The subject of legal abortion has lead to a nationwide, often emotion-filled, debate that has endured for many years and will for many years to come. People are decidedly either in the ‘pro-choice’ or ‘pro-life’ camp. There are no compromises to be negotiated: one concerned with the life of a child; the other, the freedom of choice and woman’s health. To properly analyze the issue, the opposing viewpoints including the moral, medical, and legal aspects must be argued with equal resolve and without bias.
The abortion issue is multi-faceted and both sides of the issue provide credible, thought-provoking arguments. Only the individual can disseminate the information and make their own decision based on what they believe to be right but everyone should know both sides on equal terms so as to make the decision that is right for them. Laws that force women to carry their pregnancy to term contradict the precepts of the U.S. Constitution as well as any definition of compassion and decency. It is unconscionable that a nation founded on and dedicated to civil liberties could allow its citizens to resort to dangerous self-abortion procedures. However, prior to the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 which legalized abortion in the U.S., this practice was commonplace. Before abortion was legal, many thousands of young women were mutilated and died attempting to end a pregnancy through the wealthy were able to have illegal abortions safely. The wealthy were able to travel abroad or pay high fees to a local doctor willing to perform the procedure for a price but a poor woman must resort to less safe options. Prohibiting abortions does not and has never stopped them from occurring; it just acts to harm women. Women should have access to safe abortions.
A nation founded on and dedicated to civil liberties should not require its citizens to resort to dangerous self-abortion procedures. According to John Adams, “Our Constitution was made for a moral people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” (Beach 1988). This quote is commonly used by opponents of legal abortions to help prove their argument but others view it differently. Those opposed to legal abortions are also in the same camp that opposes programs that aid the impoverished and abused children who are the result of unwanted pregnancies. They point to ‘Christian morals’ and ‘family values’ as justification for the loss of liberty, discrimination of the poor, and the increased cases of injured women who attempt to perform abortions themselves as had been the case prior to its legalization. ‘Pro-life’ groups seldom encourage their members to adopt the children of unwanted pregnancies. They do not want to take on the role they are forcing on other women. Maybe a child in their life would so severely alter it as to be a major detriment to their entire future. This is a valid argument they do not afford women who became pregnant at just the wrong time in their life. Possibly, they could be a college student who would have to drop out of school thus sacrificing their future family’s well-being.
The Roe v. Wade case, brought before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973, resulted in the Court’s determination that women have the constitutional right to have an abortion prior to when the fetus is viable, meaning when it can survive on its own outside the woman’s womb. The decision invalidated any state law that restricted a woman to have an abortion or a doctor to perform an abortion during the first three months (first trimester) of a pregnancy. It also restricted abortions during the second trimester unless a woman’s health was in jeopardy (“Roe v. Wade”, 1997: 312). Though the case was then and remains today controversial, the Court’s decision was correct from a constitutional context. Critics of the decision have generally made arguments based on personal moral beliefs which are irrelevant when the language of the Constitution is examined. Their moral arguments against the Roe decision can be quickly invalidated by weighing the precedents of constitutional decisions reached by the Supreme Court in addition to reading the specific wordage contained in the Constitution. There are, however, valid questions regarding the Constitutional issues of the Roe decision that deserve answering.
When most people speak disapprovingly of the Roe decision, they base their objection purely on moral grounds but scholars, lawyers, and especially judges who condemn the decision should only do so based on constitutional grounds in addition to voicing their moral objections. The argument against the decision should address the 9th Amendment which states, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people” (“Bill of Rights”, 2006). Those opposed have said that the ninth, or any other amendment, does not specifically mention abortion therefore the Constitution is not applicable when attempting to determine the legality of abortion rights. This opinion, however, very obviously contradicts the short and to the point statement that is the Ninth Amendment which clearly encourages the recognition of abortion and all other rights over and above what is contained in the Constitution. Just because the word ‘abortion’ does not appear, the Constitution is still the origin for legal precedence for this issue as it is for all other civil rights cases. The Constitution also answers those that argue that the issue should be decided on the state level.
Two questions arise when debating whether the Constitution legally protects a woman’s right to have an abortion performed. The first involves reasoning whether the fundamental interests of women are affected by the restricting of abortion. The other inquires if laws preventing legal abortions are justified even if the Constitution does in fact address this issue. Answering the first question is rather simple. Courts regularly hear cases so as to decide whether or not the rights of an individual are protected by the Constitution. If courts are engaged in recognizing if the fundamental rights of individuals are protected, then the personal interest of a woman being forced by the government to have an unwanted child certainly applies. Recognizing that courts do indeed have the authority to intervene in decisions involving individual rights citing the Constitution as precedence, could laws preventing abortions still be justified in spite of this egregious encroachment on the civil liberties of women? After all, constitutional rights are not unconditional. Why doesn’t the government have an interest in protecting the rights of those not yet born? The Fourteenth Amendment answers this question. It begins by referring to “All persons born… in the United States” (“Fourteenth Amendment”, 2006), indicating that the protections under the Constitution refer only to persons who are ‘born.’
Those opposed to Roe also argue that if the Constitution does not directly address an issue, then Congress, not the courts should decide matters such as this which have weighty moral implications. The Roe decision essentially addressed this question by asserting the government’s concern for the life of the unborn does not outweigh the constitutional rights of the born and thus their decision to terminate a pregnancy. The Court did draw a line distinguishing what is considered murder of a child. On this issue, those that oppose abortion rights do have legal justification for debate. Viability seems to be an appropriate benchmark because in the early weeks following conception, the fetus is not a conscious being although those of religious conviction argue that it does have a soul. Viability is somewhat scientifically determined while the presence of a soul is not. Therefore, the line can only be drawn at the viability of the unborn as any other method by which to determine when abortions are considered murder is unclear (Dorf, 2003). Criticizing the Roe decision purely on moral grounds is easy but the difficulty lies in offering an alternative that is not subjective and clear enough to be enforceable.
Though the constitutionality regarding the Roe decision can be easily argued, it must be acknowledged that since the issue remains intensely controversial more than 30 years after, opponents may be justified in believing the right to an abortion should not be thought of as fundamental. Fundamental rights reprove basic truths in the functioning of a society. Rulings preventing the segregation of the races are now accepted by the public therefore can be viewed as fundamental rights. Abortion rights do not enjoy this universally held view so it is fair to debate the issue even on legal grounds though that is seldom the arena for debate. It is understood, however, that the majority of Americans do agree with the Court’s decision and believe it to be a fundamental right (Dorf, 2003). “Women should have access to safe abortions; that ‘a nation founded on and dedicated to civil liberties could allow its citizens to resort to dangerous self-abortion procedures.” (Bulanger, Melzak & Lauzon, 1989).
Both sides of the abortion issue contain legal, ethical, and social considerations that provoke great emotions as this paper has shown. It is important that those of each opinion understand the opposing viewpoint if they truly wish to debate the topic rather than simply insist that their own viewpoint is correct. Only in this way can the national debate proceed with any hopes of resolution. If both sides understand the issues of the other, the emotional aspect can be lessened and replaced with reasonable conversations. Setting aside the Constitutional and moral arguments, every child should be wanted, it is better for them, their parents, and society as a whole. The ideological divide will never be bridged but the debate whether abortion should be legal or not is a matter for the courts, as are all legal matters. The arguments for and against are significant in a social context yet inconsequential because they will not decide whether or not abortions remain safe and lawful.
- Beach, W. Christian Ethics in the Protestant Tradition. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988.
- Bulanger, Eliane; Melzak, Ronald & Lauzon, Pierre. “Pain of First-Trimester Abortion: A Study of Psychosocial and Medical Predictors.” Pain. Vol. 36, (1989), pp. 343, 345.
- Dorf, Michael D. “Was Roe v. Wade Rightly Decided? Will it be Overruled?” CNN Law Center. (2003). Web.
- “Roe v. Wade: 1973.” Women’s Rights on Trial. 1st Ed. New York: Thompson Gale, 1997.
- “United States Constitution Bill of Rights” Cornell Law School. Legal Information Institute. (2006). Web.