Topical Controversy Abortion Definitions

About the major controversy surrounding abortion, definition of terms and explanation of the various sides.




Sensationalism naturally results when the abortion issue is raised. Anti-abortion groups send pickled fetuses to their congressmen and publicly display grisly photographs of tiny-dismembered hands and feet from aborted fetuses. The symbol of the National Abortion Rights Action League is a coat hanger, an abortion tool often used by desperate women in the days before liberalized abortion laws. The issue is a gut-level one, and, sensationalism aside, it typifies what may be the central issue of our time: Which is more fundamental to the future of the human race--an arbitrary respect for life or the choice of quality of life over quantity of life? Technological and scientific advances have further complicated the question; for example, doctors can now identify a defective fetus in the womb. In addition, life can be evaluated by cost-effectiveness statistics; the price of keeping one person alive may take life away from others.

In 1800 abortion was not illegal in the U.S. until "quickening," the fetal movement in the womb in the fourth or fifth month--at that time the only certain proof of pregnancy. By 1860 abortion was against the law in most states for various reasons--medical dangers, dropping birthrate, Victorian prudishness. In 1973 the U.S. Supreme Court liberalized abortion laws based on the woman's right to privacy. In the first trimester (three months), the decision to abort is left to the woman and her doctor. In the second trimester, states may intervene to protect the woman's health. In the third trimester, an abortion can be denied. In 1980 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the 1976 Hyde Amendment, which restricted Medicaid payments for abortion.

The abortion question is this: Does a pregnant woman have the legal right to decide for herself whether to have an induced abortion? On both sides of the issue are strange bedfellows; Feminists for Life, for example, are pro-ERA and anti-abortion. As you read the informal debate that follows, imagine a room in which two anonymous debaters--one anti-abortion and the other pro-abortion--bring forth witnesses who at various times have had something meaningful to say on the issue.

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