Thursday, 18 October 2012

Thoughts on the abortion debate

Following the recent reshuffle, the new Minister for Women, Maria Miller, and the new Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, have separately reaffirmed their views that the time limit for termination of pregnancy under section 1(1)(a) of the Abortion Act should be reduced from 24 weeks, to 20 weeks and 12 weeks respectively*.

That provoked a flurry of media commentary.  Perhaps the most discussed contribution has been Mehdi Hasan's article asking for respect from the left for his anti-abortion views.  Kelly Hills declined to grant it.  Chris Dillow offered a utilitarian perspective.  Sarah Ditum agreed with Hasan that the issue shouldn't be about left and right, and disagreed with him about everything else.  Meanwhile the estimable Kate Smurthwaite appeared on divers radio programmes to give a feminist perspective, provoking Paul B (that's not me) to recommend moderation in debate.

What strikes me is that much of the argument is not very rational.  Why 24 weeks, or 20 weeks, or 12 weeks, or any other specified time limit?  And if abortion without time limit is ok (it's legal in some circumstances under sections 1(1)(b-d) of the Abortion Act), then why not infanticide?  The 24-week limit is usually presented as being related to the earliest time at which a fetus might survive outside the womb, but why should that be the criterion?

Matthew Parris wrote a trenchant piece in The Times on Saturday [paywall] pointing out that Michael Nazir-Ali's carefully constructed arguments against gay marriage seem rather insincere when one learns that he's actually opposed to all homosexual relationships.  Similarly, to get to the real point in arguments about abortion we need to understand the true motives involved.  So here's my guess.

First, the arguments against abortion are not primarily religious.  As Hasan points out, Islamic scholars are divided on the issue.  So are Catholics and Protestants.  So are Orthodox and Reform Jews.  Evidently scripture offers no unambiguous guidance on the question.  And while the Catholic Church is firmly against abortion, Catholics in general are often willing to ignore its teaching, for example on contraception, or the death penalty.  (It's worth noting here that Catholic teaching on the issue does not concern itself with the question of ensoulment, so we needn't consider it in discussing time limits,)

Second, there is an instinct common to almost all of us to protect infant children (I suppose it's an adaptive trait).  It's natural to extend that to fetuses who look like infants.  I believe that this is the basis for almost all contemporary opposition to abortion.

Third, no one of even a remotely liberal disposition wants to force women to bear children against their will.  For some, their reluctance is tempered by the extent to which they think the woman should have avoided getting pregnant if she didn't want to bear the child.

To me, it makes a lot of sense to frame the issue as a trade-off between our instinct to protect babies and our reluctance to oppress women.  I doubt that the two sides of the argument differ much in their feelings about babies, though those in favour of legal abortion may have made some effort not to attach their feelings to fetuses in the womb, while those against have gone the other way.  But there is a big difference, and to a large extent it's a left-right difference, in attitudes to women's reproductive autonomy.

Seen in that light, it's clear that infanticide is never permissible- the mother's autonomy is no longer at issue.  Earlier, a fetus which might be capable of surviving outside the womb is physically no different from a very premature baby, and therefore evokes very strong protective instincts, making us very reluctant to kill it.  Before that, the later an abortion takes place the more like a baby the fetus is, and the less likely we are to fall on the woman's side of the trade-off.    By contrast, a blastocyst at around the time of implantation is visually nothing like a baby: anyone who knows this but objects to abortion at that stage is making a moral argument about its status as a human being.

To return to the commentaries I cited earlier.  Hasan is, incidentally, right about the abortion law in other European countries: if we were to change the time limit in 1(1)(a) to 14 weeks, that would make the law here very much like that in France.  If that's what Hunt is proposing then it's not an extreme position by European standards.  And I agree with Hasan that his and other views against abortion should be respected.  One doesn't have to accept his argument about a right to life for fetuses to recognize that the pain many people feel at the fact of abortion is real (Dillow singularly fails to weigh this pain in his analysis).  I agree with Paul B (that's still not me) that “if you object to having an abortion then don’t have one” is avoiding the point, albeit it's an effective way to remind a man that he has less skin in the game than does a fertile woman.

If we accept the mental anguish of third parties as a factor, how should that affect our approach to abortion?  First, we should try to reduce late abortions by making access to early abortions easier.  Second, we should treat all abortions as a matter for regret - not blame, but regret - the more so the later they occur.

And what of the time limit?  It would certainly be more comfortable to have it on the short rather than the long side of the earliest time at which survival outside the womb is possible.  That's the argument for 20 weeks.  Hills writes "Approximately 1% of abortions – around 2,729 – are done at or after the 20th week; numbers that happen to correspond pretty closely to how many abortions are granted due to there being abnormalities with the foetus that are largely considered incompatible with life."  That would seem to be an argument for reducing the time limit in 1(1)(a) to 20 weeks, since abortion would remain legal without time limit under 1(1)(d) - "a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped".  However, if there are no abortions under 1(1)(a) after 20 weeks, then it makes no difference if we change the limit.  Whereas if, more plausibly, there are some, we should find out how many and why before we change anything.

I've steered clear of discussing any right to life for the fetus.  (Personally I don't understand arguments about rights: I'm more interested in obligations.)  Chris Dillow in his piece says "none of you should give a damn about my opinion".  But, if you want to know, I think that our obligations towards (or, if you prefer, the rights of) a blastocyst/embryo/fetus/baby increase progressively as it develops.  The only coherent alternative I can see is that they arise fully formed at the moment of conception, as the Catholic Church holds.  And I don't believe that, because a zygote is very obviously not a person.

*Hunt may mean 12 weeks embryonic age, timed from conception, whereas the current limit is in terms of gestational ago, timed from last menstrual period, about two weeks earlier.


  1. FWIW, I doubt much of this can be done via logic or rationality, although you can maybe calm peoples tempers a bit by trying to appeal to such.

    For me, the problem of twins means the argument that unique-life begins at conception is invalid. After that, its merely a question of arbitrary limits (including the infanticide one).

    > If we accept the mental anguish of third parties as a factor

    Ooooh, dangerous. Are you going to allow the mental anguish of millions of wacko muslims to be a reason for banning films they don't like?

    > the arguments against abortion are not primarily religious.

    I think that's dubious.

    > Evidently scripture offers no unambiguous guidance on the question

    But that is almost orthogonal to whether its a religious question or not. Christians (just to take an example I'm more familiar with) happily ignore scripture they dislike, and emphasis tiny bits they do like. And different sects make different choices. But that doesn't mean that the resulting arguments aren't religious.