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Religious Tolerance logo

Ending a pregnancy:

Can taking the RU-486 "abortion pill"
or undergoing a surgical abortion
be an ethical decision?

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People differ greatly in their answer to the above question:

This is because they have very different beliefs about the nature and status of embryos, fetuses, and of pregnancy itself:

To meet the scientific definition of "life," an object must meet a number of requirements. One of them is the abililty to reproduce. Thus, an ovum, formed by a woman, is not considered a form of life because it cannot divide and become two ova. A spermatozoon, formed by a man, is not considered a form of life because one spermatozoon cannot divide and become two spermatozoa.

However, after a spermatozoon enters an ovum and the process of conception is completed, the resultant fertilized ovum -- called a zygote -- is considered a form of life because it sometimes divides and produces two fertilized ova. This is how identical twins begin.

At the end of the pregnancy process, if all goes well, a newborn baby leaves her or his mother's womb, and enters the world. The baby is almost universally considered a human person at this point. The only exception of which I am aware are some aboriginal groups who consider a newborn baby to be a human person only after her or his naming ceremony.

Where people disagree is the point when human life becomes a human person. Most people believe that once this ocurrs, an decision to have an abortion can only be moral in unusual circumstances. The main example is when the woman's life is threatened. The problem is that there is no general agreement about when personhood is attained by the embryo or fetus.

Michael S. Gazzaniga, writing for the New York Times, said:

"... we all seem to be in agreement that there must be a point at which moral status should be conferred on an embryo or fetus. However, we seem to have a harder time defining that point, regardless of the facts. 2

Beliefs vary greatly, and include:

  • When the process of conception is completed.
  • When the zygote attaches to the mother's womb, about six to ten days after conception. Medical science regards this as the start of pregnancy.
  • When a heartbeat can be detected by a vaginal ultrasound or other method. Sometimes this is possible as soon as 5.5 weeks after conception. 1
  • When electrical brain activity first begins, about six weeks after conception. 2,3
  • When the embryo becomes a fetus at about eight weeks after conception, and clearly looks human.
  • When a woman first detects fetal movement at about 13 weeks.
  • When the fetus is able to survive outside the womb with medical support. This is often about 23 weeks.
  • When the fetus responds to external stimuli, also at about 23 weeks.
  • When the fetal brain is capable of breathing and controlling her his body temperature if the fetus were to be born.
  • When the fetus has half emerged from her or his mother's body.
  • When the fetus takes its first breath.
  • When the umbilical cord is cut and the newborn is separated from her or his mother.

Until some form of general concensus is formed, it seems impossible to reach a consensus about when an intentional decision to terminate a pregnancy can be considered ethical.

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Positions taken by a sampling of religious organizations:

  • The Roman Catholic Church opposes all abortions. They teach that:

    "... human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person --among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life." 4

Webmaster's comment: This statement may confuse some people, for two reasons:

    • Conception is a process that takes time. So, there is no "moment" of conception.

    • Pregnancies sometimes do not proceed normally. The occasionally develop in a way that can threaten the life of the woman. Sometimes, the only options are to either perform an abortion and terminate the life of the embryo or fetus, or to not perform an abortion and leave the woman to die. Both the embryo or fetus, the woman are considered by the Church as having the right to life. How does one choose who is to live?

  • Protestants: Pew Forum conducted a public opinion poll among members of nine Evangelical Christian denominations during 2014. They found that 45 to 69% of the membership said that abortions should be "illegal in all or most cases." 28 to 50% said that abortions should be legal in all or most cases. 5

  • The Unitarian Universalist Association is a very liberal religious group. Their web site has an extensive statement titled "Right to Choose," which states that:

    "... the issue of abortion is morally complex, abortion must remain a legal option." 6

  • Among Agnostics, the Pew Religon & Public Life survey found that 87% of those adults sampled believe that abortions should be legal in all or most cases; 11% felt that they should be illegal in all or most cases, and 2% had no opinion. 7

  • Among Atheists, the Pew Religon & Public Life survey found that the response was identical to Atheists. 7

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Pregnancy Lingo What does gestation mean?," Health Line, at:
  2. Michael S. Gazzaniga, First chapter of the book: "The Ethical Brain," The New York Times, 2005-JUN-19, at:
  3. Michael S. Gazzaniga, Book, "The Ethical Brain: The Science of Our Moral Dilemmas" It is available in paperback format.
  4. "Contra abortum," in Latin, at:
  5. Views about abortion among Evangelical Protestants by religious group," Pew Forum, 2014, at:
  6. "Right to Choose: 1987 Resolution," at:
  7. "Religion & Public Life" survey," Pew Research Center, 2020, at:

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Site navigation: Home page > "Hot" topics > Abortion > Facts > RU-486 > here

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Copyright © 2020 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2020-AUG-04
Author: B.A. Robinson

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2015 to now: RU-486 becomes available in Canada:

Health Canada approved RU-486 during 2015-JUL, for use up to seven weeks into a pregnancy. It had been expected to become available in Canada starting in 2016-JAN. 7 However, its release was delayed a year later, until 2017-JAN. Unlike almost all other medications, it was not made available from a pharmacist via a prescription. Instead, it was initially dispensed only by a physician who has first completed an on-line certification course. This allowed the physician to observe his patient actually ingesting the pill.

One of the main advantage to using this medication instead of undergoing a surgical abortion is that women who live in small towns or rural areas would not have to travel for long distances to a clinic that performs abortions. Outside of Quebec, such clinics are typically located only in large cities. However, the requirement that doctors purchase, stock, dispense, collect payment, and reimburse the supplier will probably restrict availability of RU-486 across Canada. Dr. Wendy Norman at the University of British Columbia said:

"This requirement is medically unnecessary and demeaning to Canadian women. ... The single most important reason physicians from across the country are citing for not planning to offer mifepristone is the need for physician dispensing. ... The physicians we have polled -- particularly rural physicians -- have no infrastructure for this." 8

The two-drug combination was sold under the name Mifegymiso. It was originally expected to cost about CAN $270.00. 8 However, starting on 2017-AUG-03, the Province of Ontario adsorbed the cost of the medication so that it was dispensed for free. Indira Naidoo-Harris, Ontario’s Minister of the Status of Women, told a news conference at the Women’s Health in Women’s Hands Community Health Centre in Toronto that eliminating the fee for the drug is:

"... about fairness, it's about safety, and it's the right thing to do." 9

Other provinces followed suit.

During 2017-NOV, Health Canada decided that Mifegymiso could also be dispensed by a pharmacist.

Sandeep Prasad, executive director of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights,, said:

"There is decades worth of evidence from use in over 60 countries proving how safe and effective this medication is, yet Mifegymiso is more regulated than controlled substances in Canada. ... Abortion access shouldn’t depend on your postal code or income bracket. It’s the responsibility of all levels of government to address two-tiered access.”


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