Medical Ethics Abortion

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Lawrence Lazarus
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Has a woman sole rights over what to do with her own body? Considerer this question in relation to abortion

2006

Most moral issues in medicine and healthcare will instigate lively debate, but no subject seems to inflame tempers more than the question of abortion. The gulf between pro-life and pro-choice can be an uncompromising stance of deeply held beliefs and principles. On the one hand, there is the claim that the foetus is a human being with the same right to life as any other human being, and abortion is therefore nothing less than murder. On the other hand, it is argued that a woman has a right to choose what happens within her own body, and is therefore justified in deciding to have her foetus removed if she so wishes. Even a liberal view is problematic; these tend to take the view that it is permissible for an abortion to take place before a certain stage in the foetuses development, but not beyond that given point. Such an arbitrary perspective does seem difficult to quantify; how can anyone determine the criteria that would navigate a decision that finds termination acceptable today but morally reprehensible tomorrow? It is sometimes argued that the foetus reaches personhood well before birth. “By the tenth week, for example, it already has a face, arms and legs, fingers and toes; it has internal organs, and brain activity is detectable.”[1] But does this undermine a woman’s right to self determination—can it still be reasonable for her to choose abortion, given its level of development? We shall explore this question; not from the perspective of whether the foetus is human, but from the premise “that the woman’s rights over her body are more important than the life of the person or part person in her womb.”[2]

A Woman’s Right to Self-Defence

Judith Jarvis Thomson presents the following hypothesis:[3] a woman becomes pregnant and then learns that she has a cardiac condition that will cause her death if the pregnancy continues. Let us grant the foetus personhood, with a right to life. Obviously the mother too has a right to life, so how can we decide who’s right to life is greater? A way of answering this question could be to say that an abortion is an act of aggression with the sole intention to kill. Whereas to do nothing would not be an attempt by anyone to murder the mother, rather to just let her die. The passivity of the latter could be seen as morally preferable than directly killing an innocent person. Thomson argues that “It cannot seriously be said that…she must sit passively by and wait for her death.”[4] There are two people involved, both are innocent, but one is endangering the life of the other. Thomson believes that in this scenario a woman is entitled to defend herself against the threat posed by the unborn baby, even if ultimately this will cause its death.

I feel Thomson is correct in her appraisal. If an impartial judgement was sought by an individual as to whose life has greater worth; the foetus or the woman, they might not feel able to choose—both lives could be seen to hold equal value. But there is nothing objective about the woman’s situation—her life is endangered. If a person threatens my life—even if they are not conscious of their actions—I have a right to kill them, if that is the only course of action I can take to repel the attack.

The scenario becomes less clear when we consider if a woman holds the same right to defend herself if the continuation of her pregnancy causes her serious health problems that are not terminal. Again, I would assess the situation in terms of an attack. Do I have a right to kill an assailant if he attempts to wound me? The answer, I think, is dependent upon degree—the injury that would be inflicted. It seems reasonable that the degree of retaliation should be proportional to the severity of the attack. Similarly, a woman has the right to terminate her pregnancy if its continuation instigates a degree of...
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