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Abortion: Ethical Dilemma or a Human Rights Concern?

Photograph through Wikimedia Commons
Written by Vidhi Arora

Champions of the Pro Life ideology believe that abortion should be banned, that terminating a pregnancy is the equivalent of taking a life whereas the advocates of the Pro Choice ideology believe that abortion should be legal, safe and ultimately the mother’s choice. The contention between Pro Choice and Pro Life is one that is fought largely on the principles of morality and ethics. In essence, the perception of life is a point of dissonance between both groups.

Pro-Lifers believe that a fetus should be considered a human life and be accorded the same rights and value as a fully developed human being. They believe that governments have a social contract with the public that makes it their duty to preserve and protect human life. Consequently, abortion should be considered an act that endangers the human life and therefore should be illegal. Pro Choicers on the other hand do not believe that a fetus should be given the same consideration as a fully developed human being, and the rights accorded to the woman carrying the fetus be given a greater relevance to that of the fetus.

The question behind the discord is when does life truly begin? Is it in the womb, when we are a collection of cells? Or Is it when we develop a brain and heart? Or is it when we are born?

While the answer to these questions are subjective and perhaps impossible to answer we need to realise that this debate however has become more than just an ethical dilemma. With the implementation of abortion laws in different countries and penalisation of women for terminating pregnancy, it has become an issue of fundamental rights and freedom.

Criminalization of abortion is an affront to the freedom of choice and bodily autonomy of a woman. The authorities prioritise the life of a fetus over that of a woman, yet what we don’t understand is the reason behind this prioritisation. Who gave the government the authority to decide which life is more valuable than the other?

Freedom to life and choice is a fundamental right accorded to every human being, however this choice is taken away by the implementation of regressive and harsh laws that punish women for choosing not to have a child.

CBS News Digital documentary, “Jailed for Abortion in El Salvador", Manuela was jailed for 30 years after she miscarried in her home in rural El Savador. She died two years later in hospital due to lymphoma, the disease that caused her miscarriage. In 2019, 52 women were jailed in Rwanda for abortion and miscarriage, with penalties ranging from life imprisonment to 25 years. Currently, abortion is illegal in over 26 countries and millions of women are jailed for exercising their reproductive rights.

In many countries, an abortion is pardoned if the women was raped, a minor or if it poses a threat to her health. However, underlying this ‘pardon’ is the assumption that a woman has to undergo significant trauma or life threat before her freedom to exercise her bodily autonomy is considered. In June 2019, Marshe Jones from Alabama was shot in the stomach when she was five months pregnant. Later she was charged with manslaughter for causing the death of the fetus and the authorities believed she failed to protect her “unborn baby from harm”. This is one of the several “manslaughter” charges filed against women who terminate their pregnancies or miscarry.

Considering the legal system for abortions is based on the human life is valuable and worthy of a safe environment, it is pertinent to examine whether forced pregnancies uphold the same dictates. A healthy standard of living and safe environment are important for the growth of a healthy human being. However, this safety and standard of living is threatened when women are forced to carry a pregnancy to full term.

When a woman is forced to carry a child that she is not emotionally, physically or financially capable of raising, it endangers both the mother and the child. For the child grows up in an environment of neglect and abandonment and the mother with fostering resentment.

Many pro-lifers suggest giving the child up for adoption without considering the already burgeoning number of children in foster homes, shelter homes and orphanages, not to mention the increased vulnerability, unhealthy and unsafe conditions of the aforementioned situations.

Children in developing countries forced into begging or sexual trade are also a shameful and terrible consequence of lack of safe spaces for children to grow in. In most developing countries, governments do not have safe legal provisions to ensure that children abandoned after birth are taken care of while in developed countries slip through the cracks in the system. Horrific stories of child labor and abuse in foster homes are heard everyday. Whereas for the mothers, lack of access to safe abortion pushes them into harmful was of terminating pregnancies and illegal abortion clinics thriving in every country.

One does not need to elaborate upon the futility of bans, it does not take much to understand that making abortion illegal does not stop abortions, it only stops safe abortions.

The government need not find a solution to the ethical dilemma of the definition of life or even respect women’s right to make decisions regarding their own bodies to solve these problems, it only needs to recognise and address the harms of its ineffective and illogical policies of reproductive health.

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