"Abortion: A Bioethical Viewpoint"

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Abortion is one of the most controversial bioethical issues of our time. Throughout history the moral values concerning abortion have been matters of ceaseless debate and disagreement, but in the past three decades the debate has intensified. One view--known as "pro-life"--sees abortion as the slaughter of innocent life. Pro-lifers march with pictures of mutilated fetuses on their posters. The other view--"pro-choice"--considers abortion an option that must be available to women in order for them to have control over their own bodies. Pro-choicers use a bloody coat-hanger as their symbol of the days when women didn't have this option.

At the heart of the controversy, of course, is the debate over when human life actually begins. Does it begin at the moment of conception? At 4-6 weeks when the heart begins to beat and brain waves can first be detected? At 3 months when the fetus begins to resemble a baby? At 4-5 months when life can be felt by the mother? At 24 weeks when the fetus is viable (i.e. able to live outside the womb)? Or at birth when the umbilical cord is cut and the baby is physically separated from his mother? The Pro-Lifers believe that life begins at conception; while most Pro-Choicers believe life begins at birth. No compromise appears possible for such differing viewpoints.

The ethical issues concerning abortion are closely related to the safety of the procedure. Prior to 1973, when U.S. laws restricted abortion, women resorted to having them done by untrained people. Opponents of abortion pointed to the frequent harm caused to women, including death from infection as well as risks to future pregnancies. "Abortion has been practiced around the world since ancient times. Although most religions forbade the practice, abortion was not considered illegal in most countries until the 1800's. There were laws during this time, however, that banned abortion after quickening--that is, the time that fetal movement can first be felt. In 1803 England banned all abortions, and this policy soon spread to Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Through the middle and late 19th century, many states in the U.S. enacted similar laws banning abortion. In the 20th century, however, many nations began to relax their laws against abortion. The former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) legalized abortion in 1920, followed by Japan in 1948, and several Eastern European countries in the 1950's. In the 1960's and 1970's, much of Europe and Asia legalized abortion" (Encarta 7).

The issue is further complicated by the fact that unlike other bioethical viewpoints on abortion are not limited to scholars and physicians. Those running for public office feel it necessary to take a stand on the subject. One of the hottest political topics in recent years has been the issue of Partial Birth Abortion (D & X), "a rare procedure in which the brain is removed from a fetus when it is partly born. The size of the skull is reduced, permitting the fetus to be removed more easily from the cervix. Its use is normally restricted to very rare instances in which the fetus is already dead or most be killed in order to save the life of the mother...Testimony before a Senate committee indicated that a few doctors performed D & X abortions for reasons other than those stated above..."(www.religioustolerance.org/abo_defn.htm 2), resulting in almost every politician expressing a viewpoint. One pro-life group sees any legislator who votes in favor of Partial Birth abortion as a member of the Pro-Choice camp, regardless of their reasoning.

There is no arguing with the fact that abortion is common. It is said to be seven times safer than childbirth. Infection and excessive bleeding are the most common problems following the procedure, although there are unknown risks, such as possible infertility. Each year about 1.5 million abortions are performed, which means that approximately one out of four pregnancies (and half of all unintended pregnancies)...
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