The abortion debate – a personal view

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.

29 thoughts on “The abortion debate – a personal view

  1. DK is making a good argument for chasing the little mite down the word and batting it over the head again I see. Your opinion on sentience is only that, there absolutely no evidence and nor can there be. I get so tired of people dressing up there beliefs in spurious faux science. In any case this is all beside the point. A human child is born early in its development because and really has no more sentience than a dog for months after it is born. It seems to the pro death lobby have ample rationale for the Herod solution. How do you feel about that and how do you feel about culling those whose mental capacities are severely curtailed.
    A child has been born at 22 weeks and lived( I have a picture of it up) .The right of a woman to her body is not absolute any more than anyone else once she has accepted duties and responsibilities. (..and they want to be firemen…)

    Your suggestions sound helpful but they are not they are an excuse for a forms bureaucrats and general hot air as have all commissions since the 19th century , you think a collection of time serving pontificators can solve what is essentially a moral problem , well good luck. .What is required is not the state further sticking its long snout into people affairs , it has done quite enough harm already.

    This will never be happily resolved because life is not always happy. The least bad way forward is to assert confidently that abortion is wrong , absolutely wrong and shameful . A clear sign of this would be to reduce the lower end to just beyond where the earliest child has been born at 20 weeks . That

  2. Is it ok to bump off someone while they are sleeping ? No ? Would that be because you know they are going to wake up ? Would you accept then that yopur philosphical frame work is inadequate to the task you set it .It concludes that a cat is sacred but a six month foetus is trash.

    You cannot ignore the religious and morla arguement it is the omnly one and the rest of it , as I am sure you are aware , is only pretend.

  3. Let’s pick a few things.

    First, when I reference the value I place on the capacity for consciousness/sentience, I do mean the physical and biochemical capacity.

    If someone is asleep or unconscious or comatose – but for in circumstances in which the physical damage to the brain is so extensive that the capacity for conscious thought has been extinguished – then that capacity is still there. I make no judgements on the quality of that capacity, this is not about how it exercised or whether it is impaired but whether it exists at all, and that’s a view I take whether considering abortion or how we deal as a society with the complex questions of ending life by withdrawing treatment for those unfortunate enough to find themselves in a persistent vegetative state.

    So, no, the question of someone’s IQ doesn’t come into it other than at the point at which it is nominally zero and there is no higher cortical function evident in the brain.

    Royal Commissions are not perfect, by any means, but they are about the best constitutional vehicle we currently have for considering issues of this complexity, because if their brief is correctly drawn they do permit both open public debate and consideration of the full range and breadth of opinion.

    Yes, membership of such a commission is in the gift of parliament and nominally open to bias and manipulation. However on an issue such as this I don’t believe that any government would perceive it to be either in its, or the UK’s interests to try an interfere with its deliberations or influence its outcome.

    So far as composition is concerned, you would expect such a commission to include members of the judiciary, medical profession, clergy, academics (at least a bioethicist and a moral philosopher) and senior parliamentarians – most likely peers.

    Yes such commissions take time – I’m well aware that what I’m talking about may result in a report that marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Act – but the complexity and seriousness of the issue at hand necessitates then we do not rush to judgement on this issue.

    The idea of ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ caucuses is something of a nonsense – not only would the two not agree a position but such a process implies that there is somehow an even split on the issue, which is not the case – there is solid majority support for legal abortion and if the matter were put to a referendum then while its possible that the ‘pro-life’ lobby might get a modest reduction in the the upper time limit to 20 weeks, I very strongly suspect that it would lose the vote (and lose heavily) on the other liberalising measures such as the move to informed consent.

    That’s why the one this we don’t hear from ‘pro-life’ groups is demands for a referendum, because they’ve calculated that they would lose much more of the argument than they would ever win.

    After all your sham consultation you are left with exactly the same problem you had before which is the default assumption encouraged by cultural warfare , that everyone must bear the consequences of your mistakes including your unborn child.
    You will spend our money, remove responsibility , sanction selfishness .

    Actually, Newmania, that is errant nonsense.

    There is very little research (and none in the UK) into why women choose to have an abortion but in one of the few studies I have seen on this subject (from the US) a little over 70% identified economic considerations – as in not being financially able to support a child – as having been a major factor in their decision to have an abortion.

    Now, okay – the welfare position in the US is rather different to that in the UK, but then that’s why you have to do the research, because it could hypothetically demonstrate that the welfare situation over here does distort priorities – although I doubt that it has that much of an effect other than in a minority of case where welfare dependence has become near enough institutionalised.

    And, actually, in terms of increases in the rate of abortion, one of the fastest growing groups is women in the mid to late 30s for whom the decision to have an abortion is often based on their having taken the view that they have completed their family.

    What the study data showed, across the the board, is that the majority of women who elect to have an abortion on ‘social’ grounds, generally make their choice for what are eminently responsible reasons – that they are not in position to provide adequate financial support, not in a sufficient stable relationship and amongst younger women particularly that motherhood would have a significant adverse effect on their future prospects by interfering with their education or career development.

    The kind of women complain about, the one’s you suggest think that everyone should bear responsibility for their ‘mistakes’ are, by and large, the one’s who aren’t having abortions.

  4. Ah I see you misread cultural ‘warfare’ as cultural ‘welfare’. I `d be a little more careful if you are going to spray around toffish castigations like ,”arrant nonsense”…I did wonder what you were on about.

  5. Unity, much of what these objectors say is simply right.You are just trying to hold on desperately to scientific research to cloud the moral and philosophical issues at stake.
    Let me remind you of the mutually contradictory criteria for personhood that the prochoice thinkers, including yourself,have proposed as an alternative to the only SCIENTIFICALLY UNDEBATABLE FACT that the prolifers suggest: that a human being starts BEING at conception, because it is an alive member of the human species and hence should be entitled to the protection defended by the liberal human rights philosophy evolved in western societies. The prochoicers(some of them religious, if I may remind you), and the laws they have IMPOSED on our societies and against the unborn members of the human community have suggested a chaotic variety of ARBITRARY criteria: the appearance of brain waves in the unborn,( much before your 24 weeks), sentience(at a difficult to pinpoint time, since the criteria for sentience are debatable),consciousness(same problem),selfconsciousness as a being with a future (idem),rationality (same), viability outside the mother

  6. Having seen wards full of profoundly disabled children and met many people whose lives have been made miserable by parents who would not or could not abort them after conceiving them during a liason they afterwards regretted…..I am very doubtful about the practicality of the pro-life argument in a modern liberal society.

    Wherever you look in the reaches of the newly enlarged EU.. and the rest of the third world… there are are orphanages bursting at the seams with unwanted children… and it`s time we looked honestly, as well as humanely, at the role of Islam and Roman Catholicism AND our selfish western materialist societies.. in creating a situation where this is yet another issue which we are denied an opportunity to debate in a rational way.

    Why should any God or prophet want unwanted children to be born into poverty in an overpopulated world? We no longer live in the middle east of two millenia ago and the world is now a very different place.

    I completely agree that we should closely examine the morality of using abortion as a form of contraception and how it is that so many people regret the gift of another life growing inside them….but I have seen too much of the alternative to abortion to want religious types bringing it all back.

    Our problem is that we are too much in thrall to the United States of Amnesia and its right wing ideas…and let`s not forget the growing influence of right wing religion around here as well.

  7. Jim , I cannot speak for Islam in which the barbaric and bizarre jostle for attention but the Roman Catholic Church advocates abstinence outside Wedlock and cannot be blamed for abortion or sexual incontinence of any kind . In any case a look at the population

  8. The views of “Cardinal” Newman have a ring of truth ….but in the realities of the Third World….where RC doctrine fathers millions of futureless children every year…folk might be excused for wondering why contraception is preached against so powerfully by people whose experience of sex is limited to abusing orphans in their “care” and masturbation.

    By the way…scratch your surface and I would guess we WOULD find someone who would cheerfully “talk about a ban from conception”….am I not right?
    Search your conscience before you reply!

    Oh and ponder this…if we didn`t have contraception and abortion where would we put all those millions of immigrants to Britain which the RC church spirits in from Poland and Brasil and Africa and South America and China and so on?

  9. Jim Evans,there is a foul stench of hinted at racism in your remarks. You seem to ignore that most Africans are not Catholic in any case.
    But the crucial thing is that you are begging the question about abortion: it is whether or not the unborn child is an individual member of the human community with rights or not. If the unborn has these rights then you cannot legalise its killing by using utilitarian arguments about overpopulation, no more than you can call for legal infanticide for the same reasons.
    Juan Campos.

  10. Juan…the old accusation of racism stunt is wearing thin now and there`s a large difference between racism and pointing out some truths about a church that causes a great deal of misery in the world.My ancestors fought to be free of its feudal oppressive control and I will take none of your cheek about how our society should be run!

    While you have every right to hold an opinion about abortion I have no desire to be thrust back into the Dark Ages by you.Of course many Africans are not RC`s but I am referring to the advice those of them who are RC`s receive about contraception…as you know very well.

    Us Brits and our sensible levels of population growth are not the problem and you know it… and plenty of my fellow Celts are RC`s anyway…though I hear they are beginning to see sense in Eire and no longer subjecting their women folk to a reproductive lifetime of childbearing to suit you and those like you.

  11. Jim, it is laughable to see how far off the mark people can aim when carried away by stereotypes. Let me point out to you I am NOT a catholic, but an agnostic. This doesn

  12. I am not especially religious and have only gradually come to the view that we are to glib about abortion , perhaps after becoming a parent . Prior to that would have taken the standard..”progressive ” view.Yiou guess is utterly wrong. Juan campos has adequately dealt with implications of you suggestions about utility.
    I do not think any abortion is early infanticide but it quite clearly become exactly that at some point. I do not acccept Unities faux scientific bodge which misses the essentially moral and metaphysical issue. At some time a sperm and afew cells becomes a ‘soul’, defined not by its level of conciousness but by its life and humanity. It seems to be to be only reasonbale to err on the side of caution when fixing the last date and twenty weeks for termination . This would give the right sign to society that we require everyone to take the reponsibilites they aquire with appropriate seriousness
    We are not going to regard unborn children as inconvenient refuse simply because of the histsory of women

  13. Juan…whatever it reeks of my prejudicial characature is significantly inaccurate in what particular?Are the church issuing condoms in Africa?

    While you may get an overall picture up there on the moral high ground I have a fund of real experience based on many years working as a social worker….and whatever you may fantasise about the rights of unborn children I am here to tell you that Britain has been receiving boatloads of girls from Eire wanting abortions for a very long time and if we multiplied that up worldwide we would be awash with even more people than we have now…..frighteningly large numbers of whom have FA future before them.

    I WISH it was possible to stop the whole sordid immoral industry in abortion but,as ever,the victims would be the children themselves…unless they were a lot luckier than the poor souls I met in droves.

  14. Jim, why do you call the abortion industry “sordid”? If you believe that we should only worry about the born and kill the unborn, you should regard the abortion industry as something worthwhile rather than “sordid”.
    The problem is that a pregnant woman is, as the old lovely way of putting it had it,”WITH CHILD”. That means she already is in a very literal sense a mother and there is already a child PRESENT in the world, not in my phantasy, Jim. It simply is inside rather than outside the mother

  15. I have never found the idea of aborting healthy foetuses anything but horrible. As an aetheist I can`t even console myself with the delusion that they will have an afterlife.But I have a greater fear of us dispensing with abortion….. based upon practical experience of the likely repurcussions…and remind you that we can`t even cope with our existing population…..far less the millions more that we all know this debate is really about.

    Can`t you see that down the milenia humans have often been reproducing in an unsustainable way in relation to the resources around them….. and we manage this problem by becoming increasingly intolerant of each other and migrating and murdering each other in wars and massacres….and surely it`s time to collectively get a grip on our cultural bad habits and stop the misery now?

    Why now? After hundreds of thousands of years of believing in racism and the idea that other races,tribes,clans,religious groups,nationalities,etc where innately different and, therefore, would always be a threat to us…… we can see that the human race is one homogenous group and that by adjusting our world culture we can come together in peace and harmony.

    But ancient religions are an impediment to that because they would muscle in to any rational discussion about population control (which we must have)and start hi jacking it “on behalf of the unborn child” and in order “to impose God`s will” when all they really are is undemocratic political bossy boots protecting their own worldly power and influence….by peddling myths,fears and delusions.

  16. Jim, sorry to say. You are not addressing the issue.
    Why do you think abortion is “horrible”? I really fail to see the logic of your language.
    Religions have done many good things and many bad things. You can

  17. Juan I am not addressing the set of ideas you wish to concentrate upon because we inhabit different worlds…..and mine is the real one!

    In my humble practical world I look at starving and enslaved people and think….”What caused that to happen?”….and it is frequently overpopulation in societies which follow religious beliefs about not inhibiting reproduction….whereas China has at least tried to listen to the sort of ideas that will give future generations a civilised life.

    Also…I agree that abortion is a horrible thing…and quite understand religious objections to it…..though they don`t “do” reality so their solutions are usually misguided.

    Sadly, religious folk can never see that it`s often their behaviour which CAUSES the pressures which lead to desperate attempts to stop more people being born.Wherever RC`s and muslims predominate there is a strong likelihood of overpopulation,poverty and migration into nations like the UK…with all the problems that causes people like us who grow our own population in a sensible way.Naturally the morally pure Juans of this world blame the horrid Jims of this world for the chaos that ensues!

    Now please irritate someone else with more patience for your impractical twaddle and leave people with a stomach for reality to clean up the mess people like you leave in your morally majestic wake!

  18. Jim, you get offensive, maybe your arguments are shaky.
    You go on about religion. Please address the objections to abortion arising, like mine, from a secular point of view.
    You think overpopulation is the cause of poverty. A false belief. When economic development takes off, people limit their offspring.Corruption, lack of liberty, state interference ,dictatorships,no free trade,are some of the causes. Your connection between high birth rate and catholicism doesn

  19. Juan….you are quite right to point out that material prosperity and the weakening of fundementalist Roman Catholicism in formerly backward totalitarian counties like Spain has seen a welcome reduction in unsustanable population growth….but I fear that where education is poor and religion is strong the same old combination of poverty and population growth and migration still goes on.
    You are also right to point out that abortion is a disgusting method of coping with the unintended consequences of a sick liberal capitalist society in which “consumer choice” and personal convenience take precedence over the rights and lives of other human beings.

  20. Jim, Spain was not “totalitarian”. A dictatorship is not always a totalitarian society.And Spain was a democracy in the XIXth century for several decades and partly as well in the XXth.The drop in natality is not necessarily a good thing.Are you aware that some european countries are trying to encourage births?
    I don

  21. Religions have been a medium for social change…both good and bad…and so have non religious political movements…and China is not a model so much as an example of attempts by realists like me to DO something about the consequences of your desire to avoid the fact that world population is doubling every fifty years…and this despite disease,starvation,war,etc.

    You see,Juan,as I get older I feel angrier about a world that turns a blind eye to this overpopulation issue.Never mind that folk are born to misery,ignorance and squalour so long as Juan`s understandable concerns about the welfare of the unborn child are given free rein to stop us sitting down sans delusion and facing up to reality…..the reality that we perpetuate ignorance and mass delusion and organised greed and fuddled philosophising and resolutely turn our faces against the mass misery caused in the name of “the rights of the unborn child” while refusing contraception that would avoid abortion in the first place.

    Now global warming is a much safer issue…so all our media can be filled with apocalyptic images and the powerful feel free to grandstand and fulminate about the threat to mankind…. without ever connecting the fact that overpopulation and pressures on nations like China to feed and employ their billions of people drive them to building coal fired power stations…..and why?…because everything that challenges our “right” to breed is off limits!We can`t cope with the “born child” Juan….so spare your fine feelings for them….please!

  22. Jim, I have no more to say, since you repeat statements about issues that are totally independent of the ethics of the abortion question and refuse strenuosly to engage with them.
    If it soothes your conscience to believe that we secular or religious prolifers are only harping on about a morally trivial reality,good luck to you. As for myself I can only say that I regret deeply every minute of the few years of my life in which I supported abortion, though I was never involved in one directly or indirectly.Maybe for over twenty years I have been a moral “sissy”, but I rather be that than spend sleepless nights feeling I had contributed with my glib opinions to a genocide of unprecedented proportions. And I seriously hope one day-in the not too distant future- there will be a Nuremberg for governments and individuals who collaborated actively in it.
    Am I a fanatic, or a fool, or both? Well, antislavery people a couple of centuries ago were also considered fanatics and fools…Now it is “commonsense” ethics.Prolife ethics will one day be commonsense as well, though we may not live to see it.
    Enjoy your trip.


    If the end result of a 2nd T abortion ban is an increase in babies, I cannot find too much sympathy for the few women who end up as mothers when they would have chosen a late abortion and motherlessness.

    Britain would benefit enormously if more babies were born due to this ban. Our indigenous population is aging and dying out. Human rights and a comfy, pain-free life, brought about by liberalism and kid gloves has only resulted in a weakened population. Keep that liberalism going and we will all be happy but we will not exist in a century.

    What will exist? Islam and muslims. Muslims will not produce more babies due to this ban. They can

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