What Is Abortion?

Abortion is a fact of life, happening naturally across the whole animal kingdom–humans included. Among people these natural abortions are called miscarriages. But that is not the sense debated much in America. The issue at hand is non-natural abortion, also known as therapeutic abortion. We are of course speaking of human abortions, and not feline or equine abortions. Human abortion can be defined in several different ways. Strong contenders among these are two complementary definitions:

  1. “termination of a [human] pregnancy”
  2. “killing of a [human] fetus in utero.”

Combined, these achieves the following definition.

3. Human abortion is the termination of a human pregnancy, killing a [human] embryo/fetus/child in utero.

The first definition emphasizes the termination of the pregnancy and is common among abortion-choice advocates (i.e., pro-choice). The second definition emphasizes the killing involved in ending the pregnancy. This one is common among right-to-life (pro-life) advocates. Definitions 1 and 2 carry different emphases and when used in exclusion from the other, they can indicate bias. For example, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) defines abortion as:

“An abortion is when the pregnancy is ended so that it does not result in the birth of a child.”

The definition is flawed for its neat avoidance of the “killing” aspect involved in abortion. ‘Abortion’ is a term of art distinguishing a certain kind of killing. It is not infanticide, killing a post-birth child. Nor is it used primarily–in popular language–to describe a natural abortion, as we already call those “miscarriages.” The term “abortion” is more-often used to describe an act that kills the human fetus and thus ends the pregnancy. The inadequacy of BPAS’s definition becomes clearer in their subsequent explanation:

“. . . The pregnancy is removed from the womb, either by taking pills (medical abortion) which involves taking medicines to cause a miscarriage or by surgery (surgical abortion) where the pregnancy is removed from the womb.

This language is factually incorrect. The pregnancy is not removed from the womb, the child/fetus is. The pregnancy is the womb; the pregnancy is the hormonal changes; the pregnancy is the lactation, the pregnancy is the mother in relation to the child/fetus. The various elements of pregnancy are not removed from the womb, elements such as lactation, diet changes, hormonal imbalances, along with the mother’s relation to her child. No, it is only the child/fetus that is removed from the womb. It is more correct to say, the child or fetus or embryo is removed from the womb.”  BPAS shows its bias in its word choice.

Another problem looms above this definition of abortion as “termination of a pregnancy.” All pregnancies terminate, whether at child-birth or abortion. Abortion is not simply the termination of a pregnancy but a kind of termination which is not live-birth but instead kills the fetus. It is true that a person may not intend to kill the child on route to ending a pregnancy prematurely (say, 22 weeks gestation), but it is impossible to do one without the other–unless there is live-birth and that would not be abortion any more. The termination of the pregnancy only comes about by birth or by death.

On the pro-life side, there is liable to be an overstatement of the “killing” aspect, and a neglect of the “ending pregnancy” aspect such as:

“Abortion is murder.”
“Abortion stops a beating heart.”


“Abortion murders a child.”

Supposing the last definition is offered as a live definition, it overstates its case in a legal sense because abortion is legal (circumstances notwithstanding), hence it’s not murder (i.e., illegal killing of a human being). Now it may or may not be murder in a non-legal sense of unethical or unjustified killing, but abortion remains legal and so it is not murder in that sense. Moreover, this pro-life definition of abortion neglects to mention the termination of a pregnancy. The intent within an abortion need not be to “kill” anything, that may be the incidental side effect of a woman’s intention to halt a pregnancy early (before child-birth). Nevertheless, the termination of pregnancy and the fact of killing are both part of abortion and these should be retained within a normal definition of “abortion.”

Other Pro-life definitions are also liable to err by employing a term for the unborn entity that is disputed, unnecessary, or legally objectionable. The common language of the unborn as “a baby” or “a person” have not been granted legal recognition since Roe vs. Wade (Blackmun Decision, 1973). Pro-life advocates risk legal irrelevance by using a sense of “abortion” that does not apply to the abortion-on-demand rulings dating back to 1973. Therefore we may strike out, as non-legally binding, any definitions of abortion that refer to the entities in question as “persons,” “babies,” “people,” or “citizens.”

One should instead employ other candidate terms for the unborn entity include:
* [human]  zygote (1 celled, fertilization stage)
* [human] embryo (next earliest stage, multicellular blastocyst, includes implantation stage)
* [human] fetus (next earliest stage through to birth)
* human/human being (that which is genetically, individual, living organism of the species homo sapien)
* [human] child/child-in-utero–these are popularly disputed but have legal precedent in Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services (1989) and Unborn Victims of Violence Act (2004) respectively.

The first three terms, zygote, embryo and fetus, are technically precise, but can be bothersome when a person wants to refer to abortion at any of these stages and not just abortion in one of them. Moreover, they describe any comparable embryological stages of non-human animals. The term “human” has to be affixed to them to distinguish a human zygote from a goat zytgote, or ape zygote, or a chicken zygote.

The next term listed, “human,” is popularly problematic compared to the prior terms since hair follicles, dandruff, fingernail clippings, and tumors are “human.” Yet these other things are not organisms though the entity in question is an organism.

The next term, “human being,” is perhaps the best, most all-purpose, term in the list even though it has its own drawbacks. It is a precise term pointing out a human entity that is a genetically distinct living human organism at any developmental stage. Because the zygote, embryo, and fetus are all developmental stages but abortion can legally occur at any of these stages, the term “human being” helps to describe any and all human entities in those stages, but without including tumors and fingernail clippings–since those are not organisms. The biggest problem with the term “human being,” however is that the term has another or secondary sense of “human person” (Blacks Law Dictionary, 5th ed.,1979; Random House Dict., 2013). Those who use the term “human being,” in reference to abortion should make clear that the primary sense of “homo sapien,” is in mind, not necessarily some legally acknowledged sense of “personhood.”

Concerning the last two terms, “child/child-in-utero,” it is admitted that “child” is a someone less medically/scientifically precise term than the other three terms. Like the term “human being,” “child-in-utero” has a advantage over other developmental descriptors for including any stage of development. However, by using the term “child” pro-life advocates might raise objections that the term is designed to personify what is not a legal person. The leading terms then seem to be “human being,” and “child-in-utero,” but even these have their problems.

We may further reiterate that the sense of “abortion” at issue here is only human abortion. Hence, the uses of “human” above are in brackets as it is generally understood that we are talking about human abortion, hence, human conceptuses, zygotes, embryos, and fetuses. We are not talking about non-human abortions, or metaphorical senses of abortion such as, “the congressman’s bill was aborted in the senate before it came to a vote.” We will at times refer to natural and non-natural abortion, that is, to miscarriages and therapeutic abortions. But unless otherwise noted, the sense at issue here is therapeutic abortions.

The pro-life and pro-choice camps are liable to error in their own favor defining abortion in overstatement or understatement. To avoid partisanship, definition 3 (above) is offered as the normal sense of “abortion.” That is:

“Human abortion is the termination of a human pregnancy, killing a [human] fetus in utero.”

When we turn to dictionaries for standard definitions of abortion we find the following:

                                                                             What is Abortion?

Medical Definition

Dorland’s Medical Dictionary (2007):

Expulsion from the uterus of the products of conception before the fetus is viable.

Center for Disease Control (2013):

Induced abortion is defined as an intervention performed by a licensed clinician . . . that is intended to terminate an ongoing pregnancy.

Common Language Definition

Merrium-Webster (2013):

“The termination of a pregnancy after, accompanied by, resulting in, or closely followed by the death of the embryo or fetus. “

  1. Natural or Spontaneous Miscarriage
  2. Induced Therapeutic Abortion

Legal Definition

Websters New World Law Dict. (2010)

  1. The premature termination of a pregnancy.
  2. The intentional and artificial termination of a pregnancy that destroys an embryo or fetus.
  3. The spontaneous expulsion of an embryo or fetus before it is capable of living outside the womb.

The Medical definition, represented by Dorland’s Medical Dictionary and the CDC (2007 & 2013) emphasize the termination of the pregnancy. With respect to the life of the fetus, this definition is neutral–the fetus may live or die–as that is not explicitly stated in these medical definitions. Dorland implies that the fetus dies  since it is expelled before it is viable, but by not saying as much explicitly, it neatly avoids drawing attention to any killing. This definition is overall inadequate however since late-term abortions would have to be deemed infanticide, even though they were legalized under abortion law in Roe v. Wade on the basis of “health” reasons (3rd term cases, Roe v. Wade 1973). Moreover, viability is a technology-contingent phenomenon, having been pushed back from 24 weeks to about 20 weeks since the Roe v. Wade decsion, yet that four week difference does not seem to to change the nature of abortion but just the prospects for of neonatal care. The CDC definition is even worse since it fails to distinguish abortion from a doctor-interveening child-birth, as both “terminate” a pregnancy. Abortion is vastly different from child-birth, so any definition that fails to distinguish them clearly is not a good definition of either.

The Legal Definition, is much stronger, allowing for 3 different senses suitable to different contexts. Moreover, this definition avoids the problematic note about “viability,” since viability is only a dividing line between kinds or grades of abortion and not a boundary line between abortion and non-abortion. Considered together, the different legal senses of “abortion” adequate summarize abortion. Treated individually, neither one, two, or three suffice.

The Common Language definition is stronger than either of these, including both the termination aspect and the death aspect. It remains neutral on whether “killing” is ever intended (a morally relevant distinction, albeit practically identical either way). It grants that death results but does not go so far as to say that the death is intentional killing of human life. The abortion doctor may be trying to “end the pregnancy” with the the loss of life being only an incidental byproduct. In that sense, “killing” might be too-strong a term, or at least, off-putting in regards to a very contentious and sensitive issue (as abortion is). Pro-lifers, are liable, to treat that division as a “distinction without a difference,” and still charge the abortion doctor with “killing.”

In conclusion, we can say in the broadest sense that abortion is the termination of a pregnancy, but this is only a broad sense and is practically useless unless this base element is matched with an additional element, the death or killing of the fetus. That second element can be understood passively, as with the medical dictionary sense or the legal sense #1, “expelling the fetus prematurely” or “before viability.” But understood actively that element is the killing of the fetus so as to end the pregnancy.

*Natural abortion, that is, miscarriage, is not at issue here.
**Induced abortion is the relevant sense nationally legalized with Row vs. Wade (1973) and Doe vs. Bolton (1973).

Author: John D. Ferrer, 6 May 2013

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