During the past century abortion has become one of the most debatable subjects of controversy in the Western world. It poses moral, social, and medical dilemmas that involve emotional and legal considerations. It has become one of the most intense and polarizing ethical and philosophical issues. The two defined fields of thought include those who are pro-choice activists and supporters of the pro-life campaign. A variety of ethical arguments have been made on both sides of the abortion issue. However, no consensus has been reached because in the public policy debate both sides have radically opposing views about the status of a fetus.

The entire complex issue centers on this very question: Is the fetus a person? On the one hand there are those who argue that it is only a potential human being until it is viable; that it is simply a part of the woman s body and subject to her exclusive control. Thus, any attempt to diminish that control is an unjustified infringement or interference upon a woman s autonomy and rights. On the other end of the spectrum there are those who believe the fetus is a person from the time of conception. Therefore, it is argued that there is a moral obligation to preserve and protect it and that abortion is equivalent to murder. The arguments set forth by both sides will be discussed further in this paper. The role that the media has played in mobilizing the abortion issue and placing it on the political and social agenda will also be briefly reviewed.


As noted earlier there are differing viewpoints on the abortion debate. Pro-choice supporters favour a woman s reproductive rights, including the right to choose to have an abortion. In opposition pro-life advocates generally oppose abortion, except in extreme circumstances, as when a mother s life is at risk by carrying the baby to full term. It is argued that although there are radically differing opinions on the issue, that one part of the abortion reality is the class of the two altruisms that appear to be utterly opposed (Gentles, 1990; 19) but in essence share a common principle of individual freedom. Gentles contends that where the two sides differ is to whom the focus and claim to freedom is directed. He states, the problem is which individual: a mother or child? Who is to be free and at what cost to the other? (Gentles, 1990; 19). Those who support abortion, although they acknowledge the value of the potential human life , insist on the overriding importance of the woman s wellbeing and freedom of choice. Similarly those who reject abortion defend the concept of freedom claiming that the freedom of the baby to live is a human rights principle (Gentles, 1990; 22).

In all areas of moral debate it is pertinent to evaluate the rights that are at issue. In the abortion controversy this involves an evaluation of what a woman s life is and how it is distinguished from a fetus and whether the fetus in fact has rights to be taken into account (Gentles, 1990; 27). Pro-choice supporters deny that the fetus has rights because it is only a potential human and thus does not have moral personhood. Pro-lifers argue for the right to protect a unique developing human life itself, not necessarily to protect potential human life . They claim that this developing life is already, from the moment of conception, unique and needs only time and nutrition to be fully developed (Gentles, 1990; 26). Thus the pro-life position revolves around one central tenet- that life begins at conception, or at least quite certainly before birth. Therefore killing for convenience is considered morally and legally wrong.

Much of the controversy surrounding the abortion issue revolves around establishing a concept of personhood. Human life can be claimed to be at various points- at conception, when individuality is assured, when the fetus exhibits brainwaves, at birth, or when the fetus becomes self-conscious and rational (Baird, 1993; 235). Thus in order for society to reach a consensus on the abortion debate there is a need to adopt a definition of when it is that the fetus is considered a person.

Arguments For and Against Abortion

A number of arguments in support of abortion have been put forward by pro-choice activists. Anti-abortionists who claim that in most circumstances the fetus should be given the right to life regardless of the circumstances have rejected most of these claims. Crum and McCormack (1992) outline a number of these assertions. Pro-choice activists focus exclusively on the principle of autonomy that one has the liberty to make one s own decisions regarding one s body. Consequently women should be given the personal right to abort a pregnancy and maintain control over their bodies. Their arguments are rooted in the idea that you cannot legislate morality (Crum and McCormack, 1992; 28). The central claim of the autonomy defense is that ant-abortion policies simply interfere in an impermissible way with the pregnant women s liberty. Women have a right to choose abortion as an option because ultimately what they do with their bodies is an intrinsic right. One pro-choice proponent has asserted that even if a fetus has the right to life, it need not also have the right to use its mother s body to stay alive. The woman s body is her own property, to dispose of as she wishes (Baird, 1993; 122). Similarly Jane English has argued that abortion is justifiable as an expression of a woman s own autonomy (English, 1975; 329). The rebuttal against this claim is that this perspective ignores the scientific fact that the unborn fetus is not part of the woman s body- it has its own genetic DNA and metabolism separate from the mother. Generally, pro-lifers argue that by the time you get pregnant you have already made a choice.

The first argument in defense of abortion is that it in the long term is economically beneficial for it reduces welfare program costs and guards against overpopulation in society (Crum and McCormack, 1992; 11). The implication of the former argument is that those who do not want children would make lousy parents and thus legalizing abortion helps to reduce the number of unfit people who reproduce. Opponents would counter argue the claim insisting that it is based on a false premise- that poverty is not a prerequisite for abortion (Crum and McCormack, 1992; 11).

A similar issue raised by pro-abortionists is that it reduces the number of abused and neglected children. But this claim, as well, is unsubstantiated according to pro-lifers. They argue, one should not harm another by denying him or her a right to life just because he or she might become a child abuse statistic- to rob someone of his or her right to continue living is the worst possible form of abuse (Crum and McCormack, 1992; 14). Along the same line of argument it is thought that abortion reduces suffering by reducing the number of poor families that must support and provide for many children. But in these instances, pro-life advocates maintain that there are a number of options available to families who are overburdened such as adoption, foster care for a period of time, or redistributing the already scarce resources toward more child-related expenditures (Crum and McCormack, 1992; 15).

There are some instances that anti-abortionists find it difficult to oppose abortion. In these instances it is seen as morally permissible (Steffen, 1994; 123). Steffen (1994) outlines a number of necessary and sufficient conditions that characterize just abortion . Some of the items are: 1) a competent authority must make the determination that the pregnancy is not wanted; 2) abortion must be considered as a last resort to the condition of unwanted pregnancy (for example options such as adoption or foster care should be considered first); 3) abortion can not pose a greater medical risk to the mother than continued pregnancy; and 4) the killing can be justified if the values being protected at the expense of losing the fetus outweigh particular circumstances and the value of preserving that life (Steffen, 1994; 123). Two such cases of just abortion are when a mother s life is threatened by having the child or if the pregnancy is the result of a rape. Most pro-lifers find these grounds ethically acceptable.

The first case is referred to as the life of the mother type of exception. Here a woman should be permitted to have an abortion if giving birth poses a risk or endangers her life. An abortion may be seen as a form of self-defense , when a woman is seeking to protect and ensure her own right to life and health (Crum and McCormack, 1992; 16). The caution here, however, is that particular care should be taken to avoid the use of definitions which would allow abortions for psychiatric reasons where the threat is not related to some meaningful criterion of health (Gentles, 1990; 32). Thomson, a pro-choice activist, argues that abortion is allowable in these certain rare cases when the mother s life is at stake because her right to life outweighs that of the fetus (Thomson,1971; 73). Those that oppose abortion even in these particular circumstances contend that both the fetus and mother should have an equal right to life. Their claim is that the unborn child and woman should have their lives equally protected under the law, and that physicians should consider both mother and unborn child to be bona fide patients (Crum and McCormack, 1992; 17). Apart from these rare individuals, most advocates for and against abortion agree that the fetus rights may be forfeited in self-defense cases where killing may be justified (Bolton, 1979; 331).

The second right is that women should be allowed to abort a pregnancy if it is the result of a rape, for denying them this would cause them unnecessary suffering. Pro-life supporters generally find this case difficult to counter and the majority believes that there should be a legal exception for rape-related abortion. But for the few who are radical anti-abortion advocates they take the extreme view and insist that it is still immoral and wrong to kill the baby because the fetus should not be reprimanded as a criminal- that it is an innocent being. Furthermore by aborting the fetus, we create another victim and encourage the mother to help limit the effects of her own victimization by victimizing her own child (Crum and McCormack, 1992; 18).

Another instance where abortion is acceptable, according to pro-abortion activists, is when girls are victims of incest. It is argued that to refuse them an abortion would cause them unnecessary suffering and cause a confusion of genetics and family relationships (Crum and McCormack, 1992; 20). In effect there would be risks to the offspring such as genetic abnormalities. The pro-life position however does not grant any credence to these reasons for denying the child a right of life. In fact the only condition that carries any strong ethical consideration is if the incest argument is a subset of the rape argument.

Supporters of abortion also maintain that it is permissible in the case where fetal deformity will (or is likely to) result, because carrying the child to term will cause harm to the psychological health of the mother, which will result in family strains (both emotional and financial), and will result in a low quality of life for the child (Crum and McCormack, 1992; 21). Opposition to this premise asserts that regardless of how severe the family strains are they cannot justify the destruction of a human life. However, some proponents offer an exception to this rule. It is referred to as euthanasia abortion -killing the fetus for its own good (Crum and McCormack, 1992; 21). The argument is that the quality of life of the human fetus, if allowed to live, would be so low that the fetus himself or herself would rather not exist. But the counter-argument to this made by firm anti-abortion individuals would be that the deformed unborn child is not prevented by an abortion; the deformed child is only killed before it can be born (Crum and McCormack, 1992; 22). Another criticism is that of the slippery slope argument-where would the line be drawn with regard to deformities? In essence pro-life advocates insist that in all its stages human life should be respected. Killing an innocent human being is unethical and in most circumstances unjustified.

The Role of Media

The media have played an influential role in framing the abortion issue and influencing the public s opinions. Much of the coverage on abortion campaigns has been and still is very biased. In fact it is argued if one thing is clear from the history of press coverage of abortion, it is that journalist s beliefs, whether for or against abortion, do heavily influence coverage (Olasky, 1988; 147). Claire (1995) argues that expert marketing of the notion that abortion is murder, via the pulpit and media, is responsible for the current hysterical anti-abortion crusades in the United States (Claire, 1995; 47). The issue was placed in the forefront as a main social issue through the use of repetitive advertising and exposure in the media. The power that the media holds as a tool to reach and affect the public is tremendous. This impact is highlighted by the claim that marketing is the antiabortion conspirators most deadly weapon (Claire, 1995; 51).

Evidence of this bias exists in the terminology and definitions used to describe the two sides. Media sources used to refer to the groups as pro-life and pro-abortion and now the terms have evolved to be anti-abortion and pro-choice . This has a number of important implications. First, it frames pro-life advocates as being against a choice which has negative overtones. As well it removes the term abortion, with all its negative connotations from its supporters labels. These subtle devices portray the groups in different ways and ultimately lead to different interpretations of their campaigns by the public.

Many people on all sides of the controversy feel the political debate has led to a stalemate situation because it ignores the subtleties of the issue. One is left asking if such a conflict can ever be resolved? One author is of the opinion that no because those holding pro-choice and pro-life opinions also hold world views that are diametrically opposed (Costa, 1991; xii). In conclusion, however, participants in the abortion debate find common ground in the admission that the issue is surrounded by complicated and difficult questions that require more than simplified pro-life or pro-choice rhetoric.

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