oppresses women and attempts to deny their power. Prevailing patriarchal ideology undermines women’s efforts to claim control over their lives. Yet women are not rendered helpless as a result.
  • There is essentially no debate in Uganda today about legalizing abortion, and several respondents felt that the reaction to the topic is so extreme that is will be years before any progress is made in liberalizing the abortion law. Uganda is a primarily conservative Christian country in which most people believe abortion to be murder. Owomuhangi points out that Uganda has historically been divided among religious lines-Protestant, Catholic, and Muslin-as well as ethnic lines. “I can[t see the president, coming from a Protestant background, coming out in favor of abortion and cutting off the Catholics. At least now, they are trying to heal political wounds, not divide them more.”
    Dr. Ebanyat points out that even if abortion were legalized, the facilities and supplies needed to provide abortions are not forthcoming. “we still have a lot of room where we can do a lot without getting in anyone’s way.” Dr. Kyeyune concurs, “When we are thinking of having an advocacy issue in a network we say legalizing abortion and everybody says, ‘No, let us start with things which can be achieved!” Yet Kyeyune is optimistic that someday the laws will change. She points to the AIDS epidemic as an example; when AIDS first became a problem in Uganda, “it wasn’t okay to talk to children about sex. […] It was a moral issue,” but as the problem came to affect more families, the silence was broken.
  • The dearth of research conducted on abortion complicates the matter. Dr. Jotham Musinguzi, a doctor in support of liberalizing the abortion law explains, “The reason why some of us have not gone out to explode on it is basically because we think we need to collect some more information about what unsafe abortion is doing to our maternal mortality, and once we have the data then we can go out and talk to all these people and work with civil society.” Musinguzi argues that, given pressure from civil society to change the abortion law, the government may be willing to at least engage in an informed debate on the topic A study of fifty-three abortion experts in Uganda found that two-thirds support liberalizing the current law. Nevertheless, serious consideration of the issue among the general public appears to be in the distance.
  • If we are insensitive to it, we can be blinkered by context. Questions about our moral obligations to fetuses that are not yet born, but whom the pregnant woman chooses to carry to term, have been twice swallowed up: once, by a confusion between public policies and moral judgments; and again by the presumption that these questions are just another manifestation of the abortion debate Abortion itself, the bête noire of bioethics, has in recent years been framed as a metaphysical dispute over whether and when fetuses are persons. This framing itself has a context and a function. It is not the only way of framing the debate over abortion, and there is good reason to think that it is an extremely unhelpful way of phrasing the question-neat, simple, and irreconcilable-that has allowed both sides to believe in their own moral purity while blocking dialogue and compromise.
  • Abortion has become the prototype of an unsettled, perhaps intractable, moral dispute. It comes as the last, rather than the first, issue in the book because I wanted the reader to decide whether the style of argument and the emphasis on context were illuminating before I brought them to bear on abortion. In “Abortion and the Place of Motherhood” I explore the use of images in moral rhetoric about abortion and reflect n what transforms apparent disagreements over metaphysical issues, such as when personhood begins, into fierce social battles. Other, equally “fundamental,” disagreements exist without undermining social peace. I argue that the energy for the battle is supplied by competing threads in the tapestry-different images of women’s flourishing-that are perceived by activists on both sides as incompatible. The struggle over abortion, that is, can be seen as a struggle over what gives shape and meaning to the lives of women, specifically the place of childbearing and motherhood. Moving the focus of debate from intractable metaphysical disagreements to arguments about women’s roles might open up lines of dialogue and possibilities for compromise that are unavailable in the abstractions of metaphysics.
  • Millennials are less supportive of legal abortion than their demographic profile would suggest.
    * Millennials generally have traits associated with higher levels of support for the legality of abortion: they are more educated, more liberal, and more likely to be religiously unaffiliated.
    *Millennials exemplify the decoupling of attitudes on legal abortion and same-sex marriage. They are much more likely than the general public to favor same-sex marriage, but they are not significantly more likely than the general public to support the legality of abortion (60% vs. 56% in the general public).
    * Millennials have largely positive top of mind associations with same-sex marriage but have largely negative top of mind associations with abortion.
    *Millennials are conflicted about the morality of abortion, but most say same gender sexual relationships are morally acceptable. Nearly 6-in-10 (57%) Millennials say sex between two adults of the same gender is morally acceptable, compared to only 46% who say having an abortion is morally acceptable.
    *Unlike all other age groups, Millennials register different levels of support for the availability and legality of abortion. On the one hand, Millennials are strongly committed to the availability of abortion and are significantly more likely than the general public to say that at least some health care professionals in their community should provide legal abortions (68% vs. 58% respectively). But they are no more likely than the general public to say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. These findings suggest general measures of legality may not fully capture support for legal abortion among Millennials.
    On the issue of abortion, Americans hold complex and sometimes contradictory views, and grasping this complexity is critical for understanding the dynamics of the debate.
  • Despite the polarizing rhetoric in the public debate, when given the opportunity, a significant number of Americans identify simultaneously as both “pro-life” and “pro-choice.” For example, 7-in-10 Americans say the term “pro-choice” describes them somewhat (32%) or very (38%) well, and nearly two-thirds of Americans simultaneously say the term “pro-life” describes them somewhat (31%) or very (35%) well.
    This overlapping identity is present in virtually every demographic group. For example, while three-quarters of Millennials identify with the term “pro-choice,” 65% also say “pro-life” describes them at least somewhat well; among seniors, nearly two-thirds identify as both pro-choice (65%) and pro-life (66%). With the exception of white evangelical Protestants, solid majorities of every major religious group say both terms describe them at least somewhat well. Eighty percent of white evangelical Protestants say the term “pro-life” describes them at least somewhat well, but still nearly half (48%) also say the term “pro-choice” describes them at least somewhat well. There is also a high degree of overlap among both women and men, with each gender group closely mirroring the general population.
  • Abortion before 20 weeks is like contraception. It is no different from discarding a sperm and an egg, or an embryo, or a skin cell. Preventing a person from coming into existence does prevent a future of value, but it is not the same as killing. Destroying a lump of clay is not the same as destroying a fine statue. Destroying one of Rodin’s statues and destroying one of the lumps of clay in his studio both deprive the world of a future of value. But destroying the statue is worse than destroying the lump of clay.
    The Marquis-Brown debate has been important for at least two reasons. Firstly, Marquis’s argument is one of the most robust and plausible arguments against abortion. This debate has clarified several points of difference between Marquis and those like Brown who support abortion. These arguments are of great practical consequence. Embryonic stem cell research is one of the most important public issues facing us. Marquis’s argument is one of the most plausible arguments that would establish that embryo destruction is wrong.
    In sum, Marquis establishes an argument that there are reasons against having an abortion (and by extension to contraception and embryo research). But that argument is defeasible. It is an argument that identifies one important property associated with killing fetuses or embryos. But it does not establish that either abortion or embryo destruction is wrong, all things considered. There are other important considerations that outweigh our obligation not to destroy embryos or fetuses. In the case of embryonic stem cell research, the enormous potential to save people’s lives and to improve their quality of life outweighs the wrong of the destruction of some embryos.
  • In much of the current debate on the abortion issue, the fact that abortion is a highly effective method of birth control has received little emphasis. Since the introduction of the newer medical methods of contraception (oral pill, IUD) it has become widely, but erroneously, assumed that effective family planning has become a reality in America. Analysis of the limitations of our current system of contraceptive services reveals that the present high rate of unwanted births (800,000 per year) probably cannot be significantly reduced by reliance on contraception alone. Legalization of abortion is the only feasible way that we can approach the traditional family planning goal of "every child a wanted child" in the foreseeable future.
    If, by legalization of abortion, a high proportion of the 800,000 unwanted births now occurring annually can be prevented, this would make legalizing abortion one of the most useful and effective social reform measures available in our society. Among social benefits that would result from prevention of 800,000 unwanted births each year are: 1) decrease in the U.S. birthrate by more than 50 per cent, 2) substantial slowing of the rate of environmental deterioration, allowing antipollution technology to begin to catch up with unmet needs, 3) significant decrease in the incidence of poverty, 4) improvement in the quality of child care, leading to decrease in the potential incidence of criminality, psychosis, drug addiction, alcoholism, and other severe disorders of behavior.
    These social benefits can be achieved without the excessive costs that doom most desirable social reform measures to the political graveyard. Legalization of abortion would not cost enormous sums of taxpayers' money, would not require an increase in government bureaucracy or regulation of private life, and would not require massive change in public attitudes.
  • This paper argues that the pro-life versus pro-choice paradigm for understanding reproductive rights is a model that marginalizes women off color, poor women, women with disabilities, and women from other marginalized communities. The pro-life versus pro-choice paradigm serves to both reify and mask the structures of white supremacy and capitalism that undergird the reproductive choices that women make. While both camps of the pro-choice and pro-life debate give lip service to addressing the concerns of women of color, in the end the manner in which both articulate the issues at stake contributes to their support of political positions that are racist and sexist and which do nothing to support either life or real choice for women of color. Instead, women of color activists should develop alternative paradigms for articulating reproductive justice that make critiques of capitalism and criminalization central to the analysis rather than simply expand either pro-choice or pro-life frameworks.
  • A nuanced and shifting landscape emerges from this investigation. As the debates over this issue have shown, both sides can muster evidence: there is case law - albeit very little - that seems to classify abortion as murder without reference to stages of fetal development, and there are cases and other material which seem to regard abortion as less serious, some appearing to disregard it altogether. Part of the reason for this very real confusion is that medieval and early modern England did not have a single unified legal system, though one was evolving: law was still partly related to local custom and could vary from place to place; multiple court systems were in play; ecclesiastical law and common law had contested and at times overlapping jurisdiction. At the level of enforcement - often this is all the records show us - officers of the law were “often partisan or highly erratic in their performance.” These factors make it difficult to establish the conclusive answers each side in the modern abortion debate seeks. Rather, therefore, than taking part in this “either-or” polemic, this article tries to reconcile seemingly contradictory evidence by putting it in its cultural context and letting the full picture, in all its complexity and ambiguity, emerge.
  • “PiS MPs decided to use a politicised Constitution Tribunal to condemn women to give birth to children unable to survive,” said Agnieszka Dziemianowicz-Bąk, an MP of the Left. “Instead of a debate in parliament on women’s rights, they decided to legalise torture through the back door.”

"Fetal Personhood and the Sorites Paradox" (June 1998)


Kerckhove, Lee F.; Waller, Sara (June 1998). "Fetal Personhood and the Sorites Paradox". The Journal of Value Inquiry. 32 (2): 175–189. doi:10.1023/a:1004375726894. PMID 15295850. S2CID 37563125.

  • In the public sphere, debate about the morality of abortion continues to take place largely in terms of fetal personhood. One reason for this is that the concept of fetal personhood can apparently serve as a starting point from which to begin a rational discussion of the abortion issue. Although pro-abortion and anti-abortion advocates cannot agree when a fetus becomes a person, participants on both sides of the debate can agree that, at some point in its development, a fetus is or becomes a person. Advocates on both sides can also agree on some form of moral principle to the effect that, in all but the most extreme situations, it is morally wrong to kill an innocent person. (1) Therefore, if the beginning of fetal personhood could be established, then the point prior to which abortion might be considered morally permissible, and after which it would be considered morally wrong, could also be established. Although this argument is problematic, its attraction is obvious because the question of when a fetus becomes a person looks deceptively like many other factual issues that can be resolved objectively by well-established means. Unfortunately, however, attempts to resolve the question of when fetal personhood begins have been as controversial as the problem of abortion.
    • p.175
  • Until recently, philosophical arguments about the moral status of abortion also focused on the issue of fetal personhood. The popularity of such arguments has waned, however, as philosophers continue to raise serious doubts about resolving the abortion debate in terms of personhood. Personhood, it is argued, is not only an arbitrary designation, it is also vague and question-begging. Many philosophers contend, moreover, that personhood is irrelevant to the moral status of abortion. Such arguments can be found on both sides of the debate. Judith Jarvis Thomson argues that even if a fetus is a person, it is still morally permissible to abort it. Don Marquis argues that abortion is immoral, not because of the personhood of the fetus, but because it deprives a fetus of a future like ours.
    Despite these arguments, however, some philosophers are not convinced that it is possible or necessary to eliminate the concept of personhood from the abortion debate. Some philosophers have argued that personhood is not irrelevant to the views of Thomson and Marquis. Others have argued that the concept of personhood may be salvageable through linguistic reform. David S. Levin, for example, suggests that the vagueness of the concept of personhood can be addressed in the same way that we deal with other vague concepts, through stipulation.
    • pp.175-176
  • We offer an argument designed to undermine any attempt to reform the concept of personhood. We will argue that being a person is not merely a vague predicate. It is a predicate that is susceptible to a particularly pernicious form of vagueness. The form of vagueness we have in mind is that which produces sorites paradoxes. The sorites paradox of personhood allows equally valid, but mutually contradictory, arguments to be constructed concerning the moral status of the fetus. The polarization of the abortion debate into rigid pro-abortion and anti-abortion positions illustrates the effects of the sorites paradox. In order to retain a useful concept of personhood it would be necessary to either eliminate the vagueness of the concept or to resolve sorites paradoxes in general. We argue that both of these alternatives are unpromising. We conclude that a rational resolution of the moral debate over abortion requires that we move away from fetus-centered arguments and toward a more holistic perspective in which the interests of the fetus as a moral patient are relevant, but not decisive. The language of moral patiency provides the basis for common ground upon which to consider the interests of not only the fetus and the mother, but also the interests of all other patients, without the confrontational tendency inherent in the language of rights.
    • p.176
  • The central question in the debate over fetal personhood is the following: At what point in its development does a being that is genetically human attain the moral and legal status associated with being a person? Almost every conceivable point in the spectrum of development from conception to infancy has been taken as decisive for determining the beginning of personhood, including conception, quickening, viability, consciousness, birth, self-consciousness, or some complex combination of these properties. The inability of philosophers to reach a consensus about the starting point of personhood has led to numerous criticisms of any attempt to resolve the abortion debate in this way.
    • p.176
  • The idea that personhood is irrelevant to the abortion debate has been developed in a number of different ways. Judith Jarvis Thomson offers a defense of abortion based on the well-known famous violinist example. Using this example, she concludes that even if a fetus has a right to life, it does not follow that it possesses the right not to be killed by anybody:
    [H]aving a right to life does not guarantee having either a right to be given the use of or a right to be allowed continued use of another person’s body – even if one needs it for life itself.
    • p.177
  • Like Thomson, Don Marquis also believes that personhood is irrelevant to the abortion debate. In contrast to Thomson, however, he argues that abortion is immoral because by means of abortion the fetus is deprived of its future: The future of a standard fetus includes a set of experiences, projects, activities, and such which are identical with the futures of adult human beings and are identical with the futures of young children. Since the reason that is sufficient to explain why it is wrong to kill human beings after the time of birth is a reason that also applies to fetuses, it follows that abortion is prima facie seriously morally wrong.
    • p.177
  • Of course, if being a person could be defined so as to avoid vagueness, then the concept of personhood would avoid the sorites paradox. Many such definitions were discussed earlier. But all of the definitions, or any combina tion of them, must be vague in the borderline sense. The argument for this strong conclusion rests on the idea that any definition of “is a person” must appeal either to some physical property, or set of physical properties, or it must appeal to some non-physical property, or set of non-physical properties. If we select physical properties to define what a person is, a long list of possibilities emerges, including viability, quickening, consciousness, birth, number of cells, possession of human DNA, and chronological age. Physical properties can be either qualitative or quantitative. Physical properties that are most clearly qualitative lead us down a slippery slope. For example, the property of viability falls prey to a continuum of ever-advancing technology. Each medical advance moves the date of viability further down the continuum, making any predicate defined in terms of viability subject to change. Similarly, the claim that something possesses human DNA is a judgment based on similarity to all known human DNA. But what are the precise constraints indicating which protein sequence is human DNA and which is not? Along a continuum of possible DNA sequences rests the specifically human DNA structure, and with each minute mutation we can ask: “Is it still human?” With this question the sorites paradox returns.
    Definitions of what a person is that can be measured quantitatively are even more easily found to lead to a sorites paradox. Factors such as numbers of cells, seconds or minutes of age, or size are all found along a continuum, and at every point along the continuum we can ask what the result would be if a single unit was added or removed.
    The only remaining possibility is to define what a person is in terms of some non-physical property or set of properties. Examples of this sort of definition include the possession of consciousness or self-consciousness, the possession of a future like ours, intrinsic human dignity, the ability to feel pain, or some combination of these properties. The pressing issue is how any of these crucial properties might be measured. How can we determine the point at which a fetus attains consciousness, or a possible future like ours? If the terms of the measurement are physical, then a continuum develops, and with it develops a sorites paradox. If the terms of the measurement are not physical, then any judgment as to whether or not a fetus possesses the property cannot be confirmed or disconfirmed by appeal to facts. Considerations such as these lead to Macklin’s conclusion that an ascription of personhood may be little more than a reflection of moral prejudice. Appeals to non-physical properties will not resolve the debate over the morality of abortion because, to a large extent, the debate is a disagreement over whether or not a fetus possesses such non-physical properties.
    • pp.181-182
  • While context bears on linguistic usage and rational judgment, and seems a prominent and important consideration in the solution to any sorites paradox, when we again ask the question of fetal personhood, we find that the solution of context leads to equally troubling results. Which contexts are the proper ones to assign the status of person to a fetus? Burns urges us to stop applying strict rules to loosely governed predicates, but what happens when a decision about whether or not to terminate a fetus must be made? We cannot make a loose decision here. Indeed, fine lines must be drawn. If Thorpe believes that we equivocate over what a person is due to changes in context along only one continuum, then equivocation must run rampant in the debate over the meaning of what a person is, but nowhere is there a clear answer as to when a fetus becomes a person. Raffman explains the paradox in terms of psychological differences in judgment that are influenced by the starting point of the judge and by comparative versus categorical judgment. But certainly we do not want such frailties of human judgments to determine our moral dilemmas for us. Though psychological approaches may explain how sorites paradoxes come about, they are not very satisfying when issues such as that of personhood come along. We would not want an observer to change her mind about whether or not a fetus is a person, even if the observer experienced a gestalt shift or encountered a new context in which to judge. The point of solving a moral debate is not to succumb to human psychological quirks. What is desired is a non-variable, non-psychological method for determining when it is permissible to abort a zygote, embryo, or fetus, if ever, and when it is not.
    • pp.185-186
  • There is no need to claim, as Unger does, that there are no tables-in-themselves. We can remain metaphysically agnostic about the conceiver-in- dependent existence of persons, tables, and other middle-sized objects. But Unger’s solution remains compelling because it comes with the realization that morally charged vague terms, such as “person” will inevitably lead to paradox that cannot be stipulated away. While we can save vague terms that are philosophically innocuous through stipulation, Unger is correct in recognizing that some vague terms cannot be saved along with a paradox-free discussion. If the debate is to continue, it must do so along different lines.
    Where does this leave us with respect to the moral debate over abortion? We believe that our argument supports the conclusion that the abortion debate should no longer be conducted in terms of fetal personhood. We have argued that any attempt to define what a person is will be subject to the sorites paradox. We have also argued that attempts to resolve the sorites paradox are unconvincing from a moral point of view. As a result of these conclusions we believe that it is time to question the presuppositions that have motivated prior attempts to define what a person is. It seems that what unites such attempts, whether they be pro-abortion or anti-abortion, is the desire to establish a single, definitive solution to the moral dilemma of abortion. But if the question of what a person is cannot be settled, then it appears that no definitive solution to the abortion debate can be established along these lines. This indicates that perhaps the time has come to reject global resolutions to the problem of abortion in favor of a more relativistic approach to the problem.
    One way to do this is with the language of rights. A rights based approach has the benefit of allowing the rights of the fetus and the rights of the mother to be discussed and evaluated within the same conceptual framework, allowing at least the possibility of reaching a rational resolution of the conflict. One drawback of this approach is that it is difficult to make sense of the idea of fetal rights without first clarifying fetal personhood, which is precisely what our argument has ruled out. Moreover, a rights-based approach to the moral dilemma of abortion can be objected to on empirical grounds as an unsatisfactory way to rationally resolve the issue because of its tendency to increase conflicts.
    • pp. 187
  • As a promising alternative to the questions of personhood and rights, we suggest that the debate shift to the question of balancing interests. One way this could be done would be to acknowledge that all participants in the abortion issue are moral patients whose interests carry differing degrees of weight in different situations. The goal of moral deliberation in each particular case would then be to maximize the best interests of all concerned. In some cases this might entail that the interests of the fetus override those of the mother, or, in other cases, that the interests of the mother override those of the fetus. It is even conceivable that in some cases the interests of the father or the state, which are now considered to lie the periphery of the decision whether or not to abort, could come to the forefront in particular cases and override both the interests of the fetus and the mother. This implies that the pressing philosophical task is not to come up with alternative definitions of what a person is, but rather to establish a rational means to weigh claims of interest. Of course, this approach to the problem will be rejected by philosophers who seek an absolute, context-free solution to the abortion debate. If this approach is rejected, however, it is only at the expense of having to bear the burden of the sorites paradox.
    • p.188

"Abortion issues today – a position paper" (February 2002)


Lee, Ellie; Ann Furedi (February 2002). "Abortion issues today – a position paper" (PDF). Legal Issues for Pro-Choice Opinion – Abortion Law in Practice. University of Kent, Canterbury, CT2 7NY, UK.

  • Outright opposition to all abortion is now a minority view. Most debate about abortion now focuses not on the issue of abortion per se but on specific types of abortion or certain reasons for abortion. In this paper we examine why opposition to all abortion has become a minority view; we then discuss examples where abortion remains controversial, and put forward arguments in support of a woman's right to choose in these instances; and finally consider, and refute, the case made mainly by opponents of abortion, that abortion on various grounds constitutes a risk to women's health.
    • p.1
  • Some in the medical profession shares public unease about late abortion. Developments in neo-natal medicine have created a situation where, sometimes - albeit very rarely – babies born as early as 22 weeks gestation, two weeks earlier than the legal time limit for most abortions, can be kept alive. Influential columnist and science writer Greg Easterbrook has unsettled both pro- and anti-choice lobbies in the US with an article in The New Republic that calls for a reshaping of the abortion debate to incorporate new scientific understanding. Easterbrook argued that, in the past, law and religion defined our understanding of abortion because science had little to say. This, he claims, has changed. The case for liberal provision of early abortion is strengthened by evidence that the natural termination of potential life through spontaneous miscarriage in early pregnancy is far more common than previously assumed - but discoveries about the brain activity of the more developed fetus stand as an argument against late abortion. Easterbrook believes this is a message those of us who support women’s right to abortion are keen to ignore lest we are compelled to trade off liberal earlier abortion for restrictions on those in later pregnancy.
    As Easterbrook contends, published studies of fetal brain activity and neurological responses have helped to create a sense that post 21 week fetuses should be treated like new-borns. The fact that these studies are contested has failed to halt a sense, even within the medical profession, that the termination of fetal life at this stage is something in need of review. The number of gynaecologists prepared to carry out late abortions is declining, and increasingly NHS trusts refer their ‘late cases’ to the specialist abortion provider, British Pregnancy Advisory Service.
    Under British law, the shift of concern as pregnancy progresses away from the woman, and towards the fetus, is in fact already formalised. 'Fetal viability', is accepted as the criteria by which the legality, or illegality, of abortion is determined, and as a result, after 24 weeks, abortion is in general not legally permissible.
    • p.6
  • Greater knowledge about the causes of pain can only be beneficial to society, and it is important that clinicians do 'do the right thing' where neonates and infants are concerned. It is however extremely unfortunate that a discussion about best clinical practice for new-born babies has led to a debate, based on the notion that a fetus can feel pain, about the 'problem' of late abortion.
    • p.10
  • The main cause of the debate about abortion and fetal pain is in fact public pronouncements made by scientists with no connection to the anti-abortion lobby. Professor Vivette Glover of Queen Charlotte's Hospital for example, has ensured the issue has stayed in the news, with her frequently expressed concern that fetuses undergoing late abortion may feel pain. Her case is that the present state of knowledge about pain does not allow us to be sure that fetuses do not feel pain, hence we should 'err on the side of caution' and give fetuses anaesthetic when a late abortion is to be performed on a woman.
    • p.10
  • Together with late abortion, another kind of abortion, where the procedure takes place because fetal abnormality of some kind is strongly suspected, has become increasingly contentious. Where in 1967, when abortion was made legal, fetal abnormality was construed a 'good' reason for abortion, today the opposite seems the case. This kind of abortion is now considered at best ethically difficult, at worst eugenic. The problematisation of abortion for abnormality can be discussed with reference to three groups, whose views have, to differing degrees, shaped the debate.
    • p.11
  • Does abortion for abnormality encourage discrimination against disabled people? No it does not, since it is possible to make a judgement or express an attitude towards a particular condition, without in any way imputing an attitude towards the value of people who suffer from that condition.
    Most people would say they thought malaria was a bad thing, and that it would be better if people did not suffer from it. This does not mean they take a negative attitude towards people who suffer from that illness. The same applies with abortion for fetal abnormality. There is no reason to assume that a woman's choice not to bear a child which suffers from spina bifida or Down's syndrome implies she believes such people should not be born, or be supported. It simply implies that she does not wish to be a mother to one.
    Issues relating to disability rights and those relating to abortion are completely different. At the heart of the issues of abortion (as the anti-choice lobby knows full well) is autonomy in reproductive decision making, and, whether the fetus is abnormal or not, the ability for individuals to make such decisions must be primary. In a similar vein, the demand from some people with disabilities to be able to screen their pregnancies in such a way that a child with a disability results can also be defended on the same grounds. Since women, and their partners, disabled or not, have to live with the consequences of reproductive decisions, they must be able to make the decisions they perceive to be moral and appropriate.
    Ultimately this is the issue which is at the heart of the abortion debate. However, the failure of anti-choice organisations to make a convincing argument against reproductive autonomy means they now try to duck the issue, and instead cloak their arguments in the language of disabled rights.
    • p.14

See also

Wikipedia has an article about:
Wikisource has original works on the topic: