The United Nations Convention has a similar view that every child from birth until eighteen has a right to life, however this view depends on whether the foetus is or isn’t a person. But, if the foetus is not considered to be a person then abortion can keep within the Sanctity of Life because a life is not being terminated. This conflicts with religious or moral principles because different people have different views when personhood begins. The Catholic Church believe that personhood begins at conception but pro choice supporters believe that personhood begins sometime after twenty-four weeks, justifying abortion depends on whether the foetus gains personhood early on in the pregnancy, late, or at birth.
There is disagreement between the Roman Catholic Church and pro-choice supporters whether human life is the same as human personhood. Pro-choice supports believe that foetus is continuously growing, but it is too undeveloped to acquire the status of personhood. Whereas the R. C. Church maintains that the foetus is a human life that gains human personhood from the very moment of conception. The question is, when does life become sacred? At conception, viability, birth or full sentience? John Locke’s famous definition of a person is ‘a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself, the same thing, in different times and places’. For Locke, memory was good enough to allow for continuity, the changing of cells did not alter the person. However, this notion gives justification for killing non-communicative humans because a person is being defined as a conscious rational being. Pro-abortionists define a person as a human being with the capacity of reason and choice, as this sets us aside from being merely an animal. But, the word ‘capacity’ is too subjective, it does not outline whether it means potential capacity or actualised capacity. Instead, the definition I will be using of the term ‘person’ is when it is constituted as an entity with basic rights.
Throughout history, different proposals have been suggested as to when a foetus becomes a person. Ensoulment, suggested by Plato, was one of the early concepts that has formed modern abortion laws. The abortion laws are based upon the presupposition that there is a point at which the foetus becomes a person. This was the notion that the status of the foetus changed and attained the rights of a human being. Plato argued that we are both physical entity and metaphysical, and there is a point at which the foetus acquires a soul. This was developed by St Augustine who maintained that the soul was implanted at 46 days and St Thomas Aquinas who contended ensoulments took place in boys at 40 days and girls 90 days. Although medically there is no justification for this reasoning, this idea informed the modern abortion laws. Therefore, using Aquinas’s concept comes a point when aborting a foetus is not ethically sound. There is no biological evidence that ensoulment takes place at different times for different genders. In the modern Roman Catholic Church, ensoulment occurs at the moment of conception. The embryo is not a person, but has the potential to become one. In 1987 Pope John Paul II said the observation of the physical state of the embryo was not sufficient enough to establish whether it is or isn’t a person. ‘No experiment can be in itself sufficient to bring us to the recognition of a spiritual soul.’ This belief assumes that potential life, even in the earliest stages of gestation, enjoys the same value as any existing life. Only shortly after conception, a unique DNA code is formed which remains unchanged throughout the entire life of the foetus. The presence of a unique human DNA code is scientific evidence that this early stage is the start of a human life. Another possible moment when personhood begins is viability, the point at which the foetus can survive outside the womb. But there is a problem when discussing viability. We are biological entities and develop at different rates; therefore each foetus gains viability at a different time. Furthermore, twenty-four weeks is not precise enough. What is the difference between twenty-four weeks six days and six hours? Biologically nothing, but in terms of the law it makes all the difference because it passes the cut off day.
Methods that might determine fetal viability did not have the precision that the law usually requires until the twentieth century, such as birth, missed period and the quickening. They are unreliable as the biological indicators are different. Some thinkers place emphasis on the movement of the ‘quickening’ – when the mother first feels the foetus move in her womb. But modern ultrasound techniques have proven that this is inconsistent because the foetus has been moving before that time but was not large enough for its movement to be registered by the mother. Others believe the foetus is a person when brain activity is recorded, however the brain activity at this stage is only a precondition and does not show that the foetus is conscious. Birth is also an option; nevertheless there is debate as to when birth actually occurs. Is it when only part of the foetus is outside the mother’s body or all of it? It remains difficult to establish when a foetus becomes person, as it could even be when they are two years old, teenagers or fully-grown adults. Human life could begin at sixteen years old because this is when a child acquires the rights to leave home, and at eighteen they can rent a house or obtain a mortgage. Consequently they no longer have to rely on their parents. The Roman Catholics Church would say permitting abortion may be killing a human entity who has a full entitlement to life. From the moment of conception, the nature of prenatal existence is merely the evolving of human growth and development, which does not cease until death. ‘If there is harm then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.’ (Exodus 21) So, the value of the foetus is in question if we assume life begins at a later stage. Being a potential person allows the foetus the right to life from the earliest stage of development, the moment when the egg is fertilised. But even if the foetus has an inherent right to life, the mother’s right to her autonomy supersedes their right. On the other hand, nobody has an unconstrained right to autonomy. A parent’s responsibility for their children lasts 18 years because parental bodies remain the means by which parents care for and protect their children. A potential person’s life is still of intrinsic value. The sanctity of life declares that all life is valuable and a gift of God, so irrespective of the condition of that life or its quality; it must always be valued and respected because God is the only one who has jurisdiction over life. ‘Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.’ (Genesis 2:7)
One of the attributes of being a human being is being able to sense and feel pain. The key thing that Warnock established is that one of the relational factors of when we become protected by the law is when we sense and feel pain. One of the implications of the law is that at 14 days there is a change in the status of the embryo, it ceases to be fetal material and becomes an embryo therefore you cannot conduct research on it. A biological factor was picked because it was decided that the relational factor, whether the foetus is able to feel pain, determines whether you are a human or not.
There are many different theories that support that there is a point in the pregnancy when we become human, however there is no medical evidence of this. The foetus remains a human throughout the pregnancy; it just goes through different stages of development. Although medically there is not justification for the principle of ensoulment, this idea has informed the modern abortion law. This is why Aquinas’s idea became significant. The abortion laws are based upon the primacy that there is a point when you are human. These were ways in which people thought in the time where they lived. It was an idea of Thomas Aquinas, and yet it seems to have become an accepted justification at which you become human. There was no medical science available for him to make a judgment with. That argument ethically does not work because the foetus is not a separate species, just less developed. We are the same species when we die and when we were conceived; there are just different stages. Different groups believe that life begins at different times. The Roman Catholics believe life begins at conception, other groups believe it begins at birth. If life begins at conception, then abortion is wrong and is classified as murder. Whereas if life begins at birth or after twenty-four weeks then abortion can be considered.
Sanctity of life is a moral absolute but there are times when it can be broken. There are two forms of the sanctity of life, strong and weak. The Church of England does not condone abortion, but it is only accepted when the principle of the lesser of two evils arises. ‘To decide which is the lesser of the two can mean genuine dilemma and pain which should not be minimised, but Christians need to face frankly the fact that in an imperfect world the ‘right’ choice is sometimes the acceptance of the lesser of two evils.’ The doctrine of double effect supports this as it permits the killing of an innocent life if it is not the primary intention and is not disproportionate to the good ends. But if the same situation presented itself and you were to take the sanctity of life approach, you would have to choose between strong or weak principle. Vitalism takes the view that nothing justifies the termination of human life because we are made in the image of God. ‘God is the author or life. He starts it and he should end it.’ (John 1:21) However, weak sanctity of life argues that agape should be the primary determining principle. It is argued that Vitalism makes life too absolute, so it becomes an idol of worship. Stanley Hauerwas disputed that the Church permits the taking of life when the well being of others is at risk. ‘Appeals to the sanctity of life as an ideology make it appear that Christians are committed to the proposition that there is nothing in life worth dying for.’ If two lives are equally sacred and you have to choose between the two, you have to question what type of value each life has. The United Methodist Church is reluctant to accept the practice of abortion, but they maintain the view that God would want us to be compassionate. They uphold and respect the sanctity of life, however they recognise that confliction in life may lead to the legal procedure, therefore abortion can be justified under those circumstances. Abortion is permitted up to twenty-four weeks in the UK, but it requires the medical opinion of two doctors to determine it.
There is a second line of argument and this is whether the foetus has rights and, if so, how are these to be balanced against the rights of the mother? The right to self-determination is stronger than the right to life. Judith Jarvis Thomson sets out this argument by arguing no one should force a woman to give up their autonomy. A foetus is considered part of that autonomy; therefore the mother can decide whether or not to abort it. Thomson used the analogy of a famous violinist to describe this. She said that you had to imagine a famous violinist could only survive if they were plugged into you. If you disconnect the violinist, he would die. Thomson argued that in those circumstances, it would not be unjust for you to be unplugged from the violinist, even if they were to die because of it. However, Thomson stated that if the violinist did survive, then the woman would not have the right to kill him. Thomson is implying here that abortion is not acceptable once the foetus has reached the point of viability. Forcing a woman to remain pregnant by denying her an abortion is like forcing her to donate all her bodily organs to sustaining another life. Do we have the right to force someone to have a transplant to save another life? There are many implications of forced human organ donation in the event of an accident. Thomson said ‘We don’t force people to donate organs to keep others alive; how can we force women to use their bodies to sustain the life of a foetus? However, it can be argued that it is not possible to compare organ donation with pregnancy because by definition pregnancy entails special parent obligations, not necessarily entailed organ transplants.
Some feminists have fought for the right to abort because they contend that it is the right of the mother to choose what happens to her body. They go further in this argument by pointing out that childbearing has been a form of slavery men have used to ensure their dominance over women. Others would argue that it is better to fight for self-determination than to exist as a slave. Words such as ‘slavery’ are used so Westerners can resonate with the argument and exist within a liberal democratic society. Emotively the argument is powerful, but it is not ethically sound. This is because the pregnancy is not a medical procedure, whereas abortion is. It is not as if the woman is being forced to keep the baby, her body naturally maintains the pregnancy. There are a lot of medical procedures that are elective, and by not having them it does not mean you are a slave. There are people who are unable to bear children and IVF is an elective approach. Liberals believe in government action to achieve equality for all, therefore they support abortion because they believe a woman has the right to decide what happens with her body. They contend that a foetus is not a human life, and therefore doesn’t have separate individual rights. A medical opinion of two doctors is required to determine the abortion to ensure the woman has a safer procedure. The Anti-Legalist view says that abortion is a moral choice, which has nothing to do with law or doctors, and that it should be the right of the actual person to determine what happens to the potential person. The important US Supreme Court decision in Roe v Wade to some extent supported that every human being has the right to own their own body, and since a foetus is part of a woman’s body, the woman has the right to abort the foetus they are carrying. This is because the court ruled that a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy came under the freedom of personal choice, and it was protected by the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution. Sarah Wade said ‘And we feel that, because of the impact on the woman, this…is a matter which is of such fundamental and basic concern to the woman involved that she should be allowed to make the choice as to whether to continue or to terminate her pregnancy.’
The issue of whether the right to self-determination is stronger than the right to life conflicts with religious or moral principles to a large extent because some believe that the right to life is paramount, and should therefore override the right to self-determination. If this is the case, then abortion cannot be considered, however if self-determination overrides the right to life then abortion can once again be an option.
Another question, which is important to this debate, is do the rights of a viable human (the mother) take priority over the rights of an unviable human (the foetus pre-24 weeks). This is at the base of the UK law because abortion is allowed up to twenty-four weeks. So the rights of a being that cannot live outside the mother’s womb cannot take priority over a living human being the mother. After viability, the mother’s rights can no longer take priority. Medicine is not advanced enough to discover the exact point the foetus is viable; the only way of finding out would result in the foetus being killed. Because we are biological entities, we develop at different rates depending on environmental factors; therefore the law is not precise enough and does not acknowledge that a foetus may have developed before twenty-four weeks. If a foetus is physically or mentally handicapped, some argue that the fetuses’ quality of life would be poor and doctors offer abortion as a solution. However, medicine is not one hundred percent accurate so the diagnosis of a disabled foetus may be wrong. But, even if the fetuses’ quality of life is poor, is the right to life not paramount? Sanctity of Life would say that all life is sacred, irrespective of its quality.
To conclude, there two main ethical issues that surround the medical procedure of abortion. The first one is whether the foetus is a person, and if so at what point in its development does it gain personhood? Another ethical issue is if the mother has the right to terminate her pregnancy, who’s rights are higher? The mother or the fetuses’? If the foetus is a person, then strong sanctity of life opposes abortion because it would involve the termination of a valuable life. However, if the foetus is not a person until after twenty-four weeks or birth, then abortion is not considered the termination of a valuable life providing it is done before twenty-four weeks. There is no consensus on society about how to address this issue; the public remains sharply divided over the topic of abortion. Religious and moral principles influence the opinion of many people, for example Roman Catholics believe that abortion is murder. This is because passages in the Bible suggest that life begins at conception and the foetus is a person throughout the pregnancy. However, although the Church of England disagrees with abortion, they permit it under certain circumstances because they understand that conflicts in life may force the mother to choose the medical procedure. A similar opinion of the Methodist Church believes that God would want Christians to be compassionate with one another. Therefore, allowing abortion to a woman who is in challenging situation would be the compassionate act to make. In my opinion, to determine whether abortion is right or wrong would require an evaluation of the circumstances that surrounded that particular case. If a woman’s life is in danger and an abortion is the only solution, then I believe on these terms abortion is allowed. But if the woman requests an abortion because she has been raped, I believe that the foetus should not be punished for its father’s crimes and its life is too valuable to be terminated.