Clare has just discovered she is pregnant.
She is an intelligent 17-year-old student in the final year of high school, with a particular talent and interest in drama and the theatre. She has always achieved excellent academic results. After secondary school she intended to study performing arts. Clare is not one of the ‘risk-takers’ at school and had only social relationships with the boys she mixes with at school and in her theatre group. In fact, her friends have often teased her about her ‘single’ status. After a party two months ago, at which she had too much to drink, she had her first sexual encounter. She had known the boy since childhood but had no particular relationship with him.
Understandably Clare is in a state of shock. Her initial unease and anxiety over the encounter have turned to dismay and desperation. Two days ago she broke the news to her parents, who are also distraught though they want to support her. Together they are coming to terms with the situation and trying to decide what to do. Clare feels as though she cannot bear the collapse of her hopes, the shame of carrying the baby and the enormous impact a child will have on her future. She could not contemplate a marriage with a boy she knows only casually – she has not even told him about her pregnancy yet. Everything she has been formed by has been turned upside down, her beliefs about what is right and wrong, her values and ideals thrown into confusion by what has happened to her.
Her father, previously against abortion, thinks Clare should immediately see a doctor and arrange to have her pregnancy terminated. He argues that at this stage the embryo is little more than some dividing cells, not really a human being. It doesn’t feel pain and its removal will set Clare’s future path straight again.
Clare’s mother is more ambivalent about this. She remembers her own pregnancies and cannot think of Clare’s child as ‘just a few cells’. But she too wonders whether an abortion would be the easiest way out for Clare and for the family.
Finding The Facts
As Clare recovers from the initial impact of discovering that she is pregnant she will be desperate to find out what the implications of her pregnancy are and ways in which to respond. While the initial response of her father, despite his former views, is to solve the problem by terminating the pregnancy, her own instincts and the values she has been brought up with are also coming to the fore. She needs, first of all, to find out some facts. What happens during pregnancy? Is the embryo really a baby? What actually is an abortion? Is it legal? What are the alternatives to abortion? Could she possibly look after a baby? What about adoption? What will be the impact on her future of either carrying the child or of having an abortion?
The Biological Facts
The Visible Embryo is an illustrated timeline of a pregnancy. It shows the developmental continuum from fertilised ovum to infant which every pregnancy entails and will give Clare and her parents an idea of what is happening to her and to the child she has conceived. She, and her father, will discover that, given normal conditions, the biological life of a human being begins at conception, develops through infancy and childhood into adulthood and ends at death. Ultrasound images show the development of the infant in the womb.
What is an Abortion?
Clare will learn that abortion is the premature ending of a pregnancy. It can occur spontaneously but the word is usually used to describe a medical or surgical procedure used to deliberately terminate a pregnancy. She can look at a medical definition of abortion which provides a brief clinical description of what happens to both woman and foetus during an abortion.
Abortion and the law
Until 2008 abortion was not legal in Victoria though under an interpretation of the law by Mr Justice Menhennitt in the Victorian Supreme Court in 1969, restrictions were able to be put aside under certain circumstances. However in 2008, legislation to decriminalise abortion up to 24 weeks (with abortions after that time requiring two doctors to agree that it is appropriate, based on the women’s current and future physical, psychological and social circumstances) was passed. This interpretation allows most women who wish to terminate a pregnancy, particularly in the first three months (or trimester), to have access to the procedure without restriction.
provides an outline of the legal position in Australia. There is also a distinction to be made between what is legal and what is moral. A brief paper Basic Observations on Law and Morality comments on the distinction between these two terms and how, while they are not interchangeable each influences the other. Finally though statistics on abortion are recorded only in South Australia the Wikipedia site attempts a projection based on SA’s figures for the nation as a whole.
Support and Advice
Two sites, Open Doors and Stand Up Girl, speak directly to young women who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant. They encourage alternative ways of coping with the pregnancy and suggest avenues of support that are available. Birthmother helps a young mother think through the issues arising from an unplanned pregnancy and particularly aids reflection on the possibility of offering her child a chance for a life she would find difficult to provide herself, through choosing adoption.
Single Mothers’ Entitlements
A government site provides information on the financial entitlements of single mothers, and further information about what practical support and care is available to them. Scroll through the site for relevant hyperlinks.
Rights and Responsibilities of Fathers
Clare has not yet told the father of her child of her pregnancy. Should she? Men and Abortion is a discussion of the role and very varied responses of fathers in relation to decision-making around abortion. The BBC Ethics site contains a brief article considering some of the implications of abortion for fathers. While a further article ‘Don’t confuse the abortion issue’ makes the point that giving fathers an equal voice with mothers as to the fate of their unborn child may have the effect of increasing, rather than limiting, abortion. It may add to the already common occurrence of women being coerced by unwilling partners into terminating their pregnancies.
Apart from considerations about rights and responsibilities, many young fathers are as fearful and confused as their girlfriends at the prospect of pregnancy. A short article entitled My Girlfriend is Pregnant offers advice to boys about ways in which they can support their girlfriends, whether or not the relationship proves to be long-term.
- Clare’s father regards the fertilised ovum as a ‘few dividing cells’. Is this a biologically accurate description of the embryo at two months gestation? From a purely scientific point of view when does human life begin?
- How would you define the terms ‘legality’ and ‘morality’? What is the distinction between them?
- What do the Australian and New Zealand statistics suggest about the impact of legality and availability on the abortion rate?
- What sources of support are available to Clare? What options does she have if she decides to have her baby?
- What are the rights and responsibilities of fathers in relation to their unborn children?
Clare’s situation is deeply personal and she cannot be expected to be examining the philosophical background to the issue as she comes to grips with her situation. Yet the intense debate over abortion reflects a variety of philosophical positions on topics such as the personhood of the developing foetus; the rights of women over their bodies; the inviolability of human life; the particular worth of human life in relation to other life; eugenics and ‘quality of life’ questions.
These kinds of debates form the background to legal and judicial decisions about abortion. It is therefore immensely important to think about these issues and their implications for society. An introduction to some of the legal and moral issues surrounding abortion can be found on the Nationmaster site.
There are two readily identifiable approaches to the subject of abortion. Those who oppose abortion because it means the death of the foetus are described as being ‘pro-life’. Those who emphasise the right of a woman to choose whether or not she bears the child she has conceived are described as ‘pro-choice’.
The position of those who oppose abortion is based on the conviction that from the moment of conception, a unique human life, distinct from that of either the father or the mother, exists in the womb. Robert George in his artivle Acorns and Embryos has this to say: ‘The adult human being reading these words was, at an earlier stage of his or her life, an adolescent, and before that an infant. At still earlier stages he or she was a fetus and before that an embryo. …… In referring to “the embryo,” then, we are referring not to something distinct from the human being that each of us is, but rather to a certain stage in the development of each human being—like saying “the teenager” or “the five-year old.” Hence to abort a pregnancy at any stage is to take a human life and negate the rights of another human being.
The position of those who support abortion is that because pregnancy and childbirth so intimately and profoundly affect a woman’s body and her life choices, she must have the right to decide for herself whether or not she will bear the child. The Right to Choose: A Fundamental Liberty is an American article which claims personal autonomy and the right to privacy as the basis of the pro-choice position.
When can life in the womb be regarded as a person?
A great deal of discussion centres round whether the fertilised ovum can be described as a person possessing the full rights accorded a person under the law. Simon Longstaff provides a fair introduction to this issue on the St James Ethics site, while an extract from the book The Prenatal Person by Norman Ford SDB emphasises the continuum of life from fertilised ovum to adult human being. Another perspective on this view is conveyed on Tolle Lege, a Lutheran blog describing the journey to birth of Noah, rescued as an embryo from a New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina. A competing view describes the embryo as a potential, but not yet an actual, person. An article by Leonard Peikoff illustrates this point of view.
Opposition to abortion is often associated with essentially religious approach to life even though the arguments of thinkers like Norman Ford are couched solely in philosophical rather than religious terms, but Jennifer Roth puts forward a purely secular argument against abortion based on the human rights of ‘the human prenate’. It would be worthwhile to examine and assess her argument and the counter-arguments presented on this secularist site.
A woman’s right to personal autonomy
Few would contest the fact that giving birth to and raising (or relinquishing) a child is an intensely serious and life-changing experience for a woman. Many argue that society has no right to demand that women undergo this experience if they are deeply unwilling. Generally speaking, this conviction is the basis on which abortion has been legalised. Governments have decided that even if the embryo is accorded the status of a human being, it does not have the right to encroach on the autonomy of a reluctant mother. Pro-choice arguments are summarised on the pro-choice forum site. Judith Jarvis Thomson gives a philosophical basis for this point of view while a critique of her position is available here.
Choice or social coercion
Opponents of abortion make the point that having a pregnancy aborted has a serious and life-changing impact on the mother, one which is compounded by the erosion of the woman’s fundamental sense of self-worth far into her future. They contend that far from choosing abortion, most women are actually coerced into it by those close to them or by social or economic pressures and expectations. Moreover, Western society has so completely severed sexual intercourse from one of its natural outcomes that pregnancy can seem like a tragic mistake rather than a perfectly normal result of sexual relations. As Germaine Greer once commented, ‘abortion is the last of a long list of non-choices’ for women. Who would actually choose a painful, invasive and destructive procedure if there were any reasonable alternative?
Women at risk of post-abortion trauma looks at the negative outcomes of abortion for women, while a book by Australian woman Melinda Tankard Reist Giving Sorrow Words describes the post abortion experiences of eighteen women from a variety of backgrounds.
The views of Peter Singer are in substantial and often controversial opposition to generally accepted definitions of personhood and the rights of the human person. Singer’s point of view rises from his philosophical engagement with the relationship between animals and human beings, especially his reluctance to draw lines between the moral value of humans and animals. He believes that it is sentience, the ability to feel, that ought to be the guiding principle in the treatment of all living things. From this philosophical perspective, it is more morally reprehensible to cause a dog to suffer protracted pain than it is to bring about the painless death of a retarded person.
However, if the law allows these kinds of choices, a natural extension would seem to be that people can be disposed of if their parents or carers, or eventually, the state, decide that their life is not worth living. It is easy to see how this may justify a eugenic approach to human life such as took place in Nazi Germany where an effort was made to purify German stock by eliminating those whom some considered to be racially impure or of inferior quality (retarded or disabled).
In Australia, therapeutic abortion is already permissible in cases of rape or incest, to preserve the life or health of the mother or if the foetus is diagnosed as suffering defects incompatible with a reasonably normal life. (The Catholic Church, however maintains that the human beings regardless of the manner in which they were conceived or of their disabilities, possess, from the very beginning, an absolute right to life. A publication from the Catholic Bishops of Ireland on abortion includes a section titled ‘hard cases’. Scroll through the pdf to read this section.) Beyond Australia, some totalitarian regimes require abortion if there is already one child in the family; in other places, where boys are culturally desired offspring, female foetuses are frequently aborted.
The philosophical basis for Singer’s point of view on abortion is the utilitarian principle that the benefit produced by any action, rather than abstract notions of right and wrong, ought to be the standard by which we judge its worth or morality. Nothing if not consistent, Singer considers that even an infant who is found, after birth, to be suffering from a disability which will seriously relativise the possibility of a happy and productive life, may legitimately have its life terminated.
From a utilitarian point of view the fact that Clare’s pregnancy will cause her distress, disrupt her schooling, compromise her future plans and mean that she and her child might suffer certain social and financial deprivations is enough grounds for her to terminate her pregnancy since, lacking consciousness, the unborn child whose life is terminated will never know what happened to him or her and Clare will be free of constraints on her future.
The difficulty with the utilitarian approach is that the objective morality or ‘rightness’ of any situation is shrunk down to expediency, and immediate needs and desires become the overriding concern. Instead of asking ‘What is right?’ the question becomes ‘What is most convenient?’ or ‘What will solve this particular problem?’ Even at a personal level this can be destructive, but at an international level it is disastrous. The 20th Century illustrates how various regimes have used facile answers to these questions to inflict unspeakable suffering on millions of people.
- Identify and outline the principal arguments put forward by opponents and supporters of abortion. Use the Perceive, Know, Care About thinking routine to examine the various perspectives on abortion.
- When can life in the womb be regarded as a person: from conception, from some other point, only at birth? What rights ought to be accorded to the embryo/foetus?
- Critically evaluate Leonard Peikoff’s article.
- What would you say are the rights of the mother in relation to unexpected or problem pregnancies?
- Ought abortion be morally permissible in hard cases such as pregnancy resulting from rape or when the child is certain to be born with a serious disability? Use the Claim, Support and Question technique to critique your reasoning.
- Outline and critique the utilitarian response to abortion.
Exploring Sacred Texts
Life is a gift of God
The texts of both Old and New Testaments are strongly orientated to the fact that life is a gift of God, that human life begins in the womb (cf. Jeremiah 1:5; Isaiah 44:2; Isaiah 49:1; Psalm 22:9–10; Psalm 139:13–16; Luke 1:13–15; and 1:39–44) and that all who live are known to God, who is their origin and end.
Abortion is not specifically mentioned in scripture but children were regarded as a blessing from God. To have no children was considered a great misfortune and even a cause of shame and embarrassment. Human life was a much more fragile thing then, with high natural rates of infant mortality, and families needed and wanted many pregnancies to compensate for this. Children were a high social priority.
The most explicit reference to a threat to the life of the unborn child comes in the book of Exodus. This text which discusses the penalties due if a woman is caused to miscarry as a result of violence, and the further penalty if she dies as a result of the incident.
Supporters of both sides of the debate have sought to use an unnuanced interpretation of these couple of verses in defence of their positions. The translations in the Revised Standard Version and the Jerusalem Bible seem to favour a view that the life of the unborn child does not have the same significance as that of the mother. However this brief reference is not discussing deliberately procured abortion, but the death of a foetus by accident. Generally speaking, the Old Testament Scriptures place a great deal of emphasis on the value of fecundity and of children, and it would be very far-fetched to interpret these two verses as indicating scriptural support for abortion. However, they may indicate some support for the view that a woman’s life takes priority over the life of her unborn child if it comes to a direct choice between the two.
‘Thou shalt not kill’
A more fundamental injunction of Scripture in relation to abortion is the commandment ‘thou shall not kill’. A discussion of the implications of the fifth commandment can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Paragraphs 2270–75 deal explicitly with abortion, noting the extent to which it offends against the principle of the defence of innocent human life.
The rights of the innocent and powerless
The prophetic tradition in both Christianity and Judaism (Amos 8:4-7; Isaiah 10: 1-3; Luke 1:52-53; Matthew 18:1-4), which upholds the rights of the innocent and powerless against the tyranny of comfort and convenience and control, may also be invoked in support of the most ultimately vulnerable – the unborn child. It is important to realise that the prophetic voices speak out against social mores which devalue the suffering of the poor and substitute false for true values, rather than condemning individuals.
- Having checked the texts cited above (in their context), assess the extent to which they have relevance to the practice of abortion.
- Look closely at Psalm 139. Which verses affirm God’s creative and purposeful action in bringing each person into being? Which affirm the continuity of life from its origins in the womb, through infancy, childhood, adolescence, to adulthood? Which verses affirm the faithful relationship God has with every person called into being? Are there tensions between the intimate personal view of conception in this psalm and the apparent randomness of scientific explanations of conception or are the two views explaining different concepts?
- Abortion is not explicitly mentioned in the New Testament. From your understanding of his teaching, what would Jesus’ response to the practice be?
Understanding the Catholic Tradition
The witness of the Christian Church since earliest times has been consistently in favour of the nurturing of pre-natal life, even though the biology of conception was unknown and the coming to life of the child in the womb, a mystery. A cursory glance at the sources such as that provided on the EPM ministries site show Christians of the first to the fourth centuries utterly rejecting the notion of abortion, whether of the ‘formed or unformed’ foetus.
A more detailed page of quotations from the teaching of Augustine shows a similar rejection of the frustrating of life in the womb. Abortion is always grievously wrong because the destruction of the conceptus– Augustine calls it ‘the conceived seed’ -thwarts the purpose of sexual relationships and therefore God’s will, while an abortion later in the pregnancy is morally comparable to infanticide. His opposition to early abortion seems to be based on an argument against the preventing of the natural outcome of sexual relationships (contraception). His opposition to later abortion is based on his understanding of the commandment forbidding the taking of human life (infanticide).
St Thomas Aquinas
Thomas Aquinas, also working without the benefit of contemporary scientific knowledge, was hesitant about the moment of ‘vitality’ or ‘animation’ of the foetus but, following Augustine, taught the necessity of the existence of the body to receive the soul. He maintained that it was a ‘grave sin against the natural law’ to kill the foetus at any stage, and a graver sin of homicide to do so after ‘ensoulment’. Aquinas held, (a) ‘that there is no human person until ensoulment with a spiritual intellectual soul’; and (b) ‘there can be no ensoulment until there is a body proportionate to such a soul’. (See the article by Benedict Ashley cited below). Following Aristotle, he felt that this ‘ensoulment’ happened between 40 and 80 days after conception. Prior to this he held the embryo to be progressing through vegetative, then animal, stages of life.
In 1869 Pope Pius IX declared abortion to be murder. Some have interpreted this as implying that before this time abortion was allowed. This is a significant misinterpretation of Church teaching which, as we have seen, has consistently taught that abortion is seriously wrong. An article headed Canonical Misconceptions sums up the teaching of the Church down the centuries. It explains why, in response to discoveries of science about the origins of human life in the womb, the teaching of the Church about abortion was not changed but further articulated.
In 1995, Pope John Paul II issued the encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae on the Value and Inviolability of Human Life. The Pope makes a strong stand against ‘the culture of death’, which he sees as a dark shadow over the world. He quotes from the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes #27:
Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others like them are infamies indeed. They poison human society, and they do more harm to those who practise them than to those who suffer from the injury’.
strongly condemning all such practices and the cultures and media which make such things seem as if they are an advance and a step towards human freedom and well-being.
The Church consistently makes the point that because we are social beings the actions of each of us affect all. Abortion cannot be simply a private matter. The mother, the father, the extended family, the medical staff, the community, the ethos of the nation are affected (to a greater or lesser extent) by the aborting of a pregnancy, just as each of these are affected by the delivery of a new child. That is why it is also the responsibility of communities and nations to build societies which do not devalue any life and do not force a choice between the interests of a child and the interests of its mother.
Consistent Ethic of Life
Cardinal Joseph Bernadin of America, recognised some fundamental incoherencies in western society where, for example, so-called ‘pro-life’ campaigners sometimes resorted to verbal and physical violence and even murder, while those vigorously opposing nuclear war and weapons seem totally indifferent to the loss of life happening in hospitals and clinics. He began to call for all Christians to embrace what he called a ‘Consistent Ethic of Life‘ which would aim to protect every human life from the womb to the tomb.
The Church, agent of compassion and forgiveness
The Church’s primary role in the world is to be a sign and agent of God’s love and mercy for all. So, despite the seriousness with which the Church regards abortion, it also holds out to all people at all times the possibility of forgiveness and healing. Pope John Paul II reiterated this message in paragraph 99 of his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae. This has also been promoted by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference with the release of a short video as part of their God So Loved the World – life issues series, titled: Abortion.
People within the Church have taken the Pope’s call to heart and there are many agencies working to help those affected by abortion to come to terms with their grief or guilt. An effective one is the Project Rachelinitiative, which offers hope of reconciliation and peace to all who suffer as a result of abortion. Phone and email contact details are provided.
- Make a table outlining the progression of the Church’s teaching on abortion over its 2000-year history.
- ‘The Church’s firm and unwavering stance against abortion stands in the classic prophetic tradition of the protection of the powerless against oppressors, asserting the worth of all human life as God’s creation against the death-dealing idolatries of comfort and efficiency’ (Luke Timothy Johnson). Do you agree or disagree? Explain why.
- Assess the accuracy of Pope John Paul II’s critique of the ‘culture of death’. What evidence of the ‘culture of death’ do we see in Australian society? What might be an appropriate response from Catholic Australians?
- Discuss the ‘consistent ethic of life’ perspective. Is it reasonable to oppose nuclear weapons or capital punishment and support abortion? Or conversely to oppose abortion and support such issues?
Respecting Other World Views
What Do World Religions Believe About Abortion? This summary of various religious positions on abortion is compact and informative. Another comprehensive site which summarises the position of various religious traditions is at nationmaster.com
There are a range of views about abortion expressed in Judaism. One Jewish site explains that according to the teachings of the Talmud, abortion is forbidden unless the life of the mother is directly endangered by continuance of the pregnancy.
Buddhist views reflect the non-violence of its basic philosophy but do not often employ the language of right and wrong in relation to abortion.
Despite the high actual abortion rate in India, Hinduism is opposed to the practice. Abortion Is Bad Karma: Hindu Perspectives sets out the Hindu understanding.
Islam opposes abortion except when the life of the mother is endangered.
Finally, an article by Brian Elroy McKinley attempts to explain the morality of the pro-choice point of view in an article entitled Why Abortion is Moral.
- Are there attitudes to abortion which are consistent in most world-views? What are these?
- What tensions exist between religious views and secular views on abortion? What common concerns do they share?
- In a pluralist society, that is, one in which a wide range of views are conscientiously held about abortion, what is the responsibility of Catholics towards individuals who choose abortion and towards a society which regards it as a ‘right’?
Examining Personal Experience
Each of us was once a ‘prenatal person’. Each of us was born into a human family with troubles and difficulties as well as joys and satisfactions. You might review to what extent your own explicit decisions have influenced the life you lead now compared with matters beyond your control?
Clare finds herself in a situation that she did not choose and did not plan for; a situation that will be life-changing for her what ever she decides to do. Strong influences are being brought to bear on her to undergo a ‘procedure’ that promises to set her life back on its previous course but she feels deeply hesitant.
What is the origin of her feeling that she should not abort her child? Why does she hesitate? What are the deeper implications of abortion for women themselves and for the society which permits it? What is the community’s role in regard to supporting and encouraging women like Clare who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant? What might you say to Clare or to a friend who is unexpectedly pregnant?
- Find out the facts.
- Broaden your perspectives.
- Explore the sacred texts.
- Understand the tradition.
- Consider other world views.
- Review your personal experience.
Articulate your own response.