The talking politics of abortion


8:09 am - February 29th 2008

by DonaldS    


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This piece was first published two years ago at The Sharpener and in an edited form in this book (as “Talk amongst yourselves, we couldn’t possibly comment”). It’s main hope – that Westminster politicians stop ducking the abortion issue – has come to pass. That is a development I welcome; and I stand by (most of) what I wrote then (some of it now in lost, much missed links). The piece also tries to define “what’s so special” about 24 weeks, though perhaps less elegantly than Unity. So now’s a good time for a re-run. It does seem, alas, that what we’re about to get elsewhere is tabloid drivel (via) rather than proper debate. I guess that’s what happens when professional politicos get involved.

One word absolutely not on the lips of political hacks, not even Tory political hacks, is… Abortion. Not this week, not any week. It’s impolite conversation inside the beltway.

But a post here last year (picked apart here) attracted over 250 comments. Just publishing the word is pure Google-juice. Everyone in the real world has an opinion, so why does nobody in political Britain want to discuss abortion in public? It can’t be that 186,274 (2001 data; pdf) annual terminations don’t warrant justification or inquiry.

My own theory on the silence is this: nobody talks in public because it’s too easy to get drawn into dark places, or to find yourself with idiotic allies. You could play the God card; but there’s no debating with faith, and polite society considers the faithful ever so slightly simple.

Religion aside, “pro-lifers” (who isn’t?) offer other weak arguments. One claims the foetus has rights because of its potential for humanity (fully realised in a way that an egg isn’t). This is nonsense: nobody has the rights of what they might become, only for what they are. Neither I, nor the inhabitants of Guatemala City, have the rights of a US citizen, though we have the potential to become one. (I suspect that some Americans making arguments based in potential wouldn’t fancy us having those rights, either. Not the Guatemalans, anyway.)

A second argument claims a right to life for the foetus as soon as it’s “viable” – able to survive outside the body. Owen replies:

Whether or not a foetus has moral worth cannot possibly depend on whether scientists have yet developed an effective artificial incubator. Whether or not a foetus is a bearer of rights does not change over time with scientific progress, nor does it vary between countries according to the state of the health care system.

Quite. It’s often a dishonest, spineless line of reasoning, rightly skewered.

But “pro-choicers” aren’t short of poor arguments themselves. One goes a bit like this: “Male control over birth rights, over women’s bodies, has been a tool of patriarchal oppression for centuries.” True, but any reasonable ethics only allows remedial action against the oppressor. Most of them are long dead, none of them are foetal – so what’s the relevance to an abortion in 2006? Even if the medicalization of terminations in America involved (male) doctors claiming power over (female) midwives, this is irrelevant. History should only carefully be a guide to justice – and only if it suggests a just remedy. Thin-end-of-the-wedge arguments are usually weak, and this is no exception.

There’s an instrumental pro-choice argument, too: “I couldn’t give the child a good life. Why bring it into the world if it will never be fulfilled?” It’s a version of the Freakonomics guide to abortion. For this to be valid, two things need to be true: that there is a shortage of couples willing to adopt newborns, and that death is preferable to a sub-optimal life. The first is demonstrably false; the second is repellent to (most of) the living, just a short hop from eugenics.

Another solution was proposed by a commenter:

…you don’t have to be an out-and-out libertarian to think that there should be some boundaries to the state, and the cervix seems like as good a start as any.

Which is fine, and perfectly consistent if you permit abortions right up to birth. This might appear a “liberal” position, but only if you assign no rights at all to a fully developed foetus, only physically distinguishable from a “baby” by its home address. This is a position most people would reject as tyrannical (which doesn’t mean it’s wrong).

So, what’s left? It’s messy. Both a foetus and the mother must have rights. The mother has the right to bodily autonomy, and the foetus, from some point in pregnancy, a right to life. If we’re going to have time restrictions on abortion, then a foetal right to life somehow trumps a woman’s right to autonomy. (But this argument has its own dark place: we’re allowing the right to use another’s organs against their will. So, could we force someone to give up a kidney against their will, if they were the only person able to help? Perhaps, if kidney donation was as safe as normal pregnancy, which it isn’t. Giving blood is, though: see this great book for more.)

The question is: when does this right to foetal life trump a human being’s right to autonomy? Not from when it can survive outside the womb (“viability”). Not surely at the point of “independence”: that would permit post-birth, involuntary euthanasia. Not either at full self-awareness; some children never get there. Perhaps when it can feel pain? When it becomes conscious? When it develops the capacity for abstract thought or experience, and therefore humanity? All these are coherent positions, intuitively ethical, based in science, subject to change as knowledge progresses, explicit in limiting female abortion rights. None seems to suggest moving the current 24-week limit very far in either direction, as far as I can tell.

The corollary to a policy of forced childbirth (for that’s what abortion time limits are) is that legal terminations should never be interrogated. If we base our laws on the undeveloped foetus lacking (before acquiring) rights, then the only medical concern is the woman’s physical and mental health. Access to early abortion should be free and easy. Pragmatism also suggests that sex education (like maths and English) should be compulsory, and contraception (through schemes like the c:card) accessible. Prevention is better than cure, sure; it’s also cheaper.

None of this is simple for politicians to discuss. Arguments have to be clear and careful. None readily tabloidize. But if party hacks are wondering about electoral disaffection, they could start by interrogating their own eagerness to abdicate. While they’re happy to confine health debates to PCTs and the small print of dentistry contracts, the politics of abortion is happening without them.

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About the author
Donald is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is a travel journalist, editor, author and copywriter. In the wake of the 2005 General Election, he co-founded and edited The Sharpener for a couple of years. He writes the occasional book or newspaper article for money, as well as sharing his thoughts here for free. Also at: hackneye donaldstrachan.com
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Civil liberties ,Conservative Party ,Health

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Reader comments


“Male control over birth rights, over women’s bodies, has been a tool of patriarchal oppression for centuries.”

I think this is a misrepresentation. Yes, it has been going on for centuries. But the point is that if women don’t have control of their reproduction then you can throw away any hopes for equality of opportunity in education, the workplace and so on. It’s not just pointing to an historical truth and it’s not about conspiracy. It’s a physical reality.

What Pippa said.

Leave aside for a second that equality of opportunity is a dangerous fantasy (partly because of this, partly because its a logical impossibility across the board).

You’re still going to have to clarify what this means:

>if women don’t have control of their reproduction

Because, practically speaking and in relation to the matter at hand, it could mean almost anything.

“Control of reproduction” COULD mean something as simple as having the right to say “no” to sex and access to information on what the likely consequences of having sex are. That is hardly a given in many human cultures historically (forced or coerced marriage, no concept of “rape” within marriage etc..) and has only really been an established norm in the West comparatively recently. You could make the case that it doesn’t necessarily involve abortion rights AT ALL.

Also, in terms of educational outcomes, women now do rather better than men using a variety of measures. There are probably still some inequalities within some workplaces, although due to several complicating factors, it is difficult to establish exactly how much of that is down to individual choice and priorities rather than discrimination. So, I would say feminists were right – control of one’s own is an essential part of being able to do ANYTHING else – as witness the different choice women have in society today. Whether that justifies abortion in itself, as opposed to the right to say “no”, is rather more controversial.

“There’s an instrumental pro-choice argument, too: “I couldn’t give the child a good life. Why bring it into the world if it will never be fulfilled?” It’s a version of the Freakonomics guide to abortion. For this to be valid, two things need to be true: that there is a shortage of couples willing to adopt newborns, and that death is preferable to a sub-optimal life. The first is demonstrably false; the second is repellent to (most of) the living, just a short hop from eugenics.”

I’m afraid I find this distinctly false in its analysis.

This question is, for me, one of the hardest in the abortion debate…and that is up until what point does a woman and a set of parents have rights of their own.

In the first part adoption is a completely different beast to abortion, though both are emotional and potentially traumatic in their own right. But the act of actually following through with a birth and then giving that child away is a whole different circumstance to deciding that the child should never come to live. Should parents who want to abort after 24 weeks have to go through the situation of carrying on with the pregnancy only to then give the baby up? In theory it’s a perfectly acceptable idea, but in practice how many women are you going to find with anxiety or depression through the situation, or even men? What do you tell your child when they legally come looking for you at age 18 and ask you why you put them up for adoption? Because the doctors wouldn’t let you abort them?

Adoption as the only option after the period of time, with wide consensus, that a baby starts to have rights is only a realistic and fair option on the pregnant woman if the after care is there to ensure that the action doesn’t affect her life..this is simple to do…but also if the law is changed to allow parents to opt out of any ties to their childs life and any purposful contact in the future. Some people want to abort or adopt because they simply don’t want to know, and I know there is a very strong anecdotal case for children born out of the rape of a woman that are then put up for adoption not being able to tack their biological parents in some cases.

In the second part, and that of a child being aborted simply because they aren’t getting the best life…why is that not the parents choice to make? No-one is suggesting that abortion should be mandatory on the basis of a wide means testing program, but if parents are to go through their life with a child they’ve not put up for adoption (perhaps something emotionally they don’t feel they could do) and feel somewhat miserable for it not only because their lives have been severely impacted by the result and because they don’t feel they’re giving their child the best life, then why should it not be their choice to say they don’t want that?

Quick question from a genuinely ignorant position, if a man assaults a woman who is pregnant beyond 24 weeks, and she loses the child as a direct result, is the man charged with murder or manslaughter? To my mind it is not, and is an interesting contradiction of terms in that the law sees the foetus of a woman that wants that child to not be a “living thing” that is murdered at any point, yet see’s the foetus as having rights beyond 24 weeks when the woman doesn’t want it. Just something to muse on.

Good article, I reckon, on a difficult issue to say the least. Can’t even find anything to disagree with.

#5

Lee, sorry, I’m having real trouble understanding some of your comment. Not trying to duck you; I just don’t follow much of what you’re on about. Let me try and answer the bit I think I do get…

> why should it not be their choice to say they don’t want that

I guess, crudely, because weighing a lifetime of feelings of guilt and/or discomfort or even depression against taking a life is a no-brainer. A liberal’s commitment to rights is non-negotiable. The trick, as I say, is deciding when a rights-free foetus becomes human/conscious/capable of experience, or however you like to define it.

As I go on to explain, though, the corollary of this is that any woman who chooses to abort before the point the foetus is considered to have rights (and let’s remember: the vast majority do so way earlier than that), ought to be free to do so for any reason she damn chooses. No one – doctors included – ought to have a right to question that.

So, in short:

> should parents who want to abort after 24 weeks have to go through the situation of carrying on with the pregnancy only to then give the baby up?

Answer: Yes. Unless there’s a proper medical reason, I don’t see that’s even a difficult moral question, unless science establishes that something we can define as ‘humanity’ doesn’t in fact develop until later in pregnancy. But I emphasize again: you’re talking about a vanishingly small number of people here.

I mean by control of reproduction simply the right to decide when and if to reproduce.

Of course this includes the right to say no and to use contraception. But as we know, neither of those are fail proof. There will always be unwanted pregnancies and so if we want women to have equal life chances they must have the power to decide whether to continue with the pregnancy or not.

#8 Pippa

> they must have the power to decide whether to continue with the pregnancy or not

Absolutely agree. The tricky bit, though, is deciding if, when and in what ways the rights of an independent life (however defined, at what point thought to exist) begin to impact upon a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. I’ve tried to do that in the piece from a liberal perspective.

#6

Thanks. It could of course be a case of: Even a stopped clock….

Of course this is a difficult thing. But I think the rights of the woman trump the rights of the unborn baby every time. I suppose I’m a bit Singeresque in that regard. It seems to me, as a liberal feminist, that we can throw the rest away if we can’t have this…

Anyhow, such a tiny percentage of terminations occur at later stages, the priority should be helping women to access terminations earlier and to prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place, rather thank tinkering with the dates that are allowed.

#10

> I think the rights of the woman trump the rights of the unborn baby every time

I can’t accept that, morally. For reasons I’ve given, I consider it incompatible with liberalism. At the limit, it allows the termination of something biologically indistinguishable from a baby.

But…

> tiny percentage of terminations occur at later stages, the priority should be helping women to access terminations earlier

Absolutely agree. Obsessing about distinctions between 22/24/26 weeks is to accept an agenda laid out by anti-abortionists. It applies in a vanishingly small number of cases.

Being clear when and why abortions are and are not acceptable isn’t just a pointless intellectual exercise, though. If we’re clear that before a certain rights-bearing point, an abortion is the removal of unwanted cells, then there’s no reason why nurses can’t sign this off. And that questions to motives be met with a stiff “MYOB”.

Clarity also stands in contrast to (most of) those on the other side of the fence. They’re happy to use dishonest, pseudo-science arguments like “viability” to chip away at rights, when in fact they’re opposed to abortion in all (or nearly all) circumstances anyway.

I’m not sure that there is a clear line though. Drawing a line at where the unborn baby has rights is always going to be arbitrary.

>Drawing a line at where the unborn baby has rights is always going to be arbitrary.

I disagree. The line is clear: it has rights when it’s a human. What isn’t clear is when precisely it becomes a human.

Obviously the timing of that line remains contestable, and partly at the mercy of science (and so at the mercy, too, of pseudo-science). However, the key implication of defining the position is this: there certainly is a point at which a foetus isn’t a human.

so why does nobody in political Britain want to discuss abortion in public?

Probably because whatever line a politician takes on the issue will lose thme more votes than it will win them.

7. “I guess, crudely, because weighing a lifetime of feelings of guilt and/or discomfort or even depression against taking a life is a no-brainer.”

It is a no-brainer, but then that assumes that you believe stopping a pregnancy is taking a life which is the crux of the issue. I personally don’t believe it is

“Answer: Yes. Unless there’s a proper medical reason, I don’t see that’s even a difficult moral question, unless science establishes that something we can define as ‘humanity’ doesn’t in fact develop until later in pregnancy. But I emphasize again: you’re talking about a vanishingly small number of people here.”

Indeed I know I am, but it’s a principle we’re talking about in these posts and not a practice.

I just feel uncomfortable with sitting here and saying that a woman has to go through the process of pregnancy and everything that brings, along with all the things it can bring in life afterwards, when she doesn’t necessarily want it to happen. I don’t find it an easy moral and liberal argument to say a person should essentially become the unwilling vessel of a potential life in case another family want to adopt it when it’s born. This debate isn’t about the liberty of life, as I think everyone on both sides readily accepts that taking a fully fledged life is simply not acceptable.

The debate does get to it’s most interesting when it’s about just how much you’re able to infringe on a persons life to keep that life from coming to fruition, about how much the state is allowed to dictate upon a person carrying a child, the hypocrisy of law surrounding unborn children, how much of a say a parent has over what their biological offspring should have the opportunity to experience and aspire to, and finally just how an “independent” life can be mapped so readily to a life that is so dependent on a mother. I think these are the real issues, and of course they’re complex, but it is in these areas that law and science needs to come to some solid conclusions weighing ALL liberties in the equation.

Was interesed to hear comments on this, from today’s Guradian:

“The Indian government today announced a scheme to pay poor families to give birth to and bring up girls in an attempt to stop families nationwide aborting an estimated half a million female foetuses a year.”

Is this not the same as a case from ’99 which caused outrage in the pro-choice community:

http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4158/is_19991012/ai_n14278755

If people think that it is OK for the Indian government to incentivise women not to have abortions, then would the same policy be acceptable in the UK?

If the Indian government is wrong, why?


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