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 me…and…and…

                                                  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”[1]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 number.

                                                  The 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”[2] 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.”[3] In medical terms, abortion is defined as “ the termination of pregnancy by any means before the fetus is sufficiently developed to survive.”[4] Yet another medical definition used is “the delivery of a fetus weighing less than 500 grams (about one pound or less).”[5] 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.[6]


                                                 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 action.



                                           STATUS 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.


                                                 According 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.[7] 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 “[8]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 foetus.”[9] 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.


                                             BRAIN ACTIVITY


                                                 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.[10] 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.




                                                 Charles 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”.[11] 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 conception?



                                                 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.



                                             RAPE AND INCEST


                                                 “Pregnancy is the ultimate creation. Rape is an act of destruction.”[12] 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.[13] There is a five to 30% chance that pregnancy will result from a single sexual assault during which sexual intercourse occurs.[14] 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?



                                   DANGER TO WOMAN’S HEALTH


                                                 I shall 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 THREAT


                                                 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 medical complication.[15] 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.


                                       ILLEGAL 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.[16] 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.[17] 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.



                                                 DEFECTIVE FOETUSES


                                                 Aside from 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”[18] 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 cerebral palsy.[19] 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.



                                           WOMEN’S RIGHTS


                                                 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.[20]


                                                 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.[21] 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.



                         HOW 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.





                                                 It is 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. 




Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes; Tribe H., Laurence; W.W. Norton Company, 1990


Perspectives on Abortion; Paul Sachdev (editor); The Scarecrow Press Inc, 1985


The Abortion Dispute and the American System; Gilbert Y., Steiner (editor); The Brookings Institution, 1983


Whose Life? ; Catherine Whitney; William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1991


The Abortion Dilemma: Personal Views on a Public Issue; Miriam Claire; Insight Books, 1995


The Ethics of Abortion: Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice; Robert M., Baird and Stuart E., Rosenbaum (eds.); Prometheus Books, 1993


The Terrible Choice: The Abortion Dilemma; Robert E. Cooke, Andre E. Hellegers, Robert G., Hoyt & Herbert W., Richardson (Eds. And writers); Bantam Publications, 1968







[1] Perspectives on Abortion; ed. Paul Sachdev; The Scarecrow Press Inc., 1985; p ix

[2] The Abortion Dilemma: Personal Views on a Public Issue; “Foreword”, by Marcy L. Bloom; Miriam Claire(author); Insight Books, 1995; p vii

[3] http://prochoice.about.com/newsissues/prochoice/library/blabqandawhatis.htm

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] The Abortion Dilemma: Personal Views on a Public Issue; “Is Abortion Murder, As Anti-abortion Rhetoric Claims?”, Chap3; Miriam Claire; Insight Books, 1995; p68


[7] The Abortion Dilemma: Personal Views on a Public Issue; “Is Abortion Murder, As Anti-abortion Rhetoric Claims?”, Chap3; Miriam Claire; Insight Books, 1995; p58

[8] ibid.; p61

[9] “Courting Disaster”; in Whose Life?; Catherine Whitney; William Morrow and Company, Inc, 1991; p125

[10] The Abortion Dilemma: Personal Views on a Public Issue; “Is Abortion Murder, As Anti-abortion Rhetoric Claims?”, Chap3; Miriam Claire; Insight Books, 1995; p66

[11] “Is an Embryo a Person?” by Charles A. Gardner; in The Ethics of Abortion:Pro-Life vs. pro-Choice; ed. By Robert M. Baird & Stuart E. Rosenbaum; Prometheus Books, 1993; p265

[12]The Abortion Dilemma: Personal Views on a Public Issue; “The Paradox of a Violently Conceived Pregnancy”, chap.11; Miriam Claire; Insight Books, 1995; p181

[13]ibid.; p188

[14] ibid.; p189

[15] Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes, Laurence H. Tribe; W.W Norten & Company, 1990; p105

[16] “Dark Days of Suffering and Reprisal”, in Whose Life?; Catherine Whitney; William Morrow and Company, Inc, 1991; p54

[17] ibid.; p59

[18] The Abortion Dilemma: Personal Views on a Public Issue; “Foetal Abnormality-Special Concerns”; chap 12; Miriam Claire; Insight Books, 1995; p198

[19] The Abortion Dilemma: Personal Views on a Public Issue; “Foetal Abnormality-Special Concerns”; chap 12; Miriam Claire; Insight Books, 1995; p201

[20] “Motherhood and the Historical Journey”, in Whose Life?; Catherine Whitney; William Morrow and Company, Inc, 1991; p51

Any comments or questions regarding this essay can be addressed to: Radhika Prabhakar

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