Thursday, 22 May 2008


Earlier this week the government defeated a number of amendments looking to reduce the number of weeks during which a woman could seek an abortion. Abortion is always a slightly touchy subject to discuss, given that the issues can cover both the ethical and the spiritual, and combined with the fact that as a young man I have no first hand experience with the issues involved, it might seem strange to discuss it at all. I do feel, however, that it is a subject that should be discussed, partly because debate is important in any decision that we as a society have to make, and partly because it is a decision which, pretty much by definition, is unprepared for, and for anyone who might be involved in making or helping to make such a decision in the future, it seems a good idea to at least have an idea of where you stand. And, as a third, more selfish, reason, I am always interested to see where people stand on controversial or divisive issues, and this one is certainly one of those.

So where do I stand? Well, firstly, I'm pro-choice - I believe that abortion should be legal and available to anyone who needs or wants it. There are always going to be situations in which abortion is desperately wanted by the woman (whether for medical, situational or social reasons), and to outright prevent her from having legal access to this service will lead many women to deal with it themselves, a situation I can't imagine anyone looking to promote.

In addition, those who are against abortion altogether (assuming that they are not also against contraception) are essentially saying that at the point at which the mass of cells becomes embedded in the wall of the uterus, something changes to cause it to become sacred. A moment before and it can be flushed away with a pill without recrimination; a moment after and it becomes a human life as valuable as any other. This has always seemed to me to be a fairly bizarre position to hold.

Once we're past a simple yes/no, though, the main question is, of course, where we draw the line. As with any situation in which a line must be drawn, it is very difficult to argue for a particular positioning of it. I imagine all people would say there should be some end-limit, since by the point of birth, a baby is undeniably human, so the question becomes how late we allow that process to go. A reasonable barometer might be the ability of the foetus to survive outside of the womb, which, even with current medical advances has never occurred before 21 weeks, and rises to 50% probability at the current limit of 24 weeks. I can't think of a measure better than this to use, since the question at stake is essentially at what point the "value" of a foetus' life becomes equivalent to that of a newborn, and any other 'measurement' of humanity (such as the appearance of particular organs, or similarity in appearance to a baby) will be far more subjective.

In any case, the vast majority of abortions (98.5%) are carried out before 20 weeks is up, and 90% before 12 weeks, so only in a small number of cases are these decisions about whether a foetus has the value of a human life even applicable. In addition, abortions at later stages are not available everywhere, so although the legal limit is 24 weeks, the local limit in practice may be much lower for particular areas.

So if only 1.5% of abortions were going to be affected by this change in the law, why were both sides so up in arms about it. Primarily, of course, because it's a subject that inspires high emotions in both pro-choice and -life camps, but also because the lack of real scientific impetus in either direction makes it a battle of principles, of personal morals and of beliefs. So in this ultimately abstract argument over whether to drop 4 weeks off of the limit, why do I oppose the amendment? Primarily because there is no scientific reason to do it (which would be the argument most likely to persuade me) and that moving the limit back with no good reason sends entirely the wrong message. It says that the morality of abortion can be defined in discussion, and can change according to persuasion and debate, without a need for scientific breakthrough. It says that women who have had abortions after 20 weeks before now were morally in the wrong (since the law must have been wrong for all those years). It would be treated as a victory that would reduce the decision time for pregnant women, increase the complexity of providing a medically necessary abortion after 20 weeks and would most likely save no lives.

A couple of things struck me while I was doing the minimal reading required to hold an opinion on this issue. The first is that the law covering when an abortion can be given seems incredibly ambiguous. It can only be given if two doctors agree that continuing the pregnancy would be more damaging than aborting it. So there is no provision for voluntary abortion as such, which instead is performed on the basis that continuing to term with an unwanted pregnancy would be more emotionally damaging that the abortion procedure. This means that a doctor who holds abortion to be wrong can prevent his patients from having one (at least under his jurisdiction) while an identical patient elsewhere could get approval. This seems to be unneccessarily flexible - if the law is intended to allow voluntary, legal termination, then it should say so, and if not then it should prohibit it. Either way, it seems bizarre that the beliefs of a particular practitioner should be allowed to interfere with and delay individuals seeking legal procedures.

The second thing that occurred to me was that of how MPs should vote. Gordon Brown apparently released Labour MPs to vote as they wanted, but should they be voting to their beliefs or to the beliefs of their electorate? It depends, I guess, how you interpret representational democracy - do we elect the person the personal views of which best represent our own, or do we elect someone we trust to transfer our views into law, whether or not they personally agree with them? I don't know the answer, but it seems interesting that an MP could be voting against the wishes of their constituents based on their own personal beliefs.

In any case, the amendments were defeated, and the limit remains at 24 weeks. A success for pro-choice campaigners, even if nothing was really gained. Looking at the percentages, however, there were warning signs as to the result of any subsequent vote under a conservative government - while 80% of Labour MPs voted against the amendment, 84% of conservatives voted for it, so under a Tory government, we could be looking at a swift change of policy on this issue.

I'm not sure how that will stand up to scrutiny, but I wanted to write something, as too often I see topical issues I have an opinion on and then leave it too late to write anything meaningful. More interesting than what I have said (from my position of non-expert, zero-experience, internet-tutored male) is what you guys think - where do you stand on abortion, and on the defeat of the amendment earlier in the week?

some resources I used (in addition to wikipedia):
netdoctor: abortion
abortion law


James said...

I'm pro-choice too, and for the same reason of it being safer and better to have it legal than not.

I don't necessarily agree that this ruling would have made previous more-than-20-week-aborters morally wrong, I think we have to judge people by the morals of the time. I belive that in Victorian times parents used to send their kids to catch infectious diseases when they were young and could fight them off to generate immunity. Scientific advancement has made that wrong now, but not wrong back then.

TheTelf said...

But that's kind of the point - there's no scientific advancement prompting this proposed change. To change it without scientific impetus is to say that it should have been at this level all along.

Andy J. Wotherspoon said...

I'm not entirely sure where I stand on abortion. I was just yesterday thinking about at what point a soul is attached/assigned/whatever to a baby (or in non crazy person talk, at what point a baby becomes human), is it a conception, is is a few months later? I think that God probably knows about the baby before anyone else does so from a purely biblical standpoint to then destroy the life would be wrong. However I'm not sure that I'd say that to anyone who was thinking of having an abortion.

I can think of a couple of reasons why you'd just have to have an abortion, rape and having the baby could kill you. There may be more but I haven't thought that far. But if say having a baby was inconvenient, would that not be a bit of a crap reason for having a baby, or that you'd been sleeping around and got pregnant, or that you'd only slept with one person but still managed to get pregnant and either broken up with them or just weren't ready to be a parent, r x, y and z. Adoption is another option which is sometimes overlooked. It's easier to say, just get rid of it, than to struggle through the 9 months and then give the baby up for adoption, but should you really look for the quick fix in this situation?

I think that legalised abortions are better than having to go somewhere where your health is not their major priority, so I'm not for making it illegal.

So yeah, I don't really know where I stand on abortion. I don't particularly like it, but I'm not going to outlaw it or vilify anyone who has had one.

James said...

@ thetelf: it's not just science that changes, morals and ethics evolve as well. We can look back as a society and say things like slavery are wrong, but we can't slave owners were, they just lived in a time when people thought differently. I think you can judge the time, but not the people living in it.

i.e. in this example, we would think of the society that allowed people to have abortions at 23 weeks wrong, but wouldn't criticise the individuals who had them.

TheTelf said...

@james: So have we become more morally or ethically conservative as a society in the 40 years since the limit was set at 24 weeks? I don't want to argue too much on moral relativism across time periods and cultures, since I'm not too sure where I stand. I think that changing the limit would be marking a change in social values that does not exist. I don't know, though, I could be totally wrong on that.

@andy: It seems odd to suggest carrying a baby to term just in order to give it up for adoption. Bringing a child into the world in a situation where not even its own mother wants it seems pretty cruel. Would you change the 24 week limit if you could?

Andy J. Wotherspoon said...

yet killing a baby before it's even had the chance to become more than a blob is ok?

I don't see what difference a few weeks really makes. Surely you wouldn't kill a baby once it's just been born, so why would you 3 months before, because it's not human yet? because it's easier to kill something that doesn't have a face (which it actually might by then) or the ability to fail around or make a noise?
Is giving a baby up for adoption not at least saying, I wanted you to live, that I felt you deserved that right, and not as simple as I didn't want you?

I realise that it's really not as simple as right and wrong, every situation is individual and it should come down to personal beliefs of the person(s) involved not for someone else to decide.

TheTelf said...

@andy: But it's not a baby at that point. If it's a blob, then it's not even a foetus yet. We kill more developed things than that when we step on flowers. And if you're against the destruction of potential human life, then are you against contraception too?

On the "what difference does a few weeks make" issue, it comes down to drawing lines. No rule is going to be perfect, but if we agree that there needs to be a line drawn (and maybe we don't, though you implied you were pro-choice in an earlier comment), then the location of that line is just a matter of social preference.

Andy J. Wotherspoon said...

I'm not against contraception, but I think that there is a difference between potential life that has a chance of growing into something living and potential life that just sits there doing nothing whilst in it's two separate components.

As I said before I'm not really sure where I stand, but somewhere between pro-life and pro-choice. It's a strange place where you get served ham sandwiches and bourbon creams.

The thing with social preference is that it has a habit of effecting our thoughts and not really letting us think about it for our selves. Things that are thought of as acceptable today where not always thought of in the same light a few years ago, is that because we where wrong or didn't have much info or that the boundaries just keep getting pushed that little bit further, just enough to make a difference, but not to cause utter outrage. If the social norm was to just lop the head off a baby when it was born and you'd decided you didn't want it, then you may think that it's fine because it's socially acceptable, but surely that's just wrong. weird analogies aside, my point is that just because something's socially acceptable doesn't automatically make it right.

I guess it gets into morality and how that's defined in society and personally.

TheTelf said...

Yeah, absolutely, but there's no obvious way to draw the line, so we have to decide what we want the line to represent. At the moment it's done based on the viability of the foetus (whether it will survive), but, clearly, there may be other metrics out there that could equally be used.

We are defined by society, so we can't look outside of it, but simply saying that doesn't mean that the current limit is right or wrong. I think we can define our morality outside of society (hence the disagreements we all have day to day), and society should not restrict our personal moral decisions. However, when defining laws (and changing them) society's current view is usually a good place to start.

The problem with such a big grey area is that it's difficult to justify any particular line on it, even if you agree that a line needs to be drawn. And if a line is drawn, it will be placed by social preference, whether individuals are happy with that or not.