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Abortion Essay, Research Paper


Perhaps no contemporary issue inspires more heated debate than abortion – the deliberate termination of a pregnancy. Many have witnessed and experienced the bitterness of such a controversial debate. There are two types of people in this world. Pro – choice activists believe in the right to choose a safe, legal abortion. Pro – life activists believe that abortion is murder.

Why is the debate over abortion so emotional? Some argue about the rights of the fetus (unborn child) while others argue if abortion should be legal. The debate usually strays from these basic issues. For example, pro – choice advocates try to convince their opponents women’s rights are at risk. Pro – life supporters argue that the rights of the fetus are as important as those of the mother, and that abortion is murder. “Other pro – choice defenders argue that if abortion is murder, why do so many pro – life advocates fight against the most logical methods of preventing this so – called genocide – birth control and sex education?” (Reardon, 138)

Another reason for the bitterness of this debate is that most pro – choice and pro – life advocates reached their conclusions about abortion very early in life, probably even earlier than they can remember. They were taught from previous generations that there was only one correct point of view. Many people have trouble seeing why others who were brought up with the opposite viewpoint cannot simply look at the “facts” and be persuaded to change their minds.

Tempers flare when opponents resort to oversimplification because the issue is definitely not simple. According to recent public opinion polls, the majority of Americans (at least 60 percent) hold beliefs that place them somewhere between the two most extreme, or radical, positions on the abortion issue. Although radical groups on both sides of the issue may get the most media attention, most Americans have moderate viewpoints. Individuals in this moderate viewpoint may lean toward pro – life or pro – choice, but they seek to stay at middle ground.

Most people feel uncomfortable with abortion and are troubled by many of the reasons given for having one but these same people are also uncomfortable with the governments’s interference in a woman’s right to choose an abortion, a right granted in 1973 by the landmark Supreme Court decision in Roe vs. Wade.

Half the adults surveyed by the New York Times in 1996 supported the availability of safe, legal abortions while only 9 percent felt that no abortions at all should be permitted. Other polls show that many Americans are poorly informed about the abortion issue, and that they drastically underestimate the number of abortions performed each year – approximately 1.6 million, almost one fourth of all pregnancies. “In addition, most Americans assume that many abortions are performed in cases of rape or incest, or in order to save the life of the mother. In reality, only about 1 percent of the 1.6 million abortions are performed for those reasons.” (Guernsey, 32)

Choice is a central concept of the abortion issue. Many women see the right to choose what happens to their own bodies – and when it happens – as a basic human right. This is especially important in cases in which pregnancy results from rape or incest , or when a teenager’s life would be fundamentally altered by having a baby. Other people, however, point out that the fetus has no choice in this matter. Pro – life advocates point to other options, such as adoption, for the unwanted babies of trouble teenagers.

The debate is more about choice, however. The issue is also about women and their roles in society, especially as contrasted with those of men. The late 1960’s and early 1970’s saw the emergence of the women’s movement. Women began to demand the same rights and opportunities as men – in the workplace, home, and in government.

Abortion soon became one of the central issues in this movement. Why? Some people suspect that the real intent of laws that prohibit abortion is to control female sexuality and to restrict a women’s independence. Why , they ask, should legislators and Supreme Court justices, even the president, be allowed to tell women what to do with their own bodies?

Laws regarding abortion rights tend to change over time – sometimes gradually, sometimes dramatically. How does this happen? ” Primarily these changes occur because men and women with differing stands on abortion get elected to public office or are appointed to the Supreme Court by the president. Elected officials reflect their views in the laws they pass, and justices in the way they interpret laws – in their rulings and decisions.” (May & Messer, 98)

When a group or and individual challenges a state law, the case can go all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court then makes the final decision. In this system, one person can begin the process that sets legal precedent and affects the whole nation as well. This is exactly what happened on January 22, 1973, when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in the case Roe vs. Wade.

For about 100 years preceding the Roe ruling, each state legislature had been solely responsible for deciding when and if abortion was legal; but abortion laws underwent reform during the 1960’s. The legal argument for reform asserted that existing laws against abortion took away a women’s constitutional right of personal privacy. Advocates of abortion – law reform also claimed that a fetus had never been considered a person in the eyes of the law. As proof of this claim, they pointed out that an individual who causes a woman to miscarry it charged with assault, not murder.

In this legal turmoil walked a poor, single woman named Norma McCorvey, alias “Jane Roe”. She lived in Texas, which had one of the most restrictive laws against abortion. Jane Roe could have gotten an abortion legally in California, but she could not afford to go there . Because Roe’s predicament was so typical of other women who had considered or sought abortions, she became their symbol and seemed to represent them. Henry Wade, the district attorney of Dallas County, was responsible for enforcing the law in the area where Row lived. Thus the case became Roe vs. Wade.

Abortion – rights groups, supplying expert legal help, became involved in this case. The Roe Case also coincided with the growing strength of the abortion – reform movement, and the case came before a liberal Supreme Court.

The Roe vs. Wade ruling struck down all existing state laws restricting abortion and created a new law for the entire nation. The Court ruled that the “due process” clause of the 14th Amendment bars a state from prohibiting abortion. The 14th Amendment says that “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of a person of life, liberty, or property, without the due process of law”. The phrase “due process of law” forbids the states to violate most rights protected by the Bill of Rights.

Jane Roe claimed that Texas, by enforcing its anti – abortion law, deprived her of “liberty” with due process of law. Liberty, she claimed, included the freedom to have an abortion. “In The Court and the Constitution, Archibald Cox writes that ‘it is hard to think of a more fundamental invasion of personal liberty than to tell a woman that she must or may not bear a child. Her whole life – physical, psychological, spiritual, familial, and economic – will be greatly affected. Would not just about everyone agree that this aspect of personal liberty is fundamental? ‘ ” (Reardon, 210)

The Roe decision held that “the Constitution protects a fundamental ‘right of privacy’ broad enough to encompass a women’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy”. The Court ruled that the 14th Amendment, which protects individual liberty, guarantees an adult woman the right to seek a termination of her pregnancy until viability.

Like many Supreme Court rulings, however, Roe vs. Wade left many issues unaddressed: Can a minor have an abortion without her parents’ consent or notification? Does the federal government have to subsidize abortions for low – income women? Can the state regulate the safety of the procedure, and if so, to what extent? Many of these issues have been, or will be, resolved in other Supreme Court cases.

Immediately after Roe vs. Wade, abortion opponents fought to have the ruling overturned. They believed that “the Court had stretched beyond its limits”. ” With election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, these pro – life advocates had a powerful ally in the office of president. ‘Make no mistake,’ Reagan said, ‘abortion – on – demand is not a right granted by the Constitution.’ ” (Guernsey, 43)

Perhaps the biggest flaws in Row vs. Wade have emerged due to advances in medical technology. These advances reveal how vague the language of the Court’s decision is. For example, the Supreme Court did not address the distinction between terminating pregnancy and terminating the life of a fetus. This distinction could become necessary is, as predicted, it becomes possible someday to take a fetus out of its mother’s womb before it is viable and somehow provide an artificial womb or transplant it into the womb of a women who cannot conceive.

Another problem with the Court’s ruling involves the issue of viability. Roe vs. Wade allows states to prohibit abortion once the fetus is viable. But, since 1973, more and more premature babies are surviving outside the womb. “Although many scientists are skeptical, others believe that viability will continue to be pushed earlier and earlier. Because of this and other technological reasons, Justice Sandra Day O’Conner wrote in her dissent of another, later abortion case that ‘Roe vs. Wade was on a collision course with itself’.” (May & Messer, 157)

Roe vs. Wade granted women in the United States the right to choose abortion. From 1973 until 1989, the ruling remained firm. However, in 1989, with Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services, a crack appeared in the foundation of the 1973 landmark decision. By this time, many of the justices who had decided the 1963 Roe case had retired. The new Court had a conservative majority, three of whom had been appointed by Ronald Reagan. As part of the Webster ruling, the Court upheld the constitutionality of a Missouri law that sharply restricted the availability of abortion services. It ruled that states may outlaw abortions in public hospitals and clinics and prohibit public employees from assisting in abortions. The Court also ruled that states may require doctors to test the viability of a fetus before performing an abortion on a woman who has been pregnant for 20 or more weeks. The language of the Webster ruling also encouraged state legislatures to pass new laws that would limit access to abortion.

The Supreme Court accepted several subsequent abortion cases pertaining mainly to parental consent, federal funding of abortion clinics, and standards and rules such clinics are required to obey. Many pro – choice supporters think that such laws make finding and affording an abortion provider extremely difficult, especially for poor women. Thus abortion, while still legal is available to fewer people.

To many experts, the future seems clear. ” As a Planned Parenthood executive stated it, ‘The post – Webster world will look more and more like the one that existed pre – Roe. Where a women lives, how much she earns, and what she knows will determine whether she can obtain a safe, legal abortion.’ ” (Guernsey, 67)

Much of the continuing controversy involves the so – called hard cases – rape and incest. During his final years as president, George Bush said that abortion should be legal for victims of rape or incest, but that he was against the federal government paying for those abortions. What then, happens to the victims of rape or incest who cannot afford an abortion? In addition to the financial burden, several laws supported by the pro – life movement impose on victims of rape and incest reporting requirements that are nearly impossible to meet. In Idaho, for example, pro – life advocates supported a law that prohibited abortions in pregnancies resulting from rape unless the crime had been reported to the police within seven days. In cases of date rape particularly, young women usually hesitate to report the crime. Furthermore, a victim would not know whether the rape resulted in pregnancy within the seven day time restriction. Measures such as these reduce the number of abortions obtained by women who want abortions and could legally get them.

Another prime area of dispute involves pregnant teenagers. Becky Bell was in 11th grade when she fell in love with a young man in college. He told her he was sterile, so they began having unprotected sex. When she discovered she was pregnant, the man told her to get lost.

After deciding to have an abortion, Becky went to Planned Parenthood, a national organization that provides information on family planning and abortion. At the clinic, she learned that her home state of Indiana requires minors to have the written permission of parents for an abortion. The law allows a judge to waive parental consent in some cases, but that is unusual. Although Becky had a stable family life and a reasonably good relationship with her parents, she told friends that she couldn’t tell her parents about being pregnant. “They would be disappointed in me,” she explained.

Within a few days, just before turning 17 years old, Becky Bell died. An infection that resulted from a botched, illegal abortion killed her. This tragedy did not occur in the 1950s or 1960s when horror stories of illegal abortions were common. It happened in 1988.

Although keeping circumstances of Becky’s death a secret would have been easier than speaking out, Becky’s parents decided to tell her story. They have become pro – choice activists and often face harsh criticism. Their quality as parents has often been called into question by supporters of the parental consent laws who feel that Becky’s pregnancy and death couldn’t have happened to a teenager in a “good” family. An editorial in their hometown newspaper denies the need to change Indiana law – saying that Becky caused her own death by experimenting with drugs and sex.

More than 30 states in the United States currently require girls under 18 to notify, or in most cases, to get permission from a parent for an abortion. In some states, both parents must be notified even when one parent has not been involved in raising the girl. Permission is required even in cases in which there is evidence of past abuse by the parent. This situation horrifies pro – choice activists. Tragic results from parental consent requirement have already taken place. A teenager in Idaho, for example, was murdered by her father in August 1990 after asking his permission to get an abortion.

The problem of teenage pregnancy is overwhelming in the United States. ” At least half of young people between the ages of 15 and 19 are sexually active, and 24 percent of all teenage girls will become pregnant by age 18.” (Reardon, 298) Many of these girls will want an abortion and be faced with parental notification requirements, but the communication between parents and children about sexual matters is often extremely difficult.

What effect do parental consent laws have on the number of abortions obtained? Some evidence shows that the impact of such laws is minor. Most girls who normally turn to their parents when in trouble will do so if they become pregnant. But statistics in such states as Minnesota and Massachusetts before and after their parental – involvement laws were enacted show a marked drop in the number of abortions obtained by teenagers after the laws were placed.

One of the most hotly debated Supreme Court rulings – the so – called gag rule – came in May 1991. By a 5 – 4 majority, the court upheld federal regulations that prohibit employees of federally funded family planning clinics (clinics supported in part by federal taxes) to discuss abortion with their clients. “The 4,500 clinics serving nearly 4 million women each year are now required to refer pregnant women for prenatal care and to refuse to help women to find doctors who will perform abortions. If asked directly about abortion, staff workers must answer that they ‘do not consider abortion an appropriate method of family planning’.” (Reardon, 113)

In 1992, the Bush administration revised the regulation to allow doctors, but no other members of the clinic’s staff, to mention abortion. But most people working at clinics and counseling patients are not doctors. In effect, the new version of the gag rule differs little from the original in its impact on clinic activity.

Many clinics stated their intention to continue providing abortion information even though they would lose all federal financing by doing so. Small clinics with few other means of support will probably be unable to afford to take such stand and will have to close their doors. Many women may find that there are no longer any clinics near them that provide abortion. Travel expenses will have to be added to the cost of the procedure itself.

After the May 1991 decision, the United States Congress immediately set in motion two bills intended to overturn the Court’s decision. Abortion – rights groups began preparing for a difficult battle. “Although pro – choice groups appeared at the time to have a majority of Congress on their side, they were not sure whether the majority would be large enough to override President Bush’s inevitable veto of such legislation.” (Guernsey, 73)

During the early 1990’s, many state legislatures passed new laws restricting abortion. The state of Pennsylvania, for example, passes a law called the Abortion Control Act, which regulated access to abortion and challenged Roe vs. Wade in the Supreme Court in June 1992. The Court ruled that four sections of the Pennsylvania law did not impose an “undue burden” on a woman seeking an abortion. The Court defined undue burden as a “substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability”. The Court ruled that four sections of the Pennsylvania law did not impose an undue burden on the right to an abortion and were therefore constitutional.

These sections require a woman to delay an abortion for 24 hours after visiting a medical office and listening to a presentation designed to change her decision to abort; to require teenagers to have the consent of one parent or a judge; to specify the medical emergencies in which the other requirements will be waived; and to require a doctor or clinic make statistical reports to the state. However, by a 5 – 4 vote, the Court struck down a fifth provision requiring a married women to tell her husband of her intent to have an abortion. Although the Pennsylvania decision limited access to abortion, it explicitly upheld a woman’s legal right to abortion. The 1992 Supreme Court decision also prompted many members of Congress to step up efforts to pass a federal law protecting a woman’s right to legal abortion.

The scene is all too familiar these days – angry mobs of people screaming at each other through police barricades, pictures of bloody fetuses being thrown around, and even murder against abortion supporters. Some might like the issue to go away because they are sick of the violence and controversy over abortion. Unfortunately though, the argument will probably continue to rage in controversy until some common ground is made between pro – choice and pro – life activists. When that happens, perhaps maybe the endless energy of protesters on both sides of the abortion issue can be channeled into other areas of concern for our children – born and unborn.

I believe that the federal and state government have no right to tell a women what she should do with her body. Having a child is a tremendous adjustment for a man and women to go through. They must learn to open up their lives and take on responsibility for another life. In most cases of abortion, it is only the women that would have had to take on the responsibility of a child. This leaves the women in a difficult position. What if she can’t afford a baby? What if a baby doesn’t fit into her current lifestyle? What if she couldn’t bear to think of raising a child alone? A women should then have the right to decide what she wants to do about her pregnancy. Maybe an abortion is the best choice for her. Why should she bring a child into this world if she knows she cannot and is not ready to take care of it? In a way, I believe that she is saving a child from entering a world where it would be neglected and not loved.

I also have a very strong opinion on abortion and teenage pregnancy. The rate of teenage pregnancy in the United States is at an all time high. More and more girls are getting pregnant and are instantly thrown into a difficult situation. I don’t believe that any teenager is fit to be a mother. We are still growing up ourselves – How can we raise another life properly? I know that if I was to get pregnant within the next few years, I would receive an abortion. Within myself I know that I could never raise a baby properly right now. The parental permission laws that were created are a joke and just another barrier to abortion put up by the pro – life activists. I believe that a teenage girl should be allowed to walk into a clinic and receive an abortion without parental consent. It was her decision in the first place to have an abortion and what do her parents have to do with it? The teenage girl has a body of her own and nobody should stop her from doing what she wants with it.

Controversy concerning abortion grows with each year. The pro – life and pro – choice groups grow larger each year. Recently there has been violence and even murder attempts involving pro – choice advocates and clinics that perform abortion. I think that pro – life activists should open their eyes and realize that it is a woman’s constitutional right to control what she does to her body and whether or not she will have a baby.

1. Guernsey, JoAnn. ABORTION – Understanding the Controversy. Lerner Publications

Company, Minneapolis. 1994.

2. May, Kathryn & Messer, Ellen. Back Rooms – Abortion in the Illegal Era. Prometheus Books, New York. 1989.

3. Reardon, David. Aborted Women – Silent No More. Crossway Books, Illinois. 1995.

4. Mindscape Reference Library for CD Rom – 1997.

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