How Ethical Systems Change: Abortion and Neonatal Care

How Ethical Systems Change: Abortion and Neonatal Care

How Ethical Systems Change: Abortion and Neonatal Care

How Ethical Systems Change: Abortion and Neonatal Care


Roe v. Wade came like a bolt from the blue, but support had been building for years. For many, the idea that life in the womb was not fully protected under the Constitution was simply not acceptable. Political campaigns were organized and protests launched, including the bombing of clinics and the killing of abortion providers. Questions about the protection and support of life continued after birth. This book is based on a hugely popular undergraduate course taught at the University of Texas, and is ideal for those interested in the social construction of social worth, social problems, and social movements.


In the United States no issue more dominated the political landscape in the late 20th century than abortion. The debates were contentious, filled with accusations, and inflamed with violence. They were anchored in a Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade (1973), For many, Roe came like a bolt from the blue. How could justices on the Supreme Court of the United States rule that a fetus was not a fully protected person under the constitution? Such a finding flew in the face of the idea that life is sacred and should be protected.

While its impact was abrupt, the Roe decision had been taking shape for many years. Early abortion laws of the 19th century were designed to protect the health of the mother as much as the life of the fetus. Medical practice and available antibiotics had changed this. By mid-20th century, having an abortion, if properly administered, was safer than giving birth after carrying a child to full term. When it came to the risks inherent in having an abortion, it was argued, there was no longer any compelling reason for state intervention.

In addition, following World War II and especially in the decade preceding Roe, there were increasing pressures to reaffirm the autonomy of individual choice and to assert the equality of women across the political, social, and legal landscape. The story of a young woman in Arizona, denied an abortion, even though she had taken a drug that all but ensured the recently conceived fetus in her womb would develop serious disabilities and potentially lead a life filled with suffering, drew the nation’s attention. At the same time, a rubella pandemic broke out, spreading a disease also associated with serious birth defects. Many wondered, under such circumstances why would we not allow parents to make the heart-wrenching choice to terminate a pregnancy? Was not the alleviation of suffering also a basic human value? Existing laws prohibiting abortion were a travesty.

In this way, values aimed at affirming individual autonomy and the alleviation of suffering came to clash with values asserting the intrinsic value of life. Battle lines were drawn. Politicians took positions, waged campaigns, won and lost elections. Scholars worried over the fine points of philosophical and legal arguments. Activists produced statistics, argued for the rights of the disabled, underscored the importance of privacy . . .

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