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Abortion, the premature expulsing of an unborn child from the womb, is one of the most hotly debated issues of our time. On one side of the argument there is the pro-choice community who believe that abortion should be available to all women, and on the other there is the pro-life community who believe that it is the murder of an innocent human. Deciding what side is correct depends on an individual’s religious, scientific and ethical views. Key issues include the moral status of the unborn child, and whether its rights outweigh the mother’s. In examining the reasons why people support abortion, a good place to start is the human rights of the mother.
Abortion is a situation of conflicting rights – many that are pro-choice believe that the rights of the mother are more important than the rights of the child. To quote Margaret Sanger, “No woman can call herself free who does not control her own body.” Proponents of situation ethics especially would believe that we should look at the circumstances behind an abortion, not the morality of the act. The Church of England’s position that abortion is evil but may be the ‘lesser of two evils’ is consistent with a situationist approach. Difficult circumstances include when a woman has been raped.
There are traumatic and involuntary circumstances surrounding the conception and the continuance of this unwanted pregnancy may well continue the trauma for the mother and her existing family. The foetus should have no claim on the woman unless the woman has consented fully to being pregnant. Another circumstance where a proponent of situation ethics would support abortion is if the mother’s life is at risk – surely it is better to save one life than lose two.
Furthermore, the Methodist Church of Ireland released a document in 2012 that outlines their support for abortion in some circumstances: when the mother’s life is at risk; when her mental or physical health is at risk; in cases of rape and incest and fatal foetal abnormalities. They believe that their view is the most compassionate towards both the mother and child. They do, however, emphasise that they are against abortion on demand. The crux of the document is that while Christians may not agree with abortion, they should respect the separation of church and state when it comes to abortion law.
Many would argue that abortion should be permitted if the child is severely disabled, so-called ‘incompatible with life.’ In cases like this important in the decision will be the preference and attitudes of the parents. Some think along utilitarian grounds seeing the abortion of a handicapped child as providing those parents with the opportunity to have another healthy child which the presence and demands of a handicapped child might prohibit. It could also prevent the unimaginable suffering that a child with a condition such as Edward’s Syndrome would face. It is interesting to note that the law allows abortion for handicap to take place at any stage during pregnancy and is not limited to the 24 week point. To quote Judge Horner, “In the case of an fatal foetal abnormality there is no life to protect.”
Even natural law could be used to support abortion in extreme circumstances. Supporters of this theory see the act of sexual intercourse as an efficient cause that brings about the final cause of the production of a human being. Abortion prevents the final cause from being achieved and is therefore immoral. However, there is the doctrine of double effect. While it may be morally permissible to perform a good action that may have a bad outcome, it is morally impermissible to perform a bad action with a good outcome. The theory of natural law states that you are only responsible for the immediate consequences of your actions, but not for secondary or unintended effects of your action. An example of this could be abortion: it may permit indirect therapeutic abortion (such as treating cancer, which may cause death of the foetus) but not direct therapeutic abortion.
Abortion is much more likely to be supported within the secular realm. Ethicists such as Singer have a utilitarian view of abortion. Singer hold to Preference Utilitarianism which promotes that the preferences of individuals are taken into account except where they come into direct conflict with the preferences of others. For example, if the foetus was diagnosed with a fatal abnormality abortion may be the option that would cause the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people. If the parents go through with the pregnancy they will have to suffer the trauma of watching their infant die, or go through a stillbirth. Utilitarianism is an example of a relativist view of morality. Relativist ethics applied to the abortion debate allows us to justify abortion because permitting abortion supposedly does society the greatest good. Allowing abortion alleviates problems like urban overcrowding, abused or neglected children and single parenthood.
Feminists are usually on the front line in the fight for reproductive rights. They believe women and men are not truly equal until a woman has access to abortion on demand. Some would even support viewing abortion as little more than a method of contraception. A notable feminist is Judith Thomson, author of “A Defence of Abortion”, uses abstract analogies to promote abortion.
One of these is the violinist scenario. In this scenario a woman finds herself involuntarily chained to a famous violinist in a hospital. The violinist is dying and the woman was discovered to have the correct blood type to save him. Therefore she was kidnapped and is now acting as a life support. Thomson asserts that the woman has no moral obligation to remain connected to the violinist, and if she did it would be an extraordinary act of kindness. However, Singer claims that a utilitarian outlook would imply that one is morally obliged to stay connected to the violinist.
Overall, abortion is a complex issue and we should not pass judgement because we can never understand what a woman is going through when she chooses abortion. To quote Hilary Clinton, “It’s a hard choice and it’s controversial, and that’s why I’m pro-choice, because I want people to make their own choices.”