What Is the Definition of Abortion?

Doctor talking with female patient
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Abortion is the intentional termination of a pregnancy after conception. It allows women to put an end to their pregnancies but involves killing the undeveloped embryo or fetus. For this reason, it is a very controversial subject in American politics.

Supporters of abortion rights argue that the embryo or fetus is not a person, or at least that the government has no right to ban abortion unless it can prove that an embryo or fetus is a person.
Opponents of abortion rights argue that the embryo or fetus is a person, or at least that the government has a responsibility to ban abortion until it can prove that an embryo or fetus is not a person. Although opponents of abortion often frame their objections in religious terms, abortion is never mentioned in the Bible.

Abortion has been legal in every U.S. state since 1973 when the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade (1973) that women have the right to make medical decisions about their own bodies. Fetuses also have rights, but only after the pregnancy has progressed to the point where the fetus can be viewed as an independent person. In medical terms, this is defined as the viability threshold—the point at which a fetus can survive outside of the womb—which is currently 22 to 24 weeks.

Abortions have been performed for at least 3,500 years, as evidenced by their mention in the Ebers Papyrus (ca. 1550 BCE).

The word "abortion" comes from the Latin root aboriri (ab = "off the mark," oriri = "to be born or rise"). Until the 19th century, both miscarriages and intentional terminations of pregnancies were referred to as abortions.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Cook, Elizabeth Adell, Ted G. Jelen, and Clyde Wilcox. "Between Two Absolutes: Public Opinion And The Politics Of Abortion." New York: Routledge, 2018.
  • Flowers, Prudence. "A Brief History of the National Movement to End Abortion." The Right-to-Life Movement, the Reagan Administration, and the Politics of Abortion. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, 2019. 15–39. 
  • Riddle, John M. "Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance." Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.
  • Shannon Stettner, Kristin Burnett and Travis Hay (eds) "Abortion: History, Politics, and Reproductive Justice after Morgentaler." Vancover: University of British Columbia Press, 2017.