Abortion Laws in the ‘Western World’

The question of abortion rights occupies a high-profile space in the realm of ethical debate. The moral concerns around abortion laws continue to appear in the press, never leaving the scrutiny of the public eye for very long. But it can be very difficult to navigate conversations around abortion and to decide on a personal stance. Understanding some of the various attitudes to abortion might help to shed light on why it continues to be so controversial.

Attitudes to abortion tend to be divided into “pro-life” and “pro-choice” categories. People who identify as pro-life protest against abortion as the deliberate killing of an innocent and defenceless human, often citing the Sixth Commandment: “Thou shalt not kill”. They view the foetus as a separate life from the woman’s body, emphasising that the unborn child’s rights should not be subordinate to the mother’s. Pro-life campaigners emphasise that there are limits to what people can do with their bodies. They might point out that just as murdering an adult is criminal, so should terminating a pregnancy be illegal.

Believers in pro-choice insist women have a fundamental, moral right to bodily autonomy, and that pregnant women should be regarded first as individuals over carriers of a foetus. Pro-choice campaigners advocate the importance of an established set of pregnancy rights which enable women to decide whether to continue with their pregnancy. Pro-choice believers assert that abortions should be an accessible medical procedure, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they have a flippant attitude to terminations.

Pro-life and pro-choice are broad terms which shouldn’t be identified simply as religious and secular or scientific positions respectively; Pro-choice supporters might indeed have religious faiths and, vice versa, pro-life beliefs can be secular.

With this in mind, it may not come as a surprise to learn how widely abortion laws differ across the “Western world”, even within the UK. In Northern Ireland, Sarah Ewart recently launched a personal High Court Challenge in an effort to extend abortion laws there, and this case highlighted how much stricter Northern Irish legislation is than England’s. Currently in Northern Ireland, pregnancy terminations are only permitted if the mother’s health or life is at serious risk. Neither the possibility that the pregnancy resulted from rape, nor concerns about the health of the foetus, such as a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality (FFA), have a place in the law. Ewart’s baby was diagnosed with FFA and instead of carrying on with her pregnancy until miscarriage, she travelled to England for a termination.

Further from home, last month New York State signed into law the Reproductive Health Act (RHA), which has been met with a combination of celebration and fiery controversy. This new rights bill removed abortion from the state’s criminal code. However, this raises concerns that abortions resulting from assault will no longer be judged as criminal acts. Most contentiously, it now enables an abortion to take place in cases of pregnancy beyond 24 weeks, where it is clear that there is an absence of viable life in the foetus, or where the mother’s health or life are at serious risk. At 24 weeks, a foetus is considered to have a viable chance of survival if born prematurely, which has provoked pro-life campaigners to denounce the bill as brutally aggressive and too far-reaching. It’s worth noting that in England currently, there are campaigns to extend the 24-week limit in cases where neither the woman nor foetus’s health are at risk. Watch this space because it will be interesting to see whether other East Coast states will be prompted to amend their legislation, or perhaps if more conservative states tighten their laws in retaliation.

Abortion rights raise some extremely complex questions. Should a religious, pro-life bias be ingrained in the law? Should women’s views on the issue carry more weight than men’s? At how many weeks should the possibility of a termination be restricted? When and how do we judge that a foetus gains personhood status? Is it unethical to even use the dehumanising term, “foetus”?

A country or state ruled entirely by religiously biased laws is now widely considered to be incompatible with “western” views. At the other extreme, however, an anarchic society which enables people to act entirely as they please certainly has its dangers. As far as I can see, the range of conflicting beliefs around abortion rights cannot be reconciled within laws in a way which satisfies all parties. I am unconvinced that a solid compromise can ever be reached, and therefore think we can expect to see laws on the issue continue to be debated and amended well into the future.

– Naomi Hart 


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