The Ethics of Abortion

The ethics of abortion have been debated for as long as abortions have been possible. It is hard to imagine a more emotive subject than the life of an unborn child and whether it is sometimes right to destroy that life, if that is what it can be considered as.

When is a Baby a Person?

A key part of the debate on abortion is when a foetus is considered a human being. Fundamentalist views would say that this is at the moment of conception; when the sperm fertilises the egg and the egg has successfully implanted itself into the uterine wall, it is then a human.

It is hard to escape from this logic. Some have argued that it is when the central nervous system has developed enough to feel pain, others have said it is when the heart starts to beat, others still have argued that until the child is born, it cannot be considered a human. These are all views based on what defines a human that is capable of experience. Another view is that regardless of the capability, as soon as those cells have started to form a human, that is a human life and should be protected.

By viewing the foetus as a human being from the point of conception, that human then has all the protections of any other human, making abortion murder. Some countries have this view, others use a more practical approach.

The point of viability is the most common approach. This is the point where the baby could survive if it was to be born. Advances in paediatric medicine have brought this age gradually lower. At some point in the not too distant future, a foetus will be viable from almost the point of conception, which will take the debate into new territory.

Is Abortion Inevitable?

Some countries that have more religiously influenced constitutions ban abortion in all but a few cases. This does not appear to have much of an effect on the number of people seeking abortions. Many leave the country to do so, even at the risk of imprisonment. One thing that does change when abortion is prohibited is the number of women who die in botched abortions.

A modern view of abortion is that it is distasteful, regrettable, worth preventing, but inevitable. By making abortion services available to women who need them, they stop those women obtaining back-alley abortions that are a significant risk to their life. Rates of death from complications of abortion are far lower where it is legal than where it is not.

The Rights of the Mother

The debate of abortion has to include the rights of the mother. Some pregnancies are dangerous. Most countries make abortion legal if the health or life of the mother is in danger. When an unborn child has died in the womb, or cannot survive until birth, most countries allow abortions.


Abnormalities are a difficult ethical choice for a mother to make. In many countries, it is legal to abort a foetus that has Down’s syndrome, even though many people with the condition have relatively happy lives. Physical abnormalities are often a cause for abortion, in many cases where it is only a superficial and survivable abnormality. The choice is left to the mother in many cases, and where abortion services are available, a lot of support is available for pregnant women who are making this choice.

Many women are told that if they can have another baby, they could abort this foetus and try again. Disability campaigners are fighting against this view, citing the equal rights of a disabled person.


Cases of rape are more emotive, with many taking the view that it is not that unborn child’s fault. On the other hand, giving birth to a child who has been conceived from rape can be extraordinarily traumatic for the mother. Rape is usually given as a valid reason for aborting a foetus in most countries, even if the child would be viable.

A Terrible Life?

One of the primary reasons women have abortions is that they are unable to care for a child properly. This might be because they are focusing on their careers, have mental health issues, or lack the requisite skills and capabilities for child rearing. The conclusion many women come to is that a child born into poverty with parents who cannot care for it adequately is better off not being born. Maybe they can try later, when their conditions have improved. This is one of the most contentious views and many countries do not allow abortion on these grounds, citing adequate care in the care system, adoption, and changing circumstances.

A Woman’s Right

When it comes down to it, most people agree it should be the mother’s choice. Contrary to what many anti-abortion campaigners would have you believe, the vast majority of women take this responsibility very seriously. Having an abortion is very traumatic, and with help from doctors and medical staff, a woman can be helped to make the right choice.