Decoding Abortion: How Abortion went from an Unknown Medical Procedure to No. 1 Social Issue in America


Abortion is the medical procedure of the termination of pregnancy after the elimination of the fetus. Because of the procedure’s grim nature, it is one of the most heated topics up for debate in the United States. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2016 indicates that 98% of Americans have an opinion in the abortion debate (Mitchell, 2017); a CNN/ORC survey conducted in 2015 also concurs the percentage by indicating only 1% of Americans have no opinion on the abortion debate (Agiesta, 2015). However, since the complexity of the abortion debate is extensive and has multitudes of impacts socially, politically, and religiously, for that abortion has been viewed as one of the pressing issues concerning the “religious freedom” (American center of law and justice, 2016) of some faith-based and/or conservative groups. In left-leaning/liberal groups, the fundamental right of abortion is deeply entrenched in the organizations’ manifestos and platforms (Dorf, 2016). In this paper, the origins of abortion, the history of abortion as a medical procedure, the process of legalizing abortion procedures, and the debate surrounding abortion as a social issue are discussed in an expository manner.

Origins of Abortion

The origin of abortion is not clear, but some have described the process as “as old as pregnancy” (Klabusich, 2016). Most primitive abortion methods are nonsurgical, such as climbing, weightlifting, contacting heated metal rods, stepping onto a viper, and others.  “A range of oils, herbs and liquids such as wine, seawater and vinegar have been described in early writings to […] induce abortion” (Wright, 2010). Fossil records indicate early surgical processes conducting abortions, but such records are not available in a wide-spreading capacity (Department of Classics, 1999). Later, some plants and natural products were found to have the ability to induce abortion, including the infamous pennyroyal teas (Riddle, 1992, p.47).

Legal Restrictions to Abortion

In the 19th century, after tremendous progress in surgical proceedings, abortions were conducted by surgeons on a wide scale, while medical abortions were used concurrently. However, as abortion technology prospers, legal restrictions evolved. In 1803, an English statute abolished the previously-legal first trimester abortions. The act “condemned the willful, malicious, and unlawful use of any medical substance when used with the intent to induce abortion” (Stern, 1968). In 1821, Connecticut enabled the first statute in the United States regulating abortions. Within 10 years, states like Illinois, Ohio, New York, Alabama, and others enabled abortion restriction statutes, and by 1968, 50 of the 51 jurisdictions in the United States have prohibited abortion except if women’s life is endangered (Ibid., at 3). In 1965, Britain, however, legalized abortion for “medical conditions of the mother, for socio-economic reasons, for eugenic considerations, and for pregnancies which resulted from rape or incestuous intercourse”, which is still law today (Ibid, at 4). In Canada, abortion has been legalized since 1969 through Bill C-150 if “a committee of three physicians determined that the pregnancy was a threat to the woman’s life or health” (Norman, 2012). In 1988, Canadian Supreme Court struck down bill C-150’s provision requiring committee approval to receive an abortion in its decision in R v Morgentaler, legalizing abortion across Canada for any reasons (Ibid.). American lawmakers, however, did not consider making abortion legal nationwide. Nevertheless, some state legislatures enabled statutes permitting abortion under different circumstances, sometimes after referendums, as is the case in the state of Washington. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that a Texas law criminalizing abortion would violate the right of privacy, and is therefore unconstitutional (Oyez, n.d.). The decision legalized abortion in the United States nationwide, striking down the 47 remaining laws criminalizing abortion. However, unlike most other countries who concluded the abortion debate after corresponding legislations and/or court cases, Americans still struggle to obtain safe and legal access to abortion. Many states, mostly Republican-leaning states, enabled bills requiring parental/spousal notification (struck down in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1993), hospital admitting privilege and ambulatory surgical center certifications (struck down in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt in 2016), as well as safety, location, funding requirements, making abortion difficult to access. In Mississippi, for example, only one location in the state is legally permitted to perform an abortion, down from five available ten years ago. Additionally, many candidates, especially Republican candidates, running for offices would make abortion a central part of their platform, promising to act on the abortion issue. For instance, when Republican pro-life Senator Roy Blunt was unexpectedly campaigning in a tight race in the heavily conservative state of Missouri, various pro-life organizations flocked to Missouri to air advertisements or publish opinion articles to promote Blunt’s views (Musgrave, 2016). Likewise, when Wisconsin senator Ron Johnson was campaigning for his reelection, his pro-life views were challenged by several Democratic and pro-choice organizations (Planned Parenthood Action Fund, 2016).

Argument for Control of Abortion

The abortion debate, although mostly calm and settled in other countries, such as the case of Canada (Ling, 2017), is far from settled in the United States. In Canada, Conservative party leader Andrew Scheer pledged to refuse to reopen the abortion debate despite being an ardent social conservative himself. In the United Kingdom, abortion does not appear anywhere on the two major parties’ manifestos, with the same scenario in France, Germany, Spain, and almost all developed countries except the United States. As stated previously, 98% of the American general populous has an opinion on the abortion issue (Mitchell, 2017). The majority of arguments in the United States, unsurprisingly, come from religious oppositions. 53% of Americans identify religion as a “very important aspect” of their lives, down from 58% in 2007 but still astoundingly high among industrialized countries (Wormald, 2015). The most widely utilized argument against abortion would state that the process of abortion would deprive the fetus of the right to life under the assumption that “a human foetus is a human life” and human fetuses has “intrinsic value” (Pollock, 2007), and destroying valuable subjects require justification. While religion is not directly mentioned in this argument, its essence is conveyed through religious expressions. The assumption that a human fetus is a human object in the Western perspective largely comes from the Bible, which states “Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7, The New International Version). This became the foundation of Christian arguments against abortion, and is the most widely used argument in the abortion debates. However, other rationalizations have shed light on the issue as well. In 1989, Don Marquis published his famous essay “Why Abortion is Immoral” on the Journal of Philosophy, arguing that abortion morally deprives the fetus’s potential future, and the value of life the fetus may enjoy were it not be aborted, resulting in significant mental stress for the mother. (Marquis, 1989, 190). Marquis’s argument was said to be the “best secular argument” (Strong, 2008) against abortion, and no other argument was convincing enough to crack it. However, Strong argues in his 2008 paper that the essential argument Marquis puts is unacceptable because emotional analysis shows that receiving an abortion does not result in significant mental distress for the mother, especially if the abortion were to be out of the mother’s health reasons. Therefore, Marquis’s central argument would be invalid. Jack Mulder also rebukes both Marquis’s argument and proposed a pro-choice talking point that women’s health trumps “moral superiority” as proposed by Marquis. Mulder argues that “cortical brain activity”, necessary for consciousness, only develops “around 25–32 weeks after fertilization”, therefore making it ineligible to claim that a fetus could be called a person. From a woman’s perspective, Mulder states “even if a fetus counted as a person, the fetus’s rights would not extend to the right to draw sustenance and protection from the pregnant woman” (Mulder, 2013). As a result of these prior philosophical researches, although we can conclude with reasonable certainty that pro-choice arguments are generally stronger than pro-life arguments, personal bias would be difficult to overcome. A pro-choice person would argue in favor of pro-choice positions and vice versa.


Abortion has been a divisive issue since the 1960s. As expositors, our objective is to present the facts in a manner as fact-driven and neutral as possible. It is difficult to not inject personal opinions, but personal opinions should be avoided as much as possible. Hopefully, this paper accomplished these objectives, positioning as close to truth as possible.

Works Cited

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Ling, J. (2017, May 29). Andrew Scheer will oppose transgender rights, fight gun regulations, fund homeschooling. Retrieved June 08, 2017, from

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Strong, C. (2008). A critique of “the best secular argument against abortion”. Journal of Medical Ethics, 34(10), 727-731. doi:10.1136/jme.2008.024646

Whole Woman’s Health, et al. v. John Hellerstedt, Commissioner, Texas Department of State Health Services, et al., No. 579 slip op. at ___ (June 27, 2016).

Wright, J. (2010). A history of contraception. British Journal of School Nursing, 5(7), 356-357. doi:10.12968/bjsn.2010.5.7.78291

Wormald, B. (2015, November 02). U.S. Public Becoming Less Religious. Retrieved June 08, 2017, from

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