Principles & Conflicts of Contemporary Abortion Arguments

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  • 0:02 The Abortion Debate
  • 0:54 The Personhood Argument
  • 2:02 The Deprivation Argument
  • 3:03 The Bodily Rights Argument
  • 4:07 The Legal Pragmatics Argument
  • 5:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, explore several different arguments surrounding the very sensitive debate on abortion, and discover how each is supported and defended. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

The Abortion Debate

Look at this image. Is it black or white? Obviously it's neither. This image is composed of various hues of gray. To call it black and white would be to majorly oversimplify it.

You see where I'm going with this, don't you? Modern society is full of difficult arguments, and while people feel very passionately about each side, it's never as simple as black and white. One of these debates is over abortion, the intentional termination of a pregnancy. This debate creates a perfect storm of sensitive topics, so it's no surprise that people can get pretty emotionally attached to their opinions. So, what are the arguments surrounding this debate? Let's take a look, but remember that these positions are really just various hues of gray.

The Personhood Argument

Let's start with one of the major arguments against abortion. The personhood argument is based on the belief that an embryo is legally and morally considered a person, so abortion is paramount to infanticide. This relies on a few assumptions, notably that life begins at conception and personhood begins at conception, so a fertilized egg is considered a living, individual entity. There are many legal, moral, and spiritual justifications for this argument. But, one of the big ones is through the idea of natural capacities, which states that the embryo has a right to personhood because it has the genetic capacity for self-awareness. This is a response to the criticism that embryos do not have a right to personhood because they are not self-aware. So, the natural capacities theory says that really, it's just semantics. Whether an embryo is currently self-aware is irrelevant because the embryo naturally has the genetic potential to become self-aware. That's the basics of the personhood argument.

The Deprivation Argument

Another similar anti-abortion theory is the deprivation argument. Like the natural capacities theory, this argument rests on the understanding that the embryo will eventually turn into a human being and that it is morally wrong to deprive the embryo of its future. Supporters of this idea claim that abortion presupposes that a child's life will be bad, undermining the right of that person to determine their own fate. Those who argue against the deprivation argument claim that if it's wrong to deprive potential humans of theoretical futures, then contraception itself must be immoral since this is where the deprivation begins. Supporters of the deprivation theory respond by saying that we don't treat an unfertilized egg as anything other than a cell, so it's not a person. Following this theory, the act of conception itself is what establishes the potential for a human life.

The Bodily Rights Argument

Now, let's take a look at some pro-abortion arguments. According to the bodily rights argument, the rights of the embryo are trumped by the rights of the mother. This theory claims that even if we do consider an embryo to be a potential person, the mother is already an established, living person, so her free will and physical safety are the most important things to protect. A woman's right to control her own body is a basic, inalienable human right. This argument becomes amplified in cases of sexual violence that results in a pregnancy. Since the pregnancy could not only cause the mother physical pain and danger, but also extreme emotional and psychological suffering, the mother's needs must outweigh that of a theoretical person. However, supporters of this argument do generally draw the line at certain stages of development. They typically feel that while aborting an embryo is justifiable considering the rights of the mother, aborting a viable fetus generally is not.

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