People rally by abortion-rights organizations at City Hall in West Hollywood. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
La Cañada High School

Pro / Con: Should abortions be legal?

For most topics, we create very straightforward discussions between two opposing “sides,” each with their own points of view. Abortion, however, is different in that it cannot be dealt with linearly.

In truth, the abortion debate can be so complex it can be unwieldy. Therefore, I’ve inserted several guiding questions with potential answers and rebuttals in order to prevent digressing off-topic. The purpose of this exercise is not to debate each other head-on, but rather contemplate the complex and serious topics at hand and discover that answers might not be as intuitive as once thought. This discussion will be centered upon abortions performed for personal or emotional reasons, not because of physical health issues.


When is personhood established? When does “a cluster of cells” become someone?

Personhood is established at conception. The moment of fertilization is an entirely logical point to choose as the beginning of human life since once an egg is fertilized, it has the potential to develop into a baby and therefore deserves the rights of a person. There is nothing unknown about it — the egg is either fertilized or not.  

The issue is we do not treat fertilized eggs as people, as they are mere cells large. In nature, 50% of all fertilized eggs are lost before a woman has missed menses, often without her even noticing, according to UC San Francisco Health. However, we do not view these deaths as analogous to the death of a baby.

Imagine a scenario in which you had a baby and a fertilized egg to used for implantation in vitro. You are asked to hit one with a hammer. With the knowledge that the implanted egg would eventually grow up to be just as healthy as the baby, choosing should be the same as flipping a coin since they are both alive and will grow up to be one in the same. But nobody would pick the egg over the baby, indicating something about how we value life in relation to development.

Personhood is established when the fetus has a heartbeat, around six weeks of pregnancy, according to LiveScience. When a fetus has a heartbeat, it is unmistakably alive. In fact, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi and Ohio all have laws banning abortions when a fetal heartbeat can be detected, according to the New York Times.

Why the heartbeat? We don’t define death by heartbeat (otherwise people who have heart transplants would be considered momentarily dead). Instead, we call someone dead when they are confirmed brain dead, according to the Chicago Tribune. 

Furthermore, this heartbeat “by no means does… translates to viability of the heart” or viability of the pregnancy, Dr. Saima Aftab, medical director of the Fetal Care Center at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami said to LiveScience. If a person is not necessarily considered dead when their heart stops, why would a heartbeat indicate a life? So why would we define life the same way?

Personhood is determined by the cognitive function of the fetus, at which point it demonstrates the capability for higher-level thinking characteristic of a moral person. 

But we do not typically determine personhood by cognitive function. Would you consider the mentally disabled any less alive?

Of course not. People are either alive or not. Despite their lower mental cognition level, they are alive nonetheless. But the disparity between the mentally disabled and a fetus is very large. In this case, it is clear that cognitive functioning is not entirely developed as a fetus. 

Nor is it for a baby. When is it “developed enough?” Who determines that marker? 

Personhood is established at birth. It is at this moment that the baby begins to exist independently of the mother for the first time, thus creating a sovereign being. 

But there is practically no difference between a baby the day before it is born and the day after. In fact, some mothers choose to artificially induce labor in themselves, but we do not dispute the personhood of these babies any less despite them being born earlier than they would otherwise. Furthermore, would your definition of “born” be when part of the baby is outside the mother’s body, when the whole baby is outside the mother’s body, or when the placenta separates from the womb and the fetus has to rely on its own resources to keep alive? Aren’t all of these markers arbitrary?

Personhood is established when the fetus can sustain itself without the mother. Otherwise, it is simply an extension of the mother’s body without any method of viably surviving without her physical connection to it.

This view seems problematic as we do not usually define personhood by the ability to survive without assistance. Premature babies are also unable to sustain themselves without medical assistance, but nobody questions their personhood. More troubling, the sick or chronically ill would also not qualify as people. 

But those examples are able to survive with medical assistance, while a fetus would unquestionably not. There is a difference between simply needing a bit of help and being totally reliant upon another being.

But if fetal viability with assistance is what determines a life, then the definition of what qualifies would appear to be entirely arbitrary depending on the medical technology at the time. We would not expect the definition of life to change over time. 

What factors are being considered here? The well-being of the mother? Of the child? Which takes precedent? Is there an obligation here between the potential mother and fetus?

People should have the right to control their own body, even at the expense of someone else. An analogy might be helpful in this case. Let’s imagine you are the only person in a hospital who is an organ match for the person currently dying of double kidney failure. Should you be legally obligated to donate your organs? Even if you might suffer complications which might last the rest of your life? Even if it affects your career? Of course not. Even if another’s health is potentially at risk, it is unethical to force people to sacrifice themselves for another. Many women who get abortions cannot do so because they lack the social or financial stability to raise a child. To forcibly make a woman carry a pregnancy is a violation of her right to control her own body akin to forcing you to donate your organs in the previous example. 

A parent is obligated to care for their child or to transfer custody to someone else who can. A mother incurs an obligation to get that child what he/she needs the moment she decides to have sex. Even if she used contraceptives, she knew pregnancy was a possibility, however small. As a result, she has no excuse to kill her potential child simply because it inconveniences her, whether that means adoption or seeking help from relatives. If that causes her financial or mental burden, it is a small price to pay to protect the life of a child.

Forcing a woman to give birth to a baby when she is not financially or emotionally stable is setting that child up for failure. It is unfair to both that mother and her child, practically child abuse. For all the arguments centered around preserving life for the sake of preserving it, it is also important we discuss the quality of life for infants. The needs of a child do not stop once it is born or adopted. It feels disingenuous to argue for abortions but then fail to reform the adoption system, revoke federal welfare, and shame teenage mothers.

Are there exceptions when abortions are acceptable?

Exceptions can be made in extenuating circumstances in the case that the mother or the fetus will excessively suffer. For example, if it is known that a mother will suffer from complications and her life will potentially at risk, she should be able to get an abortion to save her own life. Furthermore, if the fetus is likely to be stillborn or die soon after birth due to health issues, inbreeding, or birth defects, it is understandable why she might terminate a pregnancy in order to spare her/him suffering. 

But this sort of thinking seems like a slippery slope. Why stop there? What is to stop someone from aborting a baby for other biological reasons?

We already abort an estimated 67% of fetuses with prenatally diagnosed Down syndrome in the U.S. according to the New York Times, despite hardly being a life-threatening condition. 

Exceptions should be made for cases of rape — because the woman did not consent to sex, she should not be forced to carry a child. To force her to give birth is to ignore the trauma and mental illness which is often associated with rape and continue to hurt victims even after the crime was committed.

But if we are truly protecting life for the sake of life, we would want to ensure that a potential baby is not aborted regardless of the circumstances which got it there. Perhaps it would cause the mother further distress, but that is no reason to punish the child for it.