"Abortion:" The Moral, Medical, and Legal Definitions

  • Aubrey Wursten
  • 11/06/2020

“If abortion is banned, women will be prohibited from treating ectopic pregnancies.”

“If abortion is banned, women with cancer will not be allowed to receive chemotherapy.”

“If abortion is banned, women will be forced to carry their babies who have died in utero.”

“If abortion is banned, women who have miscarriages will be prosecuted.”

You have probably heard all these claims—and many more—used as reasons why abortion should remain legal. If these types of concerns are your only objections to outlawing abortion, you may be surprised to find out that you are, in fact, against legalized abortion. 

All of these claims are myths.

None of these treatments fit the legal definition of elective abortion, which is what so many of us are trying to end.

The confusion about this issue stems from misinformation surrounding the term abortion. The word has very different meanings depending on how it is used: in law, in a hospital billing statement, or in a medical textbook (with even medical textbooks defining the term inconsistently).

It is critical that anybody analyzing abortion arguments or legislation understand these defining differences: 

Moral Definition

Before looking at distinctions between medical and legal definitions, it may be helpful to understand the philosophical definition that most “pro-lifers” use. Even when a woman’s life is in danger due to pregnancy, no reason exists to intentionally kill her child; however, she may require treatment for herself that could possibly lead to her unborn child’s death.

Patients should seek multiple opinions from different physicians and obtain all the information they can, as doctors can obviously make a wrong diagnosis. But ultimately, any decision made in good faith, with the intent to preserve all life possible, does not fall under the “moral definition” of abortion.

For example, if a woman needs to end her pregnancy for her own safety, a doctor can induce early labor. The baby may or may not survive, depending on their age, but the medical staff should attempt to give them their best chance at life rather than kill them in the womb.

As the obstetricians and gynecologists who created the Dublin Declaration have emphasized, “...there is a fundamental difference between abortion, and necessary medical treatments that are carried out to save the life of the mother, even if such treatment results in the loss of life of her unborn child [emphasis mine].” 

Medical Definition

As noted, even the medical community cannot seem to agree on a single definition of abortion. For example, Taber’s Medical Dictionary inexplicably uses the word only for pregnancies up to 20-24 weeks gestation, whereas most others would include all stages of pregnancy. But in general, it refers to “the termination of a pregnancy after, accompanied by, resulting in, or closely followed by the death of the embryo or fetus.”  

The first important fact to understand is that, in medical issues, including those involving records and billing statements, the word can refer to either a deliberate or an accidental, spontaneous “abortion.” This means that a woman who suffers a miscarriage will probably see the term spontaneous abortion on her medical records.

This terminology has unfortunately led to both heartache and confusion on the part of grieving mothers. Moreover, it has led to false accusations that making abortion illegal would result in prosecuting women for miscarriages. But accidental miscarriage (spontaneous abortion) is not elective abortion, it is not the fault of the mother, and it could clearly not be banned by law. 

The second point that I want to reiterate is that any procedure used to save the life of the mother is not an elective abortion. She may need to deliver her baby early due to her own health problems, and it may, sadly, be so early that her baby cannot survive. Although this may sometimes be considered an abortion in a medical sense, it is certainly not what the pro-life community wants to outlaw.

Legal Definition

The word abortion, when used for the purpose of legal cases (such as Roe v. Wade), means that a woman intentionally and unnecessarily kills her unborn baby. This can be at any time between conception—when science makes clear that a distinct new life is created—through birth. It does not refer to any contraceptive that solely prevents pregnancy.

Usually, a woman undergoing an abortion does so by taking pills that starve her unborn child then another medication that forces her to go into very early labor and force the baby out of her. For more details regarding this and other abortion procedures, visit abortionprocedures.com.

But whatever means she employs, the type of abortion prohibited in some laws always involves ending her child’s life on purpose, not as a side effect of getting necessary medical treatment for herself, not as a naturally occurring miscarriage, and not as the result of any accident. 

Even before Roe v. Wade made elective abortion legal in all states, mothers were able to procure any required medical help; if Roe v. Wade is overturned, they still will. It is imperative that people engaging in discussions about abortion understand the laws, the medical terminology, and the philisophical meaning of the issue they are discussing. A great deal of misinformation on the topic has been spread far and wide, and we need to clear it up before we can have a productive conversation.

Pro-Life Utah works to defend the preborn by providing women with the resources necessary to choose life, providing healing and support for those emotionally wounded by abortion, promoting pro-life legislation, writing articles like these, and more. If you liked this article, please consider making a donation, or click here to learn more about our services:

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  1. https://www.dublindeclaration.com/
  2. https://www.tabers.com/tabersonline/view/Tabers-Dictionary/766365/all/abortion
  3. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/abortion
  4. https://www.health.harvard.edu/medical-tests-and-procedures/abortion-termination-of-pregnancy-a-to-z#:~:text=Abortion%20is%20the%20removal%20of,after%20eight%20weeks%20of%20pregnancy.
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK560521/
  6. https://aaplog.org/premature-delivery-is-not-induced-abortion/

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