For centuries, abortion, artificial termination of pregnancy, was one of the few ways to prevent the birth of an unwanted child. In the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, researchers made tremendous progress in understanding the physiology of reproduction, and other methods of birth control gradually became available. Abortions are still practiced as a means of birth control, but people also have access to a wide variety of reliable birth control methods, such as condoms, diaphragms, IUDs, birth control pills, and surgical sterilization.
During the last two hundred years a controversy has arisen between proponents of birth control, who emphasize its beneficial effects, and its enemies, who oppose birth control on moral, religious, or political grounds. Birth control advocates argue that it benefits society at large because it limits population growth and therefore helps to ensure against widespread starvation and political unrest. Advocates also argue that birth control benefits families because it gives them the ability to control the number and spacing of offspring, and hence maximize the family’s economic resources and ensure the greatest amount of personal freedom for parents, particularly mothers, by making parenthood a choice. Opponents of birth control contend, however, that it encourages lax standards of sexual behavior, and that these in turn undermine the strength of the family and trigger a general decay in public morality. Conservative Christians and others have opposed the use of abortion—and in some cases other means of birth control—on religious grounds as an unjustifiable deprivation of an unborn infant’s God-given right to life.