The right to decide whether a woman is ready to bear the responsibility of a child, a life, should be granted to the woman. Currently, abortion is illegal in several countries across the globe, some even going to the extent of endangering the mother’s life so as to avoid aborting a fetus. While most of the arguments against legalizing abortion have been founded on the concept of the fetus’ right to life, there is also great contention that a woman is the best judge of whether she can carry the responsibility of the child. Hence, the legalization of abortion should be allowed in favour of the woman’s right of choice.
There have been several studies that simply asked respondent whether they thought that abortions were morally right or wrong. However, the subject of abortion is not that simple to pass judgment on. Modern day Americans are well aware of the different scenarios that can lead up to the decision to have an abortion. There are unplanned pregnancies arising from assenting relationship. A large number of unwanted pregnancies are among teenagers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the age group of 15 to 19 years, women had a live birth rate if 34.3 per 1000 in the year 2010, which was actually a 9% fall from the 2009 rates . There are also cases of pregnancies arising out of crimes such as rape and sexual molestation.
The decision to undergo an abortion is a heavily influenced one, and personal choice often has very little to do with it. In deciding on the side of a woman’s right or the government, we must look at outside factors that have contributed to the debate. Can religious views be a reason to deny a woman the right to choose? Or should we rely on science that gives us many reasons a woman should be the one who decides the term of her pregnancy? My aim is to show that abortion is the right of the women through examining several different arguments in today’s society, such as religion, science, if abortion is murder, whether the fetus is alive, the ethical dilemma of birth defects, if age has a factor, and whether the pregnancy is a danger to the mother.
World Religion and the Fetus
Religious and societal views as well as medical conditions, all have a great impact on whether a woman opts to have her pregnancy terminated. Religious beliefs of her family, especially her parents, too have a deep effect on the person’s choice . Unplanned pregnancies have the highest instance of being aborted. According to a recent survey, over 33.33% of all pregnancies are not planned. There is the question of at what point in time an abortion can be acceptable. . Most of the time, the hesitancy lies in a single question: when does the life of a fetus actually begin? In other words, when can a fetus be considered to be ‘alive’? The main objection that a person might have when considering an abortion is whether it will result in the taking of a life.
Most world religions seem to be aimed at protecting the fetus’ right to life. The specific moment when life is said to have begun for a fetus is not mentioned in all religions. Religions such as Sikhism, Buddhism and Catholicism mark the beginning life as soon as an egg is fertilized by a sperm. The Catholic Church prohibits abortion and grants the unborn child most of the rights of a born baby. According to Islamic teachings, the soul enters a fetus after 120 days of conception. Having an abortion after this point in time is considered to be a greater sin than having it done in the first trimester of the pregnancy. Earlier Roman Catholic teachings placed the ‘ensoulment’ of a fetus at the time when a woman begins to feel its movements in her womb, which generally happens around the 16th week. This tenet, however, was changed in the year 1869 and the church now says that the fetus has a soul from the very point of fertilization.
Science and the Fetus
Science, on the other hand, points out that a large percentage of eggs that have been fertilized never get attached to a woman’s womb. About 25% of those that do get implanted result in natural miscarriages, with the woman often not even realizing that she was pregnant. In the UK, the Warnock Commission placed the time of ‘ensoulment’ at 14 days post conception, which was later legally ratified by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990 . Others view on when a fetus may be considered to be ‘alive’ is with reference to the beginning of the brain function . Further still, there is a view that a fetus may be considered to be alive once it has started developing sensory awareness or ‘Sentience’ . Most religions do not have a formal ritual or ceremony to mark the passing away of an unborn child in this manner. The circumstance in which an abortion is sought is also debated in the moral and religious context. Several religions permit abortions where the life and health of the mother is under serious threat due to the continuation of the pregnancy. However, views differ greatly and have been subject to long standing debates. The Roman Catholic Church, while strictly prohibiting intentionally having an abortion, it permits treatments aimed at saving the life of a mother, even if it endangers the life of the fetus. Religions such as Islam, Hinduism, Orthodox Judaism as well as Orthodox Greek and Russian churches permit abortions in order to save the mother’s life.
Is Abortion Murder?
Judaism teaches that abortions are immoral, yet, the rights of a baby are granted only when the major part of its body has moved out of the mother’s body. As such, aborting a fetus is not considered murder. While murder is condemned in most religions, killing for certain purposes such as wars, capital punishment or when trying to save one's self, is considered permissible. Most monotheistic religions such as Islam that follow a single scripture have not changed any of their tenets pertaining to abortions. However, other that has several scriptures like Buddhism is debatable and views can vary based on individual perception. Similarly, the Roman Catholic Church keeps changing their teachings on the subject as time progresses.
A 1971 article by Thomson has been considered one of the earliest and most influential arguments in favour of granting the right to a woman to decide whether she wants to carry a pregnancy through to giving birth of wants to abort it. Thomson particularly cited unplanned pregnancies, especially those arising from crimes such as rape, as one of the most significant cases when the right to life of a fetus tends to diminish against the right of the mother to lead a normal life. Thomson equates this situation to a person being made to support the life of another human being, for a given period of time, against the person’s will. It has been argued here that, in such a situation, it would be unlikely that those who profess the right of the fetus to life would consider it a crime on the part of the kidnapped person if they choose not to support the life of the dependent human being. In fact, it would not even be considered ethically or morally incorrect.
Similarly, critics of abortion have tended to take a softer view of cases where a pregnancy arises from rape. However, Thomson argues, just because a fetus has been conceived through an act of crime does not diminish its right to live. Hence, it does not make sense to consider it more ‘acceptable’ to abort a fetus in such circumstances. It should be noted that this more lenient stance towards women in rape cases arises from sympathy. A woman who has undergone the brutality of such an act should not be punished further by being forced to carry through pregnancies that are unwanted. However, the situation of teenage mothers is not all that different. Although the sexual intercourse that results in the pregnancy may be consensual, it does not mean that the pregnancy would be wanted. The impact of an unwanted pregnancy on the life of the woman is more or less the same whether it is the result of a rape or is simply unplanned. We must then examine whether or not it is scientifically proven if a fetus is alive.
Is a Fetus Alive upon Conception?
One factor to be taken into consideration is: Is deciding on whether a fetus is alive or not the concept of self-awareness. While science as well a major religions place various time frames based on the brain development of the fetus, it has been argued that simply having sensory awareness is not enough. For living thing to be considered a person, they have to be self-aware. This would require them to be able to exercise rationality and have a distinct moral nature. They should be able to understand their own rights as well the duties and responsibilities towards others. Relying on all these sensibilities, the person should be capable of making independent decisions. This is when the person can be said to be capable of exercising free will and can hence be held responsible for their actions . This concept has faced severe criticism for it implies that not only fetus, but also new born babies cannot be considered human entities. In fact, it has dire implications for those who are either born with severe abnormalities or become severely disabled later in life .
Abortion and Birth Defects
The ethical and moral dilemma here arises from the concept of ‘choice’. Those who favour the abortion of fetus and even the ‘merciful killing’ new born babies with severe abnormalities, consider this acceptable as the child would lead a near animalistic level of life, would be incapable of performing even the most basic day to day tasks and would, in fact, have a retarding impact on the quality of life of their caretakers. At this point, it should be noted that an unwanted child is more likely to lead a life in which is it not sufficiently loved or cared for. This can be especially true in cases on teen pregnancies where the mother lacks the maturity to care for the child. In such cases, where the mother herself is a dependent, being responsible for a child can have a severely negative impact on the quality of her life. Here, the ethic of autonomy also comes into play as the woman has the right to decide whether she wants to bear the burden of an unwanted child or wants to remain independent and autonomous. The fetus is a part of her body and hence she has the right to autonomy over it.
Abortion and the Age Factor
The average age when a person can legally get married in the US is 18 years. However, several states permit people as young as 14 years of age to get married if there is a pregnancy involved . The legal age for drinking alcohol is 21 years in nearly every state. It seems strange that, when a person is deemed to be too immature to choose a life partner, or even consume alcohol responsibly, they are forced by law to bring a life into this world and also be responsible for its well-being. Being a teenage mother not only has a tremendous financial and emotional significance but also lays great physical pressure on a young mother, holding the possibility of damaging her for life. However, the need for legalization of abortion is not limited to teen pregnancies or pregnancies arising from rape.
Mothers at Risk
There are countries in the world where abortion is forbidden even when the life of the mother is at risk. In December 2012, a woman of Indian origins lost her life when doctors in Ireland refused to abort her fetus which was not expected to survive in any case . Today, the country has legalized abortions in cases where the mother’s life may be at medical risk or she may pose the danger of being suicidal. Again, the question here is matter of choice. In the case of life threatening medical conditions, there is no question of choice – the mother’s life has to be saved. However, in cases where the woman threatens suicide, it seems ridiculous to push a woman to the point of contemplating death before permitting her to abort a pregnancy that she does not want. More often than not, women may desperately not want to bear the responsibility of a child and yet not to the point of killing themselves. In these majority cases, the mother would be incapable of loving her child, which would lead to severe emotional and psychological trauma for both.
Ethical principles are evident in the argument of abortion in terms of Pro-life and Pro-choice. The main ethical principle facing those who argue for, as well as against abortion rights of women is the principle of justice. While it can be said that, just as a woman has autonomy over her own body, the fetus – as a living person – has the right to be protected from being mutilated or poisoned. This leads to a dead end as, in both cases; justice is served to only one party. What is interesting is that the ethical and moral debate over abortion has majorly centred around the right of the woman to decide. The question of a man’s responsibility towards his child is not given sufficient emphasis. As a result, the ethic of justice remains only partially addressed. If a woman is to be forced to bear an unwanted child, then its father should legally be forced to share the burden too. However, the implications of not giving the right to the mother to abort her child have an impact only on the life of the woman and her unwanted child. This is unfair and unjust.
In 1987, the Callahan’s provided a comprehensive understanding of the ethics of choice pertaining to the rights of a woman in abortion . Through a series of interview with women, they were able to identify the key concepts that nearly equally divided the group into those who favoured the life of the fetus and those who believed that the right to abort lay with the woman. Table 1 is an adaptation of the key ethical findings of their work:
According to the BBC Ethics: Arguments in Favour of Abortion, (2013)
This argument reminds us that even in the abortion debate, we should regard the woman as a person and not just as a container for the foetus. We should therefore give great consideration to her rights and needs as well as those of the unborn (pg.1).
The resolution then comes in trying to help human beings, especially those that are rooted in religion, understand that women are not committing an act of murder, they simply want to be viewed as a person and not an inanimate object. How can a male political or religious figure be the deciding factor in the right of a woman when a man has no idea what a woman goes through during a pregnancy? According to Sarah Weddington in Roe v. Wade “A pregnancy to a woman is perhaps one of the most determinative aspects of her life. It disrupts her body. It disrupts her education. It disrupts her employment. And it often disrupts her entire family life (Ripples of Hope).” We must try to help others, especially men, understand that it is the constitutional right of any person to make decisions about their own personal body. Therefore, it is a woman’s right to decide if an abortion is necessary.
Personal Position and Conclusion
Women often succumb to family, social and religious pressures and decide against having an abortion. However, the decision of not aborting an unwanted child has as serious implications as deciding in favor of terminating the pregnancy. To begin with, unwanted children do not get the same degree of love, care and affection than a child that was planned. This is especially true in the case of rape pregnancies where the child becomes a reminder of the crime to the mother. Children born of unplanned pregnancies hence have a higher chance of being mistreated by their parents as well as other family members such as grandparents.
Giving birth to an unwanted child and then putting them up for adoption is one of the options that women consider, however, this too has dire consequences for the child as well as the mother. While the child may most like be placed in overcrowded foster homes, the mother might live with the guilt of having given away her child. If the woman decides to raise the child on her own, it is a major responsibility in moral, emotional as well as emotional terms. Raising a child can be very expensive, especially in cases where the parents are teenagers and do not have a source of income. This can have a dire impact on the quality of life of the child as well as the parents. At the end of the day, the mother has to live with the consequences of bearing an unwanted child. Hence, she should also be allowed to make the choice without the fear of lifelong retribution or being witch-hunted.
While modern day rights of the mother are increasing from a legal perspective, the rights of the fetus to live is protected not only by law but by most major world religions as well. Women may choose to bear a child under societal, family and religious pressure, but unwanted children generally have a poorer upbringing than planned children. As such, the rights of a child need to be protected before as well as after birth for their moral status to hold any sincerity. Giving the mother the right to decide whether she is capable of being a good mother, giving the child the degree of love and affection it deserves as well as supporting it at every level possible as a responsible parent, will empower young women to lead more stable lives as well as ensure that the children born into this world have functional, and not dysfunctional, families to take care of the child.
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