I wrote the following letter to the Guardian minutes before leaving London for a river cruise up the Elbe from Berlin to Prague. The letter was published in the Guardian of 9 October, along with several others on the subject of abortion following the proposal by the Health Secretary, of all people, that the period in a pregnancy during which an abortion is permissible (on rigorous conditions) should be drastically shortened:
• The health secretary’s reactionary call for halving the period in pregnancy when abortion may be permissible (Report, 6 October) lacks logical as well as scientific justification.
Defenders of women’s right to choose whether and when to have an abortion should beware of accepting the anti-abortionists’ implicit claim that abortion should be banned from the point when the foetus, if removed from the womb, could theoretically survive.
There is no logic to this claim, and the test is purely hypothetical: some foetuses could be helped to survive outside the mother at almost any stage, others couldn’t. So long as it is a foetus and not a baby, it’s part of and dependent on the mother, who should have unfettered rights to decide its future.
Once born, it is a baby and a human, and quite different considerations apply, but not until then.
The alleged link between potential hypothetical viability and the ban on abortion is based purely on religious superstition about “the beginning of life” and should be firmly resisted.
Otherwise, scientific advances will eventually make foetuses potentially viable from the moment of conception – and we shall be back to the cruel days when all abortions were banned and back-street abortionists flourished.
If the space allocated by the Guardian for letters had been bigger, I would have added an acknowledgement of Owen Barder‘s blinding aperçu that there’s no necessary basis in logic or morals for the assertion that an abortion becomes unacceptable at the point where the foetus might hypothetically survive if removed from the womb, one of those Eureka! observations (except that I didn’t discover it, he did). It’s obvious when you think about it, yet even the most radical of the pro-choice campaigners never seem to challenge the underlying premiss of the anti-abortionists that once the foetus is theoretically “viable” on its own, aborting it must be wrong. Once you point out that there is no basis for this assertion, the whole case for repeatedly reducing the period in which abortions are permitted falls apart. Throughout her pregnancy, every woman should have the unfettered right to decide what happens to every part of her body and its contents, and it’s utterly unacceptable that anyone else should attempt to limit or deny that right.
(This post is being published, all being well, from aboard a river cruise ship moored on the Elbe in the heart of beautiful, beautifully restored Dresden, of whose virtual destruction by giant fire-storm, set off by the bombers of the Royal Air Force only a few weeks before the end of the second world war, we Britons ought to be suitably ashamed. But that’s a different point of controversy: this post is about abortion and women’s rights, once again under threat from religious bigots and other misogynistic obscurantists.)