How are religious and ethical principles used in the abortion debate?
Abortion has been legal in the United Kingdom since the Abortion Act of 1967, which was further amended in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990, lowering the length of pregnancy in which it is legal to have an abortion from 28 weeks to 24 weeks, owing to advances in medicine and a decrease in the age of viability of a foetus. There are four criteria which allow women to have an abortion, as long as they have the consent of two doctors, involving risk to the physical or mental health of the mother or the foetus or mental health of any existing children. In 2004, 95% of abortions in the UK were certified under the statuary ground of risk of injury to the mental or physical health of the pregnant woman. Abortion is a hugely controversial subject and religious and ethical principles such as Catholic natural moral law, Church of England moral views, utilitarianism, situation ethics, and Kantian deontology can be applied in order to decide whether abortion is moral.
An idea central to the abortion debate is personhood and when a foetus can be classed as a person. There are many different beliefs e.g. at the age of viability, at conception, at birth, when the foetus has a heartbeat etc. J Glover said that determining the point at which a foetus can be considered a person is logically impossible and to attempt to do so is like trying to define at what point a cake mix becomes a cake. Peter Singer said that a person is someone who has the ability to plan and anticipate ones future and since the foetus is unable to do this, it isn’t a person. Singer believed that the right to life is grounded in personhood and therefore abortion can be justified. However, this definition has flaws in that it fails to include babies and young children, as well as the mentally disabled, surely all of which we class as people? Mary Anne Warren suggested the following criteria to define a person; sentience, emotionality, reason, capacity to communicate, self-awareness and moral agency. Warren said that it was not necessary to have all the attributes, for example a baby doesn’t have the capacity to regulate its actions through moral principles, but a foetus has none of these attributes and therefore isn’t a person. Some people argue that a foetus is a ‘potential person’ but Warren rejects this as a basis for giving it a right to life. The idea of when a foetus becomes a person is so important to the abortion debate, especially for theists and religious principles, because if the foetus is a person then abortion becomes murder, whereas if the foetus isn’t a person, then abortion can no longer be classed as murder.
Another key idea which relates to both ethical and religious principles in the abortion debate is the idea of autonomy and who has the rights. Pro-choice supporters believe that the mother should have the choice of whether to keep the baby or to have an abortion. The feminist JJ Thompson used an analogy to illustrate her argument that the women should have the rights; a woman if kidnapped and wired up to a famous violinist in order to save him, she is given the choice of staying attached for nine months or leaving and letting him die. The violinist (foetus) has the right to life, however this is not greater than the mothers right to freedom and the violinist has no right over the person’s body and therefore the person is morally justified in leaving (killing the foetus). This analogy however, only applies to a rape situation however, usually the person has made the conscious decision to have sex and run the risk of becoming pregnant. The person in the analogy also has no emotional attachment to the violinist, whereas a woman is more likely to be attached to their unborn baby. Also, in the analogy the violinist is only reliant on the person for nine months whereas in reality a child is reliant on its mother for about eighteen years and so it’s more of a...
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