Birth Control and Ethics

The ethical questions about birth control have been a topic of debate for a long time. All the world’s major religions promote responsible parenthood, but when it comes to methods the consensus often dissolves.

There’s the ethical consideration about how the availability of birth control encourages couples to engage in premarital sex, and subsequent ramifications that can include unplanned pregnancy, compounded by leading one to consider the moral ethical issue of abortion.

How contraceptives work, specifically, the contraceptive methods that involve the changing of the lining of the uterus to prevent implantation from occurring create an ethical or moral issue for some people. Most people believe that life begins at conception, whereas others believe it begins at implantation. The ethical issue develops for individuals who believe that life begins at conception. When contraceptive methods fail to prevent ovulation or fertilization, the changing of the uterine lining is used to prevent the fertilized egg or “life” from implanting in the uterine wall. It is this action that leaves people believing they have crossed an ethical boundary.

Abortion is an intensely polarizing issue. The question debated comes down to this, what are the rights of an unborn child? Life is life whether inside or outside the womb. So what’s the ethical answer to who rights are more important the child’s or the mother’s?

Abortion History in the United States

  • In the mid-to-late 1800’s, all states passed laws making it illegal to perform or attempt to perform an abortion. These laws were supported by the medical community, which noted abortion’s moral implications and danger to women.
  • During this time period, notable activists in the women’s suffrage movement, such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, spoke out against abortion in their efforts to protect women and children.
  • The term, “back-alley abortion,” became slang for illegal abortions.

In 1959, efforts to liberalize state abortion laws were mounting, and model legislation to legalize abortion in limited cases was proposed at the state level. Abortion advocates often cited as many as ten thousand illegal abortion deaths each year as reason for legalization. However, statements from those on the forefront of this movement reveal that this number was, at best, unsubstantiated and, at worse, purposefully exaggerated. Bernard Nathanson, Aborting America, Doubleday, 1979, p.193; Lucinda Cisler, “Birth Control” in Sisterhood is Powerful, edited by Robin Morgan, Vintage Books, 1970, p. 260.

Another argument for legalizing abortion was that it would enable licensed physicians — rather than unlicensed amateurs — to commit the act. However, in 1960, before abortion was legal, Mary Calderone, former president of Planned Parenthood, wrote that trained physicians performed “90% of illegal abortions.” Source: M. Calderone, “Illegal abortion as a public health problem,” American Journal of Public Health, July 1960, 50 (7): 949.

  • In 1968, Colorado, California, North Carolina and Oregon reformed abortion laws to allow abortion in some cases.
  • Between 1969-1970, a dozen other states followed suit.
  • On January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down every state abortion law through two rulings, Roe v Wade and Doe v Bolton.

Current Status

  • The number of annual reported abortions in the U.S. peaked in 1990 at 1.4 million abortions before dropping in subsequent years.
  • More than one million abortions are performed in the U.S. each year.
  • Based on current abortion rates, about one in three women will have an abortion by age 45.
  • Fourty-four percent of women who had abortions in the U.S. had at least one previous abortion. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Abortion Surveillance 2004 Report,”November 23, 2007, accessed online August 13, 2008, 2008 at
  • Eighty-two percent of women who had abortions in the U.S. were unmarried. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Abortion Surveillance 2004 Report,”November 23, 2007, accessed online August 13, 2008 at
  • Fifty percent of U.S. women having abortions are younger than 25 years old.

Recent public opinion polling indicates a majority of Americans support additional limits on abortion, including bans on late term abortions. They are not comfortable with the virtually unrestricted access it currently enjoys.

Most abortion laws are in effect at the state level. Since Roe and Doe, the US Supreme Court has granted states some latitude in regulating and restricting abortion. As a result, many states have passed measures mandating parental involvement in minor abortion decisions and uniform counseling with reflection periods. A federal ban on a specific type of late-term abortion, “partial birth abortion,” was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in April 2007.