Much of the debate over abortion focuses on the issue of rights—specifically, whether a woman’s right to an abortion outweighs a fetus’s right to life. The two factions involved in this controversy are poles apart in their views on abortion: whereas the pro-choice movement contends that a woman’s right to abortion is absolute, the pro-life movement asserts that a fetus’s right to life is indisputable. Both sides rely on legal, scientific, and human rights arguments to support their arguments.
Behind this debate is the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion. Roe was based in part on the Fourteenth Amendment’s right to privacy, which the Court ruled was “broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.” According to the ruling, a woman’s right to abortion outweighed the rights of a nonviable fetus and prohibited state interference. Even after viability, however, when the fetus could survive outside of the womb, the Court ruled that states must allow abortions that could save women’s lives. In 1992 the Supreme Court reaffirmed Roe in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, maintaining a woman’s fundamental right to abortion.
Abortion rights advocates have praised Roe and Casey for recognizing that a woman’s right to control her body takes precedence over a fetus’s right to life. These advocates stress that a woman’s decision to control her reproduction is a private issue that does not concern the government. As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) points out, “Enforcement of the idea that the fetus has legal rights superseding those of the woman who carries it would make pregnant women second-class citizens with fewer rights, and more obligations, than others.” Just as it would be unthinkable to force someone to use their body to donate organs to preserve the life of a living person, the ACLU and other prochoice organizations stress that it would be absurd to allow a fetus to use a woman’s body as a life-support system without her consent.
Other members of the pro-choice movement emphasize that a woman’s rights supercede those of a fetus, because the fetus is not yet a human being and therefore does not have the same rights as a woman. During pregnancy, they maintain, a fertilized ovum grows and develops, and eventually a separate, autonomous human being is born. Prior to birth, though, the fetus lacks the qualities of personhood—namely, sentience, social experience, and independent ex- istence. The Revolutionary Worker, a publication of the Revolutionary Communist Party, explains: “[The fetus] is a developing mass of tissue integrally connected to the woman’s vital biological processes. It is part of the woman with no separate social rights. For that it must have entered society as a separate entity. That is, it must have been born.”
Feminists, along with abortion rights supporters, insist that a woman’s right to privacy and bodily control must prevail over a fetus’s right to life if women are to gain social and economic equality with men. In writing the plurality opinion in Casey, justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony Kennedy, and David Souter support this belief: “The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated in their ability to control their reproductive lives.” Feminists argue that an unwanted pregnancy can often greatly hinder a woman’s ability to finish school, remain working, or support herself financially. They stress that education and job rights are strongly protected by the Constitution, and in order to take advantage of these opportunities, women must be able to control their reproduction.
Members of the pro-life movement refute these arguments, however, arguing that Roe and Casey blatantly ignore the fetus’s basic human rights. Critics of these rulings assert that the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits a state from depriving “any person of life, liberty, or property,” does not give a woman the right to abort her fetus. Instead, they contend that the amendment protects all life and does not distinguish between living and unborn persons. According to the American Life League, “In addressing the argument that the preborn child is a ‘person’ deserving of protection under the Fourteenth Amendment’s due-process clause . . . , the Court simply glosses over the scientific evidence of the preborn baby’s humanity.”
Abortion foes also argue that a woman’s control over her body is not an absolute right. While a woman has power over her body and can choose how she would like to use it, laws can restrict her control when it infringes on the rights of others. As Frederica Mathewes-Green, an author, columnist for Christianity Today, and commentator for National Public Radio, states, “It is because I still believe so strongly in the right of a woman to protect her body that I now oppose abortion. That right must begin when her body begins, and it must be hers no matter where she lives—even if she lives in her mother’s womb.” Mathewes- Green believes that the right to control one’s body can never eclipse the basic human rights of the fetus.
Most importantly, members of the pro-life movement contend that a fetus is indeed a separate, living human being whose rights begin in the womb and extend after birth. Supporters of a fetus’s right to life point out that, although the fetus may lack the qualities that society associates with personhood, it is still a human life. Humanist and ethicist Diana Brown rejects the pro-choice claim that a fetus “is merely part of the mother’s body and is entirely hers to dispose of. . . . Since the fetus is, however, genetically distinct from the mother, the lat- ter position is hard to sustain.” Others, like Brown, view life as a continuous process that begins at conception and continues until natural death.
Despite the longtime debate between members of the pro-choice and pro-life movements, the controversy over rights remains unresolved. Many abortion adversaries refuse to acknowledge the merits of their opponents’ views, possibly fearing that any compromise might weaken their own position. Fervent prochoicers reject all efforts to overturn Roe or restrict a woman’s access to abortion. Likewise, impassioned pro-lifers object to abortion restrictions that protect some but not all fetuses. Whether a woman has an irrefutable right to abortion or whether a fetus has an unequivocal right to life are just two of the issues examined in Abortion: Current Controversies. While addressing the wide-ranging legal and moral aspects of the abortion controversy, this anthology also explores issues pertaining to abortion rights and accessibility, revolutionary abortifacients such as RU-486, contentious abortion procedures and research, and the escalating violence surrounding antiabortion protests.