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Abortion access

An overview

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Overview of abortion: An unsolvable dilemma?

bullet Definition of terms: Most web sites that deal with abortion do not pre-define their terms. This is important, because many conservative Christians and pro-lifers often assign unique meanings to common words and terms that are not shared by other people and groups. The three key terms that we use throughout this series of essays are:
bullet "Life:" Any form of living animal or vegetable.

bullet "Human life:" Any living cell or group of cells containing human DNA. A spermatozoa, ovum, pre-embryo, embryo, fetus, newborn, and infant are different forms of human life. However, they are not all considered to have equal value.

bullet "Human person" This is a form of human life which is considered to be a person whose life and health should be protected. No consensus exists about when this state begins. Many pro-lifers say it happens at or very shortly after conception, when a human life with a unique DNA is formed. Many pro-choicers say that it happens later in gestation; some believe that personhood only begins after birth when the newborn is breathing on its own.

bullet What is the question?: There are really two, different, very controversial abortion questions:
  1. What is the best (or least awful) option in a specific situation? If a woman finds herself pregnant, and does not want to be, what is the best (or least worst) solution for her, the potential newborn that she is carrying, and all the other people involved -- including her boyfriend or husband and their families?
    1) To take no action, have the baby, and raise it herself (hopefully with support from others).
    2) To take no action, give birth, and give the baby up for adoption.
    3) To have an abortion and terminate the pregnancy.

  2. Should the state overrule the woman's or couple's decision? If a woman finds herself pregnant, discusses her options with her physician, perhaps her spiritual counselor, and other people involved, and decides to have an abortion, under what conditions (if any) should the state override her decision? That is, should the state have a policy of enforced parenthood for all or most pregnant women?

The first decision is a personal one, between the woman, her physician and/or counselor. The second decision was answered by the U.S. Supreme Court in its Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. Since that ruling, women have had the right to obtain an early abortion. She also has the right to have a later abortion if it is needed for health reasons. It is in this area of abortion access that there is a great deal of political activity, at least in the U.S. Many states are passing laws which would criminalize almost all abortions. Their apparent motivation is to force the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider Roe v. Wade and perhaps reverse their decision.

bullet How often are abortions performed: In the United States, women choose to end about 25% of their pregnancies through abortion. 1 This number has been gradually declining since 1979. This is similar to the Canadian figure of 21%, 2 but is much lower than that of the former Soviet Union (60%) and Romania (78%) where contraceptives remain in short supply. 3

bullet Opposing beliefs about when human personhood starts: Many, but not all, pro-lifers and pro-choicers believe that once human personhood starts -- i.e. when human life becomes a human person -- the person's life must be protected. Many religions, organizations and individuals have passionately held conflicting beliefs about when this happens. This naturally leads to opposing beliefs about when and under what conditions the state should intrude and deny a woman access to abortion.
bullet To many, if not most, pro-lifers, human personhood begins at the instant of conception. Thus, they view each abortion as a form of murder. They often support this argument by noting that, at conception, a human life with its own unique DNA comes into being. The platform of the Constitution Party expresses this clearly. It "....is the only national political party that advocates a 100%, no-exceptions pro-life position in its platform. The Constitution Party platform states, 'The pre-born child, whose life begins at fertilization, is a human being created in God's image. The first duty of the law is to prevent the shedding of innocent blood. It is, therefore, the duty of all civil governments to secure and to safeguard the lives of the pre-born'." 8,9 Many pro-lifers generally view an abortion clinic as a place where babies are murdered. Some pro-life groups and individuals have considered abortion clinics the ethical equivalent of a Nazi death camp.
 
bullet To many pro-choicers, human personhood begins later in gestation or at birth. They note that a pre-embryo -- a just-fertilized ovum -- consists of a simple grouping of undifferentiated cells. The pre-embryo has no human shape, skin, brain, or other organs; it cannot sense the environment; it has no brain; it is not sentient; it is not conscious. Carl Sagan wrote an essay supporting this position. 4

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bullet The pro-life and pro-choice movements: These two groups differ about abortion access. Generally speaking:
bullet Pro-lifers feel that abortion access should be restricted to special cases, or prohibited completely. Many are motivated by a belief that human personhood begins at conception. Thus, an abortion murders a baby.

bullet Pro-choicers believe that each woman should be relatively free to follow their own ethical beliefs concerning the termination or continuation of a pregnancy. Many recognize that there is a diversity of beliefs about abortion access, and that the state should not attempt to enforce a common belief system on all pregnant women. Many pro-choicers believe that human personhood begins later in pregnancy.

Both groups would like to see a reduction in the number of abortions performed. Many pro-lifers promote support services for women in crisis pregnancies and/or seek legal restrictions on abortion access. Many pro-choicers promote better comprehensive birth control education in schools and greater access to contraceptives.

The groups find it difficult to cooperate. They expend enormous energy fighting each other. If they were able to collaborate, they could make major reductions in the abortion rate, perhaps lowering it below the rate of most other developed countries. 

Within each movement there is a range of beliefs concerning restrictions on abortion, as described below.

bullet Conflicting beliefs about abortion access: In spite of what the media might imply, there are not just two conflicting positions on abortion access -- pro-life and pro-choice. A spectrum of beliefs exists.
bullet A minority of the public believes that a woman should be free to terminate her pregnancy at any stage and for any reason that she feels to be valid. A series of national polls by CBS, Los Angeles Times, CNN, USA Today and the Gallup Organization during 2005 reported between 23 and 41% of American adults hold this position. The actual poll result tends to heavily influenced by the precise wording of the question, and what prior questions were asked.

bullet Some feel that she should be able to choose to terminate the life of the pre-embryo, embryo or fetus for any reason up to a certain point in gestation, but not afterwards. This might be before:
bullet About 26 weeks gestation -- the point when higher functions of the the fetus' brain are first activated and the fetus becomes a sentient being and is able to sense its surroundings, or
bullet At quickening, when the woman first feels the fetus move, or
bullet It begins to look human, or
bullet It loses its tail and gill slits, or
bullet Its heart begins beating, or
bullet The pre-embryo becomes attached to the inner lining of the woman's uterus.

Unfortunately, few if any polls ask questions with this degree of detail.

bullet Some would only allow legal abortions in one or more of the following situations:
bullet If an abortion is needed to save the life of the woman, or
bullet To prevent the woman from experiencing permanent disability, or
bullet To prevent the woman having serious health problems.
bullet When the fetus is so malformed that it will only live a matter of hours after birth.
bullet When the fetus has a chromosome abnormality -- e.g. those that cause Down Syndrome.
bullet Where the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest.

Again, few if any polls ask these questions.

bullet A small minority believe that all abortions should be banned, even if needed to save the life of the mother. According to the same polls, between 12% and 25% of American adults hold this position.

We feel that it is naive for the media to imply that there is a unity of belief within the pro-life and within the pro-choice movements.

bullet

Status:

  • In the U.S., the pro-life and pro-choice movements are both powerful and active. Pro-life groups are particularly active at the state level and have successfully influenced legislators and governors into creating many laws that restrict abortion. Many of the laws have been ineffectual; they are so broadly worded that court injunctions suspend them shortly after having been signed into law. Courts often find that these laws are so vaguely worded that physicians are unable to determine whether a specific act is allowed or prohibited. Those laws which survive court challenges are not particularly effective; they often merely have the effect of deflecting abortion seekers to nearby states. Approval of the  drug RU-486 has forever change abortion in America. Doctors are now able to prescribe the pills and women may be able to take the pill at their homes. Rural women will not have to drive long distances to abortion clinics; women will not have to run the gauntlet of abortion protestors.

  • In Canada, the pro-life movement lost most of its church funding after some groups started to harass abortion providers in the vicinity of their homes. This also generated fear among the families and neighbors of the providers. During the late 1990's, two Canadian pro-life groups lost their charitable status with Revenue Canada because of excessive political activity. Abortion protests now fail to attract large numbers of supporters. The groups now do little more than conduct candlelight vigils, and issue press releases. Abortion access is rarely is discussed in the media. The country has many laws that promote the safety of abortions, but has no law that regulates access to abortion. However, provincial and territorial medical associations have regulations that limit how late in pregnancy an abortion can be performed.

    In recent years, social and religious conservatives have been forging strong bonds with the Conservative Party in Canada, similar to the formation of the Moral Majority and Religious Right movements in the U.S. during the late 20th century. Because the opposition members of Parliament currently outnumber the Government members, the Conservative Party has only been able to implement laws and regulations on relatively minor moral issues, like:
    • Terminating foreign aid relating to abortion
    • Gutting government funding to various women's movements in the country.
    • Terminating funding programs that had enabled groups to challenge government human rights violations through the courts.
    • Unsuccessfully attempting to re-open debate on same-sex civil marriage in Parliament.
    • Attempting to hide documentation related to Canadian military involvement with the alleged torture of prisoners in Afghanistan.

    However, if the Conservative Party were able to obtain a majority in the House of Commons, then it is quite probable that the Conservatives will quickly tackle major moral issues, by:
    • Re-establishing the death penalty.
    • Restricting or eliminating abortion access.
    • Terminating same-sex marriage and perhaps forcibly divorcing existing same-sex couples.
    • Re-criminalizing same-sex sexual behavior..

Canada's political system is structured very differently from the U.S. These major moral issues must be fought on a state-by-state basis in the U.S., but can be changed across Canada by a single federal law.

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References used:

  1. American statistics are listed by Baptists for Life, Inc. at: http://www.bfl.org/stats
  2. Canadian statistics are listed by Action Life (Ottawa) Inc. at: http://www.ncf.carleton.ca/
  3. Bob Enyart is an extremely conservative talk show host. He has a "Bob Enyart Live Abortion Clock" on his web site. It lists the total number of legal abortions that have been performed since 1973. See: http://www.enyart.com/
  4. Carl Sagan, "Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium: Chapter 15" Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store Chapter 15 has been reprinted at: http://www.2think.org/
  5. S. Boyd, "Give us liberty: The approval of RU-486 isn't about morals, it's about options," Salon.com at: http://www.salon.com/  (This may be a temporary posting)
  6. A.T. Hyman, "The 'A' Word." This is an essay on the legal aspects of the abortion debate. See: http://members.aol.com/
  7. Nellie Gray, president of March for Life, at the 28th annual March for Life, 2001-JAN-22.
  8. "Constitution Party supports statewide abortion ban," Stop Abortion in Ohio, undated, at: http://www.ohioabortionban.com/
  9. "Sanctity of Life," Platform, Constitution Party at: http://www.constitutionparty.com/
  10. Marci McDonald, "The Armageddon Factor," Random House Canada. Released 2010-MAY-11.

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Copyright © 1996 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last updated 2010-MAY-12

Author: Bruce A Robinson

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