Abortion as a right... and obligation?

I had a interesting (and somewhat fiery) discussion with a student the other day. We are both pro-choice, so it was a bit surprising that the excitement occurred while discussing abortion. She bemoaned that doctors in Austria are not required to perform abortions at the patient's behest. I said I thought that was just fine. She was angry, because abortion in Austria is still technically illegal, though it has been decriminalized, so there's apparently little problem in getting one in practice, especially in "liberal" Vienna. Well, she has a point, and as a pro-choice supporter, I think it should be up to the individuals involved to decide.

Still, abortion is not "just a medical procedure" like any other, as she tried to convince me. There are real ethical considerations involved, not to mention some very strong feelings (as she herself can surely attest). To brush others' concerns aside would be to commit the same bigotry that pro-lifers, in my view, do: wishing to force those who disagree with them to live by their rules.

To a certain extent, civilization requires that we do just that. Just a small example: I have been known to voice the opinion that speed limits in America are too low. Still, when I drive fast and am caught, I have to pay a fine. This is called the rule of law. It is definitely not tyranny, despite what some anarchists might have you believe. Again, though, abortion isn't just some ordinance. It is a topic that very often defies consensus. At the root of the problem are differing beliefs about when life itself begins. Such a question is almost impossible to answer in a way that will satisfy everyone. For this reason, the most logical conclusion for me seems to be to allow individuals to choose whether or not to have an abortion. At the same time, though, I think most people would agree that abortions are not wonderful things, but are instead a last resort. Efforts to encourage mothers to give up children for adoption, to help young mothers raise them themselves, etc., are all all right, so long as the mother, in the end, is free to decide.

So back to the doctors, now. Following the logic that abortion is controversial because the point at which life begins cannot really be defined, it stands to reason that doctors, too, may disagree on abortion. Some doctors may have deeply held convictions that tell them that abortion, when the mother's life is not in danger, is wrong. Maybe they just feel uncomfortable with it. After all, I have been told, and this seems very plausible, that few women choose to have an abortion lightly. It may be a decision that haunts them long afterwards. Why should we assume doctors are any different? They may also suffer from a moral dilemma and be robbed of sleep at night, even if they feel they've made the right choice, due to the difficulty of making such a decision at all. Because of this, I feel it is only fair that doctors be free to choose whether to perform abortions or not, assuming the woman's life is not in immediate danger (this caveat is crucial). Maybe they could be required to refer patients in a timely manner to another doctor who will do it. Another reason is that I suspect that the quality of a doctor's work might suffer if s/he were performing an operation s/he were strongly opposed to.

Let's remember that the guiding principle here is freedom. I know, it sounds really cliché and Bush-esque, but it's true. A woman's freedom to choose should not infringe upon a doctor's right to do the same.


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