Pro-choice Over Pro-life
The 1973 US Supreme Court decision in Roe v Wade marked a turning point in American jurisprudence with respect to women’s reproductive health rights. It established a legal safeguard against the state unnecessarily interfering with a woman’s right to decide her reproductive health outcomes within the broader context of her life goals. This pivotal ruling would also fundamentally alter the country’s political landscape in regard to the issue of abortion. Two diametrically opposed camps would emerge, with one supporting a woman’s right to choose while the other demanding legal protection for the life of the unborn baby. These camps became known as pro-choice and pro-life respectively. The ideological clash between them would result in intense activism from the grassroots to the federal level, with each side of the divide seeking to dominate the policy agenda. By asserting a woman’s autonomy with respect to her reproductive health, the pro-choice position goes a long way in enhancing the quality of life for women specifically and society in general
The Pro-Choice Argument
Every human being has autonomy over their body and the decisions pertaining to it. In a sense, control over one’s body is possibly the highest expression of personal liberty. Consequently, the state cannot purport to interfere with this right unless one is either found to be of unsound mind, or seeks to deliberately harm themselves without justifiable cause. By this logic, women have the right to decide what happens to their bodies. They are best placed to decide whether or not carrying a pregnancy to full term is the best decision for them. Neither the state nor society can purport to carry the burden associated with this decision. It is only logical, therefore, that women be allowed the space to decide whether to procure an abortion or continue with the pregnancy, based on their personal assessments of their means, health status, and other relevant considerations. This sense of autonomy is the essence of Roe v Wade.
The issue of personhood is a focal point of the abortion debate. At what point can an unborn child be considered a person? There are different bases that are used to evaluate personhood over the course of a woman’s pregnancy. Some of these bases are religious while others are scientific. For some who espouse the religious approach, personhood begins at conception, wherein the product of the fusion of the sperm and the egg gains all the protections of a living human being. Others may argue that personhood is attained at the point of birth. It is worth noting, however that all these bases of evaluating personhood are subjective. A more reliable basis of evaluation would be a scientific one, which can be analyzed objectively. One such scientific basis is the development of the hippocampus region of the brain. This region, which is associated with personality and memories regulation, develops at the 13th week of pregnancy (Irmak 207). Since memories and personality constitute the core component of personhood, it can thus be argued on the basis of science that abortion prior to this point does not violate the right to life of any human being.
The capacity to bear human life from conception to birth is an amazing work of nature. This is why pregnancies are oftentimes occasions for celebration. The joy of successfully bringing a healthy baby into the world is incomparable. Be that as it may, there are instances when a pregnancy may present an ‘unwanted burden.’ While pro-life proponents may simply conceive of an unwanted pregnancy as a woman choosing not to bear the pregnancy to birth, there are numerous cases where this element of choice is completely absent. Such instances involve sexual assault or coerced sexual encounters.
Sexual violence by itself occasions significant trauma to the victim. Pregnancy arising from such incidences only serves to compound the trauma, thereby adversely impacting the victim’s mental health even further. Research shows that pregnancy arising from sexual violence greatly exposes women to “complex psychosocial outcomes” which negatively affect their quality of life (Scott, Mullen and Rouhani 64). The availability of the choice to terminate such pregnancies, therefore, offers victims of sexual violence a sense of reprieve as they battle the physical and psychological aftermath of rape.
Life Goals Attainment
Both men and women have a set of life goals they look to achieve. Consequently, they invest time and effort in the pursuit of these goals with the aim of attaining self-development and overall fulfillment in life. It is worth noting that having such goals and deliberately pursuing them constitutes a vital part of a healthy and balanced life. Unlike men, women can have the quality of their life fundamentally changed by a pregnancy. In the event of a desired or planned for pregnancy, the woman can usually pause the pursuit of her life goals and resume it later on after the child is born, especially considering that she has the necessary socio-economic and emotional support structure in place.
On the contrary, an unwanted pregnancy presents unique challenges that may occasion substantial obstacles to the pursuit of life goals. For instance, a woman raising a child without the support of the child’s father or her family can face numerous socio-economic and emotional hurdles that can adversely impact her quality of life. In one research study conducted among 757 women seeking services across 30 abortion clinics in the US, it was discovered that women who were forced to raise their babies by being denied abortion services were the least likely to achieve aspirational life goals (Upadhyay, Biggs and Foster 102). The implication of this finding is that an unwanted pregnancy may have significant negative consequences for both mother and child in regard to quality of life. Having a choice to either continue with the pregnancy or terminate it is, therefore, crucial to the general wellbeing of women.
Flaws of the Pro-Life Position
The Value of Human Life
A central element of the pro-life position is that abortion denigrates the sanctity of human life by essentially legitimizing murder. Pro-life activists often argue that life attains value at the point of conception, implying that the embryo and the fetus should have the same legal protections as a living human being. While their intention in making this claim may seem noble, their hypocrisy becomes clear once the child is born. It appears pro-life proponents are more concerned with the rights of the fetus than those of the born child. This criticism is founded on empirical evidence. For instance, research conducted across multiple states in the US indicates that those jurisdictions with the most restrictive anti-abortion laws also perform the poorest in regard to “indicators of infant/child well-being” (Medoff 158). It seems ironic that those who claim to be the defenders of the value of human life somehow invest so little in safeguarding the health and safety of their children.
The sanctity of life argument against abortion put forth by pro-life proponents also falls apart when one considers their willful neglect of the health of the mother. Case study after case study has shown that outlawing abortion or making it harder to gain health services relating to abortion, often results in unnecessary loss of life as women who seek these services are exposed to numerous health hazards. For example, research shows that approximately 14.5% of all maternal deaths globally are attributable to unsafe abortions, with the vast majority of these deaths being witnessed in countries that have strict anti-abortion laws (Faúndes and Shah 56). These deaths can be avoided by legalizing abortion; a move that would improve access to high quality of care.
Attitudinal Drivers of Pro-Life Activism
Oftentimes, pro-life activism is driven by highly subjective factors that cannot stand the test of empirical scrutiny. Some of these factors reflect the attitudes held by men and women in the pro-life camp with regard to gender roles and religious belief. One study found that women who endorsed a patriarchal family structure and a literalist interpretation of the bible were predisposed to being pro-life; same as men who embraced authoritarianism, possessed less education, and were highly religious (Swank and Fahs 277). These individuals are typically hyper-conservative, which implies that their position on an issue such as abortion is likely to be primarily influenced by political and religious dogma than a careful consideration of the available empirical evidence. Given the centrality of empirical data in policy making and implementation, it is clear that pro-life activism that is founded on purely ideological and dogmatic premises is ill-suited to inform reproductive health policy.
Violation of Medical Ethics
A common argument advanced by pro-life proponents is that medical practitioners who offer abortion services essentially violate medical ethics. This argument is based largely on the obligations placed on doctors by the Hippocratic Oath. A central obligation of the oath is the promise to do no harm in the course of executing one’s duties as a medical practitioner. Pro-life proponents’ reason that conducting abortion amounts to harming the patient, thereby violating this most integral component of the Hippocratic Oath and medical ethics in general.
However, this argument suffers a major deficit in the sense that it fails to consider the totality of the health of the patient. The woman’s health in this instance entails both her physical and psychological health. If the continuation of the pregnancy is determined to be detrimental to her mental health, as is commonly the case in sexual assault incidents, the doctor does not violate medical ethics if he facilitates the abortion procedure as long as the patient makes this choice willingly after being offered all the relevant information. It is also worth noting that while the doctor is mandated to safeguard the health of both mother and fetus, the health of the mother is of primary concern as the fetus is fully dependent on her. Therefore, the argument that facilitating an abortion automatically violates medical ethics-as pro-life proponents assert-is without merit.
Abortion is undoubtedly a highly emotive and divisive issue within America’s political landscape. The 1973 Roe v Wade decision effectively split the country into pro-life and pro-choice camps, with each seeking to influence policy making regarding women’s reproductive health at the state and federal levels. This tug of war continues to play out within legislative and judicial contexts to date. The merits of the pro-choice position have been examined herein. Shortcomings of the pro-life position have also been highlighted. Conclusively, it is evident that the pro-choice position is better-suited to supporting women’s reproductive health by creating a space in which women are empowered to pursue outcomes that enhance the quality of their lives. The abundance of empirical evidence that exists in support of this position simply underscores its validity as a foundational basis for policy formulation.
- Faúndes, Anibal and Iqbal H Shah. ‘Evidence supporting broader access to safe legal abortion.’ Gynecology & Obstetrics vol. 131, no. 1, 2015, pp. 56-59.
- Irmak, M K. ‘Personal Human Life Begins with the Formation of Adult Type Hippocampus at 13th Week of Development.’ Human Fetal Growth and Development. Ed. N Bhattacharya and P Stubblefield. Cham: Springer, 2016. 207-213.
- Medoff, Marshall. ‘Pro-Choice Versus Pro-Life: The Relationship Between State Abortion Policy and Child Well-Being in the United States.’ Health Care for Women International vol. 37, no. 2, 2016, pp. 158-169.
- Scott, Jennifer, et al. ‘A qualitative analysis of psychosocial outcomes among women with sexual violence-related pregnancies in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.’ International Journal of Mental Health Systems vol. 11, no. 1, 2017, pp. 64-73.
- Swank, Eric and Breanne Fahs. ‘Resources, Masculinities, and Gender Differences Among Pro-life Activists.’ Sexuality & Culture vol. 20, no. 2, 2016, pp. 277–294.
- Upadhyay, Ushma D, M Antonia Biggs and Diana Greene Foster. ‘The effect of abortion on having and achieving aspirational one-year plans.’ BMC Women’s Health vol. 15, no. 1, 2015, pp. 102-111.