The terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” refer to the dominant ideologies concerning abortion rights. Those who are pro-life, a term that some argue is biased because it suggests that the opposition does not value human life, believe that abortion should be banned. Those who are pro-choice support keeping abortion legal and accessible.
In reality, the controversies related to reproductive rights are much more complex. Some people back abortions in certain circumstances and not in others or believe such procedures should be “safe, rare, and legal.” Complicating matters is that there’s no consensus on when exactly life begins. The shades of gray in the abortion debate are why the reproductive rights discussion is far from simple.
The Pro-Life Perspective
Someone who is “pro-life” believes that the government has an obligation to preserve all human life, regardless of intent, viability, or quality-of-life concerns. A comprehensive pro-life ethic, such as that proposed by the Roman Catholic Church, prohibits:
In cases where the pro-life ethic conflicts with personal autonomy, as in abortion and assisted suicide, it’s considered conservative. In cases where the pro-life ethic conflicts with government policy, as in the death penalty and war, it’s said to be liberal.
People who are “pro-choice” believe that individuals have unlimited autonomy with respect to their own reproductive systems, as long as they don’t breach the autonomy of others. A comprehensive pro-choice position asserts that the following must remain legal:
- Celibacy and abstinence
- Contraception use
- Emergency contraception use
Under the Partial Birth Abortion Ban passed by Congress and signed into law in 2003, abortion became illegal under most circumstances in the second trimester of pregnancy, even if the mother’s health is in danger. Individual states have their own laws, some banning abortion after 20 weeks and most restricting late-term abortions.
The pro-choice position is perceived as “pro-abortion” to some in the U.S., but this is inaccurate. The purpose of the pro-choice movement is to ensure that all choices remain legal.
Point of Conflict
The pro-life and pro-choice movements primarily come into conflict on the issue of abortion. The pro-life movement argues that even a nonviable, undeveloped human life is sacred and must be protected by the government. Abortion should be prohibited, according to this model, and not practiced on an illegal basis either.
The pro-choice movement argues that the government should not prevent an individual from terminating a pregnancy before the point of viability (when the fetus can’t live outside the womb). The pro-life and pro-choice movements overlap to an extent in that they share the goal of reducing the number of abortions. However, they differ with respect to degree and methodology.
Religion and the Sanctity of Life
Politicians on both sides of the abortion debate only sometimes reference the religious nature of the conflict. If one believes that an immortal soul is created at the moment of conception and that “personhood” is determined by the presence of that soul, then there is effectively no difference between terminating a week-old pregnancy or killing a living, breathing person. Some members of the anti-abortion movement have acknowledged (while maintaining that all life is sacred) that a difference exists between a fetus and a fully-formed human being.
Religious Pluralism and the Obligation of Government
The U.S. government can’t acknowledge the existence of an immortal soul that begins at conception without taking on a specific, theological definition of human life. Some theological traditions teach that the soul is implanted at quickening (when the fetus begins to move) rather than at conception. Other theological traditions teach that the soul is born at birth, while some assert that the soul doesn’t exist until well after birth. Still, other theological traditions teach that there is no immortal soul whatsoever.
Can Science Tell Us Anything?
Although there is no scientific basis for the existence of a soul, there is no such basis for the existence of subjectivity, either. This can make it difficult to ascertain concepts such as “sanctity.” Science alone can’t tell us whether a human life is worth more or less than a rock. We value each other for social and emotional reasons. Science doesn’t tell us to do it.
To the extent that we have anything approaching a scientific definition of personhood, it would most likely rest in our understanding of the brain. Scientists believe that neocortical development makes emotion and cognition possible and that it doesn’t begin until the late second or early third trimester of pregnancy.
Alternative Standards for Personhood
Some pro-life advocates argue that the presence of life alone, or of unique DNA, defines personhood. Many things that we don’t consider to be living persons might meet this criterion. Our tonsils and appendices are certainly both human and alive, but we don’t consider their removal as anything close to the killing of a person.
The unique DNA argument is more compelling. Sperm and egg cells contain genetic material that will later form the zygote. The question of whether certain forms of gene therapy also create new persons could be raised by this definition of personhood.
Not a Choice
The pro-life vs. pro-choice debate tends to overlook the fact that the vast majority of women who have abortions don’t do so by choice, at least not entirely. Circumstances put them in a position where abortion is the least self-destructive option available. According to a study conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, 73 percent of women who had abortions in the United States in 2004 said that they couldn’t afford to have children.
The Future of Abortion
The most effective forms of birth control—even if used correctly—were only 90 percent effective in the late 20th century. Today, contraceptive options have improved and even should they fail for some reason, individuals may take emergency contraception to prevent pregnancy.
Advancements in birth control may help to further reduce the risk of unplanned pregnancies. Someday abortion may grow increasingly rare in the United States. But for this to happen, individuals from all socioeconomic backgrounds and regions would need to have access to cost-effective and reliable forms of contraception.
- DeSanctis, Alexandra. “How Democrats Purged ‘Safe, Legal, Rare’ From the Party”, November, 15, 2019.
- Finer, Lawrence B. “Reasons U.S. Women Have Abortions: Quantitative and Qualitative Perspectives.” Lori F. Frohwirth, Lindsay A. Dauphinee, Susheela Singh, Ann M. Moore, Volume 37, Issue 3, Guttmacher Institute, September 1, 2005.
- Santorum, Sen. Rick. “S.3 – Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003.” 108th Congress, H. Rept. 108-288 (Conference Report), Congress, February 14, 2003.
- “State Bans on Abortion Throughout Pregnancy.” State Laws and Policies, Guttmacher Institute, April 1, 2019.