Cathy Warwick has been in the news lately – she signed the Royal College of Midwives up to support a legal campaign for the removal of abortion limits in the UK. (Currently, if a woman undergoes an abortion outside of the law, it is a criminal offence.) This would effectively allow abortion to happen up until birth for any reason. You can read a midwife’s response here, see the links through to the original story.
This has raised – once again – the question of abortion. Many people see abortion as a woman’s rights – a foetus is simply a few cells connected to a woman, and having an abortion is no more morally problematic than having your appendix out.
The fact that a human life has to die is basically irrelevant: it is justifiable because at that point in the foetal development, the foetus is not a ‘person’. Notice here that I am using medical terms like ‘foetus’ rather than words we might normally use such as ‘baby’, ‘child’ or ‘mother’. This is because it’s important to understand that a foetus is not a baby – a baby implies a person, whereas a foetus is simply a medical term for a living organism inside a womb. A foetus is a group of cells; a baby or child is a person. A foetus cannot feel pain, has no understanding of itself as a separate entity, and so on – it’s not a person and so can be terminated at will.
I think this line of reasoning is deeply flawed and troublesome for a number of reasons. Chiefly, I think the problem is that it makes an arbitrary concept of ‘personhood’ the key factor in whether it is right to terminate life or not. Who decides what is a person and what is not? There’s a good question.
There was a very helpful article posted today, Why abortion makes sense. The authors make the point that such dehumanising has been the stock in trade of just about every genocidal regime throughout history. Once you have determined that ‘they’ are not human, you can exterminate them with a clear conscience. In fact, more than that, it is morally right and proper for them to be killed.
Once life is valued not for the sake of being life but because of some arbitrary concept we impose, then it can be redefined at will. The whole article is worth reading and I’d suggest having a look through it.
Coming back to Cathy Warwick – I think her position is interesting because it’s entirely consistent. Once you define a foetus as a nonperson, then where do you draw the line? Isn’t 24 weeks simply arbitrary? And then, if you’re going to allow abortion up to full term – what’s the difference between a 37 week child inside and outside the womb? Not much. This is why some ethicists have argued for post-birth abortion (an article published in the British Journal of Medical Ethics, by the way, not some hack rag). They argued: “The moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus in the sense that both lack those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an individual.”
I think most people see through those kind of arguments, which is why the reaction against Cathy Warwick has been so strong. And yet, many people seem unwilling to concede that the position is entirely logical once the premises of abortion have been granted in the first place. Once you say that abortion is OK, any lines you draw are essentially arbitrary ones.
The BBC recently reported that abortion rates are stable – there were 185,824 in 2015. Nearly 200,000 abortions in one year – that’s incredible. That statistic makes me feel nauseous. And yet we as a society brush this away because we are ‘pro-women’.
In reality, I think many women feel uncomfortable with abortion – from the article I posted at the start, an Angus Reid poll in 2012 found that 59% of women favoured a reduction in time limits for abortion (i.e. decreasing from 24 weeks). Only 2% favoured an extension.
In the name of being ‘pro-choice’, it turns out that a lot of women are actually pressured into abortion: if a woman falls pregnant unexpectedly, and in inconvenient circumstances, then all of a sudden abortion becomes the most attractive option for everyone except the woman concerned. Many women find they are pressured into it, simply because it is what is expected. Some choice.
All in all, I struggle with our society which permits what I think is essentially state sanctioned murder. However, I hope that Cathy Warwick’s comments will raise the profile of this issue – abortion is usually kept pretty hush-hush. Talking about it, rather than simply brushing the whole thing under the carpet, is a step in the right direction.