Can the Abortion Conflict Be Resolved

The reasons women choose abortion are as varied as the reasons they often choose not to abort. In countries where abortion is legal, and countries where it is not, millions of women make individual moral choices to end pregnancies. Some seek abortion after contraceptive failure, others because it is the only contraceptive option available to them; some choose to end their pregnancies for financial or emotional reasons, or for the well-being of their families; still others make the tragic decision to terminate a desired pregnancy because of an unwelcome prenatal diagnosis, or because their child is the wrong sex, or because their own health is in jeopardy. Regardless of what courts and politicians, ethicists and church leaders decide about abortion, there will always be unwanted pregnancies, and there will always be women willing to risk their lives and health to have abortions. Those are the facts of the matter.

The moral picture is characterized by far less clarity. Few reasonable people would argue that abortion is not a morally weighty issue, but just how serious it is, or is not, are questions that remain unsettled. Abortion may be an insoluble political problem in a pluralistic society where incommensurable moral and religious convictions hold sway and admit of little compromise. That does not necessarily make it an insoluble moral problem. All sides can agree that the stakes are high in abortion, and the difficulty of resolving the moral conflict should not be understated. Equally reasonable and thoughtful moral theories about abortion have produced greatly divergent conclusions. If none of these theories has yet proved immune to counterargument and criticism, if none has yet prompted a collective sigh of relief that the debate is at last over, they have all contributed to the unavoidable conclusion that the abortion controversy defies simplification, and, in its uniqueness, defies easy assimilation to familiar moral principles.

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