Abortion is one of the most controversial issues of modern times. Civilized societies rate the loss of human life as serious; unfortunately science has been unable to pinpoint definitively when life begins. Opponents of legalized abortion believe that human life begins at conception and that abortion is the intentional killing of a human being. These opponents, known as "pro-life" or "right to life" advocates, lobby in favor of the rights of the unborn. Opposing this position is the "pro-choice" stance which stresses the woman's right to choose to continue or terminate a pregnancy. Pro-choice supporters also argue that legal abortion is safer than illegal abortion and relieves the psychological and social problems associated with bearing an unwanted child. Because the pro-life and pro-choice positions in America are sharply divided along political lines (ultraconservatives being pro-life and ultraliberals being pro-choice), a resolution to the abortion controversy is unlikely in the foreseeable future.
By definition, abortion is the termination of a pregnancy by loss or destruction of the fetus before birth. An abortion may be spontaneous or induced. Although induced abortion has been practiced in every culture since ancient times, it is an act that carries with it both ethical and legal ramifications. In legal terms, abortion is described as an intentionally induced miscarriage. The procedure may be accomplished by the use of surgical intervention, external force, or a chemical substance.
The history of abortion policy in the United States dates back to colonial America. This period was characterized by a relative absence of legal condemnation: "Herbal abortifacients were widely known, and cookbooks and women's diaries of the era contained recipes for medicines" (Brief, 1994, p. 11). Midwives routinely provided women with the medical means to induce abortions, or assisted them with the procedure.