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Abortion and Cultural Relativism

Using the ethical theory of cultural relativism I will demonstrate why physician-assisted suicide, or PAS, should not become legalized in the United States. One of the key principles stated in the theory of cultural relativism is that what is deemed right and wrong by a particular culture at a particular period in time is what is ethical for that culture at that time. In the case of PAS, we need merely look at the current law concerning the matter to determine its ethical nature. The United States Supreme Court in the case of Washington v. Glucksberg stated, “In almost every state- indeed, in almost every western democracy- it is a crime to assist a suicide”(243).

In our democratic society, we elect officials whom we entrust to act and govern on our behalf, more or less they represent the beliefs and values of at least the majority of citizens in our culture. Taking that in mind, the Supreme Court states, ”Indeed, opposition to and condemnation of suicide- and, therefore, of assisting suicide- are consistent and enduring themes of our philosophical, legal, and cultural heritage”(243). The very fact that PAS is currently outlawed in our society means that it is not ethical in nature with respect to cultural relativism.

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Another argument, which supports not legalizing physician-assisted suicide, is given in an article written by Paul Chamberlin. He claims that by legalizing PAS you are giving people a choice that creates an unneeded and potentially harmful burden. Having to make this choice forces people to make a drastic decision affecting not only their lives, but also the lives of their family, at a time when they are feeling practically worthless. Chamberlin states it best when he says, “By giving them the choice to die, we will have also unwittingly placed upon these vulnerable people the added burden of having to justify their own continued existence, if not to others, at least to themselves, and this at a time when they feel useless, discouraged, and a burden to others”(271).

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Another controversial topic affecting the lives of many people is that of abortion. I will show that, according to cultural relativism, women should have the right to an abortion at any time during the pregnancy prior to viability, that being the time when the fetus has the capacity of meaningful life separate and independent from the mother. Again using the same principle as used in the PAS argument, that which is ethical for a culture in a period in time is what a culture deems right and wrong in that same period of time.

Therefore we must again look at the current law concerning abortion in the United States. The Supreme Court, in the case of Roe v. Wade, states that prior to viability, the abortion decision must be left to the pregnant woman’s attending physician and only subsequent to the first trimester may the state intervene to regulate the procedure in the interest of the health and welfare of the mother (154). Although the state may intervene, the law states that women enjoy the right to have an abortion prior to viability. Again, our culture, in so much that it is legal to have an abortion prior to viability, shows that abortion, at least for the majority, is an ethical practice.

Another argument in support of my claim concerning abortion is that even if a fetus has a right to life, it does not guarantee the right to sustain existence using the body of another person, namely the mother. Thompson argues this by saying, “I am arguing only that having a right to life does not guarantee to have either a right to be given the use of or a right to be allowed continued use of another person’s body- even if one needs it for life itself ”(214).

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This shows that a fetus, with or without the right to life, has no claim to being given the right to use another person’s body, despite the consequence. Therefore, since the fetus has no right to use the mother’s body, the mother may, if she so chooses, have an abortion performed. Also, since the fetus, after viability, no longer requires the use of the mother’s body it now has a right to life and, in accordance with the conditions of my argument, cannot be aborted by the mother.

I have shown in the arguments I made against legalizing PAS and in favor of abortion prior to viability that using the principle taken from the theory of cultural relativism supports both my positions. By looking at what our culture deems to be ethical in the cases of PAS and abortion I have shown my arguments are valid and also ethical through the eyes of a cultural relativist.

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Abortion and Cultural Relativism. (2021, Mar 22). Retrieved June 24, 2022, from