Abortion (the premature expulsion of the foetus from the womb) is still a much debated medical development to this day and is an issue that frequently causes problems when religious or ethical responses are considered. Although legal in the UK since 1967, arguments surrounding abortion limits are still discussed in British parliament. The pro-life vs. pro-choice debate is still discussed around the world, especially within the United States. People who are pro-choice believe that termination is the mother’s decision unlike those who are pro-life and promote the view that every foetus has the right to live. But is abortion morally wrong? There are many religious and ethical responses to this question for which I wish to demonstrate my understanding.
Sanctity of Life
The sanctity of life is used by many religious believers when referring to human life. To Christians this theory holds that life is sacred and intrinsically worthwhile. They believe that there is something special and holy about life and Christianity teaches that every person is a sacred child of God, made in his image (Imagio Dei), “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; Male and female he created them.” Genesis 1:26-27, therefore they feel a duty to preserve life, as it is God given, so deliberate destruction is wrong. This idea is argued mainly by the pro-life side (those who take the absolute stance and forbid abortion in any circumstances, arguing that the foetus is a human life from the moment of conception- because it contains the total genetic code for a person, so the unborn child’s life should be preserved) in political and moral debates over such controversial issues as abortion. The Catholic Church has issued many official statements banning abortion due to their absolute beliefs in sanctity of life, “direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law.” The view that we do not have the right to destroy something that is god given is fundamental for Catholics.
Doctrine of Double Effect
The doctrine of double effect is often applied to explain the permissibility of an action that causes serious harm, such as the death of a human being, as a side effect of promoting a good end. This theory is often applied in times when an abortion is the only means available in order to save a pregnant woman’s life as continuing the pregnancy would risk the death of the mother. This is often caused by an ectopic pregnancy. As Catholics are strong believers in the preservation of human life, the only time they would allow a termination would be in the situation of the mother’s life being at risk of death and both the mother and foetus’ life cannot be preserved. The quote “before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you” from Jeremiah 1:5 explains that God appoints us our roles before we are born and he knows us before conception. This reveals the sense behind the Catholic religions only exception to abortion as if an ectopic pregnancy causes two lives to be lost, then that is the loss of two of Gods creature made in his own image with an intrinsic purpose.
However, using the doctrine of double effect in situations of this nature causes problems. These can be explained through the example of a dentist. A dentist will foresee that pain for the patient is inevitable but will act without purposefully intending pain- the pain for which the patient must suffer is needed in order to allow for success and eliminate long term problems. If we look at an abortion under the circumstances of an ectopic pregnancy, is the death of the foetus intentional? Surely, like the dentist, it is inevitable and foreseen that in order to save the mother, the foetus will be killed. Catholics do not see the termination of a foetus in this situation as an abortion as it complies with the doctrine of double effect and it is in keeping with the view that life is sacred however it must conflict with the significant belief that God is the decider in who lives and dies.
Another way, in which this situation may be looked at, is through the eyes of a utilitarian. It can be argued that utilitarianism is a good way of looking at a situation as it concentrates on what will produce the greatest amount of pleasure and the least amount of pain for the most people- taking everyone involved in the situation into consideration (mother, foetus, family and even the medical staff). Articulated by Jeremy Bentham, a social reformer, Utilitarianism is a teleological theory concerned with the ends or outcomes of an action rather than the action itself. Bentham believed that people are motivated by the desire for pleasure and seek the absence of pain. Utilitarian’s would see the act of abortion as being neither good nor bad, neither moral nor immoral. However, it becomes so when we consider to what end the procedure is being used. Under the circumstances of an ectopic pregnancy, where an abortion is being used to save the mother life, as long as the abortion in conducted in a humane fashion then, on utilitarian grounds, it becomes justified as a moral act as the greatest happiness of the greatest number (the family) counts over the future happiness of the single unborn child. It is a good way of looking at abortion as it challenges the views that abortion is an act of evil and instead suggests that the end justify the means. John Stuart Mill, a proponent of rule utilitarianism would take Bentham’s strategy a step further and suggest that a rule should be put into place for similar situations in which a mother would die without an abortion. Mill strongly believed in individual sovereignty, ““Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign”. However, the pro-choice view that the woman has the right to choose is not entirely supported by classical utilitarianism. A utilitarian response should accept that it may in some circumstances be right to deny a woman the right to choose to have an abortion if doing so would bring about the greatest good.
Evaluation of Utilitarianism
However the fact that Utilitarianism is a teleological cause concerns. If it looks into the future and only the future then how can anyone know what will bring about the most pleasure or pain? The termination may result serious complications of cause psychological damage to the mother that will cause her unhappiness and pain rather than pleasure.
Point of Viability
Viability is the point at which the foetus is capable of survival outside the mother’s womb. This would solve the problem of birth being the dividing point as it would treat the stage of development for the foetus and the premature baby to be exactly the same. Viability is the point as which the United States Supreme Court drew the line in the Roe versus Wade case. However, there is a lot of debate surrounding the point of viability; currently in the UK this is usually 24 weeks. At this point somewhere around 40% of babies are able to survive. Very few babies as early as 22 weeks have survived as these babies are even less likely to survive. Early premature babies face high odds of having a minor disability in the long term and more than 20% may develop a severe disability. Many of the arguments both for and against a change in in the time-limit on abortion seem to assume that viability is important in deciding how we should treat foetuses. But as the foetus has the capability of meaningful life outside the mother’s womb at this point and with 0.3% of all deliveries in England occurring at the borderline of viability, this raising concern over the amount of terminations happening after viability.
Mary Fisher Example
An example that has been in the news recently is that of Mary Fisher, a mother told to abort her baby due to her first child dying of an infection at just 21 days old. However, Jacob McMahon became Britain’s most premature surviving twin after he was born, just 23 weeks into the pregnancy, at a weight of 1lb 4oz. Jacob was born on the viable dividing line, considering the UK abortion cut off point is 24 weeks. Technological advances have given us a clearer picture of foetuses’ consciousness and sensitivity to pain, and helped to keep premature babies alive. With medical developments improving rapidly and being able to help premature infants, such as Jacob, survive outside the womb at the point of viability, surely the time limits of abortion should be reduced?
The Church and the Bible
The church believe that human life begins when the woman’s egg is fertilised by the males sperm so would not agree with the point of viability but instead suggest that life begins at conception. From that moment they believe that a unique life begins, containing different DNA from that of the mother and father. They believe that each new life begins at this point and is not a potential human being but a human being with potential. Dr Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has argued for a review of abortion laws due to scientific advances and the rising number of abortions. He said a large majority of Christians consider abortion to be “the deliberate termination of a human life”.
The Bible does not directly mention abortion but there are suggestions against it. In Psalm 139, it reveals David’s praise for Gods sovereignty in his life. He acknowledges that god is omniscient and says that he cannot escape God as he is the remotest part of the sea and the darkness and this is because God was there to form him in the womb. Likewise to many Christians beliefs, it is made clear that the relationship with God begins before birth meaning humans have intrinsic instead of instrumental value as they are designed in the loving image of their creator. A Christian would therefore believe that because Britain has the required medical equipment to allow for the survival of a premature infant, Mary Fisher was right in her decision not aborting Jacob as when he was a foetus he was a human being with potential.
Situation ethics evaluates the situation rather than going by moral absolutes. Joseph Fletcher, famous for his situation ethical views believed that “love is the ultimate law”. This originates from the view that abortions are an act of “evil”. Fletcher suggested that we should keep rules as they are useful guidelines for most situations; however the only thing good in itself is love, so depending on the situation we should “push our principles aside and do the right thing”. The Church of England believes that abortions are evil but the “lesser of two evils” it’s thought to be by situationist’s. In the case of premature births it would depend on the situation of whether the baby should be born prematurely, with the chance of facing problems whilst developing outside of the womb, or having an abortion and not give the pregnancy a chance at all. As medical advances differ throughout the world, so a situationalist would say that that it was not right for a premature baby to be born in a country where it has no chance for survival, however in a different situation, in a country where there is sufficient medical technology to cover the needs of a premature birth, using the situation ethics approach, giving birth would be seen as a better alternative to termination. A situationalist would not however, see abortion as being a form of birth control but a loving response in certain situations.
Evaluation of These Theories
Situation ethics is often seen to be more loving and understanding than utilitarianism, purely because it is based on love. Love can be seen as a key feature of moral society as it brings autonomy for individuals and people have the choice to look at their situation. However, a flaw of this is that some people may see this loving approach as a simple solution to their problems and talk themselves into believing that they are doing the right thing thus, not taking into consideration the consequences of abortion. There are advantages and disadvantages to both the Church of England and the situation ethics approach to abortion. Both responses consider financial and emotional situations along with the intrinsic morals that are attached to the issue. However, this also means that not everybody is treated equally- the Catholic view allows everyone to have a fair chance in life, and the foetus is not discriminated against as they believe it to be a potential human life. The idea that other approaches do not treat everyone to be the same in society can be seen as morally wrong.
Are all human beings persons though? This is another fundamental question when discussing abortion. For instance a baby born without a brain may be human because it is made up from human tissue but would it be regarded as a person? It can also be argued that because of the high intelligence levels of whales and dolphins, they should be valued and be regarded a person, worthy of the same respect as human persons. To reject these claims we must then ask how we might define what a person is, and this, many would suggest, is what the argument of abortion centres upon. Where do we draw the line between a human and a human person? There are many aspects that determine when the foetus becomes sufficiently human and these must be considered before terminating the baby. Many people believe that whilst a new born baby is not a rational individual, it does have the potential to develop rational thought. However, difficulty may arise from this and the status of a severely handicapped adult, as they may not be capable of rational thought, yet they are still rightly classed as a person.
The issues surrounding personhood can be explored with the help of from the example of Theresa, an 18 year old woman with an unplanned first pregnancy. She discovered that she was pregnant quite late into the pregnancy and after she became used to the idea, was pleased. However, after a series of ultrasounds she discovered that the foetus had a cleft lip and palate. This abnormality leads to problems with the appearance of the face, hearing problems and complications with feeding and speech. This is the most common facial birth defect in the UK and there have been 40 terminations for cleft palates since 2002. This common condition is usually corrected with a simple operation if needed and individuals are seen as perfectly healthy. Is this really a cause for abortion? Surely, this does not decrease their ability to develop rational thought?
Mary Ann Warren, a modern philosopher and feminist, suggests that we shouldn’t ask the question; is the foetus human, as it confuses a biological question with a moral question- biologically the foetus is human. She said that we should instead ask what characteristics give a being the membership in the moral community- stating that this would consequently make the being a person in the moral sense instead of the biological sense. Warren uses the analogy of an alien encounter to clarify her thoughts on the concept of a person and says that we would ask; how we should treat the creature, what moral status we should give it, and if it is entitled to the same sort of moral consideration that we are entitled to? Similarly to the thoughts of many other people, she believes that we should consider five relevant factors; consciousness and the ability to feel pain, the ability to reason, the ability to act in ways that go beyond instinct - to have motives and goals, the capacity for complex communication and having a sense of one’s self. It can be argued that the example used may still have the five factors Warren believes to be important as it is a capable individual with no severe problems, however, it can also be suggested that its capacity for complex conversation may be hindered by its abnormality.