Thursday, November 04, 2010

Blast from the Past: Abortion

Given it seems there is talk about abortion again going on in the political discourse, with the usual rabid lunatics on each side generally calling the other stupid, I thought I'd revisit a post from 2008 for any new readers (I'm also being lazy):

Dipping a toe into the abortion question? - May 2008

This whole abortion debate has become very odd. Apparently it seems that if you support reducing the time limit on abortion from 24 to say 22 or 20, you are, invariably, just a secret anti-abortionist, in bed with anti-abortionists, or worse still are not being honest with scientific knowledge or what the 'medical profession' says. Oh yes, you're probably a God Botherer too.

Now you may be wondering why I chose to use quotations around 'medical profession' and there is a simple reason to be honest. The phrase, just like the language that is used when talking about climate change, is being thrown out in this argument with the subtle subtext that there is that mythical type of knowledge called 'scientific consensus'. If you listen or read the things being said about abortion you will always see the phrase trotted out as if its presence alone can make an argument right.

The problem is, having read too many articles in the last few days on this subject, what I can see is not the overwhelming view of the 'medical profession' being in agreement. There have been things said and things written which do not all sing from the same hymn sheet. As such whilst one should read and assess what is being said, it would be unwise to stand up and say the medical profession says X, when evidently they don't.

Of course equally I'm not saying either side is right per se. Just that to pretend there is consensus is to misrepresent the reality of the diversity of view amongst doctors and their peers. The question we should be asking therefore is why the differences? Can it all really be explained away by the easy and lazy ad hominen arguments of 'pro-life loony', 'religious nutjob', or 'secret anti-abortion agenda'? I don't think so, because there are some of us in the middle who actually have views that are based on the ethical questions of 'how do we define viable?' and 'what rules should apply to our actions when we have defined what viable means?'.

Laying my cards on the table I should say that I have always been rather proud of the settlement that Britain achieved on abortion. Rather than muddying the waters like Roe vs Wade does in the US, the matter was resolved by agreeing that abortion should be illegal if the child can survive outside of the womb (as well as some other exceptional circumstances of course). The argument today for me as it stands is about that question, not about whether some of the people supporting a reduction in the time limit secretly want to end it altogether.

We have heard over the past few days, from the likes of Dawn Primarolo and assorted commentators, that the 'survival rate' for a child at 23, 22 or 21 weeks has not changed since 1990 when the time limit was reduced from 28 weeks. In today's Times David Aaronvitch argues that if 'viability' has not changed then people supporting a reduction just "don't like abortion". I'm not sure anyone could be more wrong if they tried frankly, because there is a slightly more sophisticated way of looking at this.

The way to look at this is best illustrated, ironically enough, by an anti-death penalty argument. Given that the most ardent of pro-choicers (who incidentally wind me up just as much as loopy pro-lifers) tend to be ardent anti-death penalty advocates as well, so it seemed rather fitting. You see, when it comes to capital punishment, the miscarriage of justice, the mistake, the hanging of just one innocent man is a powerful argument against its presence. The argument is made that the risk of that happening, and we know it has, is to great for the state to commit homicide.

Now take that principle and think about viability in conjunction the 'survival rate' of premature babies. Surely, unless the rate is zero, then that is evidence that a foetus can be viable. Don't get me wrong, that doesn't mean that all are viable, after all, not all babies are even viable when they're born normally, although the majority are of course. The thing is, if we take the principle that one mistake in the matter of capital punishment is a risk to far, then should we not be applying that same principle to how we define the very notion of 'viability'?

If just one premature foetus survives at 21 weeks, then is it not correct to say that a foetus can be viable at 21 weeks and as such the state cannot take the risk of making a mistake like it does with its fully developed adult population when it comes to criminal justice? You don't have to be anti-abortion or a pious religious nutjob to support reducing the limit at all. After all, if it is better to let a guilty man go free than to execute an innocent man, shouldn't we take the same view on the matter of whether a foetus is viable?

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