Abortion has become one of the most widely debated ethical issues of our time. On one side are pro-choice supporters-individuals who favor a woman's reproductive rights, including the right to choose to have an abortion.
On the other side are the pro-life advocates, who may oppose abortion for any reason or who may only accept abortion in extreme circumstances, as when the mother's life would be threatened by carrying a pregnancy to term. At one end of this ethical spectrum are pro-choice defenders who believe the fetus is only a potential human being when it becomes viable, that is, able to survive outside its mother's womb.
Until this time the fetus has no legal rights-the rights belong to the woman carrying the fetus, who can decide whether or not to bring the pregnancy to full term. At the other end of the spectrum are pro-life supporters who believe the fetus is a human being from the time of conception. As such, the fetus has the legal right to life from the moment the egg and sperm unite. Between these positions lies a continuum of ethical, religious, and political positions.
A variety of ethical arguments have been made on both sides of the abortion issue, but no consensus or compromise has ever been reached because, in the public policy debate, the most vocal pro-choice and pro-life champions have radically different views about the status of a fetus. Embryology, the study of fetal development, offers little insight about the fetus's status at the time of conception, further confounding the issue for both sides. In addition, the point during pregnancy when a fetus becomes viable has changed over the years as medical advances have made it possible to keep a premature baby alive at an earlier stage. The current definition of viability is generally accepted at about 24 weeks gestation; a small percentage of babies born at about 22 weeks gestation have been kept alive with intensive medical care. Despite the most advanced medical care, however, babies born prematurely are more at risk for long-term medical and developmental problems.
This combination of medical ambiguities and emotional political confrontations has led to considerable hostility in the abortion debate. For many people, however, the lines between pro-choice and pro-life are blurred and the issue is far less polarized. Many women who consider themselves pro-life supporters are concerned about possible threats to reproductive rights and the danger of allowing the government to decide what medical options are available to them. Similarly, many pro-choice individuals are deeply saddened by the act of abortion and seek to minimize its use through better education about birth control, and, in particular, emergency contraception, birth-control methods that prevent pregnancy after unprotected sexual intercourse.