Abortion is commonly defined as the “termination of a pregnancy” (or a “termination of a pregnancy prior to viability”). This may suffice in certain limited contexts in which only the medical aspects of pregnancy are under discussion. However, in the normal usage of the term, when the moral aspect of abortion is under discussion, this definition is inadequate. The simple reason is that the moral aspect of abortion is not whether or not the pregnancy is terminated prematurely. Rather, the question is whether or not the life of the unborn child was intentionally taken by the pregnancy-terminating procedure in question.
Philosopher Christopher Kaczor argues for this kind of redefinition in The Ethics of Abortion:
Although this definition of abortion ["termination of pregnancy"] is used sometimes in the medical community, it is certainly too broad. If abortion is simply “the separation” of the fetus from the mother,” then every cesarean section is also an abortion. If the human fetus does not die, then an abortion properly speaking has not taken place but rather a botched abortion, an attempted abortion, or a failed abortion. The common usage of the verb “abort” indicates as much. If the captain aborted the mission, the mission is over. If the captain tried to abort the mission or failed to abort the mission, that mission may continue. Properly speaking, abortion is intentionally killing the human fetus. (p. 8, Emphasis mine)
This difference in definition becomes particularly relevant when discussing situations where the life of the mother is in danger. In a recent article on the subject, I argued that there are morally justifiable ways of ending life-threatening pregnancies without resorting to performing an abortion. If a mother has an emergency C-section to save her life, this is not an abortion (in the moral sense), even if the baby dies.
On the other hand, consider a hypothetical scenario in which the mother in a life-threatening condition elects to have an emergency C-section just before the normal time of viability, and the child happens to live. Did the doctors just perform (and botch) an abortion? Or did they perform a life-saving medical procedure that resulted in the saving of two lives? No one using the term in the normal sense would say that the doctors performed an abortion in this case. Hence, the need to specify a different definition of the term when discussing abortion in normal contexts.
Now consider another hypothetical scenario where a woman undergoes Dilation & Extraction (also known as “partial birth abortion”) a week before she is due for delivery. At this point, the unborn child is viable. Yet, using the definition of abortion as the “termination of a pregnancy prior to viability,” such a procedure is not an “abortion,” since the unborn child was viable when the procedure was performed. Yet, no one using the term in the normal sense would say that the woman did not have an abortion. Hence, once again, the need to specify a different definition of the term when discussing the morality of abortion.
As abolitionists, this is what we mean when we use the term abortion: abortion is the intentional killing of the human fetus, or the performance of a procedure intentionally designed to kill the human fetus. Defining abortion as the “termination of a pregnancy,” when discussing abortion in a moral context, defies common usage of the term, as well as common sense. What this means is that the usual life-of-the-mother scenarios cannot rationally be used to justify the continued legality of abortion, since there are morally justifiable lifesaving procedures that can be performed to save the life of the mother that are not abortions by this normal and common-sense definition.