Abortion in the United States

Abortion in the United States (Pro-Choice)

Abortion has evoked considerable debate and controversy throughout history. In the United States too, it has been a subject of heated debate through most of its history. In recent times, "pro-choice" and "pro-life" movements have taken diametrically opposite positions on the ethical, legal and medical aspects of the issue. Both sides present seemingly valid arguments for their stands and try to refute the counter-arguments of the other side by presenting moral, legal, and medical "facts." Abortion was legalized in the United States in 1973 following the landmark Roe v. Wade decision of the Supreme Court. The decision, however, did not put an end to the controversy and subsequent decisions by the Court have even watered down the Roe decision by placing greater restrictions on abortion. While recognizing some of the arguments on either side of the divide, I personally feel that the right of a woman over her body takes precedence over any "moral" argument against abortion. So even though abortion may not always be a desirable option, I feel that women should have the right to choose whether she wants to give birth or terminate her pregnancy, particularly in its earlier stage. In this paper I shall present an overview of abortion's history in the U.S., the legal decisions of the Supreme Court on the issue from Roe onwards, besides presenting some of the "pro-choice" and "pro-life" arguments and why I feel that women's right over her own body over-rides all other considerations.

Early History of Abortion in the United States

Following the Common Law.

At the time of United States' independence in late 18th century, and for some time thereafter, there was no specific legislation on abortion, and the states were guided by the traditional British common law in the matter. (Mohr, 1979, p. 3) The British common law did not formally recognize the existence of a fetus in until it had "quickened." Hence abortion was allowed before "quickening" but after "quickening" the expulsion and destruction of a fetus without due cause was considered a crime, because the fetus had now demonstrated its separate existence by "moving." However, the penalty for abortion even after "quickening" was much less harsh than for taking a life as the "crime" was not considered its equivalent (Ibid, 4)

Lenient Attitude

This relatively 'lenient' attitude towards abortion continued in the U.S. In the early decades of the 19th century although the common law on abortion in Britain had become stricter by that time. Abortions in America until the 1830s appear to have been not uncommon; they were mostly performed by the women themselves or by midwives, as well as qualified doctors and many home medical manuals of the time contained information on how to bring about abortion. Most of the abortions in the early 1800s were for ending illegitimate pregnancies and not for limiting the size of families and were generally tolerated by the American public opinion. (Ibid. 17-18)

Upsurge in Abortions

Specific laws dealing with abortion began to appear in the U.S. In the 1920s. Connecticut first outlawed post-quickening abortion in 1921 and ten states and one federal territory had enacted legislation by 1841, making certain types of abortion illegal. After 1940, a great upsurge in incidences of abortion was noticed in the United States. The increase was mainly attributable to the fact that an increasing number of "white, married, Protestant, native-born women of the middle and upper classes" had started to resort to abortion for delaying their childbearing or limiting their families. (Ibid 46-47) The upsurge in the incidences of abortion made it more visible in the public eye and it also became highly commercialized as various medical practitioners began to advertise their services in the press. The legislators, though concerned about the upsurge in abortions, remained cautious in enacting stricter laws against it until the 1860s.

Physicians Lead Anti-Abortion Campaign

By the mid-nineteenth century, the American physicians had begun a concerted drive to improve, professionalize, and ultimately control the practice of medicine in the United States. The founding of the American Medical Association (AMA) in 1847 was an important step in this direction. Physicians associated with the AMA launched an aggressive campaign against abortion in the late 1850s and managed to persuade the legislators to move beyond tentative concern about increasing incidences of abortion; the campaign also began to have an effect on the public opinion that had until 1860 been largely tolerant of abortion.

The physicians' anti-abortion campaign gained further momentum by a political alliance with the anti-obscenity movement in the 1870s. As a result of the highly successful campaign and concerted pressure exerted by AMA and its members, abortion had been outlawed by every state in the nation by 1900. (Staggenborg, 1994, p. 3)

Turning of the Tide

Illegal abortions, however, continued to be available but were often unsafe. As a result, and partly due to a more liberal environment in the 1960s the tide once again began to turn in favor of legalized abortion. In the late 1960s and early 70s some states began to pass laws to "protect the health of women" that effectively allowed abortion on demand. Abortion in a majority of U.S. states was still illegal at the end of 1972 except to protect the woman's life only. ("Abortion in the United States"2006)

Roe v. Wade (1973) and Subsequent U.S. Laws on Abortion

Roe v Wade (1973) was the landmark case in which the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in the United States after almost a century. The case involved a class action suit brought by Norma McCorvey against Texas's anti-abortion laws, claiming that the laws violated her fundamental rights under the U.S. Constitution. The majority (7-2) ruling, authored by Justice Blackman, held that the 'right of privacy' was implicit in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and this "right of personal privacy includes the abortion decision." The Court's decision specified that during the first trimester of pregnancy, the State cannot restrict a woman's right to an abortion; during the second trimester, the State was allowed to regulate the abortion procedure "in ways that are reasonably related to maternal health," and in the third trimester, the State could "choose to restrict or even to proscribe abortion." However, in a subsequent ruling in Doe v. Bolton the Court expanded on Roe and effectively allowed women to legally seek abortion in all stages of pregnancy for health reasons. ("Roe v. Wade expanded..." n.d.)

Over the next decade and more, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down several attempts by the state to restrict abortion. For example, in 1983 the Court found it unconstitutional to require a woman seeking abortion to be given information about risks or consequences of the procedure and to wait 24 hours after receiving information before having the abortion. Similarly, in 1986 the court struck down a Pennsylvania law requiring that state-developed materials about abortion be offered to women undergoing the procedure. (McGee and Merz, 2004) However, since 1989, the Court has permitted several state-imposed restrictions to stand. In its decision in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989), the court upheld a Missouri law that prohibited the use of public facilities or public employees for abortion and required a physician to determine the viability of a fetus older than 20 weeks before performing an abortion. In Rust v. Sullivan (1991), the court upheld a federal policy that prevented health care providers who received federal funding from engaging in any activities that encouraged or promoted abortion as a method of family planning (Ibid.)

In another important case Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) the Court reaffirmed the central ruling of Roe v. Wade -- but permitted states more freedom in regulating abortion. The court reversed some of its prior rulings on abortion, and allowed the states to enact laws which required that a woman be given information about abortion risks and consequences and wait 24 hours before undergoing the procedure. (Ibid.) Hence, the U.S. Supreme Court continues to uphold the legality of abortion but has allowed the states to place restrictions and conditions on its availability.

Pro-Choice v Pro-Life Arguments number of arguments have been advanced by the pro-abortionists (who prefer to call themselves "pro-choice") and the anti-abortionists (who label themselves as "pro-life"). Some of these are discussed below:

Does Life Begin at Conception?

The basic "pro-life" argument on the issue is that life begins from the moment of its conception and the fetus has a right to life that cannot be taken away, even by the mother. According to this argument, abortion involves the taking away of life and is as serious a crime as murder (Gordon, 1999). The more strident anti-abortionists consider abortion to be an even greater crime than first degree murder since, according to their view-point, it involves the taking away of a defenseless and innocent life, while a murderer of a grown-up person may well have some cause for comitting the murder.

The "pro-choice" stand on this issue is that it is wrong…