Ethics Of Abortion – The One Question

Recent legislation has reignited an issue that has been a hot topic of debate for the last 46 years.  The term abortion causes arguments to fly and tempers to rage.  In the aftermath, complex political, religious, and moral questions arise.  But abortion is not that complex.  Fundamentally, the issue boils down to one question that needs answering.  But other questions have arisen as well.  Here are a few answers to the latest questions surrounding this controversial topic.

What Is The New “Abortion” Bill in New York?

On January 22, 2019 (exactly 46 years to the date after the Roe v. Wade decision) the state of New York introduced revisions to its Reproductive Health Act. The bill removes abortion from the state’s criminal code and permits women to abort their child after 24 weeks when fetal viability is absent or to protect the patient’s life or health (previously abortion was classified as a homicide after 24 weeks of pregnancy).

Are There Any Other Bills Being Introduced?

Not to be outdone, legislatures in Virginia proposed a bill (HB2491) in early January that would permit abortion up until the moment of birth provided one physician (previously 3 MD’s were required) determines the pregnancy threatens the life or “impairs the mental or physical health” of the mother.  On January 28, 2019, legislators voted 5-3 to table the bill for now.  Similar bills exist in Rhode Island and at the Federal level.

What Does Fetal Viability Mean?

Fetal viability is the ability of the fetus to exist ex utero (outside the mother’s womb) with technological support.  It occurs approximately 24-28 weeks gestation and was used in the Supreme Court Case Roe v. Wade to define when the State should regulate abortion. 

Is The Fetus Alive?

In 1857, the American Medical Association Committee presented a report deploring abortion partly because of the persistent ignorant belief that the fetus is not alive until after quickening (the first recognizable movement of the fetus in utero, usually around the16th week).  Medical technology and embryology have proven that at the moment of fertilization, the fetus is alive.

Does A Fetus Have Rights?

In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruled (many other lower courts followed) that embryos (fertilized eggs) including the unborn are not considered persons for purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment (denies states from providing life, liberty, or property to any person).  However, the State does have a significant and legitimate interest in protecting potential life which begins at the point of viability (see above), and thus legal protection may be extended.

Doesn’t The Physician Have an Ethical Obligation To The Fetus?

Physicians have obligations to treat patients.  The fetus only becomes a patient when a pregnant woman presents herself to the physician for clinical care after the moment of viability.  Before viability, the fetus becomes a patient only as a function of the pregnant woman’s decision to become a patient which confers the status of a patient to her fetus.

Other Questions That Need Answering

Why The Need For New Legislation?

This question raises other questions.  Previous laws provided safeguards for women who were considering abortion:  requiring ultrasounds, waiting period, the need for abortions to be performed in a state-sponsored hospital, etc.  Even those believing that abortion does not take an innocent life understood that ending a pregnancy can be traumatic on the mother and the father.  Setting aside whether or not a fetus is a child for a moment, why the need to expand the law?  Were there multiple women who were suddenly, after 9 months of pregnancy, caught off guard with a fetus in their womb?  I know there are instances where pregnancy has caught women by surprise but does this warrant legislation?

Moreover, the legislation in New York and Virginia stipulate that abortion should be permitted if the pregnancy “impairs” the health of the mother.  Why call the carriers of these “non-persons” mothers?  And why the need to abort the child?  If the health of the mother is at stake, then deliver the baby.  Is there any medical instance when it is more beneficial to abort a child than to induce delivery?

The Fundamental Question That Needs Answering:  Is The Fetus A Person?

Current legislation has once again demonstrated how arbitrary is the term viability.  The main reason for the controversy is because we are trying to answer a philosophical question with science.  For example, Neonatal Intensive Care Units provide critical care to compromised children.  Many of these children are born premature (before 37 weeks).  The earliest premature baby to survive was born at 21 weeks four days.  How can a non-viable fetus (before 24 weeks) survive?  What is it about the 23rd week, 23rd hour and the 59-minute moment that marks the end of being mere tissue and the beginning of being a person?

As noted above, the unborn are not considered persons under the law, but their protection is granted after 24 weeks gestation.  New York legislation omitted that protection and the Virginia bill was close to doing the same.  In a hearing in Virginia, delegate Kathy Tran, one of the introducers of the bill, stated that the bill would permit abortion of a child even up to the moment when the mother is dilating.  Evidently, Tran and other proponents consider the several inches between the birth canal and the hospital delivery room to be the defining line to being classified a person.  The message is:  Personhood is defined merely by location.  However, if the birth canal obstructed the birth of the baby to the point where only the head had exited (shoulder dystocia), would the child be a person only from the neck up?

Greg Koukl put it most succinctly when he said, “If abortion does not take the life of an innocent human being, then no justification for abortion is necessary…If it [abortion] does take the life of an innocent human being then none of the justifications given for abortion are adequate.” Video

Bottom Line

Defining personhood is critical because of the weight that the definition confers.  Persons have legal, ethical, and moral status.  Persons have this status because they are human beings with intrinsic value.  States are obligated to protect this value.  Fundamentally, these bills redefine personhood and seem to make abortion more of a decision of convenience.  But if society can’t agree when a fetus becomes a person shouldn’t we err on the side of caution?  What other issue is more deserving of this safeguard?

Final Note:  Every four years people yearn for a leader who will have integrity, morality, and do what’s best for the country without regard to their political status.  I can’t help but wonder if that future leader who could help galvanize a divided nation was one of the 1.5 billion children whose lives were stolen through abortion across the globe since 1980.  

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