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Analysis: Why it’s irrational to risk women’s lives for the sake of the unborn

Abortion is a much-discussed issue in developed countries, but not so in countries like the Dominican Republic

Abortion is a much-discussed issue in developed countries, but not so in countries like the Dominican Republic

  • by PETER SINGER
 

IN THE Dominican Republic last month, a pregnant teenager suffering from leukaemia had her chemotherapy delayed, because doctors feared the treatment could terminate her pregnancy, violating the nation’s strict anti-abortion law.

After consultations between doctors, lawyers, and the girl’s family, chemotherapy was started, but not before attention had again been focused on the rigidity of many developing countries’ abortion laws.

Abortion receives extensive coverage in developed countries, especially in the United States, where Republicans have used opposition to it to rally voters. But much less attention is given to the 86 per cent of all abortions that occur in the developing world. Although most countries in Africa and Latin America have laws prohibiting abortion in most circumstances, official bans do not prevent high abortion rates.

In Africa, there are 29 abortions per 1,000 women, and 32 per 1,000 in Latin America. The comparable figure for Western Europe, where abortion is generally permitted in most circumstances, is 12. According to a recent report by the World Health Organisation, unsafe abortions lead to the death of 47,000 women a year, almost all of them in developing countries. Restricting access to legal abortion leads many poor women to seek abortion from unsafe providers. The legalisation of abortion on request in South Africa in 1998 saw abortion-related deaths drop by 91 per cent. And the development of the drugs misoprostol and mifepristone, which can be provided by pharmacists, makes relatively safe and inexpensive abortion possible in developing countries.

Opponents will respond that abortion is, by its very nature, unsafe – for the foetus. They point out that abortion kills a unique, living human individual. That claim is difficult to deny, at least if by “human” we mean “member of the species Homo sapiens.”

It is also true that we cannot simply invoke a woman’s “right to choose” in order to avoid the ethical issue of the moral status of the foetus. If the foetus really did have the moral status of any other human being, it would be difficult to argue that a pregnant woman’s right to choose includes the right to bring about the death of the foetus, except perhaps when the woman’s life is at stake.

The fallacy in the anti-abortion argument lies in the shift from the scientifically accurate claim that the foetus is a living individual of the species Homo sapiens to the ethical claim that the foetus therefore has the same right to life as any other human being. Membership of the species Homo sapiens is not enough to confer a right to life.

We can plausibly argue that we ought not to kill, against their will, self-aware beings who want to continue to live. We can see this as a violation of their autonomy, or a thwarting of their preferences. But why should a being’s potential to become rationally self-aware make it wrong to end its life before it has the capacity for rationality or self-awareness?

We have no obligation to allow every being with the potential to become a rational being to realise that potential. If it comes to a clash between the supposed interests of potentially rational but not yet conscious beings and the vital interests of actually rational women, we should give preference to the women every time.

• Peter Singer is professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne.

 

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