Christine Overall argues that a reasonable view of abortion needs to entail both concern for the autonomy of a woman and the well-being of the embryo/fetus. The main objection to abortion has been until now that it results in the death of the embryo/fetus. However, with new reproductive technologies abortion can now consist of two quite distinct aspects. One is the premature emptying of the uterus and the other is causing the death of the embryo/fetus. These two aspects pertain to the rights argument of the abortion issue: the right of the pregnant mother to the control of her own body and the alleged rights of the embryo/fetus.

Overall contends that recent developments in reproductive technologies means that these causally linked events will no longer necessarily have to result in the death of the embryo/fetus. This has been brought about through in vitro fertilisation, where the embryo at an early stage of its development need not be dependent on the occupancy of a uterus. Also, the age of viability of a fetus has decreased so that, with the help of sophisticated support systems, a fetus may be able to survive outside of the uterus. In Overall’s view these new possibilities has opened up the ability to discuss the rights of both the mother and the embryo/fetus.

The conservative position on abortion claims that the embryo/fetus has the right to life. However, Overall states that this is not necessarily true and a better argument is that the pregnant woman or anyone else, such as a physician, has the right to kill an embryo/fetus. Overall quotes Mary Anne Warren who remarks that if abortion could be performed without endangering the embryo/fetus then the woman would never have the right to destroy it. Not having the right to life does not necessarily imply that one being can kill another. This seems to go against the liberal approach to abortion but the distinction is between the ability to expel the embryo/fetus from the uterus without harming it and causing the death of the embryo/fetus.

However, from the liberal view the embryo/fetus has no right to the occupancy of another’s body. A woman’s goal in obtaining an abortion is not necessarily to kill the embryo/fetus but just may be a desire not to be pregnant for whatever reason and abortion can be seen primarily as an emptying of the uterus. If there was a way to preserve the embryo/fetus’s life and respect the woman’s desire to not continue with a pregnancy, then Overall thinks that the evacuation of a uterus that causes no harm to the embryo/fetus or the mother would be the best possible result that could resolve the longstanding issues of abortion.

The implication for this, in Overall’s view, is the transfer of the moral quandaries involved with abortion to other moral dilemmas. These could be dilemmas such as the consideration of whether there will be a moral obligation to preserve all evacuated foetuses. Also, if embryos could be adopted through evacuation and implantation in a willing mother should all embryos become candidates for adoption?

  • Overall, Christine. “Abortion” in Ethics and Human Reproduction: A Feminist Analysis , Overall, Christine , 1987 , 68-87