Brigitte posted recently on U.K.’s bid to lower the gestational age limit on abortion from 24 to 20 weeks in light of improved outcomes for extremely premature infants. An accompanying piece to the Telegraph’s article featured a toddler born at 23 weeks gestation and his mother commenting on the proposed revised guidelines.
Now, I want to be very careful in critiquing an effort that would no doubt reduce the number of abortions performed. That being said, my area of specialty in bioethics is neonatal ethics. I’ve seen enough infants born at 23 weeks gestation to last me a lifetime and while I support making every reasonable effort to support them medically while they grow enough lung and brain tissue to make it in the big wide world, I’m not sure I understand why abortion should be prevented with more gusto when it targets a viable fetus. My objection is philosophical: abortion cannot be half-right or half-wrong. Either the fetus is human or it’s not. You have to take the life of a viable fetus just as much as a non-viable one. That being said, I can grasp – if I don’t completely buy it – the moral basis of this partial ban on abortion. Infants who are completely dependant on their mothers for survival can be dispatched by the mother. When they become independently viable they should no longer be considered the property of their mother.
But let’s not fool ourselves here, “viability” when applied to a 23-weeker is a loaded term. Infants that young are not viable without the help of a truck-load of expensive equipment, 1-on-1 nursing care and a team of highly trained pediatricians. In many cases, this is not enough to save very premature infants and in another many cases, life-saving treatments can themselves cause severe impairments.
I think that what makes me so uneasy with this initiative, despite its positive aspects, is its potential to “de-dramatize” the abortion of non-viable fetuses, particularly in the eyes of the silent majority who oppose abortion but abhor judging those who get one even more. It seems that by lowering the gestational limit on abortion, we have found a way to make abortion both right and wrong. By making the buck stop at an arbitrarily set date, we numb ourselves to the reality of abortion with the balm of feeling like we actually did something about it.
Brigitte feels like quibbling: Point nicely made and taken about the danger of de-dramatizing early abortion. Though in this country it could hardly be less dramatized… The thing about arbitrary limits is that there is a point after which the state will not tolerate so-called lifestyle abortions because these are considered worse by public opinion than those performed at, say, 8 weeks, when the embryo looks like something out of a sci-fi movie. Likewise, why is it that sentences are more severe for someone convicted of first-degree murder than they are for any other form of homicide? Because the law, reflecting public opinion, considers first-degree murder worse. It’s far from perfect, as a system. But it has the virtue of being legitimate.
Andrea adds: I started this group because public opinion must and indeed can change. There is nothing better or worse about an abortion at 23 weeks than at eight weeks–that small person only now looks more like he or she will when born. The law is not effective here and surely the law in the UK is worse than no law at all. Sure, it reflects public opinion and therefore the gruesome dismembering limb from limb of babies at 23 weeks is more repugnant to many than an early term abortion. But not to me, it isn’t.
When I was little, I loved going on frog and toad hunts. There was something amazing to me about these tiny creatures in the woods. There still is. I would (most unfortunately) go to any length to catch one, so I could look at it in my hand. (This changed at least a little when I fell into a stinky swamp.)
If we cared about people in the same manner as we do about small toads in the environment… if we held the developing embryo in awe, as I do these tiny toads–we would all oppose abortion fully at any time after those cells began rapidly multiplying, knowing that all genetic material is in place from conception onwards for a whole new person to live and thrive.
I believe we can make people care about embryos and should strive for nothing less.
Rebecca adds: I’m not sure I agree that the law in the UK is worse than no law at all. While I don’t see the law as the best way to stop abortion, laws (especially those with popular support) express the collective opinion of the people. I would rather Canadians express the opinion that abortions after 24 weeks, or 20 weeks, are unacceptable, than our current iteration, which is that anything goes if you can find a doctor willing to do it.
I also find it surprising how few Canadians are aware of how extreme our legal position on abortion is – the thoroughly secularized western European states are all much less permissive than we are. Then again, given that there are literally no restrictions on abortion in Canada, that’s not saying much.
Andrea clarifies: I worry about that portion of the population that looks to the law as a teacher. And then says: If abortion is legal before XX weeks, it is right. But agreed on your point: I too would rather live in a world where we can all agree that late term abortion is wrong. That sentiment already exists in Canada; we see it expressed in polls. I want to cause people to reconsider their views on how/when life begins: A little respect and sympathy for the poor embattled embryo.