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‘Call Me Dave’ and the argument from viability


9:00 am - February 27th 2008

by Unity    


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It nice to see Kate Belgrave exhibiting her usual deft touch when it comes to polarising opinions, this time in relation to ‘Call Me Dave’ Cameron’s announcement that he’s be backing amendments which seek to reduce the upper time limit for legal abortions from 24 weeks gestation to 20 weeks gestation – I do enjoy a good, sparky debate.

Cameron’s got it wrong for several reasons, not least of which being that he appears to be taking Nadine Dorries seriously rather than treated her with the derision she so clearly merits; if this is any indication of Cameron’s view of science then I look forward to the day he appoints Mad Mel Phillips as his Chief Scientific Advisor, but until that happy day arises I think it best we take a look at Cameron’s stated reasoning, on this occasion, and explain precisely why it is entirely unsatisfactory.

Here’s what Cameron had to say to the Daily Mail in explaining why he’s decided to back a reduction in the upper time limit:

Cameron told the Daily Mail: “I would like to see a reduction in the current limit, as it is clear that, due to medical advancement, many babies are surviving at 24 weeks.

“If there is an opportunity in the human fertilisation and embryology bill, I will be voting to bring this limit down from 24 weeks.

“This must, however, remain a conscience issue and a free vote.”

Oh dear, he’s bought right into the argument from viability, an argument that, at best, a complete cop out and, at worst, opens up a moral and ethical can of worms that I suspect, if he actually took the time to think this through properly, he’d much rather avoid, because of all the various arguments for and against setting particular limits on access to abortion, the argument from viability is pretty much the worst one you could deploy – especially if you profess to hold a clear moral standpoint on abortion (which ‘Dave’ admittedly hasn’t as yet).

So what’s the problem?

Well, to start with, the argument from viability isn’t really about viability at all. In strict physiological terms a foetus is only viable if it is capable of independent survival outside its gestational environment (womb, egg, etc.) by natural means.

Now to clarify matters further, particularly so we don’t get into the whole daft business of questions about how old a human child has to be before it can fend entirely for itself, independent survival here means simply that (sticking to humans) the neonate (which is what the foetus becomes once its born) possesses the capacity to sustain its basic physiological processes outside the womb, i.e. that it can breath air and oxygenate its bloodstream and ingest food/water and convert the food into usable energy. The notion of independent survival here makes no assumptions about the neonate possessing the ability to provide for its basic needs without assistance – this is where the bit about by natural means comes into play because the natural means we’re talking about would the normal care and attention that would be provided, naturally, by the mother.

What is not included in the ‘natural care’ package under the strict definition of viability, however, is the use of invasive medical procedures to sustain the life of the neonate, should it be unfortunate enough to be born before its lungs or digestive system have developed sufficiently to keep it alive. Clinical intervention is an added value item and when looked at in global terms, something of an optional extra – we might well have come to expect it in this country but if we think about this at the level of the species then there are still a hell of lot more people out there who don’t get to enjoy the extracare package than do.

Under this strict definition of viability, no foetus born at 24 weeks gestation is viable, in fact viability is not even a possibility until 26-28 weeks gestation because its only at this stage that the lungs develop sufficiently to make the gas exchange necessary from respiration possible, and even then the lungs are still so immature that the chance of survival is, at best, negligible – in practical terms strict viability is not something a foetus attains until around 34-36 weeks gestation, and even then its chances of survival may still be dicey.

The point of explaining all this is to make it absolutely clear that the argument from viability, which Cameron apparently considers so persuasive, is one that explicitly defines the boundary conditions of human life not in terms of nature and natural processes but, rather, in terms of technology and the unique ability of the human species our natural limitations. This, as should be apparent, raises a number of significant and important moral and ethical questions, questions that anyone who takes the argument from viability to be legitimate basis on which to make legislation or set public policy has to address.

In comments under Kate’s post, Anton Vowl proposes an interesting little thought experiment, one that I’ve personally considered before and which I consider extremely useful in illustrating the limitations of the argument from viability:

Let’s say that medical advances create an artificial womb that can keep an embryo alive from the very moment of conception and bring it to term. It’s not available now of course, not even in the near future, and for all I know it might be science fiction…

Actually, whether or not such a device might be ‘science fiction’ (i.e. not physically possible) is immaterial as it is certainly a logical possibility and, therefore, a valid premise from which to construct a thought experiment – in fact there are at least two extensions of Anton’s proposition that can reasonably be used to expand the scope of his experiment:

a) It is conceivable that science could develop an ‘artificial womb’ that is not a mechanical device but a biomechanical device, i.e. by using biotechnology. This opens up a range of possibilities (and moral/ethical questions) as such a device could be biologically ‘human. i.e. constructed from cloned human tissue or it need not be ‘human’ at all – if you can crack the problem of genetic incompatibility then all you have left to solve is simple ‘engineering’ problem; you need a ‘host’ species with sufficient physical capacity to gestate a human child.

b) It is also conceivable that science could develop the means to transplant a foetus from one human host, its natural mother, to another human host – in one sense this technology already exists as this is precisely what happens when a woman is given IVF treatment using a donated egg, so all we actually postulated here is an extension of existing technology to enable the transplantation of an embryo/foetus at a later developmental stage than is currently possible.

Anton’s assumption in his own version of this thought experiment is that those who oppose any form of abortion are so strongly fixed in their belief that it wrong to terminate a pregnancy under any circumstance that they would happily accept the possibility of artificial gestation (or foetal transplantation) and use this as justification for a complete ban on abortion. Personally, I’m not so sure that’s true, in fact I’m pretty damn sure that its not true and its for that reason that I consider the argument from viability to be entirely unsatisfactory.

For the most part, absolutist moral objections to abortion are rooted in a belief in the sanctity of human life, a belief which is, itself, more often than not rooted in religious belief – not everyone who considers abortion to be morally unjustifiable in any circumstances necessarily derive their view from religion but it would be fair to say that the vast majority do and for those who take such an view and who, in turn, have latched to the argument from viability as means of moving the law a little further towards their ultimate objective, complete or near complete prohibition, the question one has to ask is just exactly how far they are prepared to the take the viability argument in order to further their agenda.

Given that the argument from viability is predicated on an acceptance of humanities capacity to override natural limitations and boundaries using technology one has to ask at what point in this technological process of rolling back the boundaries of life do we begin to ‘play god’? At what point, if any, does the use of technology to intervene in the otherwise natural process of conception, gestation and birth become morally and ethically questionable if not cease to be morally and ethically justifiable.

When, in all this, does Dr Kildare become Dr Frankenstein?

If a child is grown in an entirely artificial environment does that alter, in any way, our perception of its humanity? If a child were to be gestated within a chimera, a genetically-engineered host of a different base species, would we still consider that child to be human?

Who are its parents?

It is entirely conceivable that a child grown in this way might have no biological connection whatsoever with the ‘parents’ who will assume responsibility for its upbringing, if it is the product of donated sperm and a donated egg – in which case just what value, exactly, do we place in biology (and genetics) as a determinant of parenthood, familial connection and heredity?

What rights would such a child have vis-a-vis its biological parents and vice versa?

Some of these difficult questions are already emerging as a consequence of IVF, but how far might advances in technology take us in future and what further moral and ethical questions would that raise?

Where the argument from viability leads, ultimately, is to the question of whether there is point at which the use of medical technology to intervene in the process of beginnings of human life, in conception, gestation and birth, might act to sever our connection with the natural world, which if one is of a religious bent, would amount to the severance of our connection with ‘God’.

I may be wrong in this but unlike Anton I suspect that, considered in those terms, it is highly unlikely that the vast majority of those who harbour what are essentially religious objections to abortion would accept the development and use of medical technology to its logical conclusions – there will be a point at which the argument from viability ceases to the morally and ethically viable, at which the various religious institutions and authorities whose theological deliberations define the parameters of religious morality – at least in the mainstream – will say ‘this far and no further’.

It is for this reason that I not only consider the argument from viability to be both unsafe and unsatisfactory but why I consider its acceptance and adoption as a valid strategy by those whose objections to abortion are founded in religious belief to be an act of deep-seated and unquestioning hypocrisy – by all means argue your case for reductions in the upper time limit for legal abortions but do not rely on the argument from viability as a justification for such amendments unless you are prepared think through its moral and ethical implications in full and provide answers to those questions.

So how about it Dave? What is your view on the possibility of artificial gestation and/or foetal transplantation?

Can you answer those questions? Have you even thought it through?

No, I didn’t think you had…

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'Unity' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He also blogs at Ministry of Truth.
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Reader comments


“Can you answer those questions? Have you even thought it through?

No, I didn’t think you had…”

I think you have made a good case against the argument for viability, but I think it would be good to stop this annoying habit of having a pretend conversation with your opponent. It is the archetype of a straw man (unless you have actually sent this piece to “Dave” and not received a response after some time!).

The question is, without using viability, what exactly is our cut off for when a foetus becomes human life? I am not religious myself, but I am concerned about the rights of individuals and I find the idea of another person deciding when something becomes a person with rights, according to their own personal requirements (as Kate seemed to suggest), somewhat troubling. I mean, it is perfectly possible that infants do not possess the same level of rights as adults and that the cut off for full rights actually takes place sometime after a full term pregnancy, but that doesn’t really fit with our current cultural values that tend to place the lives of children (once they are born) as being, if anything, more sacrosanct than adults.

You are great at pointing out the inconsistency of many conservatives, but I have yet to see a convincing positive account for the status-quo either. For me, the technology issue merely brings that problem into sharper relief.

The issue for me is simple, regardless of the “concessions” we ultimately forge. If you’re pro-abortion then you think that anything before the viability stage Unity talks about is not a natural life and therefore that it is your right to choose not to have that baby for whatever reason you choose.

If you’re anti-abortion you believe that abortions shouldn’t happen period.

Where we stand in the middle is pretty irrelevant to the “right” time frame or anything, it’s just a means of finding somewhere that everyone can at least partially agree, aside from the extremes of opinion.

Good piece. The problem with viability, as I see it, is that it’s a position on abortion completely lacking any *ethical* content. Viability changes over time, between countries, even between hospitals. If one has an ethical commitment either way, then to employ the viability argument is dishonest. And to employ the science dishonestly in the service of your dishonest argument is… well, Nad all over.

The other point about viability is this: If you hold to it, you have then to *keep your mouth shut* about all the abortions that happen prior to viability. They can’t possibly be wrong.

Clearly, an honest debate on abortion has to focus on when the foetus becomes properly *human*. Or even partly human: the first ‘human’ right it would secure would be the right to life, which would trump the right of *anyone* to kill it. Viable or not, it can never be permissable to kill something / someone that has an enforceable right to life. That point might be ‘consciousness’, or something similar. Trouble is, those sort of arguments don’t tabloidise well.

Okay, you want a positive argument for the status quo then here goes.

Let’s start at the beginning with the view that we have two individual entities – woman and foetus – with a notional claim to certain rights. In the woman’s case the claim is to personal sovereignty and self-determination – i.e. a matter of not just fundamental liberties but liberty itself – and in the case of the foetus it is to the right to life.

What we have, therefore, is a situation (pregnancy) which brings those two parties and their notional claims to rights into a situation in which they are are inextricably conjoined and in a state of conflict – one cannot allow, in full, the claim of one party to their rights with denying the claim of the other party.

This obviously presents no great difficulty if one takes an absolutist and hierarchical view of these rights, i.e. if one supposes that the woman’s right to personal sovereignty outweighs the foetus’ right to life in all circumstances up to the point at which the parties are naturally separated (i.e. the foetus dies of natural causes or is born) and, of course, vice versa. That is a solution, but one that I think the majority of people think rather unsatisfactory not to mention morally rather dubious.

What the rest of us are faced with is the difficult question of how, and on what basis, one should try to strike a balance between those two competing claims to rights, a task that is made somewhat more complicated by the fact that there is a long and respectable liberal philosophical tradition which considers that the rights to life and to liberty are both equal in status and indivisible (start with Locke and Tom Paine and work you way forward).

The question is therefore on what basis do you seek to balance those rights? Or more to the point – given that I’m an atheist and so arguments from religious morality carry no weight with me – on what rational basis can one try to balance these rights?

What we need, in the first instance, is some sort of principle on which to base our judgement and the one that I consider best fits the situation is one derived from JS Mill, i.e. that in a situation in which there will inevitably be some harm caused to one or both of the parties one should seek to find an accommodation which gives rise to the least possible harm.

So far, so good – we now have a premise from which we can try to balance out these rights, but how do we apply that premise?

This is where we enter fully the realms of metaphysics because how one chooses to apply that premise is tied into the question of how we view the question of what it means to be human – is that something we see is purely biological terms, as a matter simply of DNA, cellular biology and physiology or is it something more than that? Is our ‘humanity’ bound up in notions of consciousness, awareness and the capacity to be a thinking being?

Before he fudged his answer to include ‘God’, Descartes considered that the only thing we can be sure of is our own existence and only because we are thinking beings, ‘cogito ergo sum’, and whether you subscribe to that view in its entirety, i.e. Cartesian duallism, or come at this question from a monist/existentialist perspective, the notion that what makes us specifically human, as distinct from other species, is somehow bound up in our capacity for cognition, awareness and conscious thought is a perfectly respectable position to take.

Where this leads is to the view that, in the case of abortion, the least harm – in moral/ethical terms – is caused if and only if the foetus is terminated at a point in its development before it attains, or begins even to develop, the capacity for conscious thought, a point at which it possesses no awareness of, nor even the capacity for awareness of its own existence/humanity.

Now while it is true to say that one cannot determine precisely when this actually happens, consciousness is not something that gets switched on like a light bulb – one can determine the latest possible point in the foetus’s development at which there is no possibility of consciousness or awareness at even the most rudimentary level. This, as it happens, lies at around 26 weeks gestation and we know this because scientific studies of foetal development have shown that it is only at this stage in development that the foetus’ developing nervous system begins to connect itself to those parts of the brain necessary for conscious thought – and these still only exist in a rudimentary state at this point.

Before 26 weeks gestation we can be sure, on our current evidence, that there is no capacity for conscious thought or awareness in even the most rudimentary sense. After that point things start to happen which means we cannot be quite so sure and so, to play safe, we have adopt a boundary condition of at least 26 weeks gestation in order to satisfy our definition of ‘least harm’ – and in practice, because assessing the age of a foetus in the womb in not an absolutely precise science, it is preferable that we allow ourselves a bit of an additional safety margin. A couple of weeks is sufficient for that purpose, hence we get an upper limit of 24 weeks gestation – which is where we are at now.

What you have there is – as I see it – a positive account for the status quo of the kind that you’re asking for and moreover, like any good rational argument, it explains not only the ‘why’ of choosing 24 weeks as a boundary but also gives the conditions under which one would necessarily have to revise that boundary. If, and only if, it can be demonstrated that the beginnings of a rudimentary capacity for conscious thought occur earlier in the gestational process than current evidence indicate would we have to revise our assessment of where the upper limit for legal abortion should lie.

As I’ve said on many occasions, this is not a perfect solution, by any means, but its the solution that works for me, not least because although it makes use of science and scientific evidence to inform the argument, the argument itself does not actually rest on the science but on a moral/philosophical view of the nature and values of humanity and human life.

I consider this to be a human argument, not a technological argument and that is ultimately how it should be.

Lee,

I have to disagree with you here, not only because I consider that one can make a sound moral/ethical argument for a particular upper boundary (which I’ve set out above) but because the idea of ‘finding somewhere that everyone can at least partially agree’, like the argument from viability, is one that is lacking in ethical content and based, ultimately, on one or more logical fallacies as one either comes to rely on an appeal to authority (what are the doctors/scientists saying) or an appeal to popularity (what is the popular sentiment of the majority?) neither of which is a satisfactory means of resolving a moral/ethical question.

Your argument is predicated on quite a specific philosophical discourse which is certainly “respectable” (though not necessarily true). This prioritising of cognition as being what sets us apart as beings arguably contains within it the original “fudge” of dualism – making a strict distinction between the mental and physical. This idea itself has its origins in religious principles (the idea of body and soul being distinct, the soul being immortal). Descartes simply extended the preserve of the soul/mind to include anything that can be thought or experienced.

More specifically, I think one of your opening assumptions risks letting the technology argument back in:

“What we have, therefore, is a situation (pregnancy) which brings those two parties and their notional claims to rights into a situation in which they are are inextricably conjoined and in a state of conflict – one cannot allow, in full, the claim of one party to their rights with denying the claim of the other party.”

As we have seen from your thought experiments, technology might mean (and to an extent already does mean) that these two being will no longer be “inextricably conjoined” and that the right of a foetus to life might be respected while also respecting a woman’s personal sovereignty. In other words, the problem becomes less intractable and, perversely, more difficult to mediate since there are now more possibilities to consider than simply “whose rights take priority”. That way, we sidestep the problem of cognition altogether and can just say “well if we can save both sets of rights, then both sets of rights must be saved” if only to be on the safe side morally.

To use an analogy, let us say some criminal has trespassed into your house and is a potential threat to your property or health if they are not ejected. You might well be justified in killing them in these circumstances if you are given no other option but if a clear way was offered by which you could remove them WITHOUT killing them, then that option would not just be preferable but the more just.

In other words, this is like the argument from viability but different in that it is an argument for the use of the least level of violence necessary. Now I cannot speak for conservatives when they start sneaking in technology as an argument to roll back abortion rights (you might well be right that many of them aren’t considering these issues in anything but a tactical way). But it is still a problem.

Of course, you acknowledge your argument is not perfect and from a practical point of view, I would take it over any other since it makes sense and has some margin for error built into it. But I am still accepting it as the least worst option:)

Lee Griffin makes the best point. It is the middle ground where there is consensus that is really important. Cards on table- I am liberal and pro-choice but this is an ethical discussion in an ever-evolving environment so we can’t just shut it down.

I just don’t think that the ‘by natural means’ thing works at all. If I turn up to a hospital with a collapsed lung, I expect to be put on an artificial respirator. End of story. I would be deeply shocked if you turned me away because I couldn’t survive ‘by natural means.’ It is the same for a premature baby (and that is, effectively, what we would be talking about.)

Now, look at it from the Doctor’s angle. A hypothetical: just say that someone comes to a doctor for an abortion after 23 weeks. The doctor has a life-giving machine in the corner of the room that she knows will not only save the baby’s life but will ensure that it has a physical quality of life after a period of time. Given the hippocratic oath, I just don’t see how that doctor could not put the baby/ foetus whatever you want to term it on the machine. She knows the baby will survive with a quality of life if she puts it on the machine, therefore the baby becomes her patient. She has a duty of care to her patient so it is difficult to see how she could complete the abortion.

It is irrelevant what her personal or religious views are. Her professional view would suffice. For the same reason we can’t allow professionals and women to be criminalised for undertaking abortions, we surely can’t allow professionals to be placed in a position where their professional ethics are in conflict with the law?

I don’t know where this debate will end over the next few years. Maybe nowhere. The professional bodies don’t seem to be concerned with law as drafted so maybe no change will be the outcome and that is fine. It may be that ‘limits’ are replaced with guidelines and professional judgement over a certain period of time over, say, 20 weeks. I don’t know but it can’t be just brushed under the carpet by clever semantic constructions. We’ve got to show a bit more intellectual self-confidence than that.

Some of the questions posed at the end of the piece are quite interesting. But, very quickly and finally, there are thousands of people who have no connection to their biological parents. The characterisation of this situation as creating an unnacceptable existential crisis seems like a bit of argument over-stretch to me.

Let’s show some self-confidence here…..

Nick: > But I am still accepting it as the least worst option:)

That is precisely what it is, the least (to my mind) unacceptable solution to an intractable set of ‘problems’.

e8voice:

As I’ve noted there are distinct moral/ethical problems with Lee’s position, although it is a perfectly respectable utilitarian argument is many other respects.

The ‘by natural means’ strand of argument is not intended to suggest that there is something intrinsically wrong, immoral or unethical in the use of medical intervention, rather I raise the point to illustrate part of the problem of relying on the viability argument if one’s actual motives in seeking a reduction in the upper time limit for abortion are derived from general moral/religious objections to abortion.

What I’m trying to explore here, as I have in other pieces on abortion, is the question of what are the parameters of an honest debate?

The argument from viability is not invalid as an argument for taking a particular position on abortion provide one is honest in stating that what you are advancing is an essentially utilitarian argument and therefore one in which its moral character can be determined only be reference to its actual outcome – does it deliver an end that can reasonably be thought to justify the means. What is dishonest, and misleading, is the idea that one can legitimate use the argument from viability as a tactic or device to achieve a non-utilitarian moral objective and retain a valid claim to the ‘moral high ground’, particularly in religious terms – you can’t and any claims made to this effect are simply hypocrisy.

I think I’ve been misunderstood. my opinion is that given the impact a baby can have on multiple facets of life there is absolutely no reason to deny a woman the chance to abort up until that baby becomes naturally alive, and that’s where I agree somewhat with Unity.

If the baby cannot survive without only minimal care from the hospital under normal circumstances (that is to say normal for the babies biological condition, so taking in to account disability etc) then for me it is not yet a life it is only a potential for life. I don’t think anyone should be getting on their high horse over potential lost, but I understand completely that such a view is my own ethical view and that others view the situation completely differently.

What I am saying is that I believe the nation should go one way or the other, I think the middle ground is a fallacy and that “compromise” makes fools of us all, and only pertains to continue the argument rather than solve it, as this argument over 24 or 20 weeks shows. What is needed is a definite definition of when a baby becomes “alive” and for the pro-abortionists to then recognise that after such a point it is unethical to reject that child that has now become a life. Equally the anti-abortionists then need to realise that before that point it is as much alive as any other growing mass of cells without sentience or systems of self-preservation and thus cannot be bestowed “rights” in the same manner as to living things.

“The doctor has a life-giving machine in the corner of the room that she knows will not only save the baby’s life but will ensure that it has a physical quality of life after a period of time.”

No doctor knows this, because even at 24 weeks the chances are still horrendously slim for any kind of real length of life for such a child. This is where the debate has become obfuscated for the means of the anti-abortionist lobby. I don’t wish to begrudge people the chance to have their premature babies born and hopefully live, nor do I want to stand in the way of advances that make allow biotechnology to act as a surrogacy for actually carrying a child for whatever reason (osteoporosis off the top of my head would be a good reason), but these choices should be that of people that want children and want their foetuses to survive, it shouldn’t be the mandate of the anti-abortionists to use as a means to curb the rights of mothers and parents just by its existence.

Trust me, that’s not where I’m coming from at all.

I simply believe that we need to be prepared to engage in an open and honest debate. I am not looking for the ‘moral high ground’- I wouldn’t dare be so crude. All that we have to do, as self-confident liberals, is find an ethical position that is consistent with our current environment.

That may be the status quo and it may not be- I’m pretty open minded without having looked at all the evidence- though I certainly think the conclusion of this discussion will be something in the ballpark of the current legal framework. The problem with ‘by natural means’ as a rider on viability is that it simply closes off discussion. The only discussion that is legitimate with such a test, it seems to me, is whether to raise the abortion limit! We could go for that argument but I don’t see where that would get us ethically or practically.

Good debate though. Very good.

>>> The characterisation of this situation as creating an unnacceptable existential crisis seems like a bit of argument over-stretch to me.

Actually, it creates no particular existential crisis so far as I’m concerned because I consider parenthood to be a social construct in humans and not merely a function of biology – its one of the many ways in which our cultural evolution as a species has enabled us to transcend the limitations of biology.

It does, however,create an existential crisis if one considers that parenthood is a either a biological function or something ‘ordained’ by ‘god’ as being valid only if undertaken is a specific manner.

In that its rather akin to the argument that disbelief in god undermines morality – this is only true if one starts with a view of morality rooted in religious belief because its only in those circumstances that disbelief, i.e. a loss of belief in ‘god’, can undermine the foundations of your moral outlook.

If, like me, you’ve never had that view to begin with then atheism has no moral consequences because you’ve never relied on ‘god’ as a source of morality in the first place – so far as my own personal outlook is concerned I’m more of a Humean than anything else.

One final quick comment. Please don’t assume that anyone who disagrees with you is coming from a religious standpoint (as I tried to articulate with rather too much subtlety in my last comment.) It is an unjustifiable mistake and very polarising. There is a very wide space of discourse in between the extreme liberal and the fundamentalist religious and most people (including myself) are a long way from both.

>>> Trust me, that’s not where I’m coming from at all.

I’m not suggesting that you are, or that you’re trying to claim the moral high ground here.

I think I should explain, so there’s no confusion, that unless someone is clearly expressing an obvious fixed viewpoint in their comments, then my presumption in responding to specific comments is that the commenter in question is not necessarily expressing a deeply held personal view but rather that they are is some respect ‘testing the argument’ and, as such, that they should feel free to exempt themselves from any critical generalisations I put forward if these are not an accurate reflection of their actual personal opinions.

That’s very often how I write – I’ll take a particular comment or question and expand on it, in responding, to make a more general point or explore a particular argument in a bit more detail, without presupposing that the commenter whose point I’ve picked up on is in any sense personally attached to that line of argument.

I know, from experience, that this sometimes causes confusion as it can lead some people to think that I’m somehow misrepresenting their personal views or getting at them personally when in fact what I’m doing is simply using something as either an illustrative link to a general point I want to make or extrapolating on from a particular remark to advance the argument.

Either way, such responses are not intended to be adversarial – trust me, if I need to get adversarial about something you’ll be the first to know about it – so if in doubt just take it that something you’ve written has sparked off a new line of argument that’s interested me enough to make me want to explore it further.

Thus far I’m enjoying this discussion precisely because everyone’s putting a bit of effort into teasing out and testing the various arguments that are emerging, which is exactly as it should be.

>>> Please don’t assume that anyone who disagrees with you is coming from a religious standpoint

Again, when commenting on things in general terms I think its reasonable to take the view that the majority view amongst those whole claim a moral objection to abortion is one that is founded on a religious, or religious influenced, view of morality and explore some of the limitations of that position accordingly, on the understanding that the non-religious will exempt themselves from anything that doesn’t apply to them.

There will be exceptions, of course, but to be honest, its a rare and, from a debating POV, welcome occasion when one encounters someone who can put up a decent rational argument against abortion with relying on ‘god’ as their source of personal authority rather than the usual dreadful attempts to put up badly conceived, fallacious and counter-factual arguments, like the ‘you’ve just killed Beethoven’ fallacy or the ‘we wouldn’t have some much immigration’ argument, which too often tend to ship up in lieu of intelligent discussion.

There was a good piece in the grauniad on this, yesterday

This is a very enjoyable debate. Cameron’s idea that viability is the basis for a reduction in time presupposes that viability was the reason the time was/is set at 24 weeks in the first place; as I said on Kate’s piece, I don’t think that’s the case. As I suggested there, if ‘viability’ were the only factor, then there could/will be a time in the future when all foetuses are ‘viable’ – what then?

Would that make all embryos frozen in laboratories, which are currently disposed of when a couple successfully complete IVF, as potentially ‘viable’ as a 24-week foetus? Would all those embryos have to be gestated to full term? It’s not an outlandish argument – as Peter Singer points out in ‘The President of Good and Evil’, it’s George W Bush’s moral/philosophical argument against stem cell research (though Bush places no such equivalent value on the life of an adult/child Arab who happens to be killed in conflict as he does on an American couple’s embryo in a lab).

Unity makes an excellent argument for the status quo. Personally I think that ‘viability’ isn’t the issue, if it ever was.


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