Therapeutic abortion is to some a blessing, to others murder. Most people see it as the conclusion to a highly unfortunate situation in which two lives appear to compete with each other. What guidelines are there for prescribing—or not prescribing—this drastic step?

In the past, most therapeutic abortions were performed to preserve the life of a pregnant woman; but gains in the prevention and control of severe illnesses have decreased the number of abortions performed for that reason. Today, however, psychiatric disturbances and the possibility of damage to the fetus by such conditions in the mother as German measles maintain the abortion rate.

No federal law forbids abortion, but each state has a prohibitory law with an exception for therapeutic abortion. Although these exceptions lack uniformity, most states permit abortion to save the mother’s life. Abortion laws date back to 1803, when abortion became a statutory felony in England. The first state law was enacted by Connecticut in 1821, and other states soon followed. Until 1967 there were no significant changes in these laws. Theoretically, most states still do not allow the physician to decide about abortion by exercising his best professional judgment in keeping with the medical ethics of his community. In practice, however, abortion laws are interpreted by the medical profession without interference from the courts. This means that therapeutic abortions are done in all fifty states in order to preserve maternal health as well as life. Modernization of abortion laws is necessary so that a physician, after proper consultation with specialists, can treat his patient without violating existing laws.

In the American Law Institute’s proposed Model Penal Code, medical ethics ...

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