Friday, August 1, 2014
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The Real Abortion Tragedy

MELBOURNE – In the Dominican Republic last month, a pregnant teenager suffering from leukemia had her chemotherapy delayed, because doctors feared that the treatment could terminate her pregnancy and therefore violate the nation’s strict anti-abortion law. After consultations between doctors, lawyers, and the girl’s family, chemotherapy eventually was begun, but not before attention had again been focused on the rigidity of many developing countries’ abortion laws.

Abortion receives extensive media coverage in developed countries, especially in the United States, where Republicans have used opposition to it to rally voters. Recently, President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign counter-attacked, releasing a television advertisement in which a woman says that it is “a scary time to be a woman,” because Mitt Romney has said that he supports outlawing abortion.

But much less attention is given to the 86% of all abortions that occur in the developing world. Although a majority of countries in Africa and Latin America have laws prohibiting abortion in most circumstances, official bans do not prevent high abortion rates.

In Africa, there are 29 abortions per 1,000 women, and 32 per 1,000 in Latin America. The comparable figure for Western Europe, where abortion is generally permitted in most circumstances, is 12. According to a recent report by the World Health Organization, unsafe abortions lead to the death of 47,000 women every year, with almost all of these deaths occurring in developing countries. A further five million women are injured each year, sometimes permanently.

Almost all of these deaths and injuries could be prevented, the WHO says, by meeting the need for sex education and information about family planning and contraception, and by providing safe, legal induced abortion, as well as follow-up care to prevent or treat medical complications. An estimated 220 million women in the developing world say that they want to prevent pregnancy, but lack either knowledge of, or access to, effective contraception.

That is a huge tragedy for individuals and for the future of our already very heavily populated planet. Last month, the London Summit on Family Planning, hosted by the British government’s Department for International Development and the Gates Foundation, announced commitments to reach 120 million of these women by 2020.

The Vatican newspaper responded by criticizing Melinda Gates, whose efforts in organizing and partly funding this initiative will, it is estimated, lead to nearly three million fewer babies dying in their first year of life, and to 50 million fewer abortions. One would have thought that Roman Catholics would see these outcomes as desirable. (Gates is herself a practicing Catholic who has seen what happens when women cannot feed their children, or are maimed by unsafe abortions.)

Restricting access to legal abortion leads many poor women to seek abortion from unsafe providers. The legalization of abortion on request in South Africa in 1998 saw abortion-related deaths drop by 91%. And the development of the drugs misoprostol and mifepristone, which can be provided by pharmacists, makes relatively safe and inexpensive abortion possible in developing countries.

Opponents will respond that abortion is, by its very nature, unsafe – for the fetus. They point out that abortion kills a unique, living human individual. That claim is difficult to deny, at least if by “human” we mean “member of the species Homo sapiens.

It is also true that we cannot simply invoke a woman’s “right to choose” in order to avoid the ethical issue of the moral status of the fetus. If the fetus really did have the moral status of any other human being, it would be difficult to argue that a pregnant woman’s right to choose includes the right to bring about the death of the fetus, except perhaps when the woman’s life is at stake.

The fallacy in the anti-abortion argument lies in the shift from the scientifically accurate claim that the fetus is a living individual of the species Homo sapiens to the ethical claim that the fetus therefore has the same right to life as any other human being. Membership of the species Homo sapiens is not enough to confer a right to life on a being. Nor can something like self-awareness or rationality warrant greater protection for the fetus than for, say, a cow, because the fetus has mental capacities that are inferior to those of cows. Yet “pro-life” groups that picket abortion clinics are rarely seen picketing slaughterhouses.

We can plausibly argue that we ought not to kill, against their will, self-aware beings who want to continue to live. We can see this as a violation of their autonomy, or a thwarting of their preferences. But why should a being’s potential to become rationally self-aware make it wrong to end its life before it actually has the capacity for rationality or self-awareness?

We have no obligation to allow every being with the potential to become a rational being to realize that potential. If it comes to a clash between the supposed interests of potentially rational but not yet even conscious beings and the vital interests of actually rational women, we should give preference to the women every time.

Read more from the "An Ethical Mind" Focal Point.

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  1. CommentedMatthew Cowan

    The whole situation is unfortunate. I was pro-life before my first son was born and after he was born, it solidified my position on the issue indefinitely. When I think of how much I love my little one, it makes me sad that anyone would want to kill an unborn fetus.

    Statistics are often used to mask the deeply personal and emotional aspects of the decision to abort a fetus. Perhaps all the energy and focus on giving women the right to choose to abort would be better focused on making women aware of other rights/possibilities, like the possibility of adoption.

    I think the time, energy, and money would be better spent on other initiatives. We can create options for these mothers by supporting adoption and funding orphanages with the ability to support these children.

    We can also work with local resources to educate sexually active young persons in developing nations about contraception.

    These ideas sound difficult to implement, but so is an initiative to give women access to abortion in nations whose laws prohibit the practice. I believe we should not permit abortions except in cases when the mother's life is in danger or other extenuating circumstances. We have the ability to deliver these other options, why not try them first to see how successful they could be.

      CommentedBarbara Johnson Adkins

      Your solution to the problem is not taking into account the fact that either a full term pregnancy or an abortion affects the health and well-being of a woman. A woman is not a statistic. Given different situations, a woman may decide to carry a pregnancy to term at one time, but may abort under different circumstances. In developing nations, the thinking we have in our culture doesn't necesarily make sense to the people who live there. It isn't always a matter of educating others to your superior ways.

  2. CommentedDarlene Johnson

    You put animals above humans. Aren't you glad your mother did not do that? "Silent Scream" proves that unborn babies think and feel pain.

      CommentedMichael Crean

      Odd question Darlene, Do you think he would be upset now if his mother had not given birth to him?

      CommentedJohn Swain

      It does no such thing. Silent scream does not prove that a fetus feels pain any more than the documentary ZERO proves 9/11 was a hoax.

  3. CommentedSteve Barney

    London Summit on Family Planning
    http://www.londonfamilyplanningsummit.co.uk

    The Vatican doesn't consider the consequences, does it? You know, 'My will be done, though the heavens fall' (and you go to hell), or something like that.

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