Abortion is a Serious Ethical Issue:
Usually debates about abortion focus on politics and the law: should abortion be outlawed and treated like the murder of a human person, or remain a legal choice available to all women? Behind the debates are more fundamental ethical questions which aren’t always given the specific attention they deserve. Some believe that the law shouldn’t legislate morality, but all good law is based upon moral values. A failure to openly discuss those values can obscure important discussions.
Is the Fetus a Person with Rights?
Much debate about the legality of abortion involves debating the legal status of the fetus. If the fetus is a person, anti-choice activists argue, then abortion is murder and should be illegal. Even if the fetus is a person, though, abortion may justified as necessary to women’s bodily autonomy — but that wouldn’t mean that abortion is automatically ethical. Perhaps the state can’t force women to carry pregnancies to term, but it could argue that it is the most ethical choice.
Does the Woman have Ethical Obligations to the Fetus?
If a woman consented to sex and/or didn’t properly use contraception, then she knew that pregnancy might result. Being pregnant means having a new life growing inside. Whether the fetus is a person or not, and whether the state takes a position on abortion or not, it’s arguable that a woman has some sort of ethical obligation to the fetus. Perhaps this obligation isn’t strong enough to eliminate abortion as an option, but it may be enough to limit when abortion can be ethically chosen.
Does Abortion Treat the Fetus in an Unethical, Callous Way?
Most debates on the ethics of abortion focus on whether the fetus is a person. Even if it is not a person, however, this doesn’t mean that it can’t have any moral standing. Many people object to abortions later in pregnancy because they intuitively feel that there is something too human about a fetus which looks so much like a baby. Anti-choice activists rely heavily upon this and they have a point. Perhaps the ability to kill something which looks like a baby is one which we should avoid.
Ethics of Personal, Bodily Autonomy:
It’s arguable that a right to abortion is a right to control one’s body and the death of the fetus is a unavoidable consequence of choosing not to continue a pregnancy. That people have some ethical claim to personal, bodily autonomy must be regarded as fundamental to the conception of any ethical, democratic, and free society. Given that autonomy exists as an ethical necessity, the question becomes how far that autonomy extends. Can the state really force a woman to carry a pregnancy to term?
Is it Ethical to Force a Woman to Carry a Pregnancy to Term?
If legalized abortion is eliminated, then the law will be used to force women to carry pregnancies to term — using their bodies to provide a place where a fetus can develop into a baby. This is the ideal of anti-choice activists, but would it be ethical? Not permitting women a choice over being pregnant and reproducing is not compatible with justice in a free, democratic state. Even if the fetus is a person and abortion unethical, it shouldn’t be prevented through unethical means.
Ethics and the Consequences of Sexual Activity:
Pregnancy almost invariably occurs as a consequence of sexual activity; thus, questions about the ethics of abortion must include questions about the ethics of sex itself. Some argue, or at least seem to assume, that sexual activity must carry consequences, one of which may be pregnancy. It is therefore unethical to try to prevent those consequences — whether through abortion or contraception. Modern sexual liberty, however, is often focused on freeing sex from traditional consequences.
Does the Woman have Ethical Obligations to the Father?
Pregnancy can only occur with the participation of a man who is equally as responsible for the existence of the fetus as the woman. Should women give fathers any say in deciding whether the pregnancy is carried to term? If men have an ethical obligation to support a child after birth, don’t they have an ethical claim on whether a child is born? Ideally, fathers would be consulted, but not every relationship is ideal and men don’t run the same physical risks as a pregnant woman.
Is it Ethical to Give Birth to an Unwanted Child?
While anti-choice activists like to hype supposed examples of women having abortions to keep their careers alive, it’s far more common that women have abortions because they feel unable to properly care for the child. Even if it were ethical to force women to carry pregnancies to term, it would not be ethical to force the birth of children who are unwanted and cannot be cared for. Women who choose to abort when they cannot be good mothers are making the most ethical choice open to them.
Political vs. Religious Debates over the Ethics of Abortion:
There are both political and religious dimensions to ethical debates over abortion. Perhaps the most significant error which people make is to confuse the two, acting as though a decision on the religious front should necessitate a particular decision on the political front (or vice-versa). So long as we accept the existence of a secular sphere where religious leaders have no authority and religious doctrines cannot be the basis for law, we must also accept that civil law may be at odds with religious beliefs.
Abortion is a difficult issue — no one approaches it lightly or makes a decision about whether to have an abortion lightly. Abortion also touches upon a significant number of important, fundamental ethical questions: the nature of personhood, the nature of rights, human relationships, personal autonomy, the extent of state authority over personal decisions, and more. All of this means that it is very important that we take abortion seriously as an ethical issue — seriously enough to identify the various components and discuss them with as little prejudice as possible.
For some people, their approach to the ethical questions will be purely secular; for others, it will be heavily informed by religious values and doctrines. There is nothing inherently wrong or superior to either approach. What would be wrong, however, would be to imagine that religious values should be the determining factor in these debates. However important religious values may be to someone, they cannot become the basis for laws that apply to all citizens.
If people approach the debates openly and with a willingness to learn from others with different perspectives, then it might be possible for everyone to have a positive impact on others. This may allow the debate to move forward and for progress to be made. It may not be possible for broad agreements to be reached, but it may be possible for reasonable compromises to be achieved. First, though, we need to understand what the issues are.