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Religious Tolerance logo

Abortion access

Overview of abortion: An
apparently unsolvable dilemma?

Part 2 of 3:

Opposing beliefs about when human personhood
starts. Conflicting beliefs about abortion access.

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This topic is continued from the previous essay.

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Opposing beliefs about when human personhood starts:

Many, but not all, pro-lifers and pro-choicers believe that once human personhood starts -- i.e. when human life becomes a human person -- the person's life must be protected where possible. Many religions, organizations and individuals have passionately held conflicting beliefs about when this happens. This naturally leads to opposing beliefs about when and under what conditions the state should intrude and deny a woman access to abortion.

  • To many, if not most, pro-lifers, human personhood begins at at some point in the process of conception. Thus, they view each abortion as a form of murder. They often support this argument by noting that, at conception, a human life with its own unique DNA comes into being. The platform of the Constitution Party expresses this clearly. It:

    " the only national political party that advocates a 100%, no-exceptions pro-life position in its platform. The Constitution Party platform states, 'The pre-born child, whose life begins at fertilization, is a human being created in God's image. The first duty of the law is to prevent the shedding of innocent blood. It is, therefore, the duty of all civil governments to secure and to safeguard the lives of the pre-born'." 8,9

    Many pro-lifers generally view an abortion clinic as a place where babies are murdered. Some pro-life groups and individuals have considered abortion clinics the ethical equivalent of a Nazi death camp.

  • To many pro-choicers, human personhood begins later in gestation or at birth. They note that a pre-embryo -- a just-fertilized ovum -- consists of a simple grouping of undifferentiated cells. The pre-embryo has no human shape, skin, brain, or other organs; it cannot sense the environment. Since it has no brain, it is not sentient, nor is it conscious. Carl Sagan wrote an essay supporting this position. 4

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The pro-life and pro-choice movements:

These two groups differ about abortion access. Generally speaking:

  • Pro-lifers feel that abortion access should be restricted to special cases, or prohibited completely. Most are motivated by their belief that human personhood begins at during the process of conception -- perhaps when a unique DNA is formed or when the single cell divides into two. Thus, all surgical abortions murder a baby.

    Also, most pro-lifers believe that some devices like the IUD and some medications like emergency contraceptives prevent the implantation of the pre-embryo in the wall of the uterus. They regard such devices as abortifacients.

  • Pro-choicers believe that each woman should be relatively free to follow their own ethical and spiritual beliefs concerning the termination or continuation of a pregnancy. Many recognize that there is a diversity of beliefs about abortion access, and that the state should not attempt to enforce a common belief system on all pregnant women. Many pro-choicers believe that human personhood does not begin during the process of conception but starts later in pregnancy.

Both groups would like to see a reduction in the number of abortions performed. Many pro-lifers promote support services for women in crisis pregnancies and/or seek legal restrictions on abortion access. Many pro-choicers promote better comprehensive birth control education in schools and greater access to contraceptives and emergency contraceptives.

The two groups find it difficult to cooperate. They expend enormous energy fighting each other. If they were able to collaborate, they could make major reductions in the abortion rate, perhaps lowering it below the rate of most other developed countries. 

Within each movement there is a range of beliefs concerning restrictions on abortion, as described below.

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Conflicting beliefs about abortion access:

In spite of what the media might imply, there are not just two conflicting positions on abortion access -- pro-life and pro-choice. A spectrum of beliefs exists.

  • A minority of the public believes that a woman should be free to terminate her pregnancy at any stage and for any reason that she feels to be valid. A series of national polls by CBS, Los Angeles Times, CNN, USA Today and the Gallup Organization during 2005 reported between 23 and 41% of American adults hold this position. The actual poll result tends to heavily influenced by the precise wording of the question, and what prior questions were asked during the survey. The percentage has not changed much over the following years.

  • Some feel that she should be able to choose to terminate the life of the pre-embryo, embryo or fetus for any reason up to a certain point in gestation, but not afterwards. This might be before:
    • About 26 weeks gestation -- the point when higher functions of the the fetus' brain are first activated. This is when the fetus first becomes a sentient being and is able to sense its surroundings, or

    • At 20 weeks gestation when may pro-lifers believe that the fetus can feel pain.

    • At quickening, when the woman first feels the fetus move, or

    • It begins to look human, or

    • It loses its tail and gill slits, or

    • Its heart begins beating, or

    • The pre-embryo becomes attached to the inner lining of the woman's uterus.

    Unfortunately, few if any polls ask questions with this degree of detail.

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This topic continues in the next essay

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References used:

  1. American statistics are listed by Baptists for Life, Inc. at:
  2. Canadian statistics are listed by Action Life (Ottawa) Inc. at:
  3. Bob Enyart is an extremely conservative talk show host. He has a "Bob Enyart Live Abortion Clock" on his web site. It lists the total number of legal abortions that have been performed since 1973. See:
  4. Carl Sagan, "Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium: Chapter 15" Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store Chapter 15 has been reprinted at:
  5. S. Boyd, "Give us liberty: The approval of RU-486 isn't about morals, it's about options," at:  (This may be a temporary posting)
  6. A.T. Hyman, "The 'A' Word." This is an essay on the legal aspects of the abortion debate. See:
  7. Nellie Gray, president of March for Life, at the 28th annual March for Life, 2001-JAN-22.
  8. "Constitution Party supports statewide abortion ban," Stop Abortion in Ohio, undated, at:
  9. "Sanctity of Life," Platform, Constitution Party at:
  10. Marci McDonald, "The Armageddon Factor," Random House Canada. Released 2010-MAY-11.

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Copyright © 1996 to 2015 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last updated 2015-DEC-04
Author: Bruce A Robinson

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