Friday, August 5, 2011

The Ethics of Abortion


Abortion is one of the most controversial issues in contemporary society. But, in actuality it is a collection of several issues. The largest of these issues is the one in which the dividing line between sides is the brightest, namely whether an embryo or a fetus is a human life. If the answer is yes, then it is presumably entitled to all of the protections due to a human being and abortion is just a euphemism for murder. Many take this view, most often on religious grounds. If the embryo is not a human life the issue is more subtle. We must then ask what is it? From a biological standpoint it is clearly of the species Homo sapiens yet in the first two trimesters of its development it lacks the brain structure to make human consciousness or even the ability to feel pain a possibility. Therefore the only argument that would endow such an entity with the moral rights recognized in people, would be one that appeals to the fetus's potential to become a human being worthy of moral consideration. However, extending this argument, we would be forced to grant human rights to sperm cells and ova as well, an absurd proposition.
As a teenager, when I first grappled with this issue I had an instinctive reaction to the proposition: abortion is wrong, it is the taking of a life that is at least potentially human. I think this reaction is understandable when you take the pro-choice position to its logical conclusion. If there is no moral issue in the abortion of a third trimester pregnancy, what significant change occurs at birth to make infanticide immoral? Most third trimester fetuses are capable of surviving outside the womb, indeed preemies grow to adulthood all the time. What then makes natural birth the bright line between when it is okay to terminate the fetus and when it is monstrous to murder the child? Nothing rational.
Having considered these issues carefully I have decided that I am not sure, and may never be sure about the morality of abortion; I find it morally questionable and therefore, if I had to face the decision (which my biology saves me from), I would not engage in it.
That being said, I believe the question of government's role in regulating abortion is a separate issue. First I think the decision in Roe v. Wade was legally absurd (the constitution does not guarantee the right to abortion), but pragmatically correct. Abortion should remain legal because greater evil will result from its criminalization. However, I do believe, since abortion is morally questionable and therefore may, in theory, be damaging to humanity, the government has a legitimate reason to try to lessen, through non-coercive means, the number of abortions performed through education and social programs. I understand that some may say this is opening an ugly can of worms that seems to entangle government in morality, yet I would argue that that is precisely the function that government takes on when it seeks to limit its citizens' behavior through criminal laws. In this case however, unlike cases of rape or premeditated murder, where the moral question is clear, rational well-intentioned people can disagree and therefore, although criminalization is not justified, attempts to curtail the behavior can be said to be in the best interest of the society.

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