Aborting What?

When we speak on the subject of “abortion,” as when we speak to any subject, it is important to define our terms. Discussions on this matter are so common that we often take the words we use for granted without thinking about their meaning. Take the word "abortion" itself. What exactly does it mean and why do we use it in our discussion of the willful termination of an innocent human life in the womb? This is worth careful consideration.

To “abort” is to stop, cease, terminate, or discontinue prematurely. But when we are speaking culturally and ethically on the subject of “abortion” we are being more specific. In a general sense, we can "abort" all kinds of things that have nothing to do with this discussion. For example, the military might "abort" a mission, and we would not accuse them of having performed an illegal government-funded "abortion" for doing so. No, when we talk about "abortion" in discussions of law or ethics, we are obviously not talking about the abortion of missions or of most anything else. We are not using the term generally. We have something very specific in mind.

Determining the Meaning

So what are we talking about? Aborting what exactly? We might say that we are talking about aborting "the pregnancy," but this would not be correct. A cesarean section ends the pregnancy prematurely by surgically bringing the baby out alive, and yet this is not an "abortion." Further, if an actual abortion procedure is performed and, as a result, the baby comes out alive, this is referred to as a "botched" or failed abortion even though the pregnancy was successfully ended through the delivery of a live child. Something was supposed to be terminated by the procedure. Something was supposed to be aborted, but it was not the pregnancy. The pregnancy itself was, in fact, successfully terminated through the premature delivery of the living child, yet the "abortion" procedure is considered to have failed. It did not terminate the thing it was supposed to terminate. It did not abort what it was supposed to abort. The pregnancy ended, but that wasn't the point. Something else was supposed to end. Something else was supposed to be stopped that wasn't.

These examples show us something important. The C-section is not an abortion because it does not end the unborn child's life. The procedure described as a "botched abortion" is considered botched precisely because the baby did not die. The procedure failed to abort the thing it intended to abort, which is obviously the child him-or-herself. It is plain, then, that when we speak of “abortion” we are not talking about aborting the pregnancy but rather the unborn person. We are talking about ceasing, terminating, or prematurely ending the life inside the womb. It is only an abortion if the baby does not survive. Our usage makes it clear; We are talking about "aborting" the child! What does it mean to "end, stop, cease, or discontinue" an innocent human life? What words would we normally use for that? Not "abortion." Words like "kill" or "murder" would come to mind. But, in this specific context, we have come to speak of it as "abortion" precisely because we want to justify the action or at least temper our revulsion to it. The term "abortion" sounds relatively neutral. If one were to use more precise language, like "prenatal infanticide," they would find it harder to stomach affirming it. Yet such a term would be far more clear and accurate in defining the specific issue we are actually talking about.


By definition, every successful "abortion" procedure is the intentional killing of an innocent human being. When applied to this issue, that is exactly what the word "abortion" actually means: to terminate a pre-born human life. This is why it is so important to analyze the language we use in any ethical debate, and especially one of such importance. Often the most central and defining realities of the discussion can be hidden under common terms that we simply fail to reflect on.