Universal Ethics > Wise Choices > Index > Abortion


Abortion is the ending of life following conception, to prevent further growth that would otherwise result in a new person being born.

Much debate has occurred about whether abortion is moral or immoral, or at what stage of the growth process it might become immoral. Although abortion could occur for any kind of animal, typically the debate is about abortion in humans, because humans are recognized as people.

At conception, a sperm and an egg are joined within the prospective mother to form a cell with a unique genetic code. After a while the cell divides into two identical cells, and this process repeats to produce a ball of cells. As this process continues, the cells differentiate to take on differing functions. As this development occurs, we call the result an embryo, then later a fetus, and finally a baby. However, there is only a fuzzy dividing point to differentiate those descriptions, because the growth is a continuous process.

At some point that process may spontaneously stop, resulting in a death called a miscarriage. However, for the recommendation below we concerned with the situation where the woman carrying the new human life intentionally arranges for it to be killed and removed, typically via a medical procedure.


With abortion there are a variety of scenarios that can occur, and thus there are multiple recommendations below.

If a baby is wanted, and the likely outcome is a healthy baby that can be raised successfully without facing an early death due to starvation or other such problem, of course it is an obvious decision to continue the pregnancy. So, if an abortion is to be contemplated we will assume that some or all of those conditions are not true.

The wisest choice: avoid unwanted pregnancy!

A simple and very effective solution to this issue it to prevent the problem from arising in the first place, by preventing unwanted pregnancy. This can be done by abstience from sexual intercourse or by the use of birth control methods. In the event that a women is raped, there are medicines that can be taken within a few days following that event to ensure that even if a sperm and egg have joined, the new cell does not implant on edge of the uterus to begin a pregnancy. So, this is the #1 recommendation to follow: avoid an unwanted pregnancy from arising!

On the matter of abstinence vs use of birth control methods, keep in mind that abstinence is a 100% effective means of preventing pregnancy. Short of sterilization, other methods may reduce the risk by 80% or more, but are not guaranated to work at all times.

If a man and women are married with an intent to have children, they may choose to use birth control methods as a way of controlling the timing of when they have a child. As long as they are prepared to have a child at an unplanned time, it is not a problem if the birth control method fails. For people who engage in "casual sex" without commitment, however, failure of a birth control method can be a big problem. One or both partners may be unable or unwilling to take care of a baby that the pregnancy would produce.

With or without a pregnancy occurring, casual sex has emotional entaglements and psychological consequences that tend to produce unhappiness as it becomes apparent to either or both partners that there is no real love there. So, on the matter of abstinence vs birth control, abstinence is recommended here as the wisest solution outside of a commited relationship.

The last part of the prevention method involves preventing date rape situations. It needs to be apparent to everyone that rape is morally unacceptable, and the legal system of a society needs to enforce that constraint. Moreover, women need to protect themselves by being aware of clues of danger, and avoiding situations where they may be at risk. In an ideal world women shouldn't have to worry about it, but when the world is less than ideal it is useful to take precautions. Friends and family can also help, not just by giving advice when there is reason for concern, but also to come to a person's aid when needed.

When the problem wasn't avoided

In this scenario a women doesn't become aware that she is pregnant until she misses a menstruation period, at which time the pregnancy may be in progress for up to a month. In some cases the women might ignore that event and not check for pregnancy until two periods have been missed. So at that stage it is a decision to continue the process until a baby is born, or to arrange an abortion.

There are two considerations here: the first is whether it is morally acceptable to end the new life at that stage, and the second is what options are available if the pregnancy is continued and a baby is born.

1. What is a person, and why does it matter?

On the first matter, keep in mind that the growth of the new life is a continuous process. If uninterrupted, the end is the birth of a baby. If it is immoral to kill a baby, then it is also immoral to conduct an abortion at the end of that process. The new life at 5 minutes prior to birth is really the same thing as a baby at 5 minutes after birth. The only difference is in where it is, but not what it is.

At this stage we could get into a dicussion of why it is considered immoral to kill any person at any age, whether it's a baby, child, or adult. There are reasons for it, which are covered elsewhere on this web site. Certainly there have been many situations in which killing occurs, such as wars. As demonstrated by the NewWorld simulation, the prevention of wars requires people to have motivations in which they care about each other. To be effective, those motivations need to apply across time and space, and not separate people into a "killable" category based on arbitrary difference such as where they are located.

Rather than attempting to repeat that information on this page, I simply offer it here as an assertion, that it is immoral to kill a baby with no other reason than "I don't want it." This is also true if if a human prior to birth has reached the stage of being a person, whereby it has the same attributes that we use to designate a baby as a person.

But what about about the earliest stage after conception, where the new life is still only a ball of cells? Truly it is a unique life, with unique genetics. But there are other cells that are human too, such as your own skin cells. What if you accientally cut yourself, destroying some cells? That is not generally considered immoral. Skin cells die all the time, as they wear out; the loss of them is not killing "a person." Likewise a ball of cells as a new life is not yet a person. To be a person, the being must be able to think.

The thinking ability comes on gradually. The brain is formed, and brain waves begin to occur. Also, the new life begins to take on baby-like behaviors. Images taken via modern technology show the new life inside the womb sucking his (or her) thumb. Pregnant women also become aware of the life inside them in the later part of pregnancy, as he (or she) sometimes moves around in the limited space, trying apparently to be comfortable, and sometimes kicking his or her mother from the inside.

The problem is that the brain doesn't switch on all at once, so exactly where to set the boundary of "when it is a person" isn't clear. We see in recent times some states setting laws about the "latest time in the preganancy" in which abortion is legally acceptable. Sometimes the law may be more lenient or more strict than a moral choice. For a moral choice it is necessary to look at the medical evidence and make a judgement based on that, and preferrably to make that judgement before one is in a situation of an unwanted pregnancy! To help you judge that, some hyperlinks to web articles on pre-natal brain development are provided below.

2. What happens if the pregnancy continues to birth?

There is one more consideration that is also very important, which is the fate of the new life if it is continued to the point of becoming a baby. Imagine a woman with an unwanted pregnancy living in an impoverished country, where neither she nor her mate have the means to feed or take care of the baby, nor anybody else who she knows, nor the government or church. Having an abortion in such a situation could be risky to her life, but also giving birth can be risky to both her and the child--especially if she is a young teen. If the state offers an abortion that is medically safe for her, as their solution to overpopulation and widespread misery, you can see why a woman in that situation might accept it.

Or, as another scenario, imagine that she was on illegal narcotic drugs or drinking alcohol in the early stage of pregnancy, and it seems likely that the baby would be born with debilitating brain or body injury. Or again, what if medical diagnostics (such as ultrasound) show birth defects? Or what if there are other problems with the pregnancy--perhaps to the point where a miscarriage (spontaneous abortion) might occur. If such a pregnancy could be ended early, before the new life is truly a person, much suffering might be avoided.

Not all situations are so desparate, however. In modern societies, there are often couples who would like to have a healthy baby, but cannot do so for medical reasons, and they would be very happy to raise someone elses' unwanted baby if it were born. Also, modern health care can often help women through a difficult pregnancy to produce a healthy baby. If a women has an unwanted pregnancy, before assuming the worst case, it would be wise for her to check into options. She may assume that she can't raise a baby herself due to lack of resources, but maybe she could get help, or maybe she could give the baby to someone who could raise the child and give him (or her) a happy life. In general, it is a preferrable choice to take advantage of one of these options if the pregnancy can produce a healthy baby.

Weighing the alternatives

As you can see, there are a variety of situations, and in the worst of them there are "frying pan vs fire" kinds of judgements to be made. There is no single, simple recommendation that can be made to cover every scenario. In general, the best strategy is to avoid the problem from arising (recommendation #1), in order that one doesn't have to face an ethical dilemma. Otherwise it is necessary to weigh the consequences of each alternative within the specific situation.

For "weighing consequences" it is often difficult for a person to judge when they are in a state of emotional turmoil. So, there can be some value in considering these scenarios as a matter of study, BEFORE one is actually in a one of those situations, so that they can decide rationally and impartially what they would choose. Also, if a person is caught in one of these difficult situations, it may help to seek advice from councellors who have helped other people in similar cases. It can also be useful to seek support from trusted individuals, such as friends, family, or others who can be relied on to provide emotional support or advice.

Associated Ideals

This is associated with the healthy body and healthy mind ideals, which apply to all persons. "All persons" includes the pregnant woman, and of the human life within her when it has reached the point of of being a person.


Pre-natal brain development

BrainBlogger.com: Medical Controversy - When does Life Begin?

TheBrainBank.ScienceBlog.com: What can Science add to the abortion debate?

WhatToExpect.com: Fetal Brain Nervous System

Wired.com: Heartbeat bills get the science of fetal heartbeats all wrong

Other considerations

Abortion.ProCon.org, Debate about abortion, arguments for and against strict rules

OurBodiesOurselves.org: Early pregnancy abortion options

Adoption alternative

Adoption.com: Options for adopters and birth mothers

Preventing unwanted pregnancy: Sexual Abstinence among Singles

YourLifeCounts.org: Benefit of sexual abstinence among single teens and adults

HealthChildren.org: Helping teens resist sexual pressure

Psychology Today: Overexposed and underprepared - the Effects of early exposure sexual content

Preventing unwanted pregnancy: Contraceptives

nhs.uk: Contraception effectiveness

familyplanning.org.nz: How effective is your contraceptive?

What about the Law?

There are wide variances around the world on abortion law. In general, politians design laws in an attempt to enforce a subset of morality, constrained by what is practical to enforce and the level of public concern or support. In some countries, politicians are unable to define abortion rules that have wide public support, in which case they just give up in frustration, leaving the nation without abortion laws. In other countries, politians in the same situation choose to leave traditional laws in place.

Sometimes laws and processes are counterproductive to the intended outcomes. For example, a law might require a court hearing in order to determine if a given case is eligible for an abortion. It may seem like a reasonable solution, but what if it introduces a delay of several weeks or months for the legal process? Add to that a delay of weeks or months on a medical waiting list. Biological evidence shows that within a few weeks of conception, the new life is already gaining human appearance and neurologial activity. So, if the decision wasn't immoral in the first place, adding the delay makes it so.

There is plenty of debate about what laws would work best, but it is not my intent here to advise politicians and lawmakers. That is true of this web site overall. It's purpose is to provide information to individuals so that they can make the best personal decisions they can. Even if something is legal, that doesn't mean that individuals have to choose that action. It's up to each person to make the best decision they can within the circumstances that they face, and better yet to make wise choices in order to prevent the unwanted circumstances.

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