A Political, Public & Moral Look at Abortion

A Political, Public & Moral Look at Abortion


Lisa Dionisio, Cara Evans, Pete OConnell, Anna Varshisky, William Walter

Group I

V55.0690 The Social Foundations of Public Issues







The Issue:

         The issue of abortion in the United States has been one that has courted controversy and created a public, political, and moral divide. While some feel that abortion should be illegal, others feel it should be restricted. Still others feel that it should be legal and freely accessed. Society has often associated the issue of abortion within the larger context of determining when life truly begins. And, at what point in a woman’s pregnancy does the fetus have the legal rights of a human being?  This, in turn, leads to the question of the fetus’s rights versus the woman’s right to choose and determine issues that deal with her body.       

         Throughout history, abortion has existed in some form or context.  The moral standards and implications however have changed with the passage of time.  Different groups have defined abortion in vastly different ways.  And often their explanation of the issue uses terminology deliberately more favorable to their point of view.  Thus, to truly define abortion, one must take care to acknowledge which side is defining the issue.  Some define abortion as “the act of giving untimely birth to offspring, premature delivery, miscarriage; the procuring of premature delivery so as to destroy offspring.” (Oxford)   The National Right to Life Organization defines abortion as “any premature expulsion of a human fetus, whether naturally spontaneous, as in a miscarriage, or artificially induced, as in a surgical or chemical abortion.”   (NRLC)  And The National Abortion Federation defines abortion as two types. “A medical abortion is one that is brought about by taking medications that will end a pregnancy. The alternative is surgical abortion, which ends a pregnancy by emptying the uterus (or womb) with special instruments.”  (NAF)


Brief History:

Abortion has always existed and controversy has followed it throughout history. In ancient Greek and Roman times, abortion was an accepted practice and only contested if the father felt robbed of his heir. 

Colonial America followed English Common Law. It stated that abortion was a felony after ‘quickening’ (18 to 20 weeks). Abortion was common during this time but was kept secret due to the strict laws against unmarried sexual activity.  In the 19th century, states began to pass their own laws making post-quickening abortion a felony.  In the mid-19th century, a movement led by the medical community wanted more restrictions put on abortion.  Only when there is a great risk to her own life could a woman have an abortion. This law and similar laws stayed in place for the next 50 years.

            Around 1962, the Model Penal Code began to influence abortion law, making it so a woman could receive an abortion for other reasons besides risk to her own health. In 1970, New York was the first state to legalize elective abortions done by a licensed physician before the first 24 weeks of pregnancy.

            In 1973, Roe vs. Wade struck down abortion laws in all states making it legal for a woman to receive an abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy. Only if the woman’s health was deemed high risk would abortion be possible in the second trimester of pregnancy. Another court case, ruled during the same time, was Doe v. Bolton which made the choice of having an abortion between a woman and her doctor and conditional restrictions were not allowed.

Abortion was still a very controversial issue in the US. In 1977 Congress banned the use of Medicaid funds for use on abortions except in rare circumstances. Also, many states passed more antiabortion laws hoping that the Supreme Court would overturn Roe vs. Wade. But in 1992 it reaffirmed the 1973 decision.

            From 1995 to 2000, Congress repeatedly tried to ban partial birth abortion but this was vetoed by President Clinton. In 2003 a federal bill was passed by President George W. Bush that banned partial birth abortion but this bill did not include a health exception. Several states tried to change their laws to allow it and, in 2004, a federal judge declared it unconstitutional because of the lack of a health exception.

Public Conflict:

            The public’s division over abortion stems from conflicting views on personal freedom- a right to privacy and a right to religious or moral convictions surrounding the belief that life begins at conception (Tamney). In addition, traditionalist views on sexual permissiveness, partly intermixed with traditional religious belief, mark an important factor in the opposition to abortion (Kelley). These factors in combination result in broad definitions for the terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” that account for the large middle ground present in American opinions on abortion. While 53% of Americans identify themselves as “pro-choice,” only 40% of the population supports abortion for any reason during the first trimester of a pregnancy (Gallup). Furthermore, 53% of Americans feel that abortion is morally wrong (Gallup). The overlap between these two groups implies that the way the issues is defined by many Americans encompasses both sides of the argument, morally objecting to the notion of abortion, yet recognizing the idea of the individual right to choose.

            Due to the large amount of economic power and level of organization within the groups debating abortion, NARAL, Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, NRLC, United States Catholic Bishops (Jackson), the public’s exposure to abortion in the media and in politics is one of a black and white issue where those that are “pro-choice” at fighting against those that are “pro-life” for legalization or abolition of abortion (Scott). However, public opinion on the topic of abortion has a much wider range of opinion than simply for or against abortion, a majority of America falling in between the two extremes.

This middle ground proves to be somewhat ambiguous in how they define the issue, a slight majority of the nation feeling that abortion should be “legal in some circumstances” but not completely illegal or freely accessed (Gallup). Within this position on abortion, the restrictions people desire to impose on abortion range from very few to very severe, with a slight majority favoring greater restriction on abortion, opposed to its free access (Gallup).

The topic of late term abortions, Intact Dilation and Extraction in particular, and medical abortions, such as RU-486 have come to the forefront in the debate over abortion in the past ten years. While topics such as The Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 1996, 1997, and 2003 have placed the spotlight on the procedure, only 1.4% of abortions were performed past week 20, when D&X abortion are commonly performed (CDC). Medical abortion only comprised 1% of the total abortions in the last year (CDC). The focus on these topics despite their low rates of use demonstrates the public’s moral apprehension to abortion and to increasing its ease of access through an abortion pill.

            Although abortion is a divisive issue in public opinion, its importance in determining how an individual will vote is minor. Although 46% of registered voters listed abortion as one of many important issues in choosing a candidate in an election, as opposed to 19% stating the candidate must share their view and 32% stating it was not a major issue, 58% of voters said that the current administration’s stance on abortion would have no effect on their decision to vote to reelect the administration (Gallup). These statistics demonstrate that, while the public identifies abortion as an important topic, few people vote specifically on the issue of abortion. A majority of those identifying as “pro-life” and associating with NRLC would not vote for a candidate whose views did not coincide with theirs on the topic of abortion. Conversely, a majority of those identified as “pro-choice” and associated with NARAL rejected the idea of one issue voting (Scott). This difference in opinion illustrates the major difference in the competing frames of the topic of abortion. While those supporting legal abortion defend it using an individual’s right to privacy, opponents of abortion frame it as a human rights issue and liken it to murder. With a clearly defined position equating abortion to murder, the organization and outspokenness of the anti-abortion movement has a much clearer context (Scott).

Political Conflict:

            Politically, the abortion issue is a question of personal privacy rights. The laws on the books and subsequent court decisions relating to them have, over time, been tied to two questions: whether women have the right to have abortions, and at what point does an unborn child have a claim to rights of its own.

            The landmark decision Roe v. Wade from 1973 goes a long way in defining who gets rights and when. According to the decision written by Justice Blackmun, the right to abortion is defended by the 14th Amendment. The text of the amendment specifically uses the word “born” in the criteria to qualify someone for the privacy rights protected in the amendment. When the moral issue of when a new life begins is ignored, it negates any rights that a group of cells and/or fetus could have. (Blackmun)

            However, Roe vs. Wade also places the limitation that, at a certain point (usually in the 3rd trimester of pregnancy), the unborn child reaches a point of “viability” which grants it the right not to be aborted, excepting instances of rape or incest or if having the baby is dangerous to the mother. (Blackmun) The rights and limits set out in Roe vs. Wade represent what most people in America think about abortion, regardless of what they think about it morally. (Gallup)

            Roe v. Wade isn’t the only big Supreme Court case relating to abortion. While it set the standard and allows for abortion all over the country (despite some state’s efforts to outlaw it), another big decision, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, places further restrictions on abortions. It deemed a 24-hour waiting period, a minor needing parental consent, and the abortion-giver being required to keep records as being constitutional. The decision also maintained the equality of men and women by declaring a spousal-consent clause unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment, saying that husbands shouldn’t have an “unconstitutional veto” over a woman’s decision to have an abortion. (O’Connor)

            The ban on late-term abortions has been federal since 2003, when Congress and President Bush both approved the Partial Birth Abortion Ban. It rules out the D & X procedure that involves partially delivering the baby, then vacuuming out the brain before completing the abortion, unless it has to be done for the welfare of the mother.

Moral Divide:

            The American public has been struggling with a moral divide over abortion for decades. The moral aspect of this issue is what makes it so difficult to resolve. The critical question that fuels this debate is: when does life begin? While pro-life activists argue that life begins at conception and abortion is equivalent to murder, the pro-choice activists argue that abortion will occur regardless of whether it is legal. Therefore, those who are pro-choice believe that maintaining the legality of abortion provides a safe way to receive abortions that will save lives and also grant women the right of choice and control over their own bodies. However, beyond the human rights issues involved, lie a moral and ethical concern that questions social ethics. Unfortunately, this controversial debate has lost the main focal point of giving human rights to women, as well as the unborn, and has been overshadowed by the social implications of abortion.

Pro-life advocates argue that abortion is murder, by claiming: “Abortion ends a pregnancy by destroying and removing the developing child. That baby’s heart has already begun to beat by the time the mother misses her period and begins to wonder if she might be pregnant (about 31 days after the mother’s last menstrual period or LMP).” (nrlc.org) Pro-life activists make the cunning argument that abortion is equivalent to murder, and murder is not ethical. Therefore, abortion is unethical. These activists claim that abortion promotes promiscuity and therefore call for no toleration of abortion under any circumstances. Pro-life activists find that the majority of women having abortions are not victims of incest or rape. They are having abortions for purely social reasons because of unwanted pregnancies. Torres and Forest in their statistical research of “Why Women have Abortions” write: “Women have cited ‘social reasons’, not mother’s health or rape/incest as their motivation in approximately 93% of all abortions.” (Torres & Forest). Clearly the pro-life advocates are moving away from the fundamental issue, which involves upholding basic human rights, and are focusing more on social implications as reasons for abortion.

The pro-choice advocates on the other hand argue that abortion is inevitable and providing women with safe abortion is the only way to eliminate death and trauma from illegal abortions. According to Susan Cohen from the Allen Guttmacher Institute,

The main effect of abortion’s legal status is not on the likelihood that it will occur but on its safety. In country after country around the world, illegal abortion is associated with women dying and being maimed by unsafe abortion. That was the U.S. experience in the years prior to Roe v. Wade, but in addition to looking back in time; many contemporary and very stark examples can be found by simply looking overseas.

 - Allen Guttmacher Institute


Another core argument in the pro-choice campaign is that abortion is strongly correlated with reducing crime rates. Donohue and Levitt from “The Impact of Legalized abortion on Crime” write,

We offer evidence that legalized abortion has contributed significantly to recent crime reductions. Crime began to fall roughly 18 years after abortion legalization. The 5 states that allowed abortion in 1970 experienced declines earlier than the rest of the nation, which legalized in 1973 with Roe v. Wade. States with high abortion rates in the 1970s and 1980s experienced greater crime reductions in the 1990s. In high abortion states, only arrests of those born after abortion legalization fall relative to low abortion states. Legalized abortion appears to account for as much as 50 percent of the recent drop in crime. (Donohue & Levitt)


This reasoning further exemplifies why the abortion debate has moved away from focusing on the issues of human rights. And, instead, the pro-choice argument is geared towards supporting safe abortion and reducing crime rates.  

            The ideological basis of abortion attitudes comes from two very different life-styles. Suzanne Staggenborg states it best when she writes, “The issue is symbolic of a broader range of concerns. Many who oppose abortion are concerned about what they see as the change in values and lifestyles represented by abortion.” (Staggenborg, pg 50) While the debate is supposed to focus on supporting human rights it has lost its ideal purpose. As Suzanne Staggenborg describes,

Pro-choice activists tend to be highly educated women who are pursuing careers. They have not rejected motherhood, but they see it as one of the number of roles, and they tend to have just one or two well-planned children. Pro-life activists, on the other hand, are somewhat less educated, less well-off women who to be housewives and have larger families. They are also more religious than pro-choice women. (Staggenborg, pg50)


The principles and beliefs of what both sides of the abortion debate are fighting for are extremely different than what seems to be their hidden motives. The discussion of human rights issues is just a façade to promote lifestyles and ideologies that each group separately believes.


Abortion will remain an issue which opposing sides will never see eye to eye on.  The very basis of the issue fundamentally lies within the values and beliefs of each faction.  That being said, the issue will likely remain steeped in controversy and remain unresolved.

Interestingly enough, as we have seen through prior evidence, the majority of people holds a median view in relation to the two sides discussed. (Gallup) Having looked at all the data in order to evaluate the populations’ sentiments, we understand and accept that any decision made will ultimately dissatisfy a percentage of the population.  We believe however that every effort must be made to uphold the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court ruling, allowing for legalized abortion.  As we stated earlier, we agree with the slight majority of the population that feels abortion should be “legal in some circumstances” but not completely banned nor freely accessed. (Gallup)  We also encourage that this legalized abortion come with the restrictions and regulations mandated by the states.  As citizens of the United States, we cannot deny or inhibit a woman’s right to choose.  We can, however, regulate her decision and allow the state governments to determine the appropriate stipulations and restrictions of legalized abortion.



Sources Cited:


1.    Roe v. Wade Decision Text, Justice Harry Blackmun: http://hometown.aol.com/abtrbng/410us113.htm


2.   Gallup’s Pulse of Democracy: Abortion;  Jan. 26, 2006; The Gallup Organization; Feb. 15 2006.



3.    Planned Parenthood v. Casey Decision Text, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor: http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/91-  744.ZS.html


4.    Willke, J.C. “Why Can’t We Love Them Both” Heritage House. 22 Feb 2006



5.    British Broadcasting Company. “Historical Attitudes to Abortion” Ethics 20 Feb 2006



6.    Institutional Author. “State Abortion Laws” The Abortion Law Homepage 18 Feb 2006



7.    Lewis, Jone Johnson. “Abortion History” About.com 18 Feb 2006



8.    "Roe v. Wade." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 25 Feb 2006,     <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Roe_v._Wade&oldid=41411054>.


9.    Cohen, Susan. February 2001. “A Message to the President: Abortion Can Be Safe, Legal and Still Rare”. http://www.agi-                usa.org/pubs/tgr/04/1/gr040101.html


10.    Aida Torres and J.D. Forrest. Febuary 2006. “Why do Women have abortions?”            http://nrlc.org/abortion/facts/reasonsabortions.html


11.    “Abortion: Some Medical Facts.” http://www.nrlc.org/abortion/ASMF/asmf3.html


12.    Suzanne Staggenborg. “Abortion as a Social Problem.” McGraw-Hill.1995. Page 50.


13.    John Donohue and Steven Levitt. Copyright 2001.“The Impact of legalized abortion on                                     crime.”http://www.bepress.com/cgi/viewpdf.cgi?article=1028&context=blewp&preview_mode=


14.   Scott, Jacqueline; “Conflicting Beliefs About Abortion: Legal Approval and Moral

Doubts”; Social Psychology Quarterly, Vol. 52, No. 4; Dec, 1988.


15.   Scott, Jacqueline; Schuman, Howard; “Attitude Strength and Social Action in the 

Abortion Dispute”; American Sociological Review, Vol. 53, No. 5; Oct. 1988.


16.   Tamney, Joseph B.; Johnson, Stephen D.; Burton, Ronald; “The Abortion

      Controversy: Conflicting Beliefs and Values in American Society”; Journal for

the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 31, No. 1; Mar. 1992.


17.    Kelley,  Jonathan; Evans, M. D. R.; Headey, Bruce; “Moral Reasoning and Political Conflict: The

Abortion Controversy”; The British Journal of Sociology; The London School of        Economics and Political Science,1993.


18.    Elam-Evans, Laurie D. , Ph D.; Abortion Surveillance --- United States, 2000;  Nov. 28, 2003;  Center for Disease Control; Feb.  15, 2006. http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss5212a1.htm/


19.     “Abortion.”  The Oxford English Dictionary.  2nd Ed.  1989.

20.     “Defining abortion.”  National Right to Life Committee.  National Right to Life Committee Organization.    



21.            Dudley, Susan.  Stephanie Mueller.  “Abortion Facts.”  National Abortion Federation. 2000.