What is the debate about abortion really about?


Leandro Castelluccio

(Image obtained from: link)

Recently in Argentina there has been a debate in parliament about the legalization of the voluntary interruption of pregnancy, beyond what is considered concrete extreme cases as it has been in force until recently in certain countries. In my country, Uruguay, since a few years ago there is such a law, which legalizes the termination of pregnancy prior to 12 weeks of gestation. This process and discussion has been gaining ground in different countries at different times, recently it has been in Latin America where the political agenda has included the debate on the legalization of abortion.

This is perhaps one of the most hotly debated topics and generates strong attitudes and different opinions practically in all the variants of the political spectrum, since we find people of left for and against, also people of the right in the same situation, and for people within what would be a libertarian spectrum of thought, as it is my case, there are also different positions on the subject.

The arguments for and against have been diverse and the recent debate in Argentina at parliament and in the media in general has been, in my opinion, a good one, where almost the whole range of reasoning has been put on the table. And without going deeply into each of these arguments, I would like to shed light on a position that I believe is not the case and that has been repeated several times in this debate in Argentina and also on other occasions.

For it has been argued that regardless of the philosophical or biological issue of the life in gestation (if it is life, when it begins, if it has rights, etc.), the debate would actually be about the health risks that women have when practicing abortion outside the law in critical situations that put their lives at danger. This has been a predominant position, that the debate is not about life itself but about women’s health and safety, and that in this sense it should be ensured for the lives of women that indistinctly of what others think about the legitimacy of abortion will carry out an abortion anyway, that an interruption of the pregnancy will not be done in an insecure context. Well, I argue that the debate is really about life and not the health of women, not because I say it or that is my opinion, but because it is something that is implicit in the debates on the subject, that is, the hierarchy of opinions puts life, albeit at an unconscious level, above the health issue. Why is it like this? For the restrictions that even women and men in favor of the decriminalization of abortion support with respect to the law and that they agree would be questionable not to consider them.

What is the main condition for the termination of pregnancy? That this takes place within the first 12 weeks of gestation (this is the limit in Uruguay). Why is it like this? Because it inevitably involves a debate primarily about life and rights of it that is behind or implied in the whole issue (apart from any medical issue that could be raised as an argument), and that is of a higher hierarchy, since being the abortion after these 12 weeks, even being on the table the issue of the safety and health of women who decide to abort, it would not be legal, and this is based on ethical and moral issues also debated that make use of biological knowledge about the development of human life. So it would not be true that the debate is mainly about the health and safety of women, because even those who advocate the decriminalization do not do so taking into account any time of the pregnancy, but agree on a limit, although it is true that not all adhere to this position. And here I think is where the position in favor of the decriminalization of abortion has a great argumentative weakness, because it is clear that there is definitely a hierarchy and the debate about life precedes the one of security and health within the pro-law positions, because abortion cannot occur in any period of gestation (the limit is 12 weeks), which implies that implicitly it is given a value to such life in gestation and there is an ethical or moral problem in its termination, even if defending safety and women’s health.

This leads us then to the facts that the 12-week criterion must be somewhat debated. What makes it valid before but not after that period? And here various arguments have been raised, all of which are weak and arbitrary, because if we go to the essence of the potentiality of the human being, any instance of development contains it, an embryo is not a developed human being (in the sense of presenting certain qualities), but neither is a baby or a child, in any spectrum of human abilities or states, such as the development of self-consciousness, language, memory, motor functions, etc. This does not mean that a newborn baby does not have the potential to develop them, and if human rights depend on any of these qualities, individually or together (which is another debate entirely), from conception there is a potential for them, they do not exist in fact, but neither do they exist in later stages of development, such as after 12 weeks, a few weeks before birth, after birth, or even years later, and almost nobody considers there is an absence of rights of a child who is about to be born, of a newborn baby or a small child. That is, we accept also, and again, implicitly, that the level of development of the human being and his qualities at the present moment is something indistinct of rights, that is, that these do not depend on the level of development of any of the qualities human beings, but of the potentiality of them. In this sense the criterion of 12 weeks is quite arbitrary, it can be said that in this period it begins to develop a nervous system, whether this is true or not, and are the rights dependent on the cognitive development and consciousness of the person, we implicitly accept that it is not the presence but the potentiality of such qualities that distinguishes the human being and hence we consider that it has rights. We can raise the argument considering certain examples, such as the one of people who momentarily lose consciousness and normal nervous functionality, they do not stop having rights, and to eliminate their lives would be something wrong.

The vast majority of people in favor of the decriminalization of abortion would agree that abortion at 6 or 7 months of pregnancy would not be something prudent or even moral, because such a period represents a great development in pregnancy, and to end the life at that point would not make sense, indeed it could subsist outside the mother, and this is a recurring point, that of the sustainability and independence of that life to consider its rights, but it is not a valid argument either, because if it were done an abortion in such period what it would really be done is to save the life in gestation, but there would be a great potential to leave many consequences and damage in it, then here life in gestation seems to be valued much more, and the correct procedure that most of people would consider would be to let the pregnancy take place until the end. Again, this reinforces the fact that abortion is not primarily a health and safety issue for women, because implicitly we hierarchize life in gestation at a higher level, otherwise it would not play any weight if abortion is done at 12 weeks or much later. Bearing this in mind, the debate then falls back on the issue of the limit, is that the legitimate limit? I think that argumentatively the positions that reject the validity of the 12-week limit based on the presence of rights in the life in gestation are in general more solid than those that demarcate a limit where it is legitimate to carry out an abortion.

Am I saying with all this that abortion is something invalid in the society we live? No, in any case I say that the debate is won argumentatively in logical terms by those who oppose the abortion law. And yet, even for someone who understands these arguments and considers them legit, abortion is still something that would carry out, that is, the psychological weight of the fact that there is the possibility of carrying out a voluntary interruption of pregnancy is so great that it exceeds any contrary argument, however logical and legitimate it may be. Why is this? Because there seems to exist as a solution to various problems the possibility of carrying out an abortion, the weight it has is very overwhelming. And this is ultimately what moves a woman or man to support the law, and ultimately what moves a woman to carry it out if necessary, any other argument in favor of the law is more a rationalization of these very marked feelings than any other thing.

So the real debate is this: how do we reconcile our emotionally charged assessment that abortion is the right path in a given context and situation in the face of solid arguments regarding the potential of a life and human rights? In my work Proposiciones (see menu of book publications) I talk about this issue integrating it with my vision of ethics and morality based on the notions of high reward states (such as self-esteem-happiness). My point is that the context in terms of the impact on the possibility of self-esteem of the mother is crucial when assessing whether an abortion really has to be contemplated by the State, and this is not an easy subject, as situations can become very particular according to each case, but I think that in most cases, abortion would not be the best way, without denying the possibility that it is legitimate from an ethical-moral point of view in certain circumstances. This position, however, is not contemplated in the current laws in force regarding abortion, for which reason I do not agree with them.

Anyway, I return to the previous question, the debate is not about the health and safety of women really, but about the human life in gestation and now I add, about the subjective evaluations on the part of people that the possibility of its termination in a legal and safe way is something that must be given, because it is overwhelmingly evaluated as something that has to be a valid option. I reinforce this by arguing, as many have argued in the recent debate in Argentina, that the deaths from clandestine abortion are not of the scale that is usually mentioned, and that in turn in countries where abortion is legal, the number of registered abortions gives account that there are also deaths due to legal abortions, so it is false the perception of zero risk that tends to be raised regarding the fact that legal abortion entails high safety for women. A recent article in the Argentine digital portal Infobae (link– In Spanish language) gives an account of the empirical evidence that shows that the decrease in maternal mortality does not seem to be significantly affected by the legality of abortion. Additionally, we must raise the case of what happens when the period of 12 weeks is exceeded and the woman for whatever reason decides to abort, not being protected by law, would again resort to clandestine abortion, so this and the foregoing reinforces again, that the debate is not really about the health and safety of women, unless legal abortion is absolutely safe and that we consider abortion at any stage of fetal development.

Many have argued that if this is a public health debate, the strength or preponderance with which it is presented the impact that it generates in the mortality of women does not match with the emphasis given to other causes of higher mortality rate for women, but we must not fall into a false opposition, to say that because there are other things that generate deaths in women why the defenders of the law of abortion do not speak of this, but one thing does not invalidate the other, but it is also true that abortion would not generate the deaths that are often said in the media, and again reinforces the fact that, in spite of accepting even this, the possibility of abortion is going to be defended by the fact that it is something that has an important psychological weight because it is considered as a way to solve a difficult and problematic circumstance, with all the emotional aspects that it entails.

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