Abortion: foetus viability is a poisoned red herring
Abortion! I enter these shark-infested waters with trepidation. But here goes, anyway.
I start from the position that what a pregnant woman chooses to do with her body and its foetus, up to the moment of the birth of what is then her baby, is her own business, and not anyone else's. But those who share this view need to beware of the temptation to argue the case on our adversaries' terms by tacitly accepting the proposition that abortion should not be allowed after the point where the foetus becomes theoretically 'viable', i.e. capable of surviving independently of the mother. This is wrong and dangerous on two grounds.
First, the commonly accepted test of viability makes a kind of sense only if one believes that destroying a potential future human life is morally equivalent to killing a human being (baby, child or adult) after birth. But the logical consequence of that belief is that it must be wrong to destroy the foetus at any time after conception, since the moment the mother's egg is fertilised, a potential future human comes into existence. Viability is irrelevant to this. And once you equate the destruction of a one-day-old foetus with the murder of a baby, it's a short step to condemning anything that prevents an egg from being fertilised — i.e. contraception — which also destroys a potential future human. To their credit (in a way), the more old-fashioned or doctrinaire Roman Catholics fully accept the logic of this, opposing abortion at any time regardless of 'viability', and condemning contraception on the same grounds. But a necessary consequence of that position is that pregnant women's control over their own bodies is subordinated to a theoretical moral equation which is not only dubious but also contradicted by common sense and moral instinct: destroying a foetus, whatever its nominal potential, is self-evidently not the same thing as killing a new-born baby, or any other human being.
The second reason for not relying on viability as the point at which abortion should be disallowed is its relativity and impermanence, as well as its ambiguity (does viability imply merely capacity for survival for a week, or a month, or a year, after removal from the womb, or does it also incorporate the sense of capacity to develop into adulthood without crippling disabilities?). There's anyway an obvious inconsistency in laying down a moral principle about the point at which an action ceases to be morally neutral and becomes morally unacceptable, if that point is constantly changing with the development of new scientific and medical techniques and if it comes at a different time in a pregnancy according to the location and circumstances of the mother. The time is clearly approaching when a fertilised egg will come to be regarded as viable immediately after conception, since its removal from the womb and transfer to an artificial womb-like environment for rearing to full term can't be far away, if indeed it hasn't already arrived. No wonder that the Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of England has been all over our radios and televisions in recent weeks calling for a reduction in the number of weeks after conception beyond which abortion is no longer allowed. He has the grace to admit that he opposes abortion at any time after conception (and opposes contraception designed to prevent conception at all) and regards a reduction in the time-limit for abortion as a positive step on the way to its total abolition. We should heed that warning.
Lord Steel, architect of the 1967 Act, makes a sensible point when he argues that too many people resort to abortion almost as a form of contraception, or as a consequence of irresponsible failure to use contraception in the first place. Abortion must always be a traumatic experience, emotionally and sometimes physically, and not something to be lightly undertaken. But both he and the current responsible minister, Dawn Primarolo, accept that viability as the criterion for the time-limit is something for scientists and doctors to define, with the fatal implication that as viability becomes possible earlier, so abortion must be banned earlier too:
[Lord Steel] also said that he was not yet convinced that the upper legal time for terminations should be cut from 24 weeks. This view is to be echoed today by the Government, in a move that has infuriated pro-life campaigners. Dawn Primarolo, the public health minister, will tell a cross-party Commons committee of MPs that there is no evidence to support a change in the law. (Daily Telegraph, 25 Oct 07; my emphasis.)
Fortunately the mounting pressures for a reduction in the time-limit from those whose long-term aim is to ban abortion altogether, mainly for reasons stemming from a religious belief which only a small minority of British people share, is partly offset by countervailing pressures for further liberalisation of the law governing abortion, although the chances of that currently look remote. But even the liberalisers risk seeing their case undermined if they continue to pin their colours to the rickety mast of viability. Those who wish to see women's control over their own bodies respected under durable rules of law and custom ought to base their argument on the manifest difference between an unborn foetus and a human being after birth. Destroying one can never be equated with killing the other: and the consequences of making that false equation can only mean misery and suffering for legions of women of the kind that thousands endured before abortion became legal. Don't let's allow ourselves to be driven back to that, just because of scientific and medical advances which in truth have nothing to do with the matter.
One further point. The argument is unlikely to be advanced by discussion in terms of rights. Even if one concedes the existence of 'rights' — granted by whom, to whom, under what conditions? — there's no obvious yardstick by which to referee a conflict between, say, the rights of a pregnant woman and the supposed rights of her unborn baby. Nor should we ever accept without challenge the self-characterisation of the anti-abortion lobby as being 'pro-life'. We're all, I hope, pro-life. Some of us, though, are pro-choice, too.
Hat-tip: Owen Barder (in a blog post no longer available).
Update: I wrote this before I read Polly Toynbee's piece in the Guardian of 26 October (last Friday). Polly says it all. How refreshing to find someone else who has spotted the fatal flaw in the viability debate and its malign consequence of surrendering key decisions on it to scientists and medics — and, even worse, to priests of various sects — who are no better placed than anyone else to have a view! As Polly says,
That is why no house room should be given to slippery arguments about the "viability" of foetuses. Virtually none survive under 24 weeks, and, if they do, the handicaps are usually horrendous. Already children's services are crippled with the cost of multiply damaged children left in their care. Foetuses may survive with "heroic" efforts of over-enthusiastic doctors winning full pages in the Mail, as yesterday, but the child's later progress is rarely reported.
Over the years more may survive younger, but that's not the point and it never was. Give in to that argument and the case for a woman's supreme right over her own body and destiny is lost. It is handed back again to the doctors and priests and politicians to make those decisions for her.
Amen to that — or rather Hear, Hear.
Ms Toynbee's article is also memorable for its withering attack on the moral cowardice of the saintly, dithering Archbishop of Canterbury. At least the Roman Catholics have the courage of their convictions and accept the logical consequences of them, however destructive these turn out to be. For that they deserve, I suppose, a reluctant salute; but we really shouldn't take any notice of what they say.
Update (3 November 07): Rob Jubb posted a formidable commentary on this piece in his comment below, here. I have now put my own response to his commentary as a fresh comment here. In a message to Rob I have acknowledged that I would have written this piece differently if he and I had had this exchange beforehand. So it ought now to be read in conjunction with our exchange. The full text of Rob's commentary is embodied in my response to it so you don't need to visit both.