Abortion and Reproductive Rights

Abortion is one of the most divisive and controversial political and social issues in the United States. For many decades, elective abortion was prohibited in most American states. As a result, most women who wished to terminate an unwanted pregnancy typically had only two choices: to travel to remote states for a legal medical procedure or to obtain an illegal abortion performed (usually) by non-physicians under unsafe conditions.

Wealthier women were more likely to have family support and resources, including the money to travel if necessary and the professional connections and the social relationships necessary to obtain a formal medical certification of "necessity" required under state statutes to satisfy the legal criteria for medically necessary abortion procedures (Mappes & Zembaty, 2008). Conversely, poor women could not readily travel to distant states or obtain formal authorization from family physicians; they either endured "back-alley" abortions or they gave birth to infants whether they could afford to feed and care for them properly or not. To a certain extent, their plight in this regard was responsible for perpetuating poverty and social reliance of many minority individuals and families, particularly in the southern states (Mappes & Zembaty, 2008).

In 1970, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in Roe v. Wade, deciding that states could no longer prohibit elective abortions in the first trimester of pregnancy (Mappes & Zembaty, 2008). That decision still permitted states to regulate specific medical aspects of elective abortion during the second trimester and it allowed state prohibition of elective abortion during the third trimester except for cases of medical necessity (Mappes & Zembaty, 2008). Since then, a strong opposition lobby has continually worked to undermine the Roe decision politically, supporting various laws attempting to limit the dispensation of informational literature or require mandatory waiting periods and parental notification by law. Anti-abortion groups routinely disrupt business operations at medical facilities by picketing immediately in front of their property and exploiting their First Amendment right to free speech to harass and shame patients exercising their constitutional rights to obtain elective abortions if they so choose (Mappes & Zembaty, 2008).

Legal Issues:

In theory, the legal basis of the opposition to abortion is that the unborn fetus is a person within the meaning of the U.S. Constitution and therefore, entitled to the full protection of law as any other person. More particularly, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the equal protection of every person, and the Due Process Clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments require the due process of law in order to deprive any person of "life and liberty" (Mappes & Zembaty, 2008).

The principal legal argument against abortion is simply that the unborn fetus is entitled to life and liberty and that it is equally criminal to harm or kill a person who is still unborn and to harm or kill a person in general. To a certain extent, that rationale makes perfect sense, particularly in the third trimester of pregnancy. There is no doubt that a fetus is entitled to the protection of law as a person one hour or one day before birth; on the other hand, it is equally obvious that there is no such basis for applying ordinary concepts of personhood or legal rights and protections to the unborn all the way back to conception.

The only genuine philosophical and ethical dilemma arises in connection with identifying the transition of a fetus…