I could feel him walking behind me…stealthily…his footsteps
echoing down the dark, desolate street. I walked faster, but
apparently not fast enough, for the next moment, a pair of rough hands
grabbed me from behind, a hand was clapped to my mouth, gagging me,
and I was dragged away…dragged forcefully…to a small enclosure in
the woods. He was not the only one. There were others, four of them.
They grinned evilly, bantering amongst themselves, exchanging crude,
bawdy jokes. Upon my sight, they stopped this banter and started
inching closer. I was pushed to the ground, where I was told to lie
still. They surrounded me…all five of them…crowding in on
I’m fifteen. I’m pregnant. I feel violated. I WAS violated.
I want to have an abortion. I have my whole life in front of me. This
child will rob me of my childhood, my opportunities to lead a normal
life and my peace of mind…. And yet, despite being an innocent
victim of a brutal crime, I’m being asked to bear the consequences,
lifelong. I wonder…whose life is it?
Abortion. The mere word evokes a plethora of responses from us.
This issue of an exceedingly private nature has spawned such intense
and long drawn out public debate in the USA. The struggle on both
sides of the issue- the pro-life and pro-choice- has been arduous.
Public furore concerning this contentious, emotionally-charged and
philosophical subject has been so overwhelming that studies call it
the single most talked about subject in the whole of USA. The amount
of personal involvement is not impossible to comprehend in light of
the fact that “abortion is the most frequently performed operation
in the United States”It
is also a fact that one in every four pregnancies in the US ends up in
an abortion. Given such a scenario, it is a reasonable deduction to
make that abortion has impacted the American polity due to its sheer
two opposing camps of pro-life and pro-choice have been engaged in a
constant battle to seek government approval of each other’s stance.
This embittered fight for “ideological supremacy” has not only
manifested itself in tense, verbal debates, but in actual violence.
“According to the Nation Abortion Federation, there have been 5
murders, 41 bombings, 94 arsons, 68 attempted bombings or arsons, 547
clinic invasions, 587 acts of vandalism, 95 assaults, 226 death
threats, 2 kidnappings, 34 burglaries, 210 incidents of stalking, 1833
acts of hate mail and phone calls, and 312 bomb threats”
over the last twenty years. Ironically, this violence has been noted
to be initiated by the pro-lifers against abortion providers. The
phenomenal counts of violence against innocent people must be halted
in its tracks at once, and for this, resolving the issue by legalising
abortion is a significant step in this direction.
What exactly is abortion? In lay man’s terms, “Abortion is
when a pregnancy is ended either by miscarriage (spontaneous abortion)
or deliberately (induced abortion), resulting in the destruction of an
embryo or fetus.”
In medical terms, abortion is defined as “ the termination of
pregnancy by any means before the fetus is sufficiently developed to
Yet another medical definition used is “the delivery of a fetus
weighing less than 500 grams (about one pound or less).”
Abortion is also defined as the loss of a pregnancy before the foetus
or foetuses are potentially capable of life independent of the mother.
In most mammals, this period extends roughly over the first two-thirds
of the pregnancy.
In my opinion, the abortion debate hinges upon the rudimentary
question of the status of the foetus. If the foetus can indeed be
considered a person, as a human, then abortion could be held
tantamount to infanticide. But if this is not the case, and if the
foetus is merely a bundle of cells, with no life attributed to it,
then the pro-lifers would have nothing more to shout and chant slogans
about and the abortion issue would be resolved once and for all. Due
to this big premium placed on the status of the foetus, I shall make
this argument the focus of this paper. Once I examine the foetus
argument, I shall then move on to the different circumstances under
which a woman turns to abortion and explore the justifiability of this
OF THE FOETUS
It is the
claim of the pro-lifers that abortion is in actuality the murder of
the unborn child. For there to a murder, one has to have a human
being. We do not accept the killing of an animal as murder. Therefore,
it must be proved conclusively that the foetus is indeed a human
being. The pro-lifers believe that life begins at conception. To
ascertain this claim, one must look toward the answer not in religion,
but in biology and science. Religion must be discounted as America is
a pluralistic society and there is no one religious text to be taken
as the locus classicus in
this regard. Science is considered as the universal religion, to which
we all pay tribute. This then undoubtedly makes it the people’s
choice in determining the foetus’ status with regards to life.
Physicians and neuroscientists are the only professionals
suitably qualified to provide biological evidence that will be useful
in determining if the foetus is a human being and hence whether
abortion is murder. But, it must be noted here that the medical
community itself is divided over this issue. What I intend to prove is
that this argument portrays the highly ambiguous nature of the foetus’
life. Since the pro-life camp adamantly insists that abortion is
murder, and therefore, not justified as an option for women, the
burden of proof rests on them. If they cannot conclusively
prove that the foetus is an actual human being, a person, and as
long as the pro-choice camp proves reasonable doubt on the same, they
will have to drop their rhetoric against legalising abortion.
to Dr.Henry Morgentaler, founder/director of the first abortion clinic
in Canada, considering a fertilised egg as a baby is “completely
crazy and non-scientific” because he insists that a microscopic cell
is not a baby.
The same doctor also decried the anti-abortion movie “Silent
Scream”, by Dr. Nathanson, citing image trickery, pronouncing the
foetus used in the movie as considerably older than what it actually
was, and camera gimmicks as his reasons. He stated that at eight
months, a baby is certainly formed and has defining features, but to
say that the few cells just after conception is a baby is ludicrous. A
molecular neurobiologist Patricia A. Jaworski has also denounced the
same movie, which has influenced thousands to retract from having an
abortion. She states that “movement
is not an indicator of conscious awareness, feeling, or thought,
noting that sperm and bacteria move, but are not deemed capable of
these responses. While a female human egg and a male sperm are both
alive, that doesn’t make them sacred or entitled to life.” There
are two criteria that have been universally recognised and accepted by
the medical community in testing for the foetus’ status. One is
viability. The other is the formation of brain waves.
AGE OF VIABILITY
The age of viability is said to be by the end of the first 24
weeks of pregnancy. At the earliest, it is by the 22nd
week. This was actually attested to by the medical community when
asked to respond to the twenty-week viability test. When the Court
ruled that a foetus was declared to be viable at twenty weeks, “no
experts could be found who had ever heard of a viable twenty-week
On the contrary, several medical experts testified that only 10% of
births at twenty-three weeks survived. The issue was that the lungs at
that period of gestation are so underdeveloped that they could not
function outside of the womb. In addition to this, the doctors also
claimed that the standard lung test, which was given to mature
foetuses, would be virtually useless at twenty weeks, thereby ruling
out the possibility of a viability test for foetuses at twenty weeks.
The second criterion is a more important one- that of the
functioning of the brain. While brain waves are detected early in the
pregnancy, this does not signify an actively functioning brain.
Rather, it only suggests that a brain is in the process of being
developed. The brain consists of trillions of brain cells, also known
as neurons. In the first four weeks of pregnancy, there are no
neurons. They only start forming after the fifth week, and develop
over the next four months. The presence of these developing neurons
does not mean than the brain is functioning. Several other stages of
development, like migration, growth of dendrites and axons, must be
achieved before a brain can be thought to be even remotely active.
But, the most important part of the brain, which only forms around the
28th week, is the synapse. Without synapses, the nerve
cells cannot pass on information from the other neurons. This
indicates to us that the notion that a foetus can feel pain as early
as the fourth week in hogwash, as the message of pain cannot be passed
from the brain to the other neurons because of the lack of synapses.
This criterion is also very much reasonable, as one is not considered
dead till the time brain activity is also dead, although one’s heart
could have stopped beating then. Thus, when the death of brain
activity is what is considered as the indication of one’s demise, it
only makes sense that we consider the start of the same as an
indication that life has begun.
A widely acclaimed pro-life stance pertaining to the status of
the foetus is that since there is electrical activity recorded from
the brain, the brain must function, and hence the foetus is indeed
alive. Dr. Dominick Purpura, the dean of Albert Einstein Medical
School, provides this counter. He says that any electrical activity
recorded form the brain is called a brain wave. One can record all
kinds of oscillations back into the second or third week of embryonic
life, but this same can also be recorded from a couple of nerve cells
sitting in culture too. This only proves that all cells have
electrical potentials. He further says that liver cells too record
electrical impulses, but these cells are concerned with the digestive
enzymes. Therefore, although they might produce what can be termed as
“brain waves”, they do not become brain cells. Therefore, the
notion that since electrical impulses from the brain of a foetus can
be recorded, it must be alive is shot to pieces.
Gardner suggests this experiment which will disprove the argument of
the opposing camp that the bundle of cells and the child are one and
the same. If a fertilised egg goes through four cell divisions, the
embryo will have reached the sixteenth-cell stage. If this embryo is
brought together with a sixteenth-cell embryo from another set of
parents, a ball of thirty-two cells is formed. This ball of cells will
go on to form a single individual. Any particular cell of its body has
come from either the first set of parents or the other. This is a
scenario when sometimes two sibling embryos collapse as one. The
resultant person may be completely normal.
Now, if the two embryos were determined to become different
individuals, this would not have happened. The two embryos would never
have combined as one. But here the cells, because they are completely
unaware of any distinction between themselves, perceive nothing other
than that they are embryonic cells. This leads us to form the
conclusion that the only explanation that justifies this situation
would be that the individual is not fixed or determined at this stage.
It is also a scientific fact that the fertilised egg does not contain
the “ridges and swirls that make up fingerprints”.
If something as fundamental as fingerprints, which makes us all
unique, even identical twins, cannot be found preset in the fertilised
egg, how then can one be justified in stating that life begins at
From all the three aforementioned angles, the foetus, at best,
can only be called a “being” with doubt. With so much of
ambivalence present in this regard, how can a law be passed making
abortion illegal? Add to this the fact that only 1% of all abortions
performed in the US is in the last trimester, outlawing abortions for
the other 99% does seem foolhardy.
is the ultimate creation. Rape is an act of destruction.” The paradox here does not go unnoticed.
According to the National Victim Center’s 1992 publication
entitled “Rape in America: A Report To the Nation”, there are an
estimated 683,000 forcible rapes of adult women every year in the USA.
If thestatistics for adolescent and child rapes are also included,
this number at least doubles. An estimated 12.1 million American women
have been raped at least once, and 4.7 million of those more than
once. Statistics also show that 61.6% of them were under 17 and 29.3%
under 11. In a separate survey made, 11% of rape victims were raped by
their father or stepfather, 16% by relatives, and 29% by neighbours
and friends. Ten percent of victims were raped by a boyfriend or
ex-boyfriend, and 9% by a husband or ex-husband.
There is a five to 30% chance that pregnancy will result from a single
sexual assault during which sexual intercourse occurs.
Such devastating statistics only go to show how high the risk of being
raped by someone close is. In such extenuating circumstances, how can
an innocent victim be told to carry the embryo to term? A child born
out of rape is a constant and painful reminder of the gory and often,
brutal, incident. The physical scar of the rape itself might heal, but
when the result of it is perpetually in front of one’s eyes, the
spectre of the rape might never fully erase the emotional trauma
undergone by the woman. Who is the State to command a woman, who has
been through a torturous and humiliating experience, to go through yet
another assault on her body? Even if we assume the foetus to be a
being, can the further torment and intrusion of the woman’s body
ever be justified?
TO WOMAN’S HEALTH
divide this category into two. The first category will deal with how
the foetus can or does, inconvenience or pose a threat, to the
woman’s life or health. The second category will handle the scenario
where illegalising abortions will harm a pregnant female.
FOETUS AS A
It is a
medical fact that over the nine-month term, the size of a pregnant
woman’s uterus expands five hundred to thousand times, her body
weight increases by twenty-five pounds or more, and to cap it all,
even a healthy, normal pregnancy comes with a package that includes
frequent urination, water retention, nausea, laboured breathing, back
pain and fatigue. To further exacerbate matters, each pregnancy
entails considerable medical complications and 60% have some kind of
Labour and vaginal delivery exert a lot of physical pressure on the
pregnant woman and sometimes, this sort of delivery can go up to
several hours. The pain felt by the woman is excruciating indeed.
Caesarean section involves invasive surgery and this operation is no
longer uncommon. Thus, it is self-evident what all the
“inconveniences” the woman has to suffer before giving birth.
A more severe form of foetal threat to the woman’s health
occurs when the exertion and the physical burden directly injure the
woman. In certain cases, this injury is so serious, it even results in
the death of the woman. The previous paragraph has shown the physical
strain one must endure in order to give birth, successfully or
unsuccessfully. Sometimes, the woman’s health could be too fragile
to be able to face such a strain. This could either lead to a
much-weakened woman, who might never regain her previous good health,
or it might lead to her death. There have been many cases, where the
doctors have had to face the agonising choice of whether to save the
life of the woman or to save the foetus. Under such trying conditions,
abortion must indeed be legal to preserve the life of the woman.
ABORTIONS AS A HEALTH HAZARD
It is a well-established fact that simply outlawing abortions
does not mean there would not be any more abortions. It instead
compels us make a choice between safe abortions and unsafe ones.
Pregnant women were going to get abortions, whether the medical
community or the government liked it or not.
If not for the safe, medically sound clinics, and qualified doctors
and physicians, it would be back alley and “coathanger” abortions.
During a survey conducted in the 1960s, it was found that 1.2 million
illegal abortions were taking place annually, out of which, five
thousand women died.
This made it abundantly clear that women were going to have abortions,
be it legal or illegal, despite the warnings that they received about
the many dangers of backalley abortions. These illegal abortions were
not only dangerous to the female’s health or life, but also
particularly inhuman. The use of sharp objects which would be inserted
into the vaginal opening so as to rupture the uterus was common,
indeed, they still are. But due to the fact that those who conducted
such illegal abortions were often times unqualified midwives, whose
methods were very crude, these abortions could sometimes have serious
ramifications on the woman. One of them was that such procedures could
lead to the woman not being able to bear children any longer.
Thus, with such grave repercussions involved when the health of
the woman can be and is, endangered, abortion must necessarily be a
private affair. The State cannot make childbearing mandatory, at least
with regards to this health factor.
considerations for the woman, there can be made a compelling case for
the child about to be born as well as the other family members. While
it can be argued that a disability doesn’t make a person worthless,
it can, and certainly does cause great financial, emotional and
physical hardships for that person as well as his or her caregivers.
It has been said that dealing with disabled people can make people
“flounder in frustration and despair”
In this case, it is definitely unfair for anyone to force people to go
through such mental and emotional pressure, especially when there is a
cloud of doubt hanging over the status of the foetus. From another
angle, it is burdening the child who will be deformed or even mentally
retarded, or be born with a fatal disease, with having to lead a
“normal” life, when it is obvious he or she will not be given the
chance to. When a foetus is diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome or
Cerebral palsy, it is only right that the immediate family members be
given the choice to decide if they will be able to cope with the
situation. The pain of seeing a loved one struggle with the simplest
of tasks throughout life is indeed a traumatic one. The family members
should certainly have a say in choosing to undergo this arduous task.
Financial considerations are also a must in this matter.
Raising a child who is disabled is no easy matter. The cost has been
estimated to be anything from $25,000 onwards for a child born with
Very few families can afford to run up such an astronomical bill, am
sure. Moreover, the medical bill is not fully covered by the family.
The society also chips in, indirectly, through taxes, and thus, even
it ends up bearing the cost for such children. Welfare and
supplementary services should be an emergency safety net rather than a
presumed way of life.
Throughout history, motherhood has served as a double-edged
sword- as both a tool for glorification of women and as one of
subjugation. Women were seen naturally to be mothers. It was not
considered one of their roles; instead, it was considered an extension
of themselves. Thus, when women began clamouring for abortion to be
their right, their private matter, the men began to panic. They feared
that once women could emancipate from motherhood, society would be
left without its natural nurturing force, that women would refuse to
be women, and than women would refuse to be mothers.
It is the most fundamental of all freedoms for women to have
control over their bodies, to have control over their reproductive
organs. Women were always viewed as objects of procreation and servers
of men’s needs, but rarely seen as sexual beings in their own right.
Forced motherhood took away women’s freedom to express their
sexuality- and their right to be women independently of their roles as
wives and mothers.
This right is especially important in today’s society where equal
opportunities have been assured for both sexes. In the American
constitution, the Equal Rights Amendment has been created
predominantly to manifest this equality between the sexes. However,
this equality can never be realised without granting the woman right
over her own body. Therefore, abortion is something dear to a woman
and legalising it is definitely something the State owes her, instead
of wrenching it away from her.
PRACTICAL IS IT TO HAVE A CHILD?
The final reason I am going to state for legalising abortion is
one of practicality. The feasibility of having a baby must be deeply
pondered over and the conclusion must be a pragmatic one. It is no
point arguing on the theosophical issues of whether the foetus is a
living entity and therefore ha a right to life, if, once the baby is
born, its essential needs are not met. When the case is such, it is
ultimately the parents, especially the mother, who are affected deeply
by their inability to provide and care for their child. Once the baby
is born, the parents are all the more attached to the baby and will
want to provide for it as best as they can, and as best as they would
want to. This emotional bond also explains why adoption is such a
simple alternative, as the pro-lifers would want us to believe. It is
very painful to give away a child once it is born. No amount of logic
will dispute this hard fact. When the parents are poor, eking out a
living barely enough to feed even themselves, an extra mouth to feed
and an extra person to care for will only serve to make their lot
worse off. At this critical juncture, it is interesting to see where
the pro-lifers, who campaigned for the life of this child, are and
what they do to alleviate this sorry situation. It is my firm belief
that while those people might genuinely care for the life of the
foetus, they would, and do, shy away from having to shoulder the
responsibility for the same child they championed their “worthy”
cause for the rest of their lives. It is apparent and indisputable
from this that when it boils down to undertaking personal
responsibility, there is no room for big talk and all the frills and
highbrow talk on the religious and philosophical aspects of pregnancy
evaporates into thin air.
because of this multitude of cases where an abortion would be right
and practical that a generic law passed on abolishing abortions would
be preposterous and unjust. Such a general law would not take into
account the different and extenuating circumstances and nuances of
each situation than demands an abortion. What is germane to one
scenario might be to another and so on. Furthermore, abortion is a
highly individualistic, personal and intimate issue as it impacts upon
only a few people immediately involved in it. All said and done, the
public will wave a few banners, burn a few posters with the
abortion-clinics’ names on them, arrange sit-ins in such clinics,
wreck a few doctors’ careers, even end their lives, prevent women
from going in for abortion from it, and then go home to a warm, cosy
place where they would not have to worry too much about where their
daily bread will come from or how they can accommodate a fifth child
in their cramped, one-room apartments. Those resorting to abortion are
not heartless, stoic and cold women, but pragmatic, and often
desperate and helpless ones.
The Clash of Absolutes;
Tribe H., Laurence; W.W. Norton Company, 1990
Paul Sachdev (editor); The Scarecrow Press Inc, 1985
Abortion Dispute and the American System;
Gilbert Y., Steiner (editor); The Brookings Institution, 1983
Life? ; Catherine Whitney; William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1991
Abortion Dilemma: Personal Views on a Public Issue;
Miriam Claire; Insight Books, 1995
Ethics of Abortion: Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice;
Robert M., Baird and Stuart E., Rosenbaum (eds.); Prometheus Books,
Terrible Choice: The Abortion Dilemma;
Robert E. Cooke, Andre E. Hellegers, Robert G., Hoyt & Herbert W.,
Richardson (Eds. And writers); Bantam Publications, 1968
The Abortion Dilemma: Personal Views on a Public Issue; “Is
Abortion Murder, As Anti-abortion Rhetoric Claims?”, Chap3;
Miriam Claire; Insight Books, 1995; p68