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Jaslin U. Salmon | Abortion – A philosophical perspective

Published:Thursday | April 15, 2021 | 12:10 AM
Jaslin Salmon
Jaslin Salmon

The government’s refusal to enact a less restrictive abortion law is clear evidence that it has very little interest in the reproductive rights of women. The Government is dominated by men who think they know what is best for women, and the time has come for women and enlightened men to rise up in angry indignation. The sad reality is that legislators know that the women who are most affected by the draconian abortion law are poor women who rely on quack abortionists, which frequently results in the death or impaired health of many of these women.

The 1861 law that restricts a woman’s right to abortion is archaic and ought to be repealed. When in recent years the Government passed the Offences Against the Persons Act, it further criminalises any attempt by a woman to exercise her privacy and reproductive rights.

Morality is neither absolute nor unchanging; it is relative, and changes over time and from place to place. There are norms that determine morality, and as norms change, the moral standards also change, although they may lag behind. For the purpose of this article, I am identifying two types of norms, namely, private and public norms, which in turn give rise to private and public morality, respectively. The debate about reproductive rights and reproductive health should be understood in terms of private and public morality. Private and public norms/morality are not separate entities, they fall on a continuum, which means that at some point on the continuum they will intersect. Private morality addresses an individual’s personal behaviour that has no direct impact on the public, and should therefore not be the concern of the public or government. On the other hand, public morality addresses behaviour that directly affects others and the society in general, and should be governed by the laws of the land.


Merriam-Webster defines abortion as “ the termination of a pregnancy, after, accompanied by, resulting in, or closely followed by the death of the embryo or fetus”. “In medicine, an abortion is the premature exit of the products of conception (fetus, fetal membranes, and placenta) from the uterus. It is the loss of pregnancy and does not refer to why that pregnancy was lost.” (William C. Shiel, MD; MedicineNet Newsletter.) The legal definition sees abortion as the deliberate termination of a pregnancy in keeping with the specifications of the legislature.

According to Mayo Clinic (July 2016), 10 per cent to 20 per cent of known pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion or miscarriage, but the proportion could be much higher because many pregnancies end before the woman is aware she is pregnant. Some sources estimate that one in three pregnancies end with spontaneous abortion, which means that abortion is a normal part of the reproductive process.

The opponents and proponents of abortion have fallen victims to what I call dichotomous thinking. This kind of thinking suggests that you are either right or wrong; you are either for or against something; a norm or behaviour is either good or bad; abortion is either moral or immoral, etc. In fact, the issue is much more complex than that, and people fall at varying points along a continuum.

I support a woman’s right to choose, and I believe that abortion is neither right nor wrong; it is neither good nor bad. It is an act that straddles the areas of private and public morality, and is governed by both private and public norms. The challenge is how to reconcile the demands of these two important aspects of life.

What is the fetus? It is a foreign entity that has been introduced into the uterus of a woman. At the onset, a fetus is very similar to a uterine tumour, which is also a foreign entity that grows in the uterus. Both the fetus and the tumour are totally dependent on the woman for survival; in other words, initially, both have a parasitic relationship with the woman and neither can survive outside her body. When a tumour develops, if it is removed, it cannot survive outside the woman’s body, and it is highly unlikely that anyone will object to its removal; and there are no laws to say whether or not it can be removed.


In the case of the removal of the product of conception, the scientific evidence suggests that if separated from the woman up to 22 weeks, it is highly unlikely that the fetus could survive. It is obvious that the difference in how we react to the removal of a tumour compared to the removal of the product of conception, is the reality that removal of a tumour universally falls within the context of private norms, and is therefore treated as private morality. On the other hand, some members of society view abortion as a matter of private morality, which should be governed by private norms, while others contend that abortion is a matter of public morality, and should be governed by public norms. Clearly, the absence of uniformity about which norm should govern abortion contrasts with the uniformity about which norm should govern the removal of a tumour, hence the problem.

A tumour is hazardous to the health of the woman, and similarly, all pregnancies are potentially hazardous to the health of a woman, and many pregnancies are in fact hazardous to the life and health of a woman. I suggest that in the interest of the woman’s right to privacy, for the period that the fetus is unable to survive independent of the woman, it ought to be governed by private norms and treated the same way we treat a tumour, i.e., the woman ought to be left alone to decide whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. However, at the point at which the fetus becomes viable outside the womb, it ought to be governed by public norms, and be regulated in ways that take into consideration the intersection of public and private norms, as well as the reality that each case has its own peculiarities, hence should be considered on its merits.

Dr Jaslin U. Salmon is a professor of sociology who has served as president of the Jamaica Red Cross, vice-president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and adviser in the Office of the Prime Minister of Jamaica, 1997-2005. Email: