Abortion: the viability test is dead but it won’t lie down
In a blog post here five months ago (and at greater length in reply to some of the comments on it, especially here) I argued that the point in a pregnancy at which the foetus becomes theoretically able to survive outside the womb — the moment of 'viability' — should not, logically or ethically, determine the point at which it should be made illegal to abort the foetus if the mother needs or wants to end the pregnancy. Polly Toynbee and Zoe Williams among other media commentators, and the great majority of those commenting on my earlier blog post, agree that the viability test is fallacious, but also that it's extremely dangerous: since medical science will no doubt find ways to enable a foetus to survive at an ever earlier stage of its development, and eventually achieve survivability for a fertilised egg at the moment of conception, the inevitable consequence of the viability test will be a complete ban on abortion at any time — which the Roman Catholics and some others freely acknowledge is their objective, and their reason for strongly supporting the viability test even though it's actually incompatible with their own doctrinal attitude to abortion. There's even a clip on YouTube in which assorted Roman Catholic parliamentarians (and possibly others) seek to exploit the viability test (in which they can't logically believe) in order to stir up opposition to any move designed to make abortion easier.
So it's depressing to find that the viability test is apparently still accepted without question both by the Tory leader of the opposition, David Cameron, and by the Labour minister responsible for public health questions, Dawn Primarolo. Last week I submitted to the Observer a letter which attempted to summarise the arguments (today's Observer unaccountably fails to publish it):
Robin McKie and Gaby Hinsliff, in their article about embryos and abortion (This couple want a deaf child, 9 March), like the Public Health Minister Dawn Primarolo, implicitly accept the proposition that abortion should not be allowed once the foetus becomes theoretically viable outside the womb. But this is a fallacious and dangerous test. The viability test is fallacious because our growing ability to keep a foetus alive outside the womb has no logical or ethical connection to whether a woman should be required to keep it alive inside her womb. Whether a foetus is yet a person cannot possibly depend on the state of incubation technology. The viability test is dangerous for those of us who believe in a woman's right to choose because progress in medicine will cause the point of viability to recede, eventually back to the time of conception, at which point the viability test becomes a total ban on abortion. The Roman Catholics are creditably honest about working towards this for their own doctrinaire reasons, but those who respect a woman's right to control over her own body, and who believe that her rights should take priority over any theoretical rights of a foetus which is not yet a person, should beware of letting the argument slip onto this treacherous ground. Viability does not a person make.
Here is David Cameron on the subject, reported in an article by the Guardian's Andrew Sparrow, senior political correspondent, on 25 February 2008:
David Cameron, the Conservative leader, today called for the legal time limit at which abortions are allowed to be carried out to be cut. He said that the current limit – 24 weeks – was no longer acceptable because of medical advances allowing some babies to survive outside the womb at that age.
MPs campaigning to lower the limit want to force a vote on the issue when they debate the human fertilisation and embryology bill. The government has so far not accepted the case for change, but it is expected that there will be a vote on a backbench amendment to the bill as it goes through the Commons over the next few weeks. Cameron told the Daily Mail: "I would like to see a reduction in the current limit, as it is clear that, due to medical advancement, many babies are surviving at 24 weeks. If there is an opportunity in the human fertilisation and embryology bill, I will be voting to bring this limit down from 24 weeks. This must, however, remain a conscience issue and a free vote."
Some campaigners want the limit reduced to 20 weeks, although Cameron's aides stressed that at this stage he was not committing himself to any specific lower time limit. … When abortion was first legalised in 1967, abortions were allowed up to 28 weeks. In 1990 MPs voted to cut the limit to 24 weeks. In 2006, 1,262 abortions were carried out at 22 weeks or later. Around 194,000 abortions were carried out altogether.
And the Hinsliff article cited in my abortive (oops) letter to the Observer makes clear the position of the government, also based on viability:
Tory backbencher and former nurse Nadine Dorries is to table an amendment to the bill which would reduce the upper limit for abortions in Britain from 24 to 20 weeks: David Cameron has pledged to support it. Dorries argues there is evidence that babies above this age are sentient – capable of feeling pain – although the scientific evidence is hotly contested.
Dorries first thought there was no chance of changing the law but is now more confident: 'I only have to walk through the House of Commons and MPs say: "I am with you on 20 weeks, I don't want to go any lower, don't want to ban abortion, but I'm with you."' … The Commons debate will concentrate on viability, the age at which a baby is considered to have a good chance of survival outside the womb. Public Health Minister Dawn Primarolo, who will steer the bill in the Commons, will tell MPs the medical consensus remains that babies cannot be considered viable below 24 weeks, which should remain the legal limit. 'The care of premature babies is clearly improving but it hasn't improved to the point where you can move the point of viability,' she told The Observer. 'There just is a certain time limit when things like lungs are formed. Clearly if the science changes we would have to make that clear to Parliament, but it hasn't.'
But a change in "the science" can't affect the argument, which is a moral and philosophical one, not a matter for scientists or biologists.
It's depressing that people who should know better cling so tenaciously to their acceptance of the discredited viability test and refuse to recognise where it will eventually — probably quite soon — lead them, and us. Presumably our brave political leaders of both parties are terrorised by the thought of the deafening screams from the anti-abortion lobby if they were to announce that they were abandoning the viability test and recognising the right of a pregnant woman to terminate her pregnancy at any point in it. Or perhaps they simply don't understand and can't see either the fallacy or the danger in relying on viability. If not for heaven's sake, then for that of thousands of women, wake up!