Abortion ethics

Nurs Outlook. 1982 Apr;30(4):234-40.


PIP: Nurses have opinions about abortion, but because they are health professionals and their opinions are sought as such, they are obligated to understand why they hold certain views. Nurses need to be clear about why they believe as they do, and they must arrive at a point of view in a rational and logical manner. To assist nurses in this task, the ethical issues surrounding abortion are enumerated and clarified. To do this, some of the philosophic and historic approaches to abortion and how a position can be logically argued are examined. At the outset some emotion-laden terms are defined. Abortion is defined as the expulsion of a fetus from the uterus before 28 weeks' gestation, the arbitrarily established time of viability. This discussion is concerned only with induced abortion. Since the beginning of recorded history women have chosen to have abortions. Early Jews and Christians forbade abortion on practical and religious grounds. A human life was viewed as valuable, and there was also the practical consideration of the addition of another person to the population, i.e., more brute strength to do the necessary physical work, defend against enemies, and ensure the continuation of the people. These kinds of pragmatic reasons favoring or opposing abortion have little to do with the Western concept of abortion in genaeral and what is going on in the U.S. today in particular. Discussion of the ethics of abortion must rest on 1 or more of several foundations: whether or not the fetus is a human being; the rights of the pregnant woman as opposed to those of the fetus, and circumstances of horror and hardship that might surround a pregnancy. Viability is relative. Because viability is not a specific descriptive entity, value judgments become part of the determination, both of viability and the actions that might be taken based on that determination. The fetus does not become a full human being at viability. That occurs only at conception or birth, depending on one's view of ensoulment. The fetus is owed some moral obligations because of its greatly increased potentiality. After a certain point it deserves legal and moral protection. A woman would have the right to be relieved of carrying the fetus, but she would not have the right to the death of the fetus. A significant moral difference exists in these 2 concepts, and it is this issue that forms the basis of the debate concerning the conflict between maternal and fetal rights. When the rights of the fetus and those of the pregnant woman come into direct conflict the rights of the fetus are always subordinated to those of the women. The 3rd ethical foundation of the abortion debate, that of circumstances of horror and hardship surrounding the pregnancy, is really a combination of the first two. A fetus that is known to suffer from disease or deformity has as many or as few rights vis-a-vis the pregnant woman as does a perfectly healthy fetus. The assignment and hierarchy of fetal rights is not dependent upon the circumstances of conception. The next concern is whether the state can enter the private social spheres to regulate the personal activities of individuals. The Supreme court has never made a statement regarding the moral permissibility of abortion. The Court simply has prevented individual states from interfering with a woman's action based on her personal convictions. This is an important difference, and no step should be taken to abrogate this fundamental civil right.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Abortion, Induced* / history
  • Abortion, Legal*
  • Beginning of Human Life
  • Ethics, Nursing*
  • Female
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, Ancient
  • Human Rights / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Humans
  • Life
  • Personhood
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnant Women*
  • United States
  • Value of Life
  • Women's Rights / legislation & jurisprudence