I’ve posted a lengthy comment over at Pickled Politics on Sunny’s commentary on Mad Nad’s incessant twisting on the subject of abortion, which bears repetition here as it pretty much sums up my personal position on the current debate and one the way forward…
Let’s get into this:
As far as ‘rights’ are concerned, any pregnancy creates a situation in which two fundamental rights, those of the foetuses notion right to life and the mother’s right to sovereignty over their own body are conjoined and inseparable until the conclusion of the pregnancy.
In the case of a woman seeking an abortion those rights become incommensurable such that all that one can do is seek to balance those rights in a manner that one considers leads to the least harm.
In terms of rights theory that position is derived from the works of Isaiah Berlin and JS Mill and for anyone who considers themselves a liberal, there is your philosophical starting point.
Medical science and scientific evidence can, at best, inform the debate and assist in arriving at a view of where the ‘least harm’ may lie. So far as such evidence is concerned, that I find most compelling is the clear evidence that the basic capacity for consciousness, sentience and self-awareness does not begin to function at even a rudimentary level until 26-28 weeks gestation.
My view of what I value as most human is bound up in the capacity for consciousness and sentience. Cogito Ergo Sum. And as such when it comes to minimising harm in a situation where some degree of harm is necessary then if one is to terminate the development of a foetus then at least do so before the capacity for conscious thought and sentience begins to develop.
I am, therefore, comfortable with the current 24 week upper limit, but for preference wish to see access to abortion before that point expedited – if a woman is to have an abortion, make it as early as possible, where the procedure itself is at its simplest, safest and least physically [and psychologically] traumatic.
And, of course, we should be doing everything possible to prevent unwanted pregnancies via health/social education and access to contraception. The one period in which the number of abortions actually fell, markedly was during the early 1990s where, for 4-5 years the number of abortions ran at around 20,000 a year less than the prevailing trend before and after this period. This was the period immediately following the massive government funded information campaign around HIV/AIDS which extensively promoted ’safe sex’ and the use of condoms and clearly validates, for me, the importance of education and easy access to contraception.
This requires a lot of work, but free NHS condoms in all pharmacies would be a quick and useful starting point, and we can take the rest from there.
The viability argument is unsatisfactory and unilluminating. Sorry but I don’t, and won’t define my notions of humanity and the value of human life by reference to medical technology and clinical intervention.
And as for the foetal pain argument, that again offers no insight into the concept of humanity, it is, at best, an argument for the use of anaesthesia in later second trimester abortions in the interests of making the procedure as humane as possible, both for the foetus and for the mother in terms of the reassurance that may offer that the foetus did not experience pain during the procedure – even though the notion of of pain at this stage is confined to purely physiological reactions. Foetuses do not ‘feel’ pain in any conscious sense before (again) the third trimester because the brain and nervous system are insufficiently developed and connect to induce such ‘feelings’ at a conscious level. In that sense, the use of anaesthesia on the foetus is more a placebo for the mother than anything else.
‘Moral’ arguments, especially those derived from religious belief, carry very limited weight with me.
As an atheist, arguments derived from the alleged opinions of a god I don’t consider to exist are hardly going to be compelling and, frankly, if someone has a moral or ethical objection to abortion then that objection can happily be satisfied and put into practice by the simple expedient of them not having an abortion.
We should, in the wider socio-political debate, take such views into account but then need to put into their proper context, as philosophical arguments and abstractions, and be weighted accordingly.
Abortion has personal, social, cultural political and economic costs and consequences and these need to be weighed and evaluated. However, alternatives like adoption and, of course, the continuation of a pregnancy to term, have their costs and consequences also, and one cannot debate this issue properly without consideration of all these factors.
What concerns me most about the current debate is that the single most important ‘voice’ in this, that of women who have faced the difficult and painful choice of whether to have an abortion is too seldom heard and given far too little regard and consideration.
This is, at least in part, because the law as it stands classifies ’social’ abortions under a quasi-clinical category of giving rise to risk of physical or mental harm to the mother.
This actively discourages substantive social research in the UK into the reasons why women elect to have abortions and the factors that influence their decisions, not to mention the difficulties they face in making such decisions, information that is critical to our understanding and proper consideration of the issues raised by abortion and denies women a necessary and important voice in the overall debate.
As a liberalising measure, I fully support the withdrawal of this category and the legal recognition of ’social’ abortion as a legitimate and non-clinical ground on which abortions can be carried out. This should be backed up with government funding for substantive and detailed research in this field to inform future reviews/debates around abortion.
If we do not understand why women have abortions, how they arrive at such decisions, what factors most influence the decision making process and how this may affect them psychologically, etc. then we cannot have the full and informed debate that is necessary if we are to arrive at a humane and rational legal framework for abortion.
That said, one aspect of the current debate that I do dislike – actually despise is a better word – is the view that is being advanced that ‘feckless’ women are using abortion as a stop-gap form of contraception.
There may be some specific instances in which there is a slim element of truth to such an assertion, but in the vast majority of cases the circumstances in which the woman falls pregnant have little of no bearing on the difficulty or complexity of the decision they face and have to make.
We should also not be swayed in our judgement on the question of establishing a just and humane framework for legal abortion by crude and judgemental arguments as to the moral character of women to who do elect to have an abortion and should certainly never use this as a basis for limiting access to abortion for individual women.
In legal terms, such references have the same basic character as the practice of using information about a woman’s sexual history to call into question her moral character in the context of a rape trial and as a basis for a clinical decision it is akin to suggesting that a doctor should have the right to carry out a sterilisation on a woman, without her consent, because she continues to get pregnant and have children while living on welfare benefits.
The correct legal basis for ’social’ abortions is that of informed consent and the only sound and justifiable basis for overriding the decision to have an abortion made on such a basis is where there is a legitimate question of legal competence, in which case the matter should be remitted immediately to a court of law and a decision rendered as quickly as possible. but under the presumption that the woman in competent unless proven otherwise.
My personal view on the current debate is, therefore, that:
a) There is no substantive case for a reduction in the current upper time limit for legal abortion.
b) There is a case for some liberalising measures that expedite abortions, ensuring that as many as possible as conducted inside 12-13 week gestation, and for the legal recognition of ’social’ abortions without reference to the current quasi-clinical method of classification.
There is, therefore, a case for such measures to be debated in Parliament and for modest amendments to the current law.
These should be followed by:
a) a government funded social research programme into abortion, one that endeavours to understand why women have abortions, what factors most influence their decisions and what the various social, etc. costs and consequences of abortion (and alternatives) are, and
b) a clear moratorium on further attempts to legislate in the area of abortion until this research programme has been completed, at which point a comprehensive review of abortion and abortion law should be carried out by means of a Royal Commission which will take evidence and consider the full range of evidence and opinion – scientific, philosophical, moral/ethical and social/psychological.
The recommendations of this Royal Commission would then inform Parliament as to whether any further legislative changes might be necessary or advisable to ensure that the UK’s abortion laws are kept up to date and are fit for purpose.
That’s my position, and while its not a perfect solution by any means – such a solution is not, in my estimation, possible – it is one I consider to be rational, balanced, human and humane and to provide the best possible (for me) accommodation of the many complex and contending interests surrounding this issues.