My belief about the ethics of abortion is that it is a metaphysical question (meta, beyond, physics, the laws of science). Ultimately our beliefs will shape our morals because science cannot find for us any morally relevant feature of a foetus that distinctively marks the passage from a collection of cells, to a human person.
Indeed, the issue of personhood (see Simon Blackburn's useful discussion) comes before any moral judgement on the ethics of abortion for most moral theories (Kantian, Natural Law) except the utilitarians who argue that goodness resides in some balance of pleasure over pain. If, as Singer argues, animals(at least higher order primates) have as much claim on the pain/pleasure calculation as humans, then it doesn't really matter for utilitarians whether foetus is classified as human - it only matters whether they feel pain.
Here scientists can't agree: the earliest estimate is eighteen weeks, the latest, twenty-nine weeks. If you can find it, the Channel 4 documentary from 2006 gives a fascinating insight into this discussion. Because although the ethics of abortion may be a metaphysical question, there are nonetheless certain facts which are morally relevant.
1. The presence of pain. Do foetuses feel pain? When? How much? How do we know?
2. The age of viability (survivability) of the foetus. In 1990 as part of the embryology bill the legal term for abortion was reduced from 28 to 24 weeks. Yet some premature babies survive at 22 weeks. Although this viability is unlikely to fall any further (the lungs are not sufficiently formed to sustain life below this level), it does seem morally relevant that babies can be in an incubator in one ward, whilst next door a mother is being wheeled in for a late term abortion.
3. The presence of disability. Today foetuses are scanned and tested for various genetic disabilities. The 1967 act allows abortion for disabled foetuses, and abortion is also allowable if severe disability is diagnosed after 24 weeks. But what are we supposed to do with this scientific fact? Joanna Jepson went to the High Court in 2002 to obtain a ruling on the legality of abortions at 28 weeks for cleft palate (remember abortions later then 24 weeks are allowable for "severe disability").
29 abortions for cleft palate had taken place in the preceding ten years. She writes: "It is not women whose human rights are diminished by hypocrisy, evasion, and conflict – it’s the disabled". Is an ethics that protects the weak compatible with an ethics of rights (such as a woman's right to choose to abort?).
In addition, definitions do seem to matter in this debate. How do we define a "human person"? What makes a life "worth living"? And we need to be aware that the early embryo, up to 14 days old, has now been defined as the pre-embryo, because so primitve is its cell life that it has no gender or recognisable quality that makes it distinctively "human". Do pre-embryo's have no moral status?
My handout explores the ethics of abortion in greater detail, and Andrew Capone's powerpoint gives a detailed explanation of how sanctity of life issues affect this debate. If you want to navigate easily round this section, go now to the roadmap.
Image: Revd Joanna Jepson, Chaplain, London School of Fashion
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What happens during an abortion?
There are three different abortion procedures:
Early medical abortion (up to nine weeks)
This involves two appointments, usually two days apart. Initial treatment with a hormone blocking tablet (mifepristone) stops the pregnancy continuing. Prostaglandin tablets or pessaries (which are inserted in the vagina) then make the womb expel the pregnancy. This method is not yet available everywhere.
Vacuum aspiration or suction termination (usually from 7 to 15 weeks of pregnancy)
The passage through the cervix (entrance to the womb) is dilated, gently stretched, and opened. The contents of the womb are removed with a suction tube passed through the cervix. This takes five to ten minutes and can be carried out under local or general anaesthetic.
Surgical dilatation and evacuation (D&E (from about 15 weeks of pregnancy)
The cervix is dilated and the pregnancy removed in fragments, using a suction tube and forceps. This usually needs a general anaesthetic. You may be able to go home the same day if you are healthy and the pregnancy is less than 18 weeks.
Abortion after 20 weeks is uncommon and involves either surgical dilatation and evacuation or 'medical induction', which causes a labour similar to a miscarriage. You will need to spend one or two nights in hospital.
Is abortion safe?
Not entirely, problems are less likely early on. You should be advised of any potential complications related to the type of abortion you have and your stage of pregnancy. Infection is the most common problem after a surgical abortion. Most infections are easy to treat. Other problems may include prolonged bleeding.
Will abortion affect my chances of having a baby in future?
There is no harm to future fertility from a trouble-free abortion. Fertility can be affected by injury to the womb or serious infection, but this rarely happens. You should have a check-up within two weeks.
Click here for the current state of abortion law in the UK.Add a comment
Abortion → Start here
Sanctity of Life Women's rights Personhood Quality of Life
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The index of hyperlinks on abortion from San Diego University, Lawrence Hinman, has a wealth of research material.
Six games to review the abortion issue (engarde, throw the teacher, grade or no grade, beat the goallie, walk the plank, hoopshoot):http://www.rsrevision.com/games/alevel/abortion.htm
Here is a brilliant powerpoint on the ethics of abortion from a critical thinking/suppressed premises viewpoint.
A shorter version by an American academic focusing on personhood (woulod make a good introductory lesson), and then moving on to consider euthanasia (and arguing against extremes): abortion_and_euthanasia1.ppt
A damaris lesson debating the issue "abortion, right or wrong" using material available on the internet, includes abortion quotes worksheet.
The pro-abortion view:
Or the national right to life organisation has a very detailed site:
A one hour lecture by Lawrence Hinman of San Diego University on the ethics of abortion:
The Christian Medical Fellowship has a library of articles on abortion from an evangelical perspective:
Here is a library of articles on abortion by American academics:
The defender of women's rights to their own body, Judith Jarvis Thomson, has a numebr of fascinating papers available online - for the more advanced student.
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