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Religious Tolerance logo

Abortion access

Will a consensus ever be
reached over abortion access?

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Graph showing number of abortions vs. gestational age 1

Number of all U.S. abortions for various gestational ages.

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Conflicts concerning personal access and freedom:

At any given time in the U.S. there seem to be at least two very active religiously-motivated conflicts. This is also seen in some other countries.

Back in early 2016, there were two such battles. Both involved personal access and equality. They were:

  1. Marriage equality: Whether loving, committed same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.
  2. Abortion access: Under what conditions, if any, should a state or federal government veto a woman's personal decision to have an abortion. Disagreement continues today with little or no evidence of resolution.

    The morality of abortion access is often linked to a person's beliefs of when "human life" and "human personhood" begin.

    Most people appear to believe that abortions performed after human personhood is attained should be either strictly regulated or forbidden entirely.

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When does human life begin?

One commonly used scientific definition of "life" requires that an organism must:

  • maintain homeostasis -- have the ability to maintain an internal balance in spite of changes in its external environment,
  • be composed of cells,
  • undergo metabolism -- internal processes that maintain life,
  • be able to grow,
  • adapt to their environment,
  • respond to stimuli, and
  • reproduce. 2

Other scientific definitions are simpler; they combine two or more of the above 7 criteria into one criterion.

According to this definition:

  • A human ovum is not considered a form of life because it cannot reproduce itself by dividing and producing two ova.

  • A spermatozoon is not considered a form of human life because it cannot reproduce itself by dividing and producing two spermatozoa.

  • But at conception, when an ovum and spermatozoon merge and produce a human zygote -- a just-fertilized egg -- it meets all of these criteria and is generally considered a form of life. During about 1% of pregnancies, a single zygote will split into two zygotes. 3 This is the way in which monozygotic (identical) twins are produced.

  • Since a zygote contains human DNA, it is recognized as a form of human life by the scientific, pro-life, and most of the pro-choice communities. Similarly, they consider human embroyos, fetuses and newborns to be human life.

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When does human personhood begin?

Unfortunately, there is no consensus on when human life becomes a human person:

  • Most pro-lifers believe that it happens at conception. That is, when the process of conception is complete, and a zygote is formed, it is considered both a form of human life and a human person. In pro-life literature, it is often referred to as a baby from conception, through pregnancy, childbirth, and beyond.

  • Pro-choicers generally have different beliefs about when full personhood is first attained. Examples are:
    • When the embryo's heart beat can be detected.
    • When an embryo loses its gill slits and tail, and begins to resemble a human.
    • About 23 weeks gestation, when the fetus may be viable -- capable of surviving outside her or his mother's body. At the current level of medical expertise, 20 to 35% of fetuses born at this age will survive. But if artificial wombs become generally available, all bets are off.
    • About 24 weeks gestation, when the fetus' higher brain functions first turn on and the fetus becomes sentient -- able to sense its environment.
    • When the fetus is half-emerged from her or his mother's body. This is the traditional Jewish belief.
    • When the fetus is separated from his or her mother, linked to her only by the umbilical cord.
    • When the umbilical cord is cut and the newborn is an independent human person.

  • Some aboriginal groups believe that a newborn only becomes a human person after birth, during a special ritual when the newborn is given a name.

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Positive factors in the battle over abortion access:

One near concensus does exist among pro-lifers and pro-choicers: when a person believes that a zygote, pre-embryo, embryo, or fetus has attained personhood, they generally feel that abortions becomes unethical unless the mother's life is in danger, or health is seriously threatened. That concensus offers hope, because if more people agree on when human personhood begins, then a compromise over abortion may become possible.

Battles over abortion are typically caused when a woman -- after consultation with friends, family, her physician, perhaps her spiritual advisor, etc. decides that to have an abortion is the least worse option for her, but either:

  • the government has vetoed her decision by making an abortion unavailable, or
  • pro-life demonstrations at women's clinic make abortion access difficult or impossible.

There is one positive aspect to the abortion conflict. Both pro-life advocates and pro-choice advocates agree that they would like to see the abortion rate reduced. There are two main ways to do this:

  • By making abortions unavailable. Pro-life groups have concentrated essentially all of their effort in this area. Pro-choice groups have concentrated essentially all of their effort to keeping abortions available, and safe.

  • By noting that the vast majority of abortions are not caused by medical necessity; they are caused by unwanted, unplanned and unexpected pregnancies. In excess of 40% of such pregnancies end in intentional abortions. A study in Toledo has shown that if women are supplied with free contraceptives, their abortion rate is drastically reduced. The Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate once allowed almost all employed women to obtain free contraceptives through their health insurance. This would go a long way to reducing the abortion rate to a small percentage of its current rate. Unfortunately, many employers have resisted this mandate. An even greater reduction in abortion rate could be achieved by making free contraception available to all unemployed women of childbearing age. Unfortunately, on 2017-OCT-06, the Trump Administration went in the opposite direction. They widened the grounds under which employers could use their religious beliefs to deny free contraceptives to their female employees via their health plans. 4

Robert Pear, et al., writing for the New York Times, said:

    "More than 55 million women have [sic] access to birth control without co-payments because of the contraceptive coverage mandate, according to a study commissioned by the Obama administration. Under the new regulations, hundreds of thousands of women could lose those benefits."

We can probably expect an increase in the number of abortions during future years.

The logical groups to press for such a change are the pro-life and pro-choice organizations. Unfortunately, that would require them to cooperate and dialogue with each other. Little of either appears to be happening.

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References used:

The following information source was used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlink is not necessarily still active today.

  1. Image by Omegatron/ CC by-SA 3.0, created 2009 and downloaded from at:
  2. "Life," Wikipedia, as on 2017-NOV-13, at:
  3. "Oh Baby! The Science of Identical Triplets and Quadruplets," Live Science, 2015-OCT-15, at:
  4. Robert Pear, et al., "Trump Administration Rolls Back Birth Control Mandate," The New York Times, 2017-OCT-06, at:

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Site navigation:

Home > "Hot" topics > Abortion > Basic facts > Human personhood > here

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Copyright © 2017 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally published: 2017-NOV-16
Author: B.A. Robinson

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