September 2, 2011 | Posted By Wayne Shelton, PhD

The so-called Pro-Life movement in the U.S. has grown both in numbers and intensity since the 1980’s. The movement has been successful in popularizing the term “pro-life” so as to focus almost exclusively on the value of fetal life. For individuals in this movement, abortions are wrong, and for many with no exceptions such as incest and rape. For them, this issue alone represents the single gravest moral issue of our time. They want the right to abortion, as currently embodied in U.S. Constitutional law in the right to privacy, banned because fetuses, they believe, have full moral standing. 

Advocates against abortion continue to do all they can to limit the right of women to abortion through legislation and have been successful in setting up barriers such as requirements of waiting periods, viewing imaging studies of the fetus, and having specific warnings about the risks before an abortion can be performed. Sadly, the focus on the full moral value of the fetus is also often connected to the view that contraceptive methods are wrong since, these groups believe, at least some methods may entail that early fetal life is being destroyed. This worry in combination with other worries, such as the availability of contraception may contribute to promiscuity and degradation to moral standards in various ways, has linked together abortion and contraception into a single moral perspective; the result is that not only is it always wrong to abort a fetus, it is always wrong to take measures to prevent abortions.  

At the same time, for an extreme pro-choice advocate to claim that only the woman’s right to choose is important and that the fetus has no moral value does not capture how most people in the U.S. value human fetal life. Terminating the life of a fetus is not ethically the same as swatting a fly. I fear that some on the pro-choice side of the abortion issue have not taken the issue of abortion seriously enough as a moral issue—one can admit that a human fetus has moral value, though not necessarily full moral standing as babies, children, and adult humans, and still believe firmly in a woman’s right to reproductive freedom. Perhaps by taking abortion more seriously as a moral issue and focusing more on prevention of pregnancy, there could be a clearer differentiation of the issue of abortion rights and the right to contraceptives. 

The lesson from this brief analysis is that extremists on both sides of the abortion debate are engaging in irresolvable moral debate, and that the consideration of practical options for reducing moral harm associated with the issue of abortion are being lost. Conservative columnist for the Washington Post, Michael Gerson, recently illustrates this point in an opinion piece entitled, “Family Planning as a Pro-Life Cause” (August 29, 2011). In this column, Gerson describes the high levels of risk for both women and their babies who live in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The lack of family planning measures in the Congo means that women have frequent pregnancies with a high rate of infant mortality. And with no adequate access to medical care women are at high risk of dying from childbirth from risks such as hemorrhage, infection or rupture, especially after multiple pregnancies. Gerson points out, “When contraceptive prevalence is low, about 70 percent of all births involve serious risk. When prevalence is high, the figure is 35 percent.” 

Sadly, practical ways to save lives and prevent deaths and human suffering have become entwined in the moral and political debates about abortion and the closely related issue of family planning. But would not a pro-life position worthy of the name seek a reduction in deaths of infants and women? Would it not embrace the concept of family planning as a way to reduce the need for abortion and to show how much we value human life? And would it not, whether in the Congo or in the U.S., seek ways to reduce the need for abortion?

Following Gerson’s analysis, effective family planning through conception and education is not the same as giving women the right to abortion. Both sides of the abortion debate should realize that the issue of abortion will continue to be debated and people will continue to fundamentally disagree on the moral status of the fetus. But what both sides should agree to is that preventing the loss of life from risky pregnancies and preventing the need for abortions are reductions in moral harms. It would behoove both sides to see this practical area disconnected from their philosophical differences about abortion and the moral status of the fetus. This is, or should be, the common ground of the abortion debate and also should be part of a broader and more enlightened concept of what we mean by “pro-life’.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers graduate online masters in bioethics programs. For more information on the AMBI master of bioethics online program, please visit the AMBI site.


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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.