Abortion. There, I’ve said it. That’s another 100 extra hits on the statcounter today, fellow Sharpeners. There’s nothing the political world likes more than a contentious moral issue, and this particular issue is one of the daddies. This post was going to be a collaborative effort between me and Katie, but alas she is too busy, so you lucky souls just get my bit. That’s nice for me, of course, because it means I’m the de facto winner. King of the debate, if you will. Lord of the argument. Duke of disagreement. Enough…
What I’d like to do is to try to avoid a lot of the emotive language that goes with the abortion debate. It would make for an interesting study in politics to examine the words that people use to inject emotion into the debate (pro-life vs. pro-choice, embryo vs. foetus vs. unborn child vs. parasite, etc…), but I don’t think it helps. I’ll try to be scientific where possible, although my biology training stopped at the tender age of 16, so bear with me if I confuse foetuses for embryo’s, and cerebral cortexes (cortices?) for frontal lobes, or something like that.
That said, so that we can get some nice ranty comments going, I’m going to characterise myself as a pro-lifer. I’m not religious; in fact, I am an agnostic bordering on atheist, so please avoid comments about my invisible friend telling me to save the babies, as I’m not biting on that little chestnut. Nonetheless, I believe abortion should be illegal in all forms in Britain, except in truly exceptional circumstances, which I’ll define later. When it comes to commenting, can we please try to keep away from silly ‘if you take that argument to the extreme, you’d be condoning x’, where x is some ludicrous nonsensical proposition, or analogy with the Iraq war/Hitler/etc…, as that’s just plain dull. Still, if you feel the need to compare me to extremist, fundamentalist, Christian, bible-bashing, Texan-cowboy, imperialist, creationism-believing, abortion-clinic-bombing, KKK-supporting whackjobs, go right ahead. I can take it – I have the wikipedia link to Godwin’s law close to hand.
My objections to abortion are these:
Firstly, the science. I believe that the potential for life begins at conception. I hope that isn’t contentious, as it seems to me to be just a statement of fact. All other things being equal, and the world being a kind place, conception leads to birth. At some points in the 9 months, embryo becomes foetus becomes baby, and we can characterise the changes in a variety of ways. The foetus develops rudimentary organs and a brain by 8 weeks, and is able to respond to stimuli at the same point. The brain becomes capable of rational thought somewhere between 8-20 weeks, as far as I can tell – I’m not a biologist, and I’m a pretty lazy researcher. The current UK limit for abortion is at 24 weeks. Birth is somewhere around 38 weeks from fertilisation. The current legal limit for abortion seems arbitrary, and arguments that the foetus is capable of survival outside the womb with sufficient medical care at 24 weeks, albeit at a fairly low (but increasing) probability, would seem to suggest that the limit should at least be cut. That said, it seems likely that at some point between 8-20 weeks
at least, the foetus becomes capable of feeling pain and of some kind of understanding and rationality. Perhaps that implies a case for cutting the limit to 8 weeks? Of course, this is fairly contentious, because many people believe that the rights of the mother are paramount, and that the ‘pain’ or ‘consciousness’ arguments are
spurious. They have a point on the latter, and I’ll come back to the former later. I’d go further. The potential for life, which I identified earlier, is paramount. If you conceive, you should carry the embryo and then foetus to term. To deny the potential for life is, at least in my own opinion, morally equivalent to murder. To stretch
this point somewhat, but not beyond the realm of credibility, it isn’t hard to imagine that medical technology will exist in the (near) future that will allow a fertilised egg to be brought to term outside of the womb. What will the citizens of the future think of our civilisation now, as we so brutally butchered those they would
consider equal in their present?
The second point is more ethereal, and concerns the balance between rights and responsibilities. Some people on the other side of the argument believe that a woman has the right to do whatever she likes with her own body. I wouldn’t really argue with that, except in that it isn’t entirely her own body after she conceives. There is another body inside it, and although it is dependent on her for everything in those first 9 months, it is still a life, and it has rights. We can argue about the extent of those rights, but it has rights, nonetheless. To argue otherwise would create a precedent for a hierarchy of humanity, where different groups have rights according to their group classification. That’s a dangerous idea, and I’ll say no more about it, not wanting to Godwin-ise myself. This is often just summarised using the emotive terms of right-to-life and right-to-choose, but I think it’s more subtle than that. Having an extreme right to choose what you do with your own body, to the exclusion of the rights of others, however diminished those rights may be, seems to me to be a dangerous fundamental principle. To take an excessively emotive and extreme example, should I have the right to have sex with anyone I choose, regardless of how they feel about it? Of course not, but the equivalence is pretty
close, unless you deny that the foetus has any rights at all. Either way, I don’t think that these spurious, invented rights are very helpful. Everyone has a fundamental right to life, liberty and property, foetus included. Other rights either derive from that set, or are invented to prop up a cause celebre du jour (apologies to Orwell’s memory for that abuse of our language). Plus, there’s the practical argument
that if you can’t use contraception properly, abortion shouldn’t be the last line of defence. That’s what contraception is for. Yes, it can go wrong, but there’s risk in everything. If you want to take a
chance, you have to take responsibility for the outcome.
Thirdly, and finally, I am concerned with the effect that liberalised abortion law has on society. The original intention for the law in the UK was that abortion should be limited to cases where bringing the baby to term would subject the mother to undue physical or mental stress, effectively to neutralise the public health problem created by illegal abortions being carried out (and we can argue over how much of a problem really existed if you like). Legislation allowed for abortion if 2 doctors would agree to it, in cases where the mother’s, or existing children’s, physical or mental health was at risk, the mother’s life was in actual danger, or the child would be born severely handicapped. Current legislation puts a limit of 24 weeks on abortion. In practice, now more than ever before, abortion is available effectively on demand before 24 weeks, as doctors are quite willing to interpret mental or physical health problems in terms of not being able to go on holiday this year. Life’s a bitch. Stats in this section relate to England and Wales. The vast majority of abortions in 2003
(94% – 171,000 abortions) were carried out to protect the mother’s physical or mental health. The spread is remarkably even across age, marital status and race, although singletons tend to abort much more than married women do, and under 30’s more than over 30’s, for obvious reasons. 87% of abortions occur before week 12. Over 181,000 abortions were performed in 2003 (just under 50,000 in 1969, the first full year
after abortion was effectively legalised). As a comparison, just over 621,000 live births happened in 2003 (797,000 in 1969). That means a quarter of all pregnancies now end in abortion (6% in 1969). How can
that, in any way, be healthy for society as a whole, that we treat pregnancy and childbirth with such casual disdain? To compare with what is, in my view, our closest cultural comparative, the Republic of Ireland, which obviously has much stricter laws on abortion: in 2002, there were about 60,000 births, and 6,500 abortions – 1 in 10, much lower than our 1 in 4.
Finally, I don’t want to preclude the possibility of providing help and support for women who find themselves pregnant and don’t want the child. I also think abortion should be available on a limited basis, for cases where the mother’s life is genuinely at risk, or in cases of extreme emotional distress, such as after a rape. But I would go no further than that. We should provide a safety net to cover that, but it shouldn’t involve killing the foetus. People argue that this amounts to turning the woman into a human incubator, a machine, for 9 months. Well, if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. Wear a condom, or a femidom, take the pill, get a coil inserted, have your tubes tied, turn lesbian, but whatever you choose to do, go safely. And thus endeth the lesson. Over to you, commenters.