Abortion – forever one of civilised society’s primary ethical dilemmas. Ever since the basic means and methods were discovered in antiquity, thinkers, courts, and leaders have pondered over the conflicting merits of the emotive issue of abortion. With the number of abortions now being as high as 180,0001 a year in the UK, the issue is gaining prominence in religion, the media, and politics. This essay will look at many aspects of abortion, with the main body of the writing being devoted to assessing whether abortion can be tolerated by Christianity, given the idea of the sanctity of life, and whether abortion is justifiable through ethical philosophy. Emphasis will then move briefly to examine political perspectives on the issue, bringing contemporary relevance to the paper, before concluding what has been discovered in the process of this discussion.
A – An introduction to abortion – explanation and a brief history
The accepted definition of abortion is that it’s the induced termination and expulsion of an embryo or foetus from the uterus. There are alternative classifications, such as therapeutic abortion, which depend on the varying circumstances of the mother and child, but these alternative titles will only be looked at as and when they become necessary to this paper.
If abortion is to be practiced, there are two types of technique used to expel the foetus – medical abortions and clinical abortions1. Medical abortions use drugs to empty the uterus, and are used during the first trimester of the pregnancy. The drug mifepristone can be taken as a pill (more commonly known as the abortion pill) to prevent the re-lining of the placenta, and effectively starving the foetus to death. This is then followed by doses of misoprostol, administered as suppositories or injections that cause the muscles of the uterus to contract and expel the foetus. Alternatively, methotrexate can be injected to terminate the pregnancy by halting the growth of the foetus; this is again followed by the administration of misoprostol.
Clinical abortions are physical, rather than chemical, procedures to terminate and expel a foetus. The varying techniques employed depend on the length of gestation, but are most commonly used during the second trimester of the pregnancy. Manual Vacuum Aspiration (MVA) is appropriate up to the eighth week of pregnancy, and involves the use of a syringe to pull the foetal tissue out through the cervical opening. Similar to this, but employed up to the fourteenth week of gestation, is Suction and Curettage. This procedure uses a suction tube, attached to an aspirator, to remove the foetus from the uterus; the more advanced stage of the pregnancy may dictate that the mother has to be dilated and placed under general anaesthetic.
Dilation and evacuation is a clinical technique used even later in the second trimester, up to the twentieth week, and is a more distressing procedure. There must first be a period of cervical dilation, sufficient enough to allow a doctor to manually remove a foetus using clamps. The doctor will have to make an extraction a number of times because the foetus’ size means it can not be extracted as one whole part. Any remaining tissue and uterine fluid is then sucked out as above.
Despite these modern medical procedures that are now used to perform abortions, the practice of terminating and expelling a foetus has a long history. Abortions are first thought to have been induced using the medicinal properties of certain plants and herbs. The ancient physicist and gynaecologist, Soranus, identified many plants as having abortifacient properties.
“Of the ten plants [he] mentioned… modern medical sciences has adjudged eight as having an effect as contraceptives and abortifacients… In the case of rue, present Chinese, Latin American, and Indian medical authorities recognise its abortifacient quality.”2
However, as the Mediterranean societies that first discovered these drugs entered the Renaissance, the herbal remedies popular in antiquity fell out of favour. The rise of Catholicism was already bringing Christianity and abortion into conflict, and the emergence of universities brought with it a denouncement of all things superstitious or outside the conventions of medical education. This trend continued “into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, [where] the knowledge of… abortifacients continued to decline.”3 The eighteenth century then saw the start of genuine legal attention being paid to the question of abortion in the UK. The first statutory prohibition of abortion came with The Ellenborough Act of 18034. This made any use of abortifacients drugs after quickening punishable by death, and in 1928 this statute was strengthened to include prohibition of the use of instruments to expel a foetus. Gradual liberalisation of this law followed though, with the removal of capital punishment as a penalty in 1837.
In 1861, the Offenses Against the Person Act was introduced, and this became the blueprint by which all abortion issues would be adjudged over the next one hundred years5. The distinction between an abortion performed after quickening and one performed before quickening was removed, effectively outlawing all abortions regardless of the state of foetal development; maximum sentence was life imprisonment. Although the Act didn’t allow for any exceptions to the case, a court battle in 1939 (the Bourne case) resulted in a landmark re-interpretation of the law. The judge concluded that an abortion performed in order to protect the mother’s life was compatible with the stipulations of the Act. The decision allowed women to receive abortions legally if their case was adjudged to be life threatening; abortions of this kind are known as therapeutic abortions. This was the legal status of abortion for much of the twentieth century – it was strictly illegal, but for exceptional cases of maternal endangerment.
This all changed with the rise of feminism and the introduction of the abortion pill during the sixties, which led to the sexual revolution, and consequently increased popular protests to legalise abortion. After over a century, the status of abortion was finally reformed, when, in 1967, the Abortion Act was passed through Harold Wilson’s government. It formally legalised abortion in cases where two doctors can agree that continuing with the pregnancy would pose a risk “greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health” 6 of the mother, her existing children, or the potential baby. All abortions must be carried out before the foetus reaches the age of viability, currently the twenty-fourth week of gestation in the UK. A foetus is viable when it is considered able to live outside of the uterus, and thus abortions are only permitted on viable foetuses in exceptional circumstances where there is a genuine and grave threat to the mother’s life.
The legalisation of abortion in the UK in 1967 was no doubt a victory for women’s’ rights campaigners and liberal ethicists and politicians. However, the acceptance of abortion also displeases many people, including the majority of the Christian community as well as secular absolutists. Now that a general medical and legal understanding of abortion has been established, one is better informed to investigate why these moral conflicts between religion, philosophy, and politics have arisen. For what reason is abortion considered so intrinsically wrong by some campaigners? Is abortion the killing of another person, or just the removal of biological tissue?
B – An investigation into when human life begins
Central to the argument of those against abortion (pro-life campaigners), is the premise that the foetus is a person. If this is the case, it would obviously render abortion to be murder, thus making it in breach of the basic right to life that every person has. Whether the foetus is a person is a fiercely debated issue, and depends on the highly subjective view of when a human life begins.
The earliest possible beginning of a human life, of the creation of a new person, is at fertilisation. It is from this point that the development of the body begins; the creation of a new, unique genetic entity. Two medical ethicists, Dr McFarlane and Dr Moore, put it thus in their paper What is a Person? :
“Taken at its most basic, fertilisation brings about the emergence of a new combination of genes and the start of a new unit of biology. Everything that happens after this point is merely a process of development. The very fact that this being is a new member of the human species gives him or her the status of a person.”1
The doctors’ argument is that fertilisation is the furthest one can possibly go back in tracing a human’s development, and so this point should be regarded as the beginning of life. This is a seemingly logical deduction, but with slightly deeper scientific understanding, the suggestion becomes problematic; in fact, decidedly questionable:
“But what about identical twins? They don’t become distinct human beings till some later stage, up to about a fort-night after fertilisation. You can’t be a person till you’re an individual, and if twins don’t become persons immediately, perhaps the rest of us don’t either?”2
Due to the fact that an embryo will not split into twins for a further fortnight after fertilisation, what does that say about the status of that particular embryo preceding the split? A further criticism is that up to 50%3 of eggs, having been fertilised, will fail to implant in the uterus. It is indeed “difficult to believe that all these are lost people”4. It may therefore be more accurate to accept that life does not start at least until implantation, as otherwise at least 50% of people die before ever being born.
Implantation (the process of the fertilised egg being embedded in the wall of the uterus) is favoured by some, as it marks the beginning of a maternal-embryonic relationship. However, implantation takes place over a matter of days, and so there is no precise point in which to ascribe personage to the embryo. In addition, the embryo still has no nervous activity by this time. As it is accepted “that brain death is the time when a person’s life ends,”5 can the reverse not be said for the beginning of life coinciding with the beginning of brain activity?
If this is so, then the development of the cerebral cortex (the thin outer layer of the brain) in the fourth week after fertilisation could mark the beginning of life. Not only does the existence of the cerebral cortex represent brain activity, it distinguishes what it is to be human. The cerebral cortex is responsible for the higher-order functions of human cognition and is what “makes us conscious [and] differentiates us from animals… without it we are not really human”6. However, the problem remains of the incompatibility of ascribing an absolute beginning of life to a gradual, developmental process.
Traditionally, the quickening of a pregnancy has been the marker for whether the foetus has become a person, and therefore whether or not an abortion can be performed (The Ellenborough Act 1803 q.v.). Quickening is when the mother first feels the movement of the foetus and usually happens between the sixteenth and eighteenth week of gestation. The problem with this definition being accepted as the beginning of life is that modern ultrasound technology shows that the foetus does indeed move well before quickening, it’s just that its size and weight means these movements go unfelt by the mother.
The next marker for the possible beginning of life is the age of viability. This is the age at which a foetus is deemed capable of living outside the uterus, and is currently set at twenty-four weeks in the UK. What is a Person? expresses with clarity how it is hard to deny a foetus personhood at this stage:
“Neonatal intensive care units can now keep very premature babies alive… If a baby can survive outside the womb, there can be no doubt that he or she must be a person, and by implication, this personhood must apply to all unborn fetuses of this age.”7
Improving technology has seen the age of viability decrease from twenty eight to twenty four weeks in the UK, and may well decrease further to twenty two or twenty weeks in the not-too-distant future. It is absurd, however, to think that foetuses are therefore becoming live human beings sooner and sooner into the gestation period. The viability date is, after all, just a human construct for legal purposes, and can not in that sense determine when life begins.
There is a point at which life begins; and this must exist somewhere between fertilisation and birth (inclusive). Where exactly along that line will determine whether abortion is the killing of another person or not, and this has an effect on whether it is compatible with the beliefs of the groups of people mentioned in the title.
How is the abortion of an unborn person incompatible with Christian doctrine? How do some philosophers justify abortion; what good does it do? Then having addressed the Christian and philosophical perspectives on abortion, the modern political attitude will briefly be looked at, to give this essay contemporary significance.
C – The Christian perspective
Christianity has traditionally been a staunch opponent to abortion, despite the fact that the Bible never mentions abortion directly. The first Christian teaching against abortion comes from the Didache, a first-century document for the instruction of new converts. The second chapter contains this explicit condemnation: “You shall not kill by abortion the fruit of the womb”1.
It would be wrong, however, to suggest that this law is the only basis on which Christians have adopted their stance, as there is biblical evidence which supports a pro-life belief. From Judeo-Christian roots to contemporary society, believers have expressed their intolerance of the procedure, based on the biblical idea of the sanctity of life. This dictates that all life is created in imago Dei, as it is written in the earliest scriptures: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him”2
The belief that humankind is created bearing the image of God carries with it a great responsibility for Christians, who therefore regard human bodies as sacred “temple[s] of the Holy Spirit”3. For this reason, all actions which may harm or jeopardise the sanctity of a human life are strongly opposed, including abortion.
One must question whether this is a correct application of scripture, whether the sanctity of life theory can be applied to abortion. The sanctity of life obviously refers to all living persons, but if a foetus can be considered not to be a person, the theory can not apply; if Christians have religious evidence to believe a foetus is a person, then their stance on abortion is justified. This brings one back to the question of when life begins, and the Christian belief on this will now be explored.
One religious belief regarding the beginning of life is the Thomist idea of ensoulment. Catholic theologian Aquinas believed that God imparts the soul into the foetus of males at 40 days, and for females at 90 days4. Thus, this is when life was regarded to have begun by the Catholic Church, and was the basis on which they based their abortion laws for much of the last millennium. With the modern advances in embryology however, it is evident that this has no scientific basis, and so the current Catholic position is that life begins at conception: “Each new life that begins at this point is not a potential human being but a human being with potential”5. The Church of England also “affirm[s] the sanctity of the human embryo”6.
These positions are verifiable biblically; the psalmist reflects:
“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made… My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”7
This belief that God knows intimately each individual in the womb is confirmed when God speaks to the prophet Jeremiah, he says, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, before you were born I set you apart”8. The psalmist makes a direct reference to life beginning at fertilisation, in saying, “I was born guilty, a sinner from the moment of conception”9.
It is clear then why Christians believe that life begins at conception, and this necessitates an opposition to abortion because it is incompatible with their beliefs in the sanctity of life. Despite this, the Church concedes there are exceptions to the anti-abortion rules. Even the hard-line taken by the Catholics permits abortion in line with the principle of double effect. This stipulates that abortion is acceptable if it is the by-product of another act, so long as that act has good reason. For example, if a doctor were to perform an operation that would save a pregnant woman’s life, but this operation would also result in the death of the foetus, it would still be permissible as the doctor would be acting to save the mothers life; if the doctor didn’t operate, both the mother and foetus would die anyway.
The Anglican Church takes a slightly more relaxed view on exceptions to their abortion beliefs than the Catholics do. Whilst having a “strong opposition” to it in principle, they recognise “that there can be strictly limited conditions under which it may be morally preferable to any available alternative.”10 This is such that they sympathise with mothers, who, by no fault of there own, find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy; rape would be seen as such an example of this. They also permit abortion in cases of serious foetal handicap, but only if it is likely that this foetus would die soon after birth as a result of those deformities.11
In both the above cases, the Christian Church first makes it clear that they are explicitly pro-life, before going on to explain the exceptions they permit in specific cases which they deem to be justifiable in the circumstances. These exceptions mentioned therefore have no significance in terms of their effect on the compatibility of abortion with the sanctity of life, as the Church has not compromised on this question; they still regard abortion as incompatible with belief in the sanctity of life, they have just accepted that this fact may have to be ignored in delicate cases.
Though it has been found that abortion is incompatible with belief in the sanctity of life, there are indeed Christians pro-choice (in support of abortion). They are able to adopt this position whilst still holding belief in the sanctity of life* because they do not see abortion as murder, because they do not accept that life starts at conception. Thus, abortion and belief in the sanctity of life are compatible in their eyes; their reasoning is outlined below.
The idea that abortion is not murder because life indeed does not start at conception will be examined hereafter from a Christian perspective. Consider this scripture on the creation of Adam (NB. Breathing does not occur in a foetus; only after birth does a baby begin to breathe):
“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”12
Note carefully the order of events. First, God created the physical entity, and then breathed life into it, and it is not until this happens that a baby becomes “a living soul”. This indicates that life does not begin until birth, because ensoulment only happens when breathing begins, and thus abortion can not be murder.
This is a persuasive argument, but there are a couple of criticisms to be drawn against it. Firstly, the verse must not be taken out of context. Adam, (and Eve), are unique inasmuch as they are the only humans, including the incarnated Lord, not to undergo the process of development in the womb. Adam’s method of creation must therefore be considered an exception, because the aforementioned passages which refer to human development in utero, do not apply.
Secondly, the interpretation of “breath” is unclear. Whether the meaning is literal, or metaphorical, is debatable. The author could simply be meaning that God suddenly induced life in Adam, and, using his imagination, likened this event to breathing to make it identifiable. There is also no distinction as to whether “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (read: the inducement of life) happened after the formation of the body, or simultaneously. Therefore, it is not a reliable source on which to base the assumption that abortion is not murder. Thus, abortion and belief in the sanctity of life remain incompatible in light of this unconvincing alternative.
It has so far been established that the scriptures of the Old Testament consider life to be unique and sacred from the very beginning, and it is on this biblical authority that Christians regard life to begin at conception; ipso facto, abortion must be considered murder of another person, and therefore is incompatible with the Christian belief in the sanctity of life.
(*NB. All discussion on Christian attitudes to abortion, are in relation to belief in the sanctity of life. It is true that some Christians are pro-choice because they have no, or lesser, regard for the sanctity of life. For instance, some Christians may regard Jesus’ command to “love thy neighbour”13, as dominative to the belief in the sanctity of life, where the two appear to collide on ethical issues. That is, many Christians may be in favour of abortion because they regard loving for the mother to be a superior requirement of the scriptures. However, the stance of whether the most loving course of action justifies abortion, and the possibly numerous other alternative instances where Christians may be pro-choice, is an irrelevant issue, because this essay is only interested in investigating the compatibility with Christianity qua sanctity of life, as is specified in the title: “the practice of abortion is incompatible with Christian belief in the sanctity of life”.)
A conclusion has now been reached, and subsequently verified, on whether abortion is compatible with the Christian belief in the sanctity of life. Upon careful observation of the two attitudes offered by the Roman Catholic and Church of England denominations, it becomes clear that conflicting philosophical approaches are taken. The Catholics adopt their stance that the act of abortion is an absolute moral wrong, with no exceptions, from the Natural Law theory; whereas the Anglicans opinion that it can sometimes be justified depending on the circumstances, has clear parallels with Situation Ethics. These two ethical theories, along with the popular Utilitarianism, will be looked at in the next section, to see whether any of these is compatible with the practice of abortion.
D – The philosophical perspective
Having looked at the Christian perspective, which is concerned with the doctrinal and spiritual implications of abortion, a philosophers approach is more concerned with the fundamental ethics of abortion. Natural Law, Situation Ethics, and Utilitarianism are contrasting approaches to the ethical implications of abortion. Broadly speaking, the central question regarding Natural Law theory is does abortion cohere with the purpose of nature? With Situation Ethics, each case must be looked at individually to assess the question of, is abortion the most loving course of action that can be to taken? Utilitarianism is concerned with whether abortion is an overall degeneration or benefit to society?
Aristotle believed, through observation, that everything in nature has an intrinsic purpose for which it must aspire to achieve. Actions which advance towards this purpose are therefore good, whilst actions which stall or obstruct the fulfilment of this purpose are bad. Thus the theory of Natural law was coined. These ideas were taken forward by Aquinas, who, being a theologian, believed these natural purposes come from God. Each living thing has its own purpose, and the human purpose is “to reproduce, to learn, to live harmoniously in society and to worship God”1; that which opposes these things can be considered sin. Natural Law can be a non-theist moral theory in its own right though, as Aquinas stipulated that natural purpose can be as much identified through rationality and reason. The ethical philosopher also has grounds then on which to make judgements about the intrinsic moral value of an action, as the academic Peter Vardy expresses:
“The theologian considers sin principally as an offence against God, whereas the moral philosopher considers it as being contrary to reason”2
Natural Law is an absolutist theory, that is, an act is only ever absolutely right or wrong. Its moral value is intrinsic and applies to all situations; there is no middle ground. Aquinas’ teachings on the Natural Law theory, just as did happen with his belief on ensoulment, became a central feature of Catholic moral thinking. However, the Natural Law thesis remains at the forefront of Catholic laws on ethical issues such as contraception, euthanasia, homosexuality, and, abortion.
Abortion can be applied to this theory to see whether ethicists who tend towards Natural Law can consider it morally acceptable. The Abortion takes place in order to terminate a pregnancy, and the purpose of a pregnancy itself is to produce a new human life. As mentioned above, human purpose is to live, and a pregnancy is therefore acting for the fulfilment of natural purpose. Abortion though, behaves in opposition to this act, as it prevents the fulfilment of purpose:
“Abortion must be seen as the interruption of a process that would otherwise have produced a citizen of the world.”3
Abortion is therefore an explicit violation of Natural Law, as it prevents a foetus from reaching its full potential as a human being. (The question of when life begins is therefore irrelevant to Natural Law theory, as abortion still carries the same intrinsic moral wrong in all situations. Even if the foetus is not a person, abortion is still guilty of exactly the same crime if the foetus were to be a person. In both cases, a genetic entity is being prevented from fulfilling its purpose). For this reason, abortion is not only incompatible with Christian belief in the sanctity of life, but is also incompatible with a theist and non-theist adoption of Natural Law theory.
However, there are inescapable problems that arise with all theories which accept absolute moral right and wrongs. Whilst always upholding its integrity through its consistency, Natural Law can be criticised of neglecting the emotional and physical needs of humans in some case. Take, for example, a situation where a woman has been raped and is pregnant as a consequence. Natural Law clearly stipulates that an abortion would still be absolutely wrong in this case, and that there can be no intrinsic good in the act if it were to happen. This stance, which takes absolutely no consideration of the mother or her circumstances into account, could be argued as an example of when ethics fails the very subjects it is designed to benefit.
In stark contrast to the absolutism of Natural Law, is the theory of Situation Ethics, the greatest exponent of ethical relativism. Joseph Fletcher is credited with first using the term Situation Ethics in 1966, with the publication of “Situation Ethics: The New Morality”. Fletcher describes a position of Situationism, half-way between the extremes of Legalism and Antinomianism. He criticises the rigid positions of Legalism, and the spontaneity of Antinomianism, insisting, “Our obligation is relative to the situation; but obligation in the situation is absolute”4.
This means he considers that all ethical judgements are relative to the situation they’re found in, but that Humans always have an obligation to do the ethically correct thing in these situations. What the right thing is, according to Situation Ethics, is the most loving course of action in that situation. Thus, Situation Ethics does not prerequisite certain courses of action for any moral issue, it only requires one to engage in whatever is the most loving thing to do.
In Situation Ethics, love justifies the means. If one has to break some moral or legal law in pursuit of the most loving course of action, this is ethically right to do so. This leads to quite a liberal tolerance of abortion. The criticism of absolutism never regarding abortion as right is that it fails to take into account the situation of the mother. Situation Ethics however, permits abortion if it is done in the pursuit of the most loving course of action for the mother, who may not have wanted the baby for any number of reasons.
Situation Ethicists, in their endorsement of an abortion, can also be seen as doing the most loving thing for a foetus in the relevant situation:
“The right to abortion is the foundation of Society’s long struggle to ensure that every child comes into this world wanted, loved, and cared for.”5
The prevention of an unwanted baby, who is likely have a poor quality of life as a result, being born into society permits the practice of abortion in order to produce this loving outcome; this is an example of love justifying the means. Situation Ethics appears fairly well covered in all areas of possible criticism thanks to its relativism, and complimentary necessity of loving action.
One difficulty does arise though when followers of this ethic have to choose what the most loving course of action is when more than one person is involved. This may require the Situationalist to determine between two seemingly equally deserving people, making it impossible to choose the option that would show most love in that situation.
A belief in the practise of abortion is indeed compatible with this ethical philosophy. Situation Ethics neither supports nor condemns abortion, because it relativist nature determines that the right or wrong of abortion will depend on what is deemed to be the most loving course of action within each given situation.
Finally, the Utilitarian ethical theory will be examined to investigate whether this ethical philosophy is or is not compatible with the acceptance of abortion. Jeremy Bentham first devised the Principle of Utility in 1789, which stipulates,
“that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness…or…to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness”6
That is, a moral decision should be judged by assessing the utility of it – whether the outcome will have greater positive or negative benefits. Bentham’s Utilitarian theory was solely hedonistic, and it was until John Stuart Mill in 1861 that Utilitarianism developed into the ethical theory that is now known.
In its simplest form, Utilitarianism dictates that a good moral act “is that which is likely to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people”7. It is a somewhat subjective theory in that one must decide how to measure the “greatest happiness”, but nevertheless, Utilitarianism is probably the most highly regarded of all ethical theories today.
There isn’t a clear-cut stance on abortion within Utilitarian ethics, but the general consensus is pro-choice. A couple of the arguments as to why abortion would cause more happiness than pain to the greatest number of people, and subsequently the criticism of these opinions, will be explored below.
Firstly, the same can be said of Utilitarianism as was said for Situation Ethics on the point regarding the quality of life of an unwanted child. Abortion prevents the births of many unwanted children, reducing the number of children with low quality of lives. This also helps to hold together families, and is to the benefit of a great number of people in society. However, on this point, one must ask whether the utilitarian view would actually require the birth of the child for adoption. In this way, more happiness is created for more people.
Secondly, one of the original reasons abortions were legalised was to stop the underground practice of abortions, which was highly dangerous. Utilitarians would support this view because by not allowing abortion, they would be condemning hundreds of thousands of women to painful and illegal procedures. More happiness is achieved for the women who no longer have to endure great pain, but can have great happiness at they’re continued freedom. However, Douglas Lackey writes that the legalisation of abortion should actually be opposed by Utilitarians: “The general acceptance of abortion has bad social consequences, which should worry Utilitarians.”8 He says that greater unhappiness has been caused by abortion in society, and is therefore incompatible with Utilitarianism.
In summary, Utilitarianism appears to have no coherent argument for why abortion is morally right. There are various ides to suggest that abortion is as incompatible with Utilitarianism as it is compatible, despite what ethical Utilitarianists like Peter Singer would have man to believe. With regards to the other two ethical theories, Natural Law is very explicit on where it stands, but has no ability to adapt. Situation Ethics on the other hand, appears a very workable ethical theory that accepts abortion in some circumstances where it is the most loving action.
But what of philosophy? The people who actually make a difference with regards to abortion in this country are the public figures – politicians and journalists. A brief look at politics and abortion will help in drawing this essay to a conclusion.
E – The political perspective
A brief history of abortion is included on the first page, with some political background to attitudes of the last century. Recently, the party leaders in the UK have re-opened a debate on abortion, calling for the viability age to be dropped from twenty-four to twenty-two or twenty weeks. Prime Minister Tony Blair admits that he “personally dislikes the idea of abortion”1, and the leader of the opposition confirmed that he’d be “prepared to go down to twenty”2 weeks for viability.
So why has there been so little change in the abortion laws since 1967? British columnist Zoe Williams explains the inertia of the politicians: “They don’t know who to be more scared of, feminists or middle England”3. It all boils down to the same issues that have been looked over in this essay. There are the liberal human rights campaigners on the pro-choice side, with the traditional morals of the right on the pro-life side.
The pro-choicers sincerely believe that a woman’s right to her body is superior to the right to life of the foetus inside her (for me on this, see Judith Jarvis Thomson “A Defence of Abortion”, 1971), whilst the pro-lifers sincerely believe the foetus is a person and to kill it is murder.
This is what the abortion debate boils down to at a political level, the conflict in rights between two groups of people, one of which may not be alive. It is an impossible task to consolidate both these rights, and so politicians are quite happy to keep it as a minor issue for as long as possible. Nevertheless, it is obvious that abortion is compatible with the attitudes of today’s politicians; it is still, in fact, an issue of public concern. With a general election nearing, wise diplomacy and subtle convictions are going to be needed maintain the status quo.
F – Conclusion
This essay has looked closely at abortion and its place alongside different belief systems. The investigation into when life begins could not bring any steadfast conclusions, but helped put into context the discussion which followed. With a better understanding of the beginning of life, one is much better informed, and hopefully much more interested in, the arguments for and against abortion.
It must be noted though, that this is not the purpose of the essay, viz., it is not to evaluate the various pro-life and pro-choice arguments. Instead, it’s purpose has been to investigate whether an acceptance of abortion is compatible with, firstly, Christian belief in the sanctity of life, secondly, with ethical theories used to evaluate right and wrong, and to take a look at it’s place in modern politics.
From looking closely at the beginning of life then, it became evident that the question of ensoulment is crucial to beliefs on abortion. It was found that if ensoulment happened at conception, then abortion is always to be considered wrong for Christians. However, if ensoulment happened later, at implantation, or quickening for example, this could well mean abortion can be compatible with Christian belief in the sanctity of life.
However, once the scriptures had been referred to, there was plenty of evidence to suggest that life began at conception and that it was indeed sacred throughout gestation. To verify, criticisms and alternatives were looked at and their significance evaluated. Section B revealed then that abortion indeed was not compatible with Christian belief in the sanctity of life.
Ethical philosophy was turned to next, with the specific examination of three prominent theories – Natural Law, Situation Ethics, and Utilitarianism. The three were found to be strongly contrasting in their nature and, consequently, the conclusion as to whether abortion was compatible with these theories.