10 questions and an idiot

Over at the Journal of Medical Ethics blog, Iain Brassington has picked up on what he describes as ‘slightly peculiar’ post by Peter Saunders in which he poses ten questions that the media doesn’t – allegedly – ask about abortion.

Iain’s posted his own answers here, and just for shits and giggles I’d thought give Saunders’ questions a go as well, so…

1. You say you support a woman’s right to make her own reproductive choices in regards to abortion and contraception. Are there any restrictions you would approve of?

Like Iain, there are lots of restrictions I approve of, not least restricting the performance of terminations to appropriately qualified medical practitioners. I’d guess that what Peter’s fishing for here is something on which he can hang a charge of hypocrisy and on that score I’m afraid I’m not going to bite. I’m neither stupid enough, or naive enough, to try and tackle a complex issue like abortion in terms of crass moral/ethical absolutes.

The reasoning behind my own personal position on abortion, which is supportive of abortion on request up to 24 weeks gestation without all the unnecessary and outdated fannying about with mandatory second opinions and artificial legal criteria – after that the issues become more complex and really need to be considered on case by case basis – takes in everything from research into the neurological development of the foetus to Humean ethics, Isaiah Berlin’s work on the balancing of incommensurable rights and J S Mill’s harm principle, so its not something that can easily be boiled down to a crude debate on absolutist positions.

2. In 2010, The Economist featured a cover story on “the war on girls” and the growth of “gendercide” in the world – abortion based solely on the sex of the baby. Does this phenomenon pose a problem for you or do you believe in the absolute right of a woman to terminate a pregnancy because the unborn fetus is female?

Again with the crass absolutes and lack of nuance. Yes, sex-selective abortion is problematic but the problem doesn’t lie with the cultural and, often, religious attitudes that wrongly place a premium on one gender – typically, male – over another. In short, where the problem lies is in the prevalence of misogynistic asshattery in certain cultures and it’s that we need to tackle, not sex-selective abortion itself as this in only a symptom of the real problem, not the cause.

3. In many states, a teenager can have an abortion without her parents’ consent or knowledge but cannot get an aspirin from the school nurse without parental authorization. Do you support any restrictions or parental notification regarding abortion access for minors?

As long as woman is legally competent to make the decision on whether or not go ahead with a termination, age is irrelevant and the test of competence in law is one of fact, not age. As regards the aspirin thing, I really couldn’t give a toss.

4. If you do not believe that human life begins at conception, when do you believe it begins? At what stage of development should an unborn child have human rights?

Not this old chestnut again.

Like most people I’m perfectly content with the idea that biological life begins at conception – it would be daft to suggest otherwise – but pregnancy does begin until implantation which is why many religionists prefer to skirt around the very earliest stages of conception and pregnancy because they find it difficult to square their belief in the fundamental goodness and perfection of god with the high rates at which conceptions fail to result in pregnancies and at which pregnancies end spontaneously, often without women even realising that they were pregnant. God, in those terms, is a profligate and wasteful bugger who might have done well to have a chat with hiss own son about the meaning of the parable about sowing seeds before sticking his creation with such an egregiously incontinent mode of reproduction.

Getting back to the question of rights, I’m of the opinion that the position of the foetus begins to merit greater consideration from the point at which the key neurological connections and structures necessary for sentience begin to develop, which lies around 26 weeks gestation. However any claim that the foetus may have to a notional right to life has to be balanced against their adult maternal host’s rights to both life and liberty, the latter of which, of course,  encompasses self-determination, bodily autonomy, etc. – for a sentient being the rights to life and liberty are co-equal in importance and indivisible, a sentiment that Thomas Jefferson expressed in the following terms – “The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.”

Save for the archaic stuff about god, I’m with Jefferson and that necessarily make the whole business of striking the right balance an extremely complex one, to complex in fact for its to be adequately legislated for in terms of a set gestational period save for noting that, before 24-26 weeks gestation the question of foetal rights is moot as it lacks even the most rudimentary capacity for sentience until that point.

Ideally, after 24 weeks gestation, determinations on where that balance lies should be made on a case by case basis taking into account the circumstances in which an abortion is being sought, the gestational age of the foetus and the related risks of mortality and disability and other options, such as adoption where, again, the risk, particularly to the mental health of the birth mother, if the pregnancy goes to term, need to be assessed as taken into account instead of being ignored, as is presently the case. The law, as it stands, is consequently a bit of blunt instrument and offers only an imperfect solution to these complex questions but as there is currently only limited public support for a more flexible regime after 24 weeks, we necessarily have to make the best of the situation we have.

Sorry, but there genuinely are no simple solutions to this question and anyone who suggests otherwise is merely following in the wake of HL Mencken’s aphorism that ‘there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.’

5. Currently, when genetic testing reveals an unborn child has Down’s Syndrome, most women choose to abort. How do you answer the charge that this phenomenon resembles the “eugenics” movement a century ago – the slow, but deliberate “weeding out” of those our society would deem “unfit” to live?

First, it’s not society making these decisions, its individual parents so the allusion to early 20th century eugenics is based on a false equivalence.

Second, eugenics may well turn, in the long run, to be anything but the ‘dirty word’ that Peter supposed it to be.

It’s a question of association – currently the word remains heavily associated with the appalling events of Second World War, which is why one can barely move for breaches of Godwin’s law when debating abortion. However, the notion of ‘eugenics’ that emerged at the start of the 20th century has long since been disavowed and debunked by the scientific community and, in this arena, both the debate and our understanding of the human genome has fundamentally altered with Crick and Watson’s discovery of the structure of DNA and the subsequent sequencing of the human genome.

This, of course, raises all manner of other complex ethical questions, however, when it comes to one of the more obvious possibilities this knowledge and technology holds, that of eliminating a raft of very nasty hereditary genetic conditions from the human genome, is suspect the public will be much more supportive of ‘eugenics’ that Peter supposes, particularly once we reach the point at which genetic corrections can be made in utero and without the need to resort to abortions.

If and when people start to see ‘eugenics’ in terms of families having healthy, disability free, offspring rather than in terms of Nazi death camps then Saunders question will largely cease to be relevant in the minds of much of the general public.


6. Do you believe an employer should be forced to violate his or her religious conscience by providing access to abortifacient drugs and contraception to employees?


The only thing an employer is required to provide, under Obamacare, is access to health insurance, it’s then up to the employee – or rather it should be up to the employee – to decide how they make use of that insurance cover.

This is currently an non-argument in the UK, anyway, as the access to abortifactant drugs and contraception is provided, or at least funded, by the NHS, however we can illustrate the utter stupidity of Saunders’ question by considering other questions of so-called religious consciences such as whether or not an employer who is a Jehovah’s Witness should be compelled to provide their employees with access to blood transfusions, or whether a Christian Scientist employer should be required to provide their employees with access to any kind of medical treatment?

Unless Saunders wishes to play an infantile game of ‘my conscience is better than yours’ then his question makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to anyone who isn’t a total wingnut.

7. Alveda King, niece of Martin Luther King, Jr. has said that “abortion is the white supremacist’s best friend,” pointing to the fact that Black and Latinos represent 25% of our population but account for 59% of all abortions. How do you respond to the charge that the majority of abortion clinics are found in inner-city areas with large numbers of minorities?

Except that this isn’t really about race, its about poverty, education and the lack of economic opportunity or, to put it another way, if you control for income and social class what you’ll quickly find is that the rate of unwanted pregnancies and terminations in the Black and Hispanic population is no different to that of the White population of the US.

The fact that the majority of abortion clinics are found in poor inner-city areas tells us only that that’s where the demand for abortions is greatest, in terms of raw numbers, although if you look beyond the raw figures to the percentage of pregnancies that end in a termination what you’ll quickly find is that the middle classes can be anything up to twice as likely to opt to terminate an unwanted pregnancy as their less well-off counterparts in the inner cities.

8. You describe abortion as a “tragic choice.” If abortion is not morally objectionable, then why is it tragic? Does this mean there is something about abortion that is different than other standard surgical procedures?

Sorry, I don’t see abortion as necessarily being a ‘tragic choice’ – for some women it is, for others it isn’t.

9. Do you believe abortion should be legal once the unborn fetus is viable – able to survive outside the womb?

How are defining viability? In purely natural terms – i.e. on the basis of normal maternal care alone – or by reference to what may be possible with the best current medical care, assuming that you can gain access to that level of care in the first, which the majority of women, globally, can’t because that standard care is either wholly unavailable or entirely beyond their financial means.

I can’t really answer this question as my personal position on the legality of abortion doesn’t hinge on the question of viability at all.

10. If a pregnant woman and her unborn child are murdered, do you believe the criminal should face two counts of murder and serve a harsher sentence?


I’d make one final observation – the reason you won’t see most these questions in the media, at least in the UK is th4e same reason you won’t find the result of hog-calling competitions in the sports pages of The Sun. Most of these argument are relevant only to the abortion debate in the US, which is framed in entirely different legal terms by Roe vs Wade, that the UK debate.

You’d have to be complete idiot not to see that, straight away.

3 thoughts on “10 questions and an idiot

  1. Pingback: Mark Thompson
  2. On the ‘eugenics’ question,  I’m not sure I share your optimism that society will correctly distinguish between ‘desirable’ and ‘undesirable’ genetic variation. The grey area in the middle is far too large [1]. Given the choice between adjusting society so that it works for people who are not ISO-standard humans, and adjusting people so that they are ISO-standard humans, it’s pretty obvious which will happen, and I don’t think that’s a good thing.

    First, it’s not society making these decisions, its individual parents

    Yes, but they’re making those decisions in a social context which views disability as a moral wrong (cf scroungers, et al.), doesn’t provide much support to the parents, tries very hard to ignore the existence of adults with that condition, and is collectively unwilling to make structural changes to help people who differ significantly from the norm.

    As with Iain’s response I’d view this as basically the same as the sex-selective abortion question as a problem with social attitudes rather than with the availability or use of abortion. (And similarly, in utero gene tweaks probably could replace sex-selective abortion, in a sufficiently high technology society)

    [1] I would draw the line at “if there are living people with this variance who would reject a post-birth cure if it was available” the focus needs to be on changing society rather than eliminating those people.

  3. I mostly agree, but just to play devil’s advocate:

    “First, it’s not society making these decisions, its individual parents”

    Same can be said regarding the selective abortions of girls.

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