The question of whether or not abortion is murder is one of the most contentious social and political issues of the day. Although the United States Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973, the morality of terminating a pregnancy has been debated in the U.S. since at least the mid-1800s.
A Brief History of Abortion
Although abortions were performed in colonial America, they were not considered illegal or immoral. Premarital sex, however, was outlawed, which may have contributed to abortion being considered taboo by some. As in Great Britain, a fetus was not considered to be a living being until "quickening," usually 18 to 20 weeks, when the mother could feel her unborn child move.
Attempts to criminalize abortion began in Britain in 1803, when the procedure was outlawed if the quickening had already occurred. Further restrictions were passed in 1837. In the U.S., attitudes toward abortion began to shift after the Civil War. Led by physicians who saw the practice as a threat to their profession and people opposed to the emerging women's rights movement, anti-abortion laws were passed in a majority of states by the 1880s.
The outlawing of abortion in the U.S. did not make the practice disappear, however. Far from it. By the middle of the 20th century, it is estimated that as many as 1.2 million abortions were performed annually in the U.S. Because the procedure remained illegal, however, many women were forced to seek out abortionists who worked in unsanitary conditions or had no medical training, leading to the unnecessary deaths of countless patients due to infection or hemorrhaging.
As the feminist movement gained steam in the 1960s, the push to legalize abortion gained momentum. By 1972, four states had repealed their abortion restrictions and another 13 had loosened them. The following year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7 to 2 that women had a right to an abortion, although states could impose restrictions on the practice.
Is Abortion Murder?
Despite or perhaps because of the Supreme Court ruling, abortion continues to be a hotly debated issue today. Many states have imposed severe restrictions on the practice, and religious and conservative politicians often frame the issue as one of morality and preserving the sanctity of life.
Murder, as it is typically defined, involves the intentional death of another human person. Even if one were to assume that every embryo or fetus is as sentient as a grown human being, the lack of intent would still be enough to classify abortion as something other than murder.
A Hypothetical Argument
Let's imagine a scenario in which two men go deer hunting. One man mistakes his friend for a deer, shoots him, and accidentally kills him. It's hard to imagine that any reasonable person would describe this as murder, even though we would all know for certain that a real, sentient human person was killed. Why? Because the shooter thought he was killing a deer, something other than a real, sentient human person.
Now consider the example of abortion. If a woman and her physician think they're killing a non-sentient organism, then they would not be committing murder. At most, they would be guilty of involuntary manslaughter. But even involuntary manslaughter involves criminal negligence, and it would be very hard to judge someone criminally negligent for not personally believing that a pre-viable embryo or fetus is a sentient human person when we don't actually know this to be the case.
From the point of view of someone who believes that every fertilized egg is a sentient human person, abortion would be horrific, tragic, and lethal. But it would be no more murderous than any other kind of accidental death.
- Ravitz, Jessica. "The Surprising History of Abortion in the United States." CNN.com. 27 June 2016.
- BBC staff. "Historial Attitudes to Abortion." BBC.co.uk. 2014.
- Carmon, Irin. "A Brief History of Abortion Law in America." BillMoyers.com. 14 November 2017.
- Gold, Rachel Benson. "Lessons from before Roe: Will Past be Prologue?" Guttmacher.org. 1 March 2003.