The terms "pro-life" and "pro-choice" generally boil down to whether an individual thinks abortion should be banned or if it's acceptable. But there's more to the debate than that. It's important to know what the central arguments are about.
Someone who is "pro-life" believes that the government has an obligation to preserve all human life, regardless of intent, viability, or quality-of-life concerns. A comprehensive pro-life ethic, such as that proposed by the Roman Catholic Church, prohibits:
- Euthanasia and assisted suicide
- The death penalty
- War, with very few exceptions
In cases where the pro-life ethic conflicts with personal autonomy, as in abortion and assisted suicide, it's considered conservative. In cases where the pro-life ethic conflicts with government policy, as in the death penalty and war, it's said to be liberal.
People who are "pro-choice" believe that individuals have unlimited autonomy with respect to their own reproductive systems, as long as they don't breach the autonomy of others. A comprehensive pro-choice position asserts that the following must remain legal:
- Celibacy and abstinence
- Contraception use
- Emergency contraception use
Under the Partial Birth Abortion Ban passed by Congress and signed into law in 2003, abortion became illegal under most circumstances in the second trimester of pregnancy, even if the mother's health is in danger. Individual states have their own laws, some banning abortion after 20 weeks and most restricting late-term abortions.
The pro-choice position is perceived as "pro-abortion" to some in the U.S. The purpose of the pro-choice movement is to ensure that all choices remain legal.
Point of Conflict
The pro-life and pro-choice movements primarily come into conflict on the issue of abortion.
The pro-life movement argues that even a nonviable, undeveloped human life is sacred and must be protected by the government. Abortion must not be legal, according to this model, nor should it be practiced on an illegal basis.
The pro-choice movement argues that in pregnancies before the point of viability (when the fetus can't live outside the womb) the government doesn't have the right to impede a woman's decision to terminate the pregnancy.
The pro-life and pro-choice movements overlap to an extent in that they share the goal of reducing the number of abortions. They differ with respect to degree and methodology.
Religion and the Sanctity of Life
Politicians on both sides of the debate generally fail to acknowledge the religious nature of the conflict.
If one believes that an immortal soul is implanted at the moment of conception, and if "personhood" is determined by the presence of that immortal soul, then there is effectively no difference between terminating a week-old pregnancy or killing a living, breathing person. Some members of the pro-life movement acknowledge that there exists a difference in intent. Abortion would be, at worst, involuntary manslaughter rather than murder, but the consequences - the ultimate death of a human being - are regarded by many pro-lifers in much the same way.
Religious Pluralism and the Obligation of Government
The U.S. government can't acknowledge the existence of an immortal soul that begins at conception without taking on a specific, theological definition of human life.
Some theological traditions teach that the soul is implanted at quickening (when the fetus begins to move), rather than at conception. Other theological traditions teach that the soul is born at birth, while some traditions teach that the soul doesn't exist until well after birth. Still other theological traditions teach that there is no immortal soul at all.
Can Science Tell Us Anything?
Although there is no scientific basis for the existence of a soul, there is no scientific basis for the existence of subjectivity, either. This can make it difficult to ascertain concepts such as "sanctity." Science alone can't tell us whether a human life is worth more or less than a rock. We value each other for social and emotional reasons. Science doesn't tell us to do it.
To the extent that we have anything approaching a scientific definition of personhood, it would most likely rest in our understanding of the brain. Scientists believe that neocortical development makes emotion and cognition possible and that it doesn't begin until the late second or early third trimester of pregnancy.
Two Other Standards of Personhood
Some pro-life advocates argue that the presence of life alone, or of unique DNA, defines personhood. Many things that we don't consider to be living persons might meet this criterion. Our tonsils and appendices are certainly both human and alive, but we don't consider their removal as anything close to the killing of a person.
The unique DNA argument is more compelling. Sperm and egg cells contain genetic material that will later form the zygote. The question of whether certain forms of gene therapy also create new persons could be raised by this definition of personhood.
Not a Choice
The pro-life vs. pro-choice debate tends to overlook the fact that the vast majority of women who have abortions don't do so by choice, at least not entirely. Circumstances put them in a position where abortion is the least self-destructive option available. According to a study conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, 73 percent of women who had abortions in the United States in 2004 said that they couldn't afford to have children.
The Future of Abortion
The most effective forms of birth control - even if used correctly - were only 90 percent effective not long before the beginning of the 21st century. Redundant prophylactics can reduce the odds of pregnancy 30 or so years later to those of being struck by a meteor. The option of emergency contraception is available if those safeguards fail.
Numerous advancements in birth control technology might further reduce the risk of unplanned pregnancies in the future. It might be possible that abortion will largely disappear in this country at some point during the 21st century, not because it's been banned but because it's been rendered obsolete.
Finer, Lawrence B. "Reasons U.S. Women Have Abortions: Quantitative and Qualitative Perspectives." Lori F. Frohwirth, Lindsay A. Dauphinee, Susheela Singh, Ann M. Moore, Volume 37, Issue 3, Guttmacher Institute, September 1, 2005.
Santorum, Sen. Rick. "S.3 - Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003." 108th Congress, H. Rept. 108-288 (Conference Report), Congress, February 14, 2003.
"State Bans on Abortion Throughout Pregnancy." State Laws and Policies, Guttmacher Institute, April 1, 2019.