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Addressing the issues on abortion

By Amanda Fairweather - posted Thursday, 13 October 2005

In Australia, where contraception is widely available, and the population is aging but not being readily replaced, tens of thousands of women are choosing to have abortions each year. Of these, it is estimated that: 0.03 per cent choose to do so because the pregnancy was caused by rape; 0.007 per cent because the woman’s life could be in danger; and 0.1 per cent because of a possible birth defect. Alternatively, 60 per cent choose to do so in order to avoid the cost of raising a child and 24 per cent because the woman fears the impact the child would have on her career or studies.

Since the legalisation of the procedure in Australia, there have been many debates among ethicists and lobbyists based on whether or not (and at what stage) the foetus can be considered a human being separate from its mother; and also, whether the child’s and mother’s projected quality of life should be taken into consideration when discussing the ethics of abortion.

Pro-choicers have argued that for a living organism to be qualified as a human being, it must provide evidence of mental activity, associated with thought and the mind (i.e., a “soul”). This raises important facts: the foetus’s brain is formed within the second month of pregnancy, and brain waves can be detected on an EEG (electroencephalograph) from 43 days onwards. Some people, however, such as Miriam Clare in The Abortion Issue: Personal Views on a Public Issue, take a perhaps more subjective stance that the synapses of the foetus’s brain must have formed connections for it to be considered its own person. This does not occur for seven months into the pregnancy and thus validates the procedure up until that time.


Pro-lifers, however, argue that because the zygote or foetus always has different DNA to the "mother”, it should be treated as a separate person from conception. Within five weeks, the foetus’s sex might be different from the “mother’s” and within seven weeks the foetus has developed its own blood type. Within 13 weeks, the foetus has everything that will be present in a full-term baby; the next two trimesters involve only a development in its size and strength. Therefore, they argue, the child is not simply an extension of the mother, but, by the time most abortions occur, human enough to warrant the right to life.

So we can see that judging the procedure on a purely scientific analysis still necessitates arbitrary human interpretation. Besides this, we have only just entered the 21st century, and it is likely that new developments in technology will add even more dimensions to the argument. Therefore, perhaps the opinions of doctors and scientists on the matter are not as defining as we once thought.

One question to be asked is in the case of a medically impaired foetus: who makes the decision as to whether it is more humane to end the foetus’ life before it is born or to let it live? Which impairments are terrible enough to warrant such a decision? Dwarfism, for example? The Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne seemed to have thought so recently when they aborted a 32-week-old foetus, suspected of having dwarfism, but have since changed their mind.

I believe the health and emotional wellbeing of the mother must also be the subject of careful consideration. The mother will need to make the hard choice between abortion, adoption and choosing to raise the child (perhaps on her own). Therefore she must receive the best support in her decision, as well as adequate information on each alternative option.

If she chooses adoption, she will still be responsible for carrying the “person” in her womb for nine months. She might have to take time off work, embrace the “joys” of maternity clothes and morning sickness and abstain from alcohol and cigarettes for a period of time. If she chooses to abort, she risks psychological side effects and feelings of guilt and pain. Although some might argue that, apart from in a few mitigating circumstances (such as in the case of rape), it is the responsibility of the mother to prevent conception beforehand, not treat it afterwards, we must as a society understand the stress placed on the woman and be sympathetic towards her needs, as well as to our individual moral beliefs.

But are the “mother” and “child” the only people intimately involved in this scenario? To what degree do men have a say? Does her partner? Does her father? Does society? Do politicians? If the politicians are male, conservative and religious, does this mean that they can’t possibly empathise with the woman’s situation and must therefore be condemned to a life of silence on the issue? Must we simply dismiss them, as has been said, as “a number of conservative Christian men in the government [that] are determined to make women’s bodies their domain”?


It would seem that this would be an important issue to discuss, yet many wish to suppress it. If the foetus is merely a part of the mother, not yet important enough to have its own implicit or explicit rights, then the mother must be more supported in her decision to abort. Money should go to pre- and post-abortion counselling centres, and the public must be educated on the legitimacy of the procedure. If the foetus is a separate human being with rights, including, most important, the right to be born, then measures must be taken firstly to eliminate the scenarios in which women feel compelled to seek abortions (Ugandan style ABC of sex-ed?), and secondly to move towards stopping the procedure entirely.

There are a lot of issues related to this matter which need addressing. I say, good on the politicians who have brought it up - regardless, at this point, of their motives. To those who wish to leave it suppressed, explain yourself.

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About the Author

Amanda Fairweather completed year 12 at the Mac.Robertson Girls' High School and is now studying for a Bachelor Medicine. She has written op-ed articles for the Sydney Morning Herald.

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