Why is abortion so controversial?
The abortion debate marks the collision of two conflicting values:
• the right of a woman to decide for herself whether or not to end a pregnancy if she doesn’t want to give birth to a child
— vs. —
• the instinct to protect vulnerable human life, combined with the belief that life begins at the moment of fertilization.
The key to the disagreement is the question of when a fertilized egg becomes a person. Some believe this happens the moment the sperm fertilizes the egg. For others, the turning point is viability (sometime between the 23rd and 24th week of pregnancy), when the fetus could survive on its own if delivered. Still others consider a fetus a person only after it is born.
The opposing points of view
This article will refer to the opposing sides of the abortion debate as pro-choice and pro-life, the names people commonly use to define their positions on abortion. These words are not neutral, however: see the note below, Politically charged terminology.
What follows is a summary of arguments made by advocates on the opposing sides. Not everyone who calls her- or himself pro-choice or pro-life would agree with every statement here.
• Women have the right to make their own decisions about what happens inside their own bodies, including the right to end an unwanted pregnancy.
• The vast majority of abortions are performed in the first trimester, or during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, when the fetus is no bigger than a lime and weighs less than half an ounce. Only about 1 in 1,000 are performed in the last trimester, usually for medical reasons. Gruesome images of mangled fetuses are a misrepresentation of abortion.
• A fertilized egg, an embryo, an early-stage fetus—these represent potential human life. They are not synonymous with the words baby, child, or human being. The difference is what makes abortion morally acceptable; and it’s a difference that U.S. law recognizes.
• A woman’s right to decide whether or not she can take on a lifelong responsibility to a child outweighs the potential person’s right to life.
• The question of when a fertilized egg becomes a human being can’t be definitively answered by anyone. The government should not impose a single definition of the beginning of life on women, since different people hold different beliefs.
• An unwanted pregnancy, if carried to term, can alter the course of a woman’s life, sometimes tragically: often by preempting education and career ambitions, or by making a life of poverty almost inescapable.
• Many fertilized eggs are discarded at fertility clinics, where couples seek help through in vitro fertilization. If this is not considered murder, why should abortion be?
• When abortions are illegal, women seek them anyway. And illegal abortions, often performed by non-professionals, injure or kill thousands of women each year around the world.
• Much of the resistance to abortion rights comes from a puritanical, anti-sexual culture that insists, “You had your fun; now pay the price.” This is demonstrated by pro-life activists’ refusal to promote the use of contraceptives, which would drastically reduce the need for abortions.
• Human life begins at conception. Abortion is murder.
• An unborn child is an innocent human being. Ending his or her life is immoral, and offends our instinctive sense of the sanctity of human life.
• From the moment of conception onward, the genes of a unique human being are present. Abortion means killing this unique human being.
• At its earliest stages, the unborn child doesn’t resemble a baby, and that makes some people comfortable with denying its humanity; but it is a developing person nevertheless.
• The government should not allow women to obtain abortions, no matter how inconvenient the pregnancy is for them.
• Too many women abort their babies without really facing what they’re doing, because it’s easy and legal. If they saw what an aborted fetus looks like—even one in the early stages of pregnancy—they wouldn’t be so quick to make this choice.
• People who aren’t prepared to raise a child shouldn’t have sex.
• There are many American families who want to adopt; if the mother can’t or doesn’t want to raise the child, adoption is the more ethical alternative.
• Even in cases of rape or incest, it’s better to seek a solution that doesn’t involve taking an innocent life.
• Abortion is an ancient, uncivilized, inhumane practice. As mankind progresses toward a higher level, we must do away with such brutal practices, just as we did away with slavery.
Who’s on which side?
While religious beliefs and political leanings don’t automatically determine attitudes toward abortion, in general, devout Roman Catholics, fundamentalist Christians, and political conservatives oppose abortion, while feminists and most Democrats support abortion rights. A 2010 report by Gallup found support for abortion rights most widespread among the college-educated, especially women.
What does U.S. law say?
Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in all 50 states, declared that a woman’s right to choose whether or not to carry her pregnancy to term outweighs the government’s interest in protecting the potential life… until the point at which the fetus is viable. At that point, the Court ruled, the government has an “important and legitimate interest in protecting the potentiality of human life.” The majority of justices agreed that, until it can survive outside the womb, a fetus is not a person, and therefore can’t be said to have rights. They based the woman’s right to abort the pregnancy on the right to privacy—in other words, the right to decide personal matters without government interference. Although this right isn’t explicitly stated in the constitution, the justices found that it was implied in the 4th, 9th, and 14th Amendments.
Opponents of abortion have criticized the decision as an example of judicial activism—judges making law, which is properly the role of Congress and state legislatures—and because, they say, the decision is based on a questionable interpretation of the constitution.
—Who were Roe and Wade? Jane Roe is the female equivalent of John Doe, a name used to shield the identity of a party to a legal action. In Roe v. Wade, Roe was Norma McCorvey, a Texas woman with two children who got pregnant and wanted an abortion. Unable to obtain a legal abortion in Texas, she was referred to two attorneys who helped her sue Henry Wade, the District Attorney of Dallas County, seeking to overturn the Texas law. The case reached the Supreme Court, and was decided four years after McCorvey first sued—long after she gave birth to her third child. Ironically, McCorvey later changed her position on abortion and became a pro-life activist.
Changes in the law since 1973
In the years since Roe v. Wade, many restrictions have been placed on abortion rights. In 1976, Representative Henry Hyde introduced legislation (the Hyde Amendment) that forbade the use of federal Medicaid funds to pay for abortions for low-income women; the bill became law, as did a second Hyde Amendment in 1977, which allowed states to deny Medicaid funding for abortions (except in cases of rape, incest, or serious risk to the woman’s health).
Some states have passed their own laws limiting abortion rights. These include the outlawing of abortions after viability, and requirements that parents be notified or give their approval before minors can get abortions, that women wait a specified amount of time (usually 24 hours) before having an abortion, and that women seeking abortions first attend counseling on other options.
For a survey of abortion laws by state, see this 2-page overview by the Guttmacher Institute.
Recently, states have passed new laws restricting abortion. Oklahoma now requires doctors to show a woman an ultrasound of the fetus and describe it in detail before performing an abortion. And Kansas, along with five other states, forbids private insurance companies from including abortion coverage in its general health plans.
Facts and statistics
Statistics refer only to the U.S.
• Nearly half of pregnancies are unintended, and 40% of these are ended by abortion.
• 22% of all pregnancies (excluding miscarriages) end in abortion.
• In 2008, 1.21 million abortions were performed, down from 1.31 million in 2000.
• 88% of abortions occur in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
• At least half of American women will experience an unintended pregnancy by age 45.
• At current rates, nearly 33% of American women will have had an abortion by age 45.
• 37% of women having abortions identify as Protestant, and 28% as Catholic.
• Women who have never married and are not cohabiting account for 45% of all abortions.
• About 61% of abortions are obtained by women who have one or more children.
• Women having abortions report the following reasons: 75% say they can’t afford a child; 75% say that having a baby would interfere with work, school or the ability to care for dependents; 50% say they don’t want to be a single parent, or are having problems with their husband or partner.
• Among women having abortions, about 60% already have at least one child.
• Women who have never been married account for two thirds of all abortions.
• 57% of women seeking an abortion live below the federal poverty level.
• In the U.S., about 14,000 women place a child up for adoption each year.
• The abortion rate (defined as the number of abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age in a given year) went down from 1980 to 2008, but the decline slowed beginning in 2005.
• There are about 0.06 deaths for every 100,000 abortions. The risk of dying as a result of an abortion is about 1/12 the risk of dying from completing a pregnancy.
• Since 1977, more than 6,100 acts of violence against abortion providers have been reported. This includes bombings, arson, death threats, murders, kidnappings, and assaults. There have also been 156,000 acts of disruption, including bomb threats and harassing calls.
• In the U.S. women end about 25% of their pregnancies by abortion.
• In countries where contraceptives are hard to obtain, rates are much higher: 60% in the former Soviet Union, and 78% in Romania.
Two different types of abortion
A medical abortion, available only in the early weeks of pregnancy, is performed by giving the woman medications that end the pregnancy. A surgical abortion, the only kind available after the seventh week, involves physically emptying the uterus (womb).
Politically charged terminology
The opposing sides of this controversy choose their words carefully. Each side calls itself by a name with positive associations (choice and life), and tags the other side with negative labels. (Pro-life groups refer to their adversaries as pro-abortion; pro-choice groups call the opposition anti-choice.) The two sides also use different terms to refer to the life developing inside the pregnant mother’s womb. On the pro-choice side, it’s referred to as an embryo (during the first eight weeks) or fetus. On the pro-life side, it’s usually called a baby, or an unborn or pre-born child.
Public opinion on abortion
Survey results vary depending on the wording of the questions. A 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 46% of Americans believed abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 44% said abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. (In the same poll, 18% said abortion should be legal in all cases, while 16% said it should be illegal in all cases.)
Groups active in the pro-life and pro-choice movements
• NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League) Pro-Choice America
• Planned Parenthood (Note: According to Planned Parenthood itself, of the 5 million annual visitors to their centers, 83% come for pregnancy prevention services; only 3% come for abortions.)
• The National Organization for Women
• The Catholic Church
• Focus on the Family
• The National Right to Life Committee
• Operation Rescue
A frustrating impasse
Although both sides seek to reduce the number of abortions performed, they disagree on acceptable ways to reach that goal. Pro-life advocates call for teens to abstain from sex, and for a “culture of life,” in which abortion is not seen as a remedy for an unwanted pregnancy. Pro-choice groups scoff at the idea that most teens will ever voluntarily refrain from having sex, and instead recommend wider access to contraception—including emergency contraception (see Terms to know, below). But the pro-life community is closely tied with religious and conservative groups that oppose the wider use of contraception, especially emergency contraception, which they consider a form of abortion.
Abortion history, before and after Roe v. Wade
(For a more detailed history, see About.com’s History of Abortion.)
Abortions have been performed throughout history, in most societies.
In the U.S., abortion was legal until the first laws prohibiting it, in the mid-1800s. By 1900, most abortions had been banned. Nevertheless, women continued to seek illegal abortions; during the 1950s and 1960s, between 200,000 and 1.5 million were performed each year.
During the 1960s, individual states began to pass more liberal abortion laws. In 1973, the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision overturned most state laws prohibiting abortion, and banned government interference in abortion decisions during the first trimester. The Court’s ruling allowed states to restrict abortion during the second trimester, and to ban it outright during the third trimester.
Abortion opponents organized in reaction to Roe v. Wade. Starting in the 1980s, the group Operation Rescue organized protests and blockades at abortion clinics—until a 1994 law prohibited many of their tactics.
In the Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision of 1992, the Supreme Court revised the trimester approach of Roe v. Wade and instead named viability as the point at which states could intervene and restrict abortion rights.
Some individual states have passed their own laws limiting abortion rights, especially since the 2010 elections, when conservative Republicans won many governors’ races and control of several state legislatures.
At present, legal abortion is available to about two-thirds of the women in the world.
11/8/11: In Mississippi, voters defeated a ballot initiative declaring that life begins at fertilization. The initiative would have made all abortions illegal in the state, and therefore would have conflicted with Roe v. Wade. Supporters hoped to provoke a lawsuit and take the issue to the Supreme Court. The proposal was controversial even among strong opponents of abortion. For details, see the Huffington Post.
Terms to know
Emergency contraception: also known as the “morning-after pill,” emergency contraception refers to drugs that prevent pregnancy up to five days after unprotected sex, before the fertilized egg is implanted in the uterus. (For more on this topic, see Wikipedia.)
RU-486, or mifepristone: a drug pioneered in France, used to perform medical abortions during the first two months of pregnancy. It works by blocking the hormone progesterone, which causes the shedding of the uterine wall, as during a menstrual period, and usually causes the embryo to be expelled within a few hours. Conservative groups fought against its approval by the Food and Drug Administration. It was finally approved for use in the U.S. in 2000.
partial-birth abortion: a term nearly synonymous with the medical procedure known as intact dilation and extraction (or D&X), in which a fetus is partially extracted from the mother and killed, late in the pregnancy. This procedure, which accounted for fewer than 0.2% of all abortions in the year 2000, was outlawed by the federal government in 2003. For more details, see Wikipedia.
Abortion and its impact on crime
A 1999 research paper attributed the sudden, unexpected drop in crime rates in the 1990s to Roe v. Wade—which, by legalizing abortion in 1973, prevented the birth of thousands of unwanted children, many of them to poor, adolescent, uneducated single mothers. According to the authors, many of these children would have grown up to commit crimes in their teens and twenties; their absence accounts for the unexpected reversal in crime-rate trends.
In the battle of opinion over abortion, inaccurate claims have been made. Here are a few:
• The breast cancer scare: Pro-life groups have listed, among their arguments against abortion, that it increases a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer. The scientific consensus is that abortion does not increase this risk. (For a detailed analysis, see this web page by the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health.)
• Fetal pain: Many pro-life activists raise the argument that abortion causes pain to the fetus. There is disagreement, however, over the point in development when a fetus can feel pain. The majority of medical researchers say that this is unlikely before the sixth month of pregnancy (the beginning of the third trimester). No medical experts claim a fetus can feel pain before 20 weeks.
• “They’re just irrational fundamentalists”: Some pro-choice activists dismiss pro-lifers as unreasoning religious fanatics. But there is a spectrum of attitudes toward abortion, and many who are opposed to it, or troubled by it, are guided more by personal conscience than by fanaticism or obedience to religious authority. Even among those who are pro-choice, many are uneasy with the idea of aborting a late-term fetus.
Abortion in other countries
In general, legal abortions are available in developed countries (Canada, Germany, and Denmark, for example), and illegal in poorer countries (Nicaragua, Liberia, Algeria). Most Muslim countries outlaw abortion, and countries with a strong Roman Catholic influence—including Ireland and most of Latin America—restrict it severely. (For a complete list of abortion laws by country, go here.) Where abortion is outlawed, however, women still manage to obtain illegal abortions; and thousands of them die from botched abortions every year.
• “When science cannot determine the facts and decisions vary based upon religious belief, then government should not act.” — Harriet Miers, 1993.
• “Reproductive freedom—the fundamental right of every individual to decide freely and responsibly when and whether to have a child—…helps ensure that children will be wanted and loved…” — Planned Parenthood
• “Whether or not abortion should be legal turns on the answer to the question of whether and at what point a fetus is a person. This is a question that cannot be answered logically or empirically. The concept of personhood is neither logical nor empirical: It is essentially a religious, or quasi-religious idea, based on one’s fundamental (and therefore unverifiable) assumptions about the nature of the world.” — Paul Campos
• “It is equally as heinous intentionally to kill a human being in existence at fertilization, as to kill a larger pre-born child.” — Nellie Gray
• “Through sonograms and other technology, we can clearly see that unborn children are members of the human family as well. They reflect our image, and they are created in God’s own image.” — President George W. Bush.
• “Pro-choice and pro-life activists live in different worlds, and the scope of their lives, as both adults and children, fortifies them in their belief that their own views on abortion are the more correct, the more moral, and more reasonable.” — Kristin Luker
• “My belief is that if men were the ones getting pregnant, abortions would be easier to get than food poisoning in Moscow.” — Dennis Miller
For more quotations for and against the right to abortion, see ProCon.org.
• For an overview of the arguments on both sides of the question “Should abortion be legal?” see ProCon.org.
• R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “Why Abortion Won’t Go Away,” cnn.com, 1/31/12: from the pro-life point of view, explains why the anti-abortion movement hasn’t lost its sense of urgency.
• Frances Kissling, “Time for a New Approach to Abortion Rights,” NPR interview, 2/21/11: While defending women’s abortion rights, Kissling faults the pro-choice movement for failing to acknowledge that, as the fetus matures, it becomes harder and harder to justify abortion.
• For a pro-life response to the claim that making abortion illegal will send women to “back-alley butchers,” see ChristianAnswers.net.
• Dahlia Lithwick, “The Death of Roe v. Wade,” Slate.com, 4/19/11: Lithwick says that pro-choice groups hesitate to challenge the many new anti-abortion laws around the country (some of which seem to violate the rights established by Roe v. Wade) for fear that a conservative Supreme Court may overturn that decision. According to Lithwick, this is a strategic mistake, because conservatives are already taking away the right to an abortion, bit by bit, state by state.
• John Langan, “Observations on Abortion and Politics,” America (The National Catholic Weekly), 10/25/04: a Catholic perspective on the obstacles to banning abortion, and how best to overcome them.
For more information
• ReligiousTolerance.org: from this home page, you can access detailed information on many aspects of the abortion issue.
Note on books and DVD
Abortion: Opposing Viewpoints and Lake of Fire cover both the pro-life and pro-choice points of view. Abortion: A Rational Look at An Emotional Issue and The Ethics of Abortion are written from the pro-life perspective; Back Rooms and How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America give the pro-choice point of view.
Think we’ve left out an important point or gotten the facts wrong?
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Even more information
From fertilization to birth: milestones in prenatal development
• Fertilization: an sperm fertilizes an egg, resulting in a zygote, a single cell with all of the genes of a unique human being.
• The zygote travels toward the uterus, or womb. The journey takes about three days. During this time, the zygote keeps dividing, and becomes a mass of at least sixty identical cells.
• Embryo formation: during the next two to three days, some of the dividing cells differentiate (that is, become specialized). The zygote has now become an embryo.
• Implantation: the new embryo becomes attached to the wall of the uterus.
• Third week: formation of nerve cells.
• Fourth week: full differentiation of cells. At this time, the embryo is less than an eighth of an inch long.
• End of the second month: functioning organs appear. The embryo is now about an inch long, and is called a fetus. From this point on, most development is a matter of physical growth.
• Fifth month (18th-22nd weeks): “quickening” (the pregnant woman can feel the fetus move).
• Fifth and sixth month: development of the cerebral cortex (which distinguishes human from animal brains).
• 23rd-24th weeks: viability. Roughly 4 in 10 babies delivered at 24 weeks survive. (At 22-23 weeks, the fetus weighs a bit more than a pound, and its lungs have not developed enough to inhale.)
• 40 weeks, on average: birth.
For photos showing the development from zygote to baby, see WebMD’s month-by-month slideshow.
Excerpts from the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision
• “This right of privacy, whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment’s concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, as we feel it is, or… in the Ninth Amendment’s reservation of rights to the people, is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. The detriment that the State would impose upon the pregnant woman by denying this choice altogether is apparent… Maternity, or additional offspring, may force upon the woman a distressful life and future. Psychological harm may be imminent. Mental and physical health may be taxed by child care. There is also the distress, for all concerned, associated with the unwanted child, and there is the problem of bringing a child into a family already unable, psychologically and otherwise, to care for it. In other cases, as in this one, the additional difficulties and continuing stigma of unwed motherhood may be involved.”
• “… appellant and some amici argue that the woman’s right is absolute and that she is entitled to terminate her pregnancy at whatever time, in whatever way, and for whatever reason she alone chooses. With this we do not agree… The Court’s decisions recognizing a right of privacy also acknowledge that some state regulation in areas protected by that right is appropriate. As noted above, a State may properly assert important interests in safeguarding health, in maintaining medical standards, and in protecting potential life. At some point in pregnancy, these respective interests become sufficiently compelling to sustain regulation of the factors that govern the abortion decision. The privacy right involved, therefore, cannot be said to be absolute. In fact, it is not clear to us that the claim asserted by some amici that one has an unlimited right to do with one’s body as one pleases bears a close relationship to the right of privacy previously articulated in the Court’s decisions.”
• “We, therefore, conclude that the right of personal privacy includes the abortion decision, but that this right is not unqualified and must be considered against important state interests in regulation.”
• “Texas urges that … life begins at conception and is present throughout pregnancy, and that, therefore, the State has a compelling interest in protecting that life from and after conception. We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.”
• “…we do not agree that, by adopting one theory of life, Texas may override the rights of the pregnant woman that are at stake. We repeat, however, that the State does have an important and legitimate interest… in protecting the potentiality of human life.”
• “With respect to the State’s important and legitimate interest in potential life, the ‘compelling’ point is at viability. This is so because the fetus then presumably has the capability of meaningful life outside the mother’s womb. State regulation protective of fetal life after viability thus has both logical and biological justifications. If the State is interested in protecting fetal life after viability, it may go so far as to proscribe abortion during that period, except when it is necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.”
(For more key excerpts, go here.)
Last updated 2/1/12
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