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Religious Tolerance logo

When, if ever, does an abortion
become the right alternative?

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There is no consensus about when abortion is appropriate:

Many visitors to our web site ask whether abortion is right or wrong. More precisely, they might ask under what conditions is the termination of pregnancy morally acceptable?

The question cannot be answered. Various points of view are argued by different individuals and groups. This essay studies their positions and their reasons for holding their beliefs.

The media often refer to two opposing abortion groups: pro-life and pro-choice. Actually, reality is much more complex than this simple either-or binary system.

bullet There are a few individuals, sometimes referred to by the term "anti-abortion," who are so opposed to abortions that they occasionally bomb or set fire to clinics and/or murder abortion providers.
bullet The pro-life and pro-choice movements are not homogenous. There is a range of beliefs held by members of both groups.

Pro-lifers hold various beliefs:

bullet Some believe that abortions are never acceptable. It is better to let the woman and fetus die rather than save the woman's life by terminating the pregnancy. There was a bill before the Georgia legislature in 2002 to codify this point of view in law. It would criminalize all instances of "the intentional termination of human pregnancy with an intention other than to produce a live birth or to remove a dead fetus." 1 Once a woman becomes pregnant, she would be forced to continue the pregnancy, unless she first initiates a lawsuit, wins a court battle, and thereby obtains the court's permission to seek an abortion. If this bill passes the Georgia legislature (a slight possibility) and is signed into law by the Governor (a very small possibility) and survives a constitutional challenge (a miniscule possibility) then the maternal death rate in Georgia would soar. Of course, the embryo and fetal death rate would drop.
bullet Others believe that abortion is acceptable under some unusual conditions, perhaps when the pregnancy happened as a result of rape or incest.
bullet Others say it is acceptable in cases where an abortion is needed in order to prevent the woman from being seriously and/or permanently disabled.
bullet Others say it is acceptable in a broader range of cases in which a continued pregnancy would very seriously affect the woman's health.

Pro-choicers hold a different range of beliefs about the morality of abortion:

bullet Some say that only very early abortions are morally acceptable.
bullet Some say that only abortions during the first trimester are OK.
bullet Some say that an abortion before the fetus becomes viable is OK.
bullet Some say that a woman should be able to choose an abortion up to the time that the fetus is born.
bullet One radical world-class ethicist, Peter Singer, has received a great deal of attention by recommending infanticide of some disabled newborns. He suggested that: "...some infants with severe disabilities should be killed" if the parents so choose. His reasoning is that they have diminished likelihood of enjoying an adequate "quality of life."

There is no single right or wrong. Many different sets of beliefs exist among individuals and groups.

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What we agree on:

Most pro-lifers and pro-choicers agree:

bullet That an ovum, spermatozoa, a hair follicle, skin cell, etc. are all forms of human life because:
bullet They are all alive, and
bullet They all contain human DNA.
bullet An ovum and spermatozoa are not a human person.
bullet A newborn baby is a human person, and is deserving of protection.
bullet Somewhere between the ovum and spermatozoa stage and the newborn baby, a new human person comes into existence.
bullet Once a new human person exists, then its life must be protected.

Where people differ is:

bullet At what point in the process does a human person come into existence? i.e. at what point does human life become a human person?

Most pro-lifers believe that this happens at conception or shortly later, when a unique DNA is created.

Most pro-choicers believe that this happens later in pregnancy. They have different criteria. Some are:

bullet When the fetus loses it gill slits and tail and begins to look like a mammal.
bullet When the fetus begins to look human.
bullet When the fetus can survive outside of the mothers' womb.
bullet At birth.

More information about when human personhood begins.

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Is compromise possible?

There is a wide diversity of beliefs on when, if ever, an abortion is a moral choice. No consensus exists now; none appears to be possible in the future.

However, in some Western countries, people have simply agreed to disagree, and to let the woman -- in consultation with her physician and perhaps her family, friends and spiritual advisor -- make an informed decision about whether she chooses to have an early abortion. Canada is one example. The country currently has no law regulating abortion. The Supreme Court of Canada found an existing law unconstitutional. The House of Parliament was unable to agree on a replacement law. Only the regulations of provincial medical associations control how late in pregnancy an abortion can be performed. This is typically limited to 20 or 21 weeks into gestation. Abortion protests have become almost non-existent. The occasional pro-life vigil is covered in the media. In recent instances of violence -- arson and bombing of abortion clinics and the attempted murder of an abortion provider -- radical anti-abortion terrorists were believed to have entered Canada from the U.S.

The U.S. is an exception among western countries. Pro-life protests are common. Threats, blockades and other conflicts at abortion clinics are almost routine. There are a number of reasons for this high level of opposition to abortion:

bullet The unwanted pregnancy rate in the U.S. is among the highest of all industrialized countries. This causes the abortion rate to be much higher than it would otherwise be.
bullet The interval between puberty and marriage is lengthening and is currently on the order of 15 years. This increases the number of pre-marital pregnancies which are more likely to result in abortion.
bullet There is a relatively large percentage of conservative Christians (Fundamentalists, other Evangelical Protestants, and Roman Catholics) in the country, relative to Canada and some countries in Europe.
bullet There is a relatively low percentage of religious liberals, secularists, and persons of no religion.

Trends in religious belief do not suggest a peaceful resolution on abortion:

bullet The percentage of American adults who identify themselves as Christians U.S. is dropping almost one percentage point a year. However, there is a notable shift towards conservatism among the Christians who remain active. The latter tend to be pro-life.
bullet American adults who identify themselves as secularists, Atheists, Agnostics, Humanists, and of no religious affiliation is increasing yearly. They tend to have a pro-choice philosophy on abortion.

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  1. Peter Staudenmaier, "Peter Singer and Eugenics," at:
  2. Peter Singer, "Practical Ethics," Cambridge University Press, (2nd Ed., 1993). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store

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Home page > "Hot" topics > Abortion > Religious aspects > here

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Copyright © 2003 and 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2003-MAR-11
Latest update: 2004-MAR-14
Author: B.A. Robinson

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