Definition Of Abortion
The classic definition of abortion is "expulsion of the fetus before it is viable." This could include spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) or induced abortion, in which someone (a doctor, the woman herself, or a layperson) causes the abortion. Before modern methods of abortion, this sometimes meant the introduction of foreign objects like catheters into the uterus to disrupt the placenta and embryo (or fetus) so that a miscarriage would result. In preindustrial societies, hitting the pregnant woman in the abdomen over the uterus and jumping on her abdomen while she lies on the ground are common techniques used to induce an abortion (Early and Peters 1990). Although these methods can be effective, they may also result in the death of the woman if her uterus is ruptured or if some of the amniotic fluid surrounding the fetus enters her bloodstream. From the colonial period to the early twentieth-century in America, primitive methods such as these were used along with the introduction of foreign objects into the uterus (wooden sticks, knitting needles, catheters, etc.) to cause abortion, frequently with tragic results (Lee 1969).
In modern society, abortions are performed surgically by physicians or other trained personnel experienced in this technique, making the procedure much safer. The goal of induced abortion remains the same: to interrupt the pregnancy so that the woman will not continue to term and deliver a baby.
One problem with the classical definition of abortion is the changing definition of viability (the ability to live outside the womb). Premature birth is historically associated with high death and disability rates for babies born alive, but medical advances of the twentieth century have made it possible to save the lives of babies born after only thirty weeks of pregnancy when the usual pregnancy lasts forty weeks. Some infants born at twenty-six to twenty-seven weeks or younger have even survived through massive intervention and support. At the same time, abortions are now routinely performed up to twenty-five to twenty-six weeks of pregnancy. Therefore, the old definition of viability is not helpful in determining whether an abortion has been or should be performed (Grobstein 1988).