Abortion, which refers to ‘induced abortion’ of an embryo or foetus, is the deliberate ending of pregnancy at an early stage. It is one of the most heated topics of the modern world, and has given rise to many bitter debates based on ethics. While some condemn it on the basis on morals and religious ethics, others support it on medical and social reality grounds. Feminists view it in the context of a long history of oppression of women and quote the number of unnecessary deaths of pregnant women that took place just because abortions were illegal.
It can be said that the debate is almost equally divided between two broad categories: Pro-choice and Pro-life. While the former believe that it is a woman’s right to choose whether she wants to remain pregnant or not, the latter equate abortion to murder, calling it a killer of the unborn child. Personally, I don’t agree with either of the two positions, but largely I am pro-abortionist.
All arguments against abortion boil down to questions, such as, whether it is alive, human, a person, physically independent, whether it has human rights or whether abortion can be equated to murder.
A foetus or embryo is completely alive. It is basically a biological mechanism that converts nutrients and oxygen into energy that causes its cells to divide, multiply and grow. Anti-abortionists defend the human rights of a zygote based solely on this fact. ‘Life begins at conception’, accord anti-abortionists, but so does the life of a single-celled amoeba which performs all the functions of a zygote. The anti-abortionists maybe right in their statement of beginning of life, but they forget that rights do not begin at conception. Moreover, since a foetus is human as its DNA is that of a human, hence by the same logic it can be said that a breast cancer cell, a hair follicle, a skin scraping, etc, all are human. But, the anti-abortionists won’t protect the right to life of all of the above. Undoubtedly, there is one major difference between a fetus/ embryo and the rest. While the former is a ‘potential person’, the latter is not.
As mentioned above, although a foetus is a potential person but it is not an actual one. A foetus is just human tissue, not an actual human being. Even the law admits the existence of a child after its actual birth, not at its conception. This is so because a foetus is not an independent entity. It is absolutely dependent on another human being for its continued existence. Without the mother’s life-giving nutrients and oxygen it would die. But, anti-abortionists claim that foetal dependence cannot be used as an issue in the abortion debate since even after birth, and for years to come, a child is still dependent on the mother, father and other people around it. And since no one would claim that it is alright to kill a child because of its dependency on others, we cannot claim to abort a foetus because of its dependence. What the anti-abortionists fail to do is differentiate between physical and social dependence.
Physical dependence is when one life form depends solely on the physical body of another life form for its existence. Social dependence is when the child depends on the society to feed it, clothe it and love it. And when we take cognizance of the fact that physical dependence also means a physical threat to the life of the mother, the situation becomes much more complex. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) reports, nearly 670,000 women die from pregnancy related complications each year. Unlike, social dependence, where the mother can put her child up for adoption, etc, a woman’s physical life is threatened during pregnancy. In effect, she places herself in the path of bodily harm for the benefit of DNA life form that is only a potential person. This brings us to the next question: do the rights of a potential person supersede the rights of an actual person?
Rights only apply to human persons because man survives by reason. A foetus on the other hand, survives on the sustenance provided by the body of its host and has no rights of life, liberty and property and has no need for rights. This is more so because rights only belong to individuals, not to parts of an individual. However, ‘independent’ does not mean self-supporting; a child who depends on his/her parents for food, clothing and shelter has rights because he/she is an actual separate human being. In contrast, a fetus does not exist independently. That which lives within the body of another can claim no right against its host. To grant such a right to the foetus would make its host, the pregnant mother, a slave. You can’t have two separate entities with equal rights occupying one body. In the case of the pregnant woman, giving ‘right to life’ to the potential person automatically cancels out the mother’s right to life.
Also a woman’s ‘Right to Self-Determination’ (to decide about her own future) and ‘Right to Privacy’ (upheld by the famous case of ROE v. WADE which actually legalized abortions in America) entitle her the freedom to make her own choices.
Thus, the essence in the case of a woman’s moral right to abortion is that a foetus is not an actual human being but a potential human person.
The point I want to make is that the anti-abortionists’ stand of equating abortion to murder is essentially a grave injustice and folly. Abortion would have been murder only if it would have been of a person, not a mass of tissues equivalent to a human hair follicle.
Moreover, what needs to be considered is the lives of the parents. Being a parent is a profound responsibility both financially and psychologically. It’s a full time job for the first three years and the responsibilities continue for decades after. To a woman, who does not want it, this is pure bondage. Sentencing a woman to sacrifice her life is not upholding the ‘right to life’. The anti-abortionists’ claim to being ‘pro-life’ is a denial of their own position, You cannot be in favor of life and yet demand the sacrifice of an actual living being to save a clump of tissue. Thus, anti-abortionists are quite simply hypocritical in their stand.
However, while some of the anti-abortionists absolutely condemn abortion in all circumstances, be it because of rape, teenage pregnancy, danger to mother’s health or birth defects, etc, others take up a more moderate stand, supporting abortion only in cases of rape, incest etc.
But the question to be asked here is that whether it was the fault of the foetus that the woman was raped? Did the foetus choose its means of conception? Of course, not! Moreover, even if a pregnant woman has acted capriciously, she should be condemned morally, but not treated as a murderer. It might be immoral but it is not the province of the state to interfere.
In the end, it can be said that right to abortion is every woman’s moral and legal right. She has full right to determine the future of her own life. There are many legitimate reasons for which a woman might have an abortion- rape, birth defects, accidental pregnancy, danger to mother’s health, incest, etc. But, whatever the reason, abortion is one of the most difficult decisions of any woman’s life. No one tries to get pregnant just to terminate it. On the contrary, abortion is an absolutely moral choice for any woman wishing to control her body.
[image by kasthor]