When does abortion become murder?

By | November 9, 2014

I almost always see pro-abortion arguments framed in terms of the rights and desires of the mother. The argument is essentially that a woman should be allowed to have an abortion because it’s her body and she should have exclusive control over her body.

But at what point during pregnancy does a baby get its own rights? (And is the baby actually part of her body?)

Washington state law on abortion allows a woman to have an abortion at any time in her pregnancy before the fetus is deemed “viable”.  This is the definition of “viability” provided in the statute:

“Viability” means the point in the pregnancy when, in the judgment of the physician on the particular facts of the case before such physician, there is a reasonable likelihood of the fetus’s sustained survival outside the uterus without the application of extraordinary medical measures.

Unfortunately, “extraordinary medical measures” are not defined in the statute.

So if a 38-week pregnant mother is told that her child will need to be in intensive care for several months after birth, and will require several expensive surgeries, but the mother can’t afford to pay for it, she could claim those are “extraordinary measures” and therefore an abortion at 38 weeks might very well be legal in her case.

Now, what if that very same woman is attacked, and that causes the baby to die. Should the attacker be charged with murdering the baby? What if the mother was on her way to the abortion clinic, to kill that very same baby? Should we just charge him with assaulting the mother and leave it at that? At what point in a pregnancy does a baby change such that a murder charge would be appropriate?

At what point during pregnancy does a baby deserve the protection extended to all already-born humans?

I read a New York Times op-ed earlier today that had some interesting things to say. In particular, the authors give several examples of women who were unjustly imprisoned or apparently unjustly charged with fetal homicide or attempted fetal homicide. Other examples involve women being forced either by doctors or by a judge to undergo a cesarean in an attempt to save the baby.

Some of these stories clearly involve some injustice being inflicted on the women involved, but some of the examples ring hollow to me.  Let’s look at one of them:

A 22-year-old in South Carolina who was eight months pregnant attempted suicide by jumping out a window. She survived despite suffering severe injuries. Because she lost the pregnancy, she was arrested and jailed for the crime of homicide by child abuse.

If she had waited until ten minutes after giving birth to jump out of the window with the baby in her arms, nobody on either side of the abortion issue would have thought it strange to charge her with murdering her child, regardless of whether she was suffering from depression. Depression is serious – I take anti-depressants myself – but depression does not excuse a person from responsibility for their actions.

There seems to be no evidence that the woman would have been legally allowed to have an abortion, so why are the authors of this op-ed horrified that this woman was charged with murdering the baby? The last line of the op-ed makes the reason clear:

We should be able to work across the spectrum of opinion about abortion to unite in the defense of one basic principle: at no point in her pregnancy should a woman lose her civil and human rights.

They believe a mother’s rights, wishes, and desires always trump the rights of the baby, even in cases where abortion would not be legal anyway. Therefore, the woman should be allowed to kill her nearly-to-term baby without consequences.

Yes, a mother has rights. But a mother also has responsibilities. That is why a mother would be rightly charged with murder if her actions caused the death of her 1-month-old baby: specifically, her rights, wishes, and desires don’t trump those of her children. Having a child imposes restrictions on what the parents are allowed to do. Abortion supporters would have us believe that that responsibility begins once the child is born. I would say, instead, that that responsibility begins with the decision to have sex.

My question for anyone who agrees with the op-ed is this:

Why should a mother be charged with murder for killing her child ten minutes after birth, but should be left alone if she kills her otherwise healthy child four weeks earlier? Eight weeks earlier? Twenty? Laws aside, at what moment should it become immoral to kill an unborn baby?

Here’s the deal, America: either we value the lives of our children, or we don’t. We can’t have it both ways.

Edit: also see my note on terminology in abortion debates.

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