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UPSC ethics simplified: abortion rights vs ethics

From an ethical standpoint, the debate over pregnancy termination is between a woman's right over her body and the foetus's right to life. We take a look at the debate over abortion rights and the ethical dilemma before policymakers.

Ethics, Abortion Rights vs ChoiceFrom an ethical standpoint, the debate over pregnancy termination is between a woman's right over her body and the foetus's right to life.

In 1973, in a historic judgment in the Roe vs Wade case, the US Supreme Court made abortion legal everywhere in the country. Now, that decision has been overturned by the Supreme Court, paving the way for states to outlaw abortions.

What is the abortion rate among women in the U.S.? How has it changed over time?

According to the Guttmacher Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there was a slight rise in the number of abortions in the latter part of the 2010s despite the general trend showing a decline since 1981 when the abortions rate was 29.3 per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44. According to the Guttmacher Institute, there were 13.5 abortions for every 1,000 women aged 15 to 44 in 2017 and it rose to 14.4 in 2020. It rose from 11.2 in 2017 to 11.4 in 2019, according to the CDC.

Rights vs Ethics

From an ethical standpoint, the debate over pregnancy termination is between a woman’s right over her body and the foetus’s right to life. Judith Jarvis Thomson, an American philosopher, advocated for the supremacy of a woman’s right over her body as a premise of freedom. She argued that one cannot force a woman to bear a child in her womb and give birth to a child if she does not want to do so for various reasons. Thomson said that the timing of the abortion is a key difference. She emphasised that for those who support abortion, the foetus is not a live human being during the period of conception or in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy.

According to feminist and psychologist Carol Gilligan, when deciding to terminate a pregnancy voluntarily, a woman faces a true “moral dilemma” or “moral conflict,” because such a decision frequently takes into account human relationships, the possibility of not hurting others, and responsibility towards others.

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Pro-life versus pro-choice dilemma

According to ‘The Ethical Dilemma of Abortion’ by Journal of Student Research at Indiana University East, the pro-life versus pro-choice dilemma is one of the longest debated issues in the United States today, causing ethical tensions. This complex quandary continues to perplex biomedical ethicists because it is intertwined with normative assessment, politics, law, medicine, religion, and ethics.

The pro-life or anti-abortion argument is based on three principles: the Human Rights Principle, the Mens Rea Principle, and the Harm Principle. According to the Mens Rea Principle, “the agent’s intentions should be given weight.” Thus, abortion violates this principle because the agent intentionally kills another, and the pregnancy is terminated deliberately and knowingly. Abortion violates the Harm Principle, which states that “no one should inflict serious harm on other people.”

Abortions, according to the absolutist pro-choice position, are ethically justifiable and, as a result, should be performed as long as the procedure is safe. The pro-choice argument states that the woman should be free to make her own decisions as an individual, and these decisions are considered self-regarding because the foetus is only a potential person, not the ‘other’ as the pro-life argument holds.


Ethical approaches to abortion

Bioethics contends that ethical approaches to abortion frequently invoke four principles.

• Respect for patients’ autonomy

• Nonmaleficence (do no harm)

• Beneficence (beneficial care) and

• Justice

The Code of Medical Ethics of the American Medical Association recognises a patient’s right to “receive information and ask questions about recommended treatments” in order to “make well-considered decisions about care.” Respect for autonomy is enshrined in laws governing informed consent, which protects patients’ right to be informed about their medical options and to make an informed voluntary decision. Respect for autonomy, according to some bioethicists, lends firm support to the right to choose abortion, arguing that if a pregnant person wishes to end their pregnancy, the state should not interfere. One interpretation of this view holds that the principle of autonomy means that a person owns their body and should be free to decide what happens in and to it.

Ethical dilemmas before policymakers

The US Supreme Court decision has opened Pandora’s box for policymakers. It will result in unsafe abortions, harming women’s health and increased maternal mortality. Another major question is how a policy will be framed in exceptional cases such as sexual assault and congenital anomalies discovered late in the pregnancy.


According to experts, prohibiting or restricting abortion services does not eliminate the need for abortion. Instead of limiting abortion rates, restricting abortion access raises the risk of unsafe procedures and creates the risk of enacting criminal laws that require people to report or be prosecuted for suspected abortions. These dangers disproportionately affect people who are poor or face systemic discrimination. It is critical at this point for policymakers to be clear and leave no room for doubt.

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First published on: 26-06-2022 at 12:04:08 pm
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