Encyclopedia of Reproductive Technologies

By Annette Burfoot | Go to book overview

twenty-one
Abortion--Ethics

CHRISTINE OVERALL

There are two general ethical questions about abortion: For what reasons, if any, is abortion morally justified? and Under what circumstances, if any, should abortion be legally available? The first is a question about individual decisionmaking; the second, about social policy. Much of the philosophical debate about the justification of abortion has focused on two crucial issues: whether the human fetus is a person or human being in the moral sense, and what importance should be attributed to women's right to reproductive autonomy. Three of the main ethical positions on abortion--conservative, liberal, and moderate--are distinguished primarily by the ways in which they assess these two issues. The fourth position, developed by feminists, differs from the first three because it offers a contextual and political analysis of abortion.

According to the conservative position, human entities are persons from conception; hence the fetus is a person with a right to life. Since abortion involves the killing of the fetus, it is almost always intrinsically wrong and should be illegal. Conservatives regard themselves as coming to the protection of vulnerable human beings who are unable to help themselves. Prohibitive or restrictive laws on abortion are not merely the enforcement of religious morality but are an extension of the laws against homicide. Conservatives may grant that making abortion difficult to obtain can cause hardship for some women and that women will resort to illegal abortions in some cases. Nevertheless, these facts cannot override the overwhelming moral wrongness of ending the life of a human person.

For conservatives, the rights of the fetus are morally paramount: The well-being of one person, the pregnant woman, is not sufficient to justify

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