The Abortion Debate

Adedayo Adeniyi November 13, 2008 Expository writing An abortion is the termination of a pregnancy by the removal or expulsion of an embryo or fetus from the uterus, resulting in or caused by its death. An abortion can occur spontaneously due to complications during pregnancy or can be induced. Abortion as a term most commonly refers to the induced abortion of a human pregnancy, while spontaneous abortions are usually termed miscarriages. Abortion has a long history and has been induced by various methods including herbal abortifacients, the use of sharpened tools, physical trauma and other traditional methods.

Modern medicine utilizes medications and surgical procedures to induce abortion. The legality, prevalence, and cultural views on abortion vary substantially around the world. In many parts of the world there is intense public debate over the ethical and legal aspects of abortion. The approximate number of induced abortions performed worldwide in 2003 was 42 million, which declined from nearly 46 million in 1995 Induced abortion can be traced to ancient times.

There is evidence to suggest that, historically, pregnancies were terminated through a number of methods, including the administration of abortifacient herbs, the use of sharpened implements, the application of abdominal pressure, and other techniques. The Hippocratic Oath, the chief statement of medical ethics for Hippocratic physicians in Ancient Greece, forbade doctors from helping to procure an abortion by pessary. Soranus, a second-century Greek physician, suggested in his work Gynaecology that women wishing to abort their pregnancies should engage in energetic exercise, energetic jumping, carrying heavy objects, and riding animals.

He also prescribed a number of recipes for herbal baths, pessaries, and bloodletting, but advised against the use of sharp instruments to induce miscarriage due to the risk of organ perforation. It is also believed that, in addition to using it as a contraceptive, the ancient Greeks relied upon silphium as an abortifacient. Such folk remedies, however, varied in effectiveness and were not without risk. Tansy and pennyroyal, for example, are two poisonous herbs with serious side effects that have at times been used to terminate pregnancy.

Abortion in the 19th century continued, despite bans in both the United Kingdom and the United States, as the disguised, but nonetheless opens, advertisement of services in the Victorian era suggests. In the 20th century the Soviet Union (1919), Iceland (1935) and Sweden (1938) were among the first countries to legalize certain or all forms of abortion. In 1935 Nazi Germany, a law was passed permitting abortions for those deemed “hereditarily ill,” while women considered of German stock were specifically prohibited from having abortions.

In the history of abortion, induced abortion has been the source of considerable debate, controversy, and activism. An individual’s position on the complex ethical, moral, philosophical, biological, and legal issues is often related to his or her value system. Opinions of abortion may be best described as being a combination of beliefs on its morality, and beliefs on the responsibility, ethical scope, and proper extent of governmental authorities in public policy. Religious ethics also has an influence upon both personal opinion and the greater debate over abortion (see religion and abortion).

When it began in the 1960s, the movement to legalize abortion “was just a brave tiny army. ” 1 There were no large national organizations with professional staffs advocating legal abortion. Nevertheless, a movement did take shape and in 1973 abortion became legal throughout the United States. How did this social movement emerge, and what did it look like before Roe v. Wade? An “insider” model of social movements would predict that the movement arose from within established institutions, with support from elites, or that professional movement organizers engineered the movement.

After legalization of abortion, as we shall see, the movement did indeed develop professional leader ship and formalized organizational structures, which played a major role in maintaining the pro-choice movement. But before Roe v. Wade, the movement relied much more on the challenging groups of the 1960s, including the women’s movement, than on the world of established interest groups. Nevertheless, the movement was not a complete “outsider” to the established political process.

The abortion movement mobilized both grass-roots constituents activated by other movements of the 1960s and individuals with many years of experience in established political and voluntary organizations. [ page 13 Staggenborg, Suzanne. Pro-Chioce Movement: Organization and Activism in the Abortion Conflict. ] Although the pro-choice movement remained mobilized, its tactical position changed after Roe v. Wade. Following such a decisive victory, collective actors might be expected to push for further advantages, but pro-choice forces soon found themselves on the defensive.

Movement organizations like NARAL initially did make proactive demands regarding women’s access to quality abortion services, but they soon became preoccupied with reactive tactics aimed at fending off countermovement attacks on Roe v. Wade. 1 Women’s movement organizations, particularly local women’s liberation groups, which had never viewed legalization of abortion as an end in itself, were anxious to push forward with their multi-issue agenda, but they too had to concern themselves with keeping abortion legal.

Had there not been an anti-abortion countermovement, the pro-choice movement as a whole might have broadened its goals after legalization to encompass issues such as national health insurance. As it was, the movement became more and more narrowly focused on defending legal abortion, although some feminist groups continued to maintain broad concerns. In addition to becoming more reactive, the movement’s tactics also became more institutionalized in the period after Roe v. Wade. This occurred as a number of movement organizations opened offices in Washington, D. C. and began to develop a pro-choice lobby to protect legal abortion with the support of established organizations. In the process, the structures of these movement organizations were adjusted to facilitate participation in conventional interest-group politics. At the same time, local women’s liberation groups, which were geared toward less orderly protest tactics, began to decline, thereby decreasing the proportion of “direct action” in the movement. [page 66] Abortion debates, especially pertaining to abortion laws, are often spearheaded by advocacy groups belonging to one of two camps.

In the United States, most often those in favor of greater legal restrictions on, or even complete prohibition of abortion, describe themselves as pro-life while those against legal restrictions on abortion describe themselves as pro-choice. Both are used to indicate the central principles in arguments for and against abortion: “Is the fetus a human being with a fundamental right to life? ” for pro-life advocates, and, for those who are pro-choice, “Does a woman have the right to choose whether or not to continue a pregnancy? In both public and private debate, arguments presented in favor of or against abortion focus on either the moral permissibility of an induced abortion, or justification of laws permitting or restricting abortion. Arguments on morality and legality tend to collide and combine, complicating the issue at hand. Debate also focuses on whether the pregnant woman should have to notify and/or have the consent of others in distinct cases: a minor, her parents; a legally married or common-law wife, her husband; or a pregnant woman, the biological father.

In a 2003 Gallup poll in the United States, 79% of male and 67% of female respondents were in favor of spousal notification; overall support was 72% with 26% opposed. Pro-choice describes the political and ethical view that a woman should have complete control over her fertility and the choice to continue or terminate a pregnancy. This entails the guarantee of reproductive rights, which includes access to sexual education; access to safe and legal abortion, contraception, and fertility treatments; and legal protection from forced abortion. Individuals and organizations that support these positions make up the pro-choice movement.

Some people who are pro-choice see abortion as a last resort and focus on a number of situations where they feel abortion is a necessary option. Among these situations are those where the woman was raped, her health or life (or that of the fetus) is at risk, contraception was used but failed, or she feels unable to raise a child. Some pro-choice moderates, who would otherwise be willing to accept certain restrictions on abortion, feel that political pragmatism compels them to oppose any such restrictions, as they could be used to form a slippery slope against all abortions.

On the issue of abortion, pro-choice campaigners are opposed by pro-life campaigners who argue that the central issue is a completely different set of rights. The pro-life view considers developing human fetuses and embryos to have a right to life, which takes precedence over the woman’s right to bodily autonomy, although many pro-lifers believe that abortion should be legal in the case where the woman’s life is at serious risk. In Chs. 2 and 3, Boonin goes over a number of arguments that attempt to establish that the fetus has the right to life and shows how they all fail.

These arguments all start with the assumption that you and I have the right to life and then attempt to show that you and I are indeed related to the fetus in such way that it will be morally inconsistent for us not to treat the fetus as also having the right to life. Ch. 2 examines nine arguments that try to show that the fetus has the right to life at conception. The upshot of Boonin’s discussion is this. It can’t be the case that it is by virtue of being members of the human species alone that you and I have the right to life. Therefore, it must be some other properties that you and I share that explain why we have the right to life.

Whatever other properties you and I actually share with the fetus either cannot explain why you and I have the right to life or cannot rule out sperms and eggs as also having the right to life. Therefore, if the fetus has the right to life at conception, then it must be due to the fact that it will come to possess later on the relevant properties you and I already possess. The argument Boonin considers to be the strongest in this regard is Don Marquis’s future-like-ours argument. But in Boonin’s view, this argument ultimately fails to show that the fetus has the right to life at conception.

Even though there is no denying that a fetus at conception has a future-like-ours, another necessary ingredient is missing, namely, that the fetus values such a future. Boonin thinks we cannot attribute any desire in any sense to a being unless it has some actual desires. The earliest we can attribute any actual desire to the fetus is by the 25th week of gestation. That is when the fetus starts having organized cortical brain activity, according to Boonin’s empirical argument— well after more than 99% of the abortions in the United States has been performed.

This organized cortical brain activity criterion is what Boonin endorses in Ch. 3 after he considers and rejects several other postconception criteria—criteria such as implantation, fetal movement, and initial brain activity—as candidates for the criterion for the right to life. Creating Choice starts appropriately with women’s stories about undergoing illegal abortions and the circumstances that led them to choose this expensive and hard-to-attain procedure.

Subsequent chapters focus on reproductive health care providers, including physicians who violated the law to provide contraception and abortion referrals; clergy and counselors who worked together to help women and couples evaluate their options and made referrals to abortion providers outside Massachusetts and, often, outside the country; feminist activists who provided services parallel to clergy with the goal of achieving women’s liberation; and “connectors, ” feminist professional women who worked within reproductive health organizations to expand and consolidate their services.

In the translation from oral interview to the printed page, many interviews become surprisingly dispassionate, conveying only a minimal sense of the fear and frustrations that individuals who sought abortions for themselves or for friends and family must have felt. Nor do the interviews dwell on political ideology or collective activism, although clearly these were important to many. The stories are powerful, nonetheless, and narrators stress the personal choices they made, their motivations, and the web of resources they accessed.

Indeed, one of the most unusual voices in the collection comes from a Massachusetts woman who performed several thousand abortions in the 1960s. Her interview, as well as many others, describes the widespread complicity that made underground abortions possible in the pre-Roe era, including police who were willing to be bribed to ignore abortionists in their communities and the many people who provided referrals, transportation, and related medical services.

Surprisingly, the emotion that interviewees most commonly expressed is relief. Women who recounted experiences trying to prevent pregnancies or procure abortions describe their relief at discovering needed resources, while clergy, counselors, and other service providers mention their relief when changing laws lessened their worries about the reliability and safety of the services they facilitated.

Cline makes a clear effort to link abortion and birth control under the banner of choice, showing how activists and allies viewed both as a response to so-called problem pregnancies and women’s demand for reproductive control. By treating them together, Cline shows how the legalization of birth control and abortion constituted single victories in a longer struggle to ensure access to these treatments, regardless of marital status or economic circumstances.

Within the Pioneer Valley, Creating Choice explains, many women could get abortions and contraception well [End Page 111] before they became legal; legalization made these medical services more easily accessible, especially to those without money or personal connections. This fight for choice continued, too, into the 1970s and beyond, as the struggle shifted to secure public funding and improve available services. Thus, the choice that Cline’s interviewees helped create came not with the Supreme Court’s rulings but was secured over a period of time and through a variety of means.

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