By: Mike Spielman of www.Abort73.com
Last week, I talked about the Battle of Ideas abortion debate that took place between Ann Furedi and John Wyatt in 2008. It turns out that Ann Furedi had another go round in the Battle of Ideas debate last October, this time with American writer, Will Saletan. As was true in 2008, both participants were pro-choice. The intellectual dishonesty of such a pairing notwithstanding, I was again surprised by how much there was worth noting.
Ann Furedi is the chief executive director of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), which is the largest independent abortion provider in the UK. Will Saletan covers science, tech, and politics for Slate magazine, and it wasan article he wrote in November 2010 that laid the groundwork for their debate–specifically his suggestion that pro-choicers should "reconsider the legality of second-trimester abortions."
Hearing that, you might think that Saletan has a moral objection to killing a baby so far into pregnancy. As it turns out, his suggestion is a purely pragmatic one. He holds it out as a negotiating tool, speculating that if pro-choicers will concede their support of late-term abortion, perhaps pro-lifers will concede their opposition to contraception. As much as Saletan "hate(s) the crudity of bringing criminal law into such personal matters," he calls this a compromise he could tolerate and believes the net result would be fewer abortions. "In exchange for a 12-week deadline on elective abortion," Saletan writes, "women would get better options for avoiding pregnancy."
In response to Saletan's article, Ann Furedi published one of her own, "A Moral Defence of Late Abortion." In it, she argues that if you're going to legally restrict any abortion, you must legally restrict every abortion. Why? Because she recognizes that there is no moral difference between aborting early in pregnancy and aborting late in pregnancy. Consider these excerpts from her piece:
To me, the argument for a gradualist approach to the ethical rightness or wrongness of abortion that depends on the gestation of the fetus is weak, lacks intellectual consistency, and seems self-serving.
To the ‘ethical straddlers’ concerned about gestation we must ask: is there anything qualitatively different about a fetus at, say, 28 weeks that gives it a morally different status to a fetus at 18 weeks or even eight weeks? It certainly looks different because its physical development has advanced. At 28 weeks we can see it is human – at eight weeks a human embryo looks much like that of a hamster. But are we really so shallow, so fickle, as to let our view on moral worth be determined by appearance? Even if at five weeks we can only see an embryonic pole, we know that it is human. The heart that can be seen beating on an ultrasound scan at six weeks is as much a human heart as the one that beats five months later.
Indeed, from the time of conception, as soon as embryonic cells begin to divide, an entity with the potential to become a person is created. It is the product of a man and a woman, but distinct from them. It has a unique DNA and, unless its development is interrupted or fails, it will be born as a child.
We may feel that a human embryo has greater moral status than a cat (which for all its conscious abilities and sensory perception can never be a human person), or we may believe that a cat has greater moral claims than an embryo, which is potentially a person but not yet an independent living being. Both of these positions can be presented as consistent, rational, logical arguments.
But it is difficult to see how it can be argued that a fetus should be accorded a moral status that differs at different stages of its development on the grounds of ‘evolving potential’, since a fetus at 28 weeks is no more or less potentially a person than one at eight weeks.
Since a fetus draws closer to fulfilling its potential from the day it is conceived, and is constantly evolving as it grows, which day - or which developmental change - matters morally? Is it when there is evidence of a beating heart, or fetal movement, or a particular neurological or brain development? Who makes this decision? And why?
Later abortions are undoubtedly gruelling for both the patient and provider, but we assume that both have made a conscious decision to undertake the procedure. The life that is destroyed is no more or less a potential person than it was in early pregnancy.
Ultimately, the distinction between early and late abortion seems reducible to our response to the appearance of the fetus – which is why so much influence has been attributed to the development of high-resolution fetal imaging, which has enabled us to see the fetus in utero. The argument seems reducible to this: it looks more like a child, so it should be treated more like a child.
Without doubt, it is much more difficult to countenance the destruction of a fetus once it looks like a miniature baby than before its body parts can be seen. It is even harder when an ultrasound scan shows movements that bring to mind familiar, endearing gestures – a ‘yawn’, thumb-sucking and grasping tiny fingers - and when we can see whether it is a boy or a girl. This is a fair enough response when it is expressed as a personal, subjective observation. It seems illegitimate, however, either dishonest or shallow, to dress it up as a moral philosophical principle.
The moral principle at stake in the debate on later abortions, the one that genuinely matters, has been ignored completely in the recent discussions. This is the principle of moral autonomy in respect of reproductive decisions. To argue that a woman should no longer be able to make a moral decision about the future of her pregnancy, because 20 or 18 or 16 weeks have passed, assaults this and, in doing so, assaults the tradition of freedom of conscience that exists in modern pluralistic society.
Either we support women’s right to make an abortion decision or we don’t. We can make the judgement that their choice is wrong – but we must tolerate their right to decide. There is no middle ground to straddle.