Section 8: Abortion
Legal abortion is regrettable, but it's better than the alternative.
note: a more graphic picture appears below
Legal abortion is a question that has long been resolved in Europe but which still arouses great passion in the United States. Why?
Let's look at the issue from two standpoints - morality and practicality.
6.8a Do no harm?
Our moral code is based on the principle of doing no harm to human beings. (We will look at the question of harming animals later.) That leads us to three separate issues - (i) is an embryo or foetus human? (ii) is abortion - the planned ending of a pregnancy - harmful to the pregnant woman? (iii) is abortion harmful to the potential father?
6.8b The foetus / embryo
An embryo is a fertilised egg that has begun cell division; in time an embryo becomes a foetus - defined as the unborn young vertebrate that has reached the stage of resemblance to the adult animal. In humans the foetal stage begins about the end of the eighth week of pregnancy.
So, is a foetus or embryo human? If we consider it human from the moment of conception, then our moral principle tells us not to abort. But if we do not consider it human, our moral principle is irrelevant.
There is no doubt that an embryo - ie, in the first eight weeks of pregnancy - is not human. It has the potential to become human, but at this early stage it is only a collection of cells similar to the embryo of a frog, tiger, whale or any other animal.
So when does a foetus becomes human? For some people it is the moment of birth. For
others, it is the moment when the foetus can survive outside the womb with intensive care - a period no earlier than the 23rd /24th week of pregnancy. This is the earliest time when the lungs can breathe independently.
These are definitions according to physical development. Another approach is to define humanity as self-consciousness - awareness of oneself as human, or as an entity independent of other human beings. This earliest point at which this occurs is birth and, depending on how rigorous we define awareness, we might even consider that this may not come until several months afterwards.
Taking all these facts into account, we come to the conclusion that an embryo cannot be considered human and a foetus can only be considered human at the earliest moment when it can survive independently of its mother.
6.8c "Potential" humans?
suggests that if abortion is murder, so too are menstruation and male masturbation, because they also result in the deaths of potential humans.
The fact that an embryo or early stage foetus is not human means that from a moral point of view, its welfare is irrelevant. Some people find this difficult to accept. They argue that every embryo and foetus is a potential human being and potential humans should have the same rights as actual humans.
This is an interesting argument, but it is meaningless if it is not consistent. Every spermotozoa and human egg is also a potential human - which
foetus aborted at 8 weeks
To decide that one collection of cells (the embryo) is potentially human but another collection (egg or sperm) is not, is illogical and destroys the base of an already weak argument - an argument that is based on emotion rather than reason.
Strong emotions make poor morals and laws. Some of us may find the idea strange or distasteful, but we have to accept that because the foetus or embryo in early development is not human, it is not subject to our moral imperative of doing no harm. It is time, therefore, to turn our attention to the people who are or may be affected by abortion - the pregnant woman and the potential father.
6.8d The pregnant woman
Is abortion beneficial or harmful to the woman carrying the embryo / foetus? Obviously, if abortion were always beneficial, no babies would ever be born and if it were always harmful all pregnancies would lead to birth.
Pregnancy is a life-changing experience and few women take the question of abortion lightly. While many pregnancies are planned and welcomed, others are an unexpected interruption to the potential mother's life and she may be unable to spend the next eighteen years meeting a child's physical and emotional needs. Carrying the foetus to birth and putting it up for adoption may also be unacceptable if denies the woman access to her own child.
Many women decide to proceed with an unplanned pregnancy. Others, however, decide to abort. Whichever choice the woman makes is moral, as long it ensures the best outcome for her physical and emotional well-being.
6.8e The potential father
It takes two individuals to conceive. Theoretically, therefore, it takes two individuals to decide whether to continue the pregnancy or to have an abortion.
The potential father is often unaware of the pregnancy or unwilling to take responsibility for the foetus or embryo. But in a perfect moral universe, every man would assume responsibility for his every action. In that case, some would consider they were not ready to become a father and would opt for an abortion, while others would want spend a lifetime as the potential child's parent.
Which means that, ideally, the potential father's welfare - his desire or not to be a parent - should be taken into account whenever a woman has to choose between birth and abortion. At the end of the day, however, pregnancy affects the woman's welfare more than the man's and, regrettable as it may sometimes be for the father, that fact confirms that ultimately it is the woman's decision whether or not to abort.
6.8f The law, "pro-choice" and "pro-life"
In recent years, in the United States and elsewhere, the debate over abortion has focused on two opposing phrases - "pro-choice" and "pro-life". Both terms are misleading.
The term "pro-choice", has echoes of an advertising campaign and trivialises the serious, often painful emotional issues that women have to consider before deciding whether or not to abort.
A woman seldom "chooses" either an abortion or birth; circumstances point her towards a conclusion that one outcome is better for her than another.
The term "pro-life" rests on two false assumptions. Firstly it suggests that abortion is the end of life, when it is not - it is the end of potential life. Secondly, the phrase implies that if abortion is banned, every foetus will to come to term. But the reality is that where abortion is illegal women continue to try to end their pregnancies, with often debilitating and even fatal consequences.
Ironically, a "pro-life" stance makes it more likely that death will occur.
It is more accurate to describe the opposing camps as "pro-legal" and "pro-criminal" abortion. The pro-legal stance recognises that abortion is inevitable and that to minimise harm to those who undergo the procedure, it should be made safe and legal in every jurisdiction. The pro-criminal stance may slightly reduce the number of abortions, but it leads to many more unsafe abortions and to more women dying.
All abortion, legal or otherwise, is regrettable. It is often an indication that sex education, teaching couples the necessity of birth control, has failed. The only moral response is to accept that abortion occurs and to reduce the potential harmful impact wherever. And that means ensuring comprehensive sex education for all, and safe, legal abortions for all women who need them.
Are atheists immoral?
Religion makes a strong claim to morality - only God and faith,
apparently, keep us moral.
It's a nice idea, but it's false. Religious morality is frequently harmful; only humanist values
guarantee a truly ethical approach to life.
What's good for us?
6.2: God's morals
... leave much to be desired
6.3: Morals and ethics
From the abstract to the actual
6.4: Sex: what is it good for?
Whatever you want it to be
6.5: God and sex
Confusion and control
6.6: Sex: a broad spectrum
6.7: Sex: Tell the children
Educate and protect
An ethical approach
6.9: Humane justice
The death penalty is immoral
6.10: Suicide and euthanasia
Dying with dignity
6.11: Recreational drugs
A moral issue?
6.12: Do good...
... for goodness' sake
How do you live when you realize that religion is false?
Do you descend into despair? Lead a life of crime and
The opposite, actually. Atheists appear more likely to live
moral, happy lives than those who are stuck in superstition.