Abortion is widely regarded as one of the most intractable problems in bioethics. It is certainly true that few issues in bioethics have inspired as much discussion, debate, and open conflict as abortion, in part because the abortion controversy, unlike many others in ethics, has not been limited to scholars and practitioners, but has been engaged on numerous fronts in the United States. Churches and religious organizations, political office holders and candidates, the courts, and the general public have all taken a stand on abortion. In the decades since the U.S. Supreme Court, in its historic 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, effectively legalized abortion through the second trimester of pregnancy, the conflict—political, legal, social, and ethical—has not abated.
Another reason for the intractability of the abortion issue is that the views held by critics and defenders of abortion often occupy extremes. At one extreme, abortion opponents defend an absolute prohibition on abortion, calling abortion nothing less than the murder of an innocent person. At the other extreme are those who defend a woman's absolute right to abortion on demand at any time during pregnancy. Both sides engage in rhetoric and hyperbole; abortion opponents call themselves "pro-life," implying that their opponents are anti-life, while abortion rights supporters call themselves "pro-choice," suggesting that anti-abortionists oppose personal freedom and choice. When the battle lines are largely ideological, as they are in the abortion conflict, there is little room for rational argument. The result is that rather than search for a middle ground, both sides of the conflict have simply dug their heels in deeper.
An additional source of difficulty in reaching agreement about abortion is that the anti-abortion movement in the United States has been led primarily by the Roman Catholic church and fundamentalist Protestants, who base their opposition to abortion on fundamental religious convictions. If it is impossible to argue rationally for or against such convictions, it is no less difficult to argue about an ethical position that is deeply rooted in them.
Finally, the abortion problem is unusually difficult because the fetus is significantly unlike other entities of moral concern, and because the relationship between a fetus and a pregnant woman is unique, in many ways, among human relationships. The moral status of the fetus is itself a highly contested matter, such that the general moral principles that can be appealed to in other areas of human conduct and conflict do not fit cleanly into the abortion picture. Additionally, because the status of the fetus is at issue, abortion can be as much a metaphysical problem as a moral one.
The contemporary moral controversy over abortion focuses on three central issues: the moral status of the embryo or fetus, which many ethicists contend hinges on the ontological status of embryonic and fetal life; the rights conflict between pregnant women and their fetuses; and consequentialist arguments that weigh the potential for harm to women as a result of restricting or abolishing abortion against the negative consequences of terminating fetal or embryonic life.
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