Abortion is the deliberate termination of a pregnancy. This procedure generally occurs through one of three methods: “Morning after pills” can prevent implantation of a fertilized egg; during the first trimester, drugs such as RU486 or mifepristone can cause spontaneous abortions; or a surgical procedure can remove a fetus from the womb.
The debate over abortion is polarized, with the most vocal advocates, both for and against, tending to assume extreme positions in the belief that they are enunciating a principle that allows for no compromise.
On one extreme, pro-choice advocates—those who champion abortion rights-have advanced various arguments, including the need of poor women to control the number of their offspring to escape poverty. The most common argument, however, derives from a woman’s right to control her own body. The abortion issue gave rise to the feminist slogan, “a woman’s body, a woman’s right.” By this logic, the fetus is an aspect of the woman’s body, and she is properly free to continue the pregnancy or remove the fetus—the tissue within her body—at her sole discretion.
On the other extreme, pro-life advocates—those who seek to prohibit all forms of abortion—usually employ religious arguments, among them that the soul exists at the moment a male sperm cell and a female ovum fuse to form a zygote. A significant minority of pro-life advocates, however, argues on the basis of basic human rights. That is, once a zygote is formed, a human being with full human rights comes into existence. By this logic, the humanity and rights of the fetus are equal to those of the mother, and thus abortion is an act of murder.
The beliefs of most people fall between these extremes. For example, many pro-choice advocates wish to prohibit partial-birth abortion, a late-term procedure in which a fetus is partially delivered before being killed, usually by having its skull punctured. On the other side of the debate, many pro-life advocates sanction abortion if the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother or if the fetus is discovered to have a serious deformity or is diseased.
The history of abortion varies from nation to nation depending largely on the culture, the level of technology, and the role and importance of religion in society. Within predominantly Catholic nations, for example, abortion has generally been prohibited. The issue of abortion—or, more broadly, birth control—has been intimately linked with the role of women within each society. The United States exemplifies abortion’s evolution within a largely secular and technologically advanced nation.
Until the 1820s, abortion was legal—or at least unregulated—across most of the United States. In the 1820s, a number of states began to prohibit abortions after the fourth month, which coincided with “quickening”—a point between 16 and 18 weeks following gestation, at which fetal movements can be felt. Nevertheless, abortion continued as a widespread practice, with midwives prescribing herbal “remedies.”
The rise of the American Medical Association (AMA), founded in 1848, had a profound impact on the laws and attitudes governing reproduction. Composed almost entirely of males, the AMA sought to establish its control over medical matters, including childbirth, an area of medicine almost entirely female in terms of both patients and caregivers (midwives). The AMA lobbied for laws that restricted the practice of medicine to those who were licensed by the state. Thus, law and physicians soon took control of reproduction, and abortion became less tolerated.
Social factors contributed to the decline of abortion. The heavy death toll of the Civil War (1861–1865) led to a call for a population increase. Immigration could have solved the depopulation problem, but many Americans feared that “foreign stock” would overwhelm that of native “Yankees.” The disruption of war had left post–Civil War society awash with programs of social reform. Some blamed sexual promiscuity for social ills and called for “purity” legislation; others demanded the elimination of government from private matters, such as reproduction. This scenario pointedly illustrates how, in the history of American social life, abortion can become inextricably entangled with other social concerns, especially those involving purity.
In 1873, Congress passed the Comstock Act. Aimed at preventing obscenity, the act prohibited and severely punished the publication, distribution, and possession of information or devices connected to abortion. If the post office was used to distribute these materials even harsher penalties applied.
Decades of conflict ensued between antiabortion purity advocates and pro-choice freedom-of-speech zealots. An early victim of the Comstock Act was the libertarian Ezra Heywood, publisher and editor of The Word, who was arrested for the publication and distribution of a birth control booklet titled “Cupid’s Yokes,” in which he advocated sexual restraint. His wife, Angela Heywood, published an early defense of abortion as “a woman’s body, a woman’s right” in The Word. By the late 19th century, abortion and related information became de facto illegal. Around the turn of the century, the fight for abortion was led by Margaret Sanger, a midwife in the poorer sections of New York City. The next decades saw state-by-state battles to legalize all forms of birth control, including abortion. (The struggle was conducted on a state level because, by virtue of the constitutional separation of powers, abortion was under state jurisdiction.)
In 1970, California, New York, Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington State legalized abortion. But the watershed event occurred in 1973, with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. The Court’s ruling invalidated most state laws against abortion because they violated the privacy rights guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. The Roe v. Wade decision separated the abortion of a fetus into three stages and recognized state interests in the last 2 trimesters. During the first 3 months, it held that abortion was a private matter, whereas during the second 3 months, it permitted the states to exercise some control. Finally, during the last 3 months, states were allowed to ban the procedure entirely.
Early abortion became legal and has remained so despite a growing number of restrictions that revolve around such issues as parental consent. In recent years, pro-choice advocates have claimed that abortion is being banned by increments through a series of restrictions that erode the core “right” to reproductive choice. They offer as an example the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003. The act makes no exemption for women whose health is at risk or for the diseases or deformities the child may suffer in life. Pro-choice advocates view this Act as a signal for a second American crusade for reproductive rights.
Abortion may be the most difficult of contemporary social issues because it invokes complex theoretical questions, including privacy, self-ownership, and women’s liberation. To these and other related questions, there are few definitive or satisfying answers.
Consider privacy: Pro-choice advocates maintain that the government should not intrude into a mother’s personal decision as to whether to bear a child. Intrusions of this kind lead to state control of medicine and make doctors an arm of the state. Doctors would have to judge whether a miscarriage were natural or induced and report the latter as a possible crime. Women might well eschew medical help even if it were desperately needed. Some pro-choice advocates warn of pregnant women becoming state-monitored “wombs.”
In contrast, pro-life advocates argue that privacy rights do not permit the murder of another human being, which they consider the fetus to be. A pregnant woman must be prohibited from harming her “child” by law or force, if necessary. Whether a woman who willfully aborts should be charged with premeditated murder, along with any caregiver who aids her, is rarely addressed.
Abortion is an issue of international concern. In the latter part of the 20th century, many nations liberalized their laws on reproduction partly due to pressure from world organizations like the United Nations. Currently, abortion is legal in most developed nations. According to estimates from the Alan Guttmacher Institute, 46 million women have abortions every year, with legal abortions accounting for over half of the total.
The same questions that haunted 19th-century America now dominate the international debate. If women cannot control their own bodies, how can they be truly liberated? Does uncontrolled reproduction produce poverty as well as unwanted children? If abortion is prohibited, will desperate women be driven to obtain unsafe abortions that endanger their lives?
Similar counterarguments also arise. Appealing to morality, pro-life advocates claim that accessible abortion will encourage promiscuity. Appealing to a theory based on the right to life, they maintain that no consideration outweighs the life of an innocent human being—the fetus. The battle over reproductive rights and wrongs will continue especially in developing nations.
Alan Guttmacher Institute. Sharing Responsibility: Women, Society & Abortion Worldwide. New York: Author, 1999.
Gordon, Doris. “Abortion and Rights: Applying Libertarian Principles Correctly.” International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 19 (1999): 97–127.
Mohr, James C. Abortion in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Sears, Hal D. The Sex Radicals: Free Love in High Victorian America. Lawrence: The Regents Press of Kansas, 1977.
Tabarrok, Alexander. “Abortion and Liberty.” Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the Twenty-First Century. Wendy McElroy, ed. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002.
Thomson, Judith Jarvis. “A Defense of Abortion.” Philosophy and Public Affairs I no. I (1971): 47–66.
Originally published .