Why we'll never agree about abortion


FoetusAbortion seems to me to be an inherently insoluble moral and human rights conundrum. The best course however may be to face this complexity rather than seek to reduce it to a final solution. As the arguments currently stand I feel driven to advocate for a position that is pro-choice and pro-life.

In the late 1960s abortion was illegal in Australia. One consequence of this was the common practice of horrendous, self-administered or so-called backyard abortions, that put women at risk. This was the lot of the poor and unsupported, as medical terminations of pregnancy could be obtained for a high fee.

The TV drama series Dangerous Remediesdocuments this period of corruption, advocacy and eventual legalising of abortion. In a recent interview Jo Wainer, widow of pro-abortion campaigner Dr Bertram Wainer and a central protagonist depicted in the drama, confirms it is largely faithful to her experiences at the time.

Jo and Bertram received death threats, ironically from pro-lifers.

This still occurs in the US. Abortion was a hot election issue during the recent campaign, alongside the economy. Largely the argument is generated by the Roe Vs Wade 1973 United States Supreme court decision on abortion. According to the Wikipedia entry on this landmark decision:

The Court ruled that a right to privacy under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment extended to a woman's decision to have an abortion, but that right must be balanced against the state's two legitimate interests in regulating abortions: protecting prenatal life and protecting women's health.

Arguments became centred on definitions of the 'personhood' of the foetus. Some argue that human personhood begins at conception, while others, such as the ethicist Peter Singer, argue that it occurs later.

I am deeply unsympathetic to the argument that strips the foetus of any protection under human rights by defining personhood in Singer's terms, summarised by Scientific American blogger John Horgan as  claiming 'even a viable foetus is not a rational, self-aware person with desires and plans, which would be cut short by death; hence it should not have the same right as humans who have such qualities'.

Singer's definition of a person as rational and able to make plans and envisage a future could exclude trauma victims, or those suffering from severe depression or even mild cognitive impairment. This could include my 93-year-old mother and sometimes myself.

The abortion debate is not for most of us a coldly rational one. It generates enormous emotional involvement. Every one of us has been that helpless infant relying upon the protection of parents, the law and the community.

In 2009 George Tiller, medical director of a Wichita women's clinic that administered late-term abortions, was shot and killed in church by Scott Roeder, a professed Christian who declared his intent to be the protection of unborn children. While this is an act of murder for which Roeder was rightly convicted, it provokes the question: Is the defence of the rights of the unborn child sorely lacking in our ethical and legal debate?

For me the answer is an emphatic yes.

The true ethical space exists in grappling with many incompatible positions. We cannot dismiss the tragedy of killing a human being just because it is too small and helpless to ask for protection. On the other hand criminalisation of abortion results in maternal suffering and death, particularly among the poor and disadvantaged.

Too frequently abortion is the only answer offered to struggling women who fear being unsupported. These include the single young victims of family violence, deserted, shamed, poor and abandoned women.

Many are pressured by assertions that it is a more loving act to have an abortion, and that it would be selfish to keep their baby, particularly in the case of detected disability.

We can't ask the babies. Or can we? In the words of Louisa, now an adult but born with cystic fibrosis, 'I am a child with special needs, I do believe in pro-choice but there are things that I learnt and that I value about having [being a person with] CF.'

If we valued the unborn and were more willing to offer acceptance and support to vulnerable parents and their children, we might considerably reduce the need for abortion and live in a more civilised and diverse society that was willing to take care of the vulnerable at all life stages. 

Lyn Bender headshotLyn Bender is a Melbourne psychologist. Her Twitter handle is @Lynestel 

Topic tags: Lyn Bender, abortion, Roe Vs Wade



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Existing comments

Thanks Lyn - I concur with you that 'The true ethical space exists in grappling with many incompatible positions.' Not to be solved but to be lived with - an ongoing discontent.
spiritedcrone | 09 November 2012

This is the most rational and humane article about the vexed issue of abortion that I have seen for a long time. Thank you Lyn for writing it and Eureka Street for publishing it. Like the question of dying, there are no absolute answers and we need humility to face the complexity of the issue and respect to trust the moral decisions that other people make.
Paul Collins | 09 November 2012

We can stand 'outside' this situation, so to speak, and use emotive terms like 'murder', 'tragedy' and 'rights'. Notwithstanding, abortion is always a tragedy - for the mother, for the father and for the foetus. It is a complex issue and I think our current laws, imperfect as they may seem, may be as close as we can get to a solution. Definitely, more support and empathy for women placed in difficult situations would be helpful, most especially by those pro-lifers who are aggressively pro-life. It is the woman who is considering an abortion who is most vulnerable and attempting esoteric arguments at that time would be counter-productive. Assert the mother's value to society - only answer.
Pam | 09 November 2012

Let's look at the issue rationally. Pro-choice? But do women really have a choice? Where is the rigorous research on the effects of abortion on the woman/ mother? On her mental and physical health? The effects on relationships? The effects on fertility? A relationship with cancer? Abortion, where legal, has now become a money making industry all over the world. Abortion is used routinely as an alternatve form of contraception. Until this research has been undertaken, there is no choice for women. To even raise question of the health impacts of abortion is considered anti-feminist. Let's spend our energy on promoting some good research on the effects of abortion. Then hopefully good policy will follow.
Concerned | 09 November 2012

Thanks Lyn for opening up a deeper conversation about abortion. Tony Abbott, yes, the Tony so many focus their hatred on because of this very issue, asked, when he was Health Minister, two questions to also open up a national conversation about abortion. His questions? Are there too many abortions in Australia? Are young people too promiscuous? [This was in relation to the number of abortions in the 17-24 age range] Tony got blasted for daring to ask those questions. I am hoping the same doesn't happen for you Lyn, because, under the surface in our society are deeply troubling thoughts, such as peter Singer's which you have mentioned. These need to be brought to the surface as you are doing Lyn. Hope this debate on Eureka Street can be a significant contribution to a national debate on abortion.
Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 09 November 2012

All this is true. But I was in 1950 with a septic miscarriage in an English ward in the Manchester Fever Hospital, full (40) of pitminer's wives and prostitutes with septic abortions illegally obtained. Their reasons for having the abortions were about the probable lives of the extra child, the needs of existing children, and their own chances of coping. Then I lived in an inner suburb in Melbourne, 1953-58, and saw the lives of those who had abortions. I wished they used safe contraception or chastity, and blamed the men as much as the girls, but I saw the lives of the children who were born. I agree with Lyn 'Bender. Unless every Pro-Lifer saw to it that the unborn children's lives and the families' lives were worth living, I think none of them can blame these poor women.
valerie yule | 09 November 2012

I think most Catholics agree that abortion is a tradedy, is the ending of a human life, can bring long last post abortion grief to mother, father and other family members. Where people come to grief is how to help. In my experience with women who were going to have abortions - and then didn't because they met someone who talked them out of it and helped them - not one regretted the pro life decision. More importantly, there were differing ways that the women were approached and accepted the outstretched hand. Some responded to the offer for help, some to the friendship, others to the reminder of the moral dimension of abortion. I know about 10 such women, and all say thank you to the various people who helped them. It seems clear that we should rejoice in all approaches that help women who are at their most vulnerable and often alone. Those who pray outside abortion clinics (through whom about 400 have been spared abortion in Sydney alone), those who work on phone counselling, those who work individually in a counselling room, all should be thanked profusely for the invaluable work they do to reach out to women.
Skye | 09 November 2012

Good article! Though the principle that abortion is killing a potential human being can hardly be contested. There are circumstances where this is necessary and therefore good. If the pregnancy e.g. would kill the mother is e.g an obvious example. We humans / mankind at times have the duty to kill other humans.I agree "abortion" is always a tragedy. Still it is not the only tragedy which is part and parcel of our human existence.
Theo Verbeek | 09 November 2012

Regarding backyard abortion, Dr David Van Gend argues that it was medical advances rather than a change in the law which made abortion 'safe': "I've taken the trouble to go through the entire Australian Bureau of Statistics data from last century...In the terrible days before antibiotics, about 600 women died each year from childbirth or miscarriage or abortion, about 100 of those deaths in the thirties were due to illegal abortion...But come antibiotics, that plummets to about 10 to 15 a year, come transfusions, come improved surgery...and ambulances and hospitals, by the time you get to the sixties, you're down to a small number, such that, in the very last year, 1969, of the old illegal back yard regime, you have one death, not 100, but one death in the whole country." http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2004/11/29/1240811.htm The graph on page 14 of SA's abortion stats shows the dramatic increase in abortion numbers following legalisation: http://www.choicesoflife.com.au/PDFs/SA-Abortion-Report.pdf Like other 'harm minimisation' scenarios, it is difficult to weigh up the harms 'minimised' relative to the increased frequency that follows legalisation.
Zac | 09 November 2012

Yes, to receive a death threat from someone who claims to be pro-life is an irony.
Pauline | 09 November 2012

No, Theo Verbeek, abortion is not killing a potential human being. Abortion is killing a human being. It is a biological fact that the foetus is a human being. We must talk about human beings, not persons. The definition of 'person' not only can, but must, be arbitrary unless it coincides with the definition of 'human being'. What could be more arbitrary than Peter Singer's current definition. Society must do its best to overcome the problems that lead a woman to decide on abortion. Women who have abortions should be offered consolation, not condemnation.
Gavan Breen | 09 November 2012

Thanks for a great article on a difficult issue. Although I admired Peter Singer's remorseless logic I thought that in one sense it was too simplistic for complex moral issues with culture overtones as everything is seen as black and white, with shades of grey excluded (thereby making the development of a solution much simpler). A fascinating reductio ad absurdum development of the Singer logic can lead one to the conclusion that termination of life is acceptable up to age 3 (or even higher) if the child is not developing as wished with respect to intellectual or social attributes. Incidentally I understand Peter Singer's views changed somewhat when his mother developed Alzheimer's.
Mike | 09 November 2012

Thanks, Lyn. You have courage in bringing up this issue again, when so many of us are afraid to address the subject at all. We can't even ask the question about the number of abortions without being blasted - we're against women; we want to return to backyard abortions; we want to deprive women of any choice at all. We need to be able to openly address the subtleties, we need to listen, we need to converse not debate. It's not just about the individuals concerned - it's about our society and its responsibility as a human society.
Joan Seymour | 09 November 2012

It seems to me that the argument is not pro-choice or pro-life, but pro-choice or anti-choice.
Blueblood | 09 November 2012

I was astounded when I read that the U.S bishops sent a letter to be read out in Catholic churches before the Presidental elections urging people not to vote for Obama,thi predicated by his stance on abortions. My shock at the bishops
giving those instructions whilst covering up
child abuse and paying people off for compensation leaves me amazed at the double
standards. I guess they have the odd cleric who has counselled a woman to have an abortion because of "unusual" circumstances.
John C | 09 November 2012

Sorry Lyn unlike the other readers I do not think that this is a "great article" about a difficult subject. This is an article which quite frankly openly accepts abortion because we "might go back to the bad old days"
Tell me Lyn why do we have abortion to 40 weeks? why have there been nearly 60 babies that we know of who have been born alive as a result of abortion and not helped and left to die? they were outside of the mother's body and so became patients, why didnt they get the minimum of care as any patient would? because dear Lyn abortion is a "woman's right" and that's the way it's seen. And of course most males would quite agree with this after all it removes responsibility for their action.
I have dealt with (over 17 years) with post abortive men and women and no they do not agree with you and wish that they had not done what they did. I deal daily with the pain of after abortion grief, the disenfranchised type of grief, the one which cannot be spoken about. I deal with young women who self mutilate because of deep grief. I deal with young men who self harm via drugs and other methods.

So no Lyn your article, as far as I am concerned is the article of someone who sits on a fence and I am disappointed with Eureka Street for even allowing it to be printed.
Anne Lastman | 09 November 2012

Pro-choice abortion, wasn't a choice.
Pro-choice abortion is the belief that women have the right to choose to abort a baby from their body. The "pro-choice" view is that a baby does not have human rights within the mother's womb. The people of the United States never voted on or supported this pro-choice position. Actually, it was the U.S. Supreme Court that "legalized" abortion as a result of Roe vs. Wade . Of course, the argument in favor of the "pro-choice" position is that the fetus is not a human life; it's merely a fertilized egg between a man and a woman. Here's the basic argument for why that "justification" breaks down at any point in the human gestation process. First, according to biological definition, we know that the fetus growing in the womb is "alive" from the moment of conception -cell growth/development occurs immediately-. Second, we know that the nature of the life in that womb is undeniably "human" -the miracle of DNA-. Third, by definition, an abortion terminates the fetus within the womb, which is alive and human by nature. Therefore, abortion is the act of terminating a human life. Legal or not, medically safe or not, this is not a choice we can make.
Bernstein | 09 November 2012

Lyn , thanks to you and Eureka street for talking about this issue .My contribution is that the comprimise solution reached in the 60/70s on weeks of conception that defines the difference between mothers and childs rights is no longer valid. Easy accurate pregnancy testing and morning after pills mean the abortion decision can be made earlier. Advancements in medicine now mean a premature birth baby now can live from a much earlier birth .Combine these two facts and the age for legal termination should be lowered .
john crew | 09 November 2012

This emotive issue is usually not able to be debated as to do so draws cries of being bigotted, being right wing, conservative, reactionary, anti feminist, etc.

This article was a breath of fresh air to read, acknowledging as it did the complexity and humanity of the issue. Political correctness these days crushes true debate on this and other complex and emotive issues, e.g.: asylum seeker policy, gay marriage, Church teachings on sexuality v. socieities focus on self determination; any questioning or defense of clerical individuals or the institutional church in relation to clergy sexual abuse and/or the church's response.

We must be able and free to speak our minds - respectfully, compassionately and learn to accept respectfully a totally opposing point of view. Free speech is endangered otherwise.

Thank you Lyn.
Anne M | 09 November 2012

Why is this post so pessimistically titled? The thrust of Dr Bender's substantive points is that with due valuing, abortion can be almost entirely wiped out.

I would go further than Dr Bender. She has one caveat against criminalization of abortion: "On the other hand criminalization of abortion results in maternal suffering and death, particularly among the poor and disadvantaged." As a medical issue, this is disputed as irrelevant to our time, as Zac notes above. But more importantly, what Dr Bender fails to note is that HAVING an abortion - legal or not - ALSO can itself to "maternal suffering and death", as the studies of post-abortion syndrome grimly bear out.

What this means is that the sole argument in Dr Benders treatise against criminalizing abortion has no traction. Thus, from a purely philosophical view, or from some practical arguments in sympathy with the desperate mother, there is no argument available as to why we shouldn't agree that abortion is unacceptable.

I can think of only one other angle that might be driving the abortion industry. Money. Surely not?

HH | 09 November 2012

As a male, I have never had to decide about abortion. However, the statistics for deaths among women in third world countries where abortion is illegal are staggering. Those women left with fistulas and other medical ailments following "successful" abortions are worse. These are largely countries who follow the nonsense of catholic doctrine (re contraception also). If proper medical abortions were permissable, these sad statistics could be significantly reduced. While none of us wants to see abortion, poor women particularly often have no alternative. Through provision of contraception, education and proper medical intervention as a last resort, we could change the lives of millions of women each year. (see: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2332264 for statistics.
Robin | 09 November 2012

An American pro-choice person spoke recently about how Mother Nature is wasteful and in particular how "she" creates millions of spermatoazoa, most of which will be washed from the recipient female as only one (usually) will fertilize the female. Her logical conclusion was that we can afford to be wasteful also as there are many more spermatazoa and many more pregnancies available. I don't necessarily agree with this point of view, but I do understand where she is coming from.
Robin | 09 November 2012

I think that abortion is the killing of a human child. Originally this was thought to be allowable when the mother's life was considered at risk. Now it's used as a contraception,often for no better reason than to get rid of the evidence of unfaithfulness in a relationship or the inconvenience of pregnancy while pursuing a career. There's a great documentary called '180' which is very worth seeing. It turns people's unreflected views totally around within minutes. I think the woman considering abortion should be encouraged to watch this video or at least a film of just what it is she is 'getting rid of'...the perfectly formed hands and feet, the beating heart, the thumb being sucked. The availability of adoption should also be offered as a gift of life to her child and a chance of happiness rather than the sentence of death which abortion undoubtedly is. The truth of the after affects of abortion, including the possibility of depression and infertility should also be part of this informing of her decision.If after she is armed with all this knowledge she still desires to go ahead with the abortion, she should be allowed. What is the point of destroying the woman along with the child in botched backyard opperations?
Bernadette | 09 November 2012

Robin: Recent evidence from Chile has shown no association between legality of abortion and maternal mortality rates:

Furthermore, from what I have seen of international estimates of 'unsafe abortion', I would advise caution in accepting such estimates at face value. Firstly, both the WHO and Guttmacher Institute use an operation definition of 'unsafe' as: ‘abortions done in countries with highly restrictive abortion laws, and those that do not meet legal requirements in countries with less restrictive laws.’ In other words, they presuppose (with few exceptions) that illegal equals unsafe.

Secondly, consider the difficulty of estimating abortion stats: I've analysed an Ethiopian study where researchers' only hard data was the number of women treated for complications following miscarriage, and the number of births in the country. They had to estimate what proportion of these miscarriages were spontaneous as opposed to induced(abortion), estimate what proportion of miscarriages are hospitalised, and estimate hospitalisation rates for induced abortion. Their final result for unsafe abortions in that country was the result of a calculation dependent on numerous dubious estimates. Yet this is the best anyone can do, and it is reported as fact. http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/3601610.html

Zac | 09 November 2012

Well written. The only thing you forgot to mention, at all, which might indeed be telling, was the right of an adult human not to be forced against their will to use their own body to support another person for 9 months.
Mary 2 | 09 November 2012

Anne M sorry I cannot respectfully accept an opposing view. You see I cannot accept the view that abortion, the killing of an in utero child, is a discussable/debateable topic and should never have been made or be a discussable topic. We are speaking about the intentional death of children, for goodness sake. We are not discussing the removable of warts. Abortion means the death of a son or daughter. A member of our society. Future citizen. We need to stop this insane political correctness. Abortion means the death of a child in the womb. Nothing less. There is no common ground between myself and someone who has to respect the other opinion that it is OK to terminate the life of the child in the womb.
Anne Lastman | 09 November 2012

The choice to bring a new life into the world is entirely up to the parents of the child. Only they can assess the the potential issues involved with being parents. It is the poor or disadvantaged that suffer disproportionately when the state intervenes and imposes it's double standard. Lets hope regression to an earlier crueller age is not before us.
For those that are true pro lifers - see you at the next anti war rally. Please also apply your highly principled attitudes to those that would commit our nation's finest to the tragedy of the battlefield.
Col | 09 November 2012

Thanks for this well reasoned and balanced look at the extremely difficult and widely debated issue of abortion. As a counsellor with many years of listening to the tragic stories of women and men who have been left emotionally and spiritually wounded by the loss of a child through abortion, I am grateful for this contribution to the ongoing discussion........
Julie Kelly | 10 November 2012

"The choice to bring a new life into the world is entirely up to the parents of the child." Col, a conceptus is a child and it is already in the world. Mary 2, if someone left a baby at my doorstep and there was no-one around I could practically offload it on to, could I in strict justice leave it to die of neglect? Or am I obliged ("forced") by considerations of justice to take it into my care?
HH | 10 November 2012

Abortion is barbaric.
john frawley | 10 November 2012

Perhaps we can apply similar "logic" and say that no one is allowed to argue for Australia accepting refugees unless you are prepared to feed and shelter them in your own home?
R Blaine | 12 November 2012

What is missing from this and most other pro-life viewpoints is that it is not always in a healthy foetus' best interests to be born. What is missing in terms of asking the baby once an adult, is asking adults who were born as a result of an unwanted pregnancy to "pro life" parent(s). The fact that the author is a psychologist is even more worrying in this instance. As such an adult, I most definitely believe that, even in the absence of systematic abuse and/or neglect, it can definitely be better to have never been born. Particularly if an early termination is available. Pro life must mean pro happy life. Otherwise it is just endless torture.
Helen | 13 November 2012

Helen, in a secular society, abortion laws cannot be based on religious beliefs such as those you have expressed, unless they can withstand evidence-based scrutiny. Many people do, of course, sadly, choose to end their own lives, but usually because they either suffer a painful illness or are debilitated by age. There is zero correlation with whether their mother "wanted" them as a baby. Sorry, but I reject your position because I believe that every individual has the right to make choices about their own life, free from paternalistic dictation by others. If you want to justify abortion using the same principle as "I have no duty to exert myself giving first aid to the person I've just run over", let's hear it, but please don't pretend that the person who will die as a result would be happier dead.
R Blaine | 13 November 2012

This is a very superficial article on abortion and fails to address the real feminist issue that pregnancy should be a woman's human rights informed choice issue with access to good quality medical and pyschiatric health services such as family planning advice, artificial contraception, abortion and pyschiatry counselling. I believe that this was the reason for the campaign for safe medically supervised abortions by Drs. Bertram and Jo Wainer in the early 1970's.
The role of male husbands and boyfriends should be limited to unequivocal moral and financial support when a woman and her doctor decide to abort a pregnancy.
I agree with the ethics philosopher Peter Singer that a person's human rights begins at birth.
I believe that most of the so-called 'pro-lifers' believe in a masculine dominant philosophy and are anti-feminist who do not believe in equal rights for women.
I also believe that issues such as artificial contraception and abortion are not religious issues - they are feminist health issues.
I also believe that one of the mistakes of the feminist and women's liberation movement of the last 50 odd years has been neglecting the role and rights of the full-time mother.

Mark Doyle | 18 November 2012

I agree, Lyn. It may be that 'divine discomfort' may be the best we can achieve in the short term. At the moment there's little discomfort in our society about the fact that women can choose to terminate their child's life for any reason, unless they have already been born. Personally, I think abortion should be safe, affordable and very, very, very rare, as did President Obama before his election campaign. Women's groups were stunned that he could 'make a moral judgement' between different reasons for seeking an abortion. He quickly changed his policy, of course. Now American women don't need a reason beyond their own desire. Australians probably the same. What are human beings coming to?
Joan Seymour | 13 December 2012


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