A note from Dresden about abortion

I wrote the following letter to the Guardian minutes before leaving London for a river cruise up the Elbe from Berlin to Prague.  The letter was published in the Guardian of 9 October, along with several others on the subject of abortion following the proposal by the Health Secretary, of all people, that the period in a pregnancy during which an abortion is permissible (on rigorous conditions) should be drastically shortened:

• The health secretary’s reactionary call for halving the period in pregnancy when abortion may be permissible (Report, 6 October) lacks logical as well as scientific justification.

Defenders of women’s right to choose whether and when to have an abortion should beware of accepting the anti-abortionists’ implicit claim that abortion should be banned from the point when the foetus, if removed from the womb, could theoretically survive.

There is no logic to this claim, and the test is purely hypothetical: some foetuses could be helped to survive outside the mother at almost any stage, others couldn’t. So long as it is a foetus and not a baby, it’s part of and dependent on the mother, who should have unfettered rights to decide its future.

Once born, it is a baby and a human, and quite different considerations apply, but not until then.

The alleged link between potential hypothetical viability and the ban on abortion is based purely on religious superstition about “the beginning of life” and should be firmly resisted.

Otherwise, scientific advances will eventually make foetuses potentially viable from the moment of conception – and we shall be back to the cruel days when all abortions were banned and back-street abortionists flourished.
Brian Barder

If the space allocated by the Guardian for letters had been bigger, I would have added an acknowledgement of Owen Barder‘s blinding aperçu that there’s no necessary basis in logic or morals for the assertion that an abortion becomes unacceptable at the point where the foetus might hypothetically survive if removed from the womb, one of those Eureka! observations (except that I didn’t discover it, he did).  It’s obvious when you think about it, yet even the most radical of the pro-choice campaigners never seem to challenge the underlying premiss of the anti-abortionists that once the foetus is theoretically “viable” on its own, aborting it must be wrong.  Once you point out that there is no basis for this assertion, the whole case for repeatedly reducing the period in which abortions are permitted falls apart.  Throughout her pregnancy, every woman should have the unfettered right to decide what happens to every part of her body and its contents, and it’s utterly unacceptable that anyone else should attempt to limit or deny that right.

(This post is being published, all being well, from aboard a river cruise ship moored on the Elbe in the heart of beautiful, beautifully restored Dresden, of whose virtual destruction by giant fire-storm, set off by the bombers of the Royal Air Force only a few weeks before the end of the second world war, we Britons ought to be suitably ashamed.  But that’s a different point of controversy:  this post is about abortion and women’s rights, once again under threat from religious bigots and other misogynistic obscurantists.)


7 Responses

  1. Julian says:

    Just to be clear, suppose a woman is 9 months and two weeks pregnant. Are you saying she should be allowed to decide whether to be induced or have an abortion? To argue that a mother can kill a baby just because it’s inside her body seems similarly to have little basis in logic or morals.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. As your deceptively simple question in fact raises so many fundamental issues, I am responding to it in a new and separate comment, qv.

  2. Tim Weakley says:

    As regards “the beginning of life”: the spermatozoon and ovum are of course alive before fertilization, and are in turn derived from other living cells in an unbroken line stretching back for three and a half billion years without supernatural intervention.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Tim. You are absolutely right, of course. If the question relates to the point in a pregnancy at which “life begins”, the only defensible response is that the question is meaningless, except in some kind of theological framework that bears no relationship to scientific or factual categories of statement. If the question is re-phrased: “At what point in a pregnancy does the foetus become viable in the sense of becoming capable of continued life if removed from the mother’s womb?”, there are two possible responses: “how long is a piece of string?” and “What has hypothetical future viability to do with the mother’s rights to control her own body and any organism inside and dependent on it? Nothing!”.

  3. Brian says:

    @Julian:  Thank you for your comment (here).   Yes, that’s exactly what I am saying.  I take it as axiomatic that a person, male or female, should be free to take decisions affecting the future state of his or her body, including any organs or organisms inside and dependent on it, unless there are extremely powerful reasons, e.g. affecting the interests or rights of other people, for some outside authority to deny her that freedom of decision and to claim the right to override her decisions. Until the foetus is born, it is not a person and only the mother may take decisions affecting it.  (You assume that which you need to but cannot establish by referring to it as a ‘baby’.) 

    The idea that a collection of priests, politicians, doctors, or other self-appointed moralists are entitled to form their own judgement about what is to be done with a woman’s body, and substitute it for her own best judgement of her obligations and interests, is repugnant. Apart from anything else, those who arrogantly claim the right to prevent a woman from aborting her foetus, at any point in her pregnancy, if that is what she has firmly decided is what she wants and needs, don’t have to live with the consequences of their decision;  the mother does. 

    We should respect Mill’s principle that the only justification for using the law (or other source of authority) to stop people doing what they wish to do is if the desired activity interferes with the rights or interests of others.  Even if you adopt the far-fetched and inherently objectionable idea that you (or parliament or government or church) are entitled to claim the role of defender of the rights and interests of a foetus, and in that slf-appointed role to override the judgement and interests of the mother, neither you nor politicians nor priests can possibly have the information available to the mother about her best interests.  Once the foetus is born and becomes an independent person, he or she acquires rights which if necessary it is the duty of society to protect. But a potential future person is obviously not yet a person and those who can’t tell the difference between a foetus and a human baby have no business expressing a view on the matter.

    Finally, you seem to be suggesting that very late in her pregnancy a mother no longer has sole rights regarding her foetus, with the implication that she has had such rights at an unspecified earlier stage.  This gets you into a hopeless argument about the definition of the point at which the mother’s rights are extinguished and replaced by a similar right to determine her foetus’s future on the part of complete strangers who know nothing whatever of the circumstances in which a decision must be made.  Politicians and priests seem to enjoy plucking numbers out of the air — 20 weeks, 24, 12 — as the correct moment when this dramatic transfer of rights should take place.  None has the slightest basis in science or fact.  There is only one moment when the status of the foetus in relation to the mother changes utterly and irrevocably, and that is the moment of birth.  Until that, no-one, but no-one, can know better than the mother what’s best for her — the only relevant question.  

  4. Julian says:

    @Brian. Let me ask you another question. If you believed that a foetus became a person with rights at some point before birth, would you then think it legitimate to prohibit abortion beyond that stage except in rare circumstances? Also, if you believed a baby did not become a person until it reached the age of five, would you think it ok for the parents to kill the child before that age?

    The point I’m trying to get at is this. If you think a foetus is not a person until it is born, it is reasonable to say it can be aborted at any stage. But also, if someone thinks a combined egg and sperm is a person, it is surely reasonable to say it should not be aborted at any stage. Those are two “axiomatic” viewpoints and any references to interference in women’s bodies or Utilitarianism are secondary issues.

    My own view is that abortion should be allowed, but with an upper limit. It is in most cases a mild restriction of a woman’s right to have an abortion to say she must decide within that time limit.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. On several grounds, though, I don’t regard your hypothetical questions as throwing any light on the subject. First, they tend to be tautological. If I were to “believe that a foetus became a person with rights at some point before birth”, then obviously I would believe that it had rights, although not necessarily the right not to be aborted even if the mother wishes it to be. Secondly, whether a foetus becomes a “person” before birth is not a matter of opinion or belief, but of fact. It’s surely impossible to conceive (sorry!) of a useful definition of ‘person’ that could include a foetus, which lacks any of the necessary qualifications to be called a person. Thirdly, I suggest that the issue becomes clearer if we can get away from the argument in terms of ‘rights’ for a moment, since it raises a host of further questions: where are these rights derived from, apart from a supernatural Creator of whose existence there is no persuasive evidence? Of what do these rights consist — those defined in which of the many charters or declarations of human rights? Even if the foetus can legitimately be regarded as having rights, are they the same rights as those of its mother? Are its rights, assuming that it has some, equal to its mother’s rights, or superior to them, or inferior to them — i.e. whose rights prevail in the event of a conflict, the mother’s or the foetus’s? Some people hold that animals have rights, but few would claim that animal rights are the same as humans’, or that in the event of a conflict, the animal’s rights should prevail over those of a human. Where on this spectrum do you place a foetus’s rights, if any, and by what criteria do you decide their correct place in relation to human and animal rights?

    Thus it is perhaps more helpful to put the question differently, and see whether that produces a less contentious answer. We are basically considering a situation in which a mother in the last trimester, say, of her pregnancy, decides for whatever reason that she wants and needs an abortion, perhaps because of a change of relevant circumstances since the first trimester. The anti-abortion lobby, apparently including yourself, holds that the mother should be prevented by law from aborting her foetus at this late stage, whatever her wishes or interests (save in very extreme circumstances, which we can ignore for the sake of argument). This raises the question, who is best placed to decide whether the abortion should go ahead — the law, as formulated by the government and parliament on behalf of society as a whole, or the mother? Which of the two is likeliest to have a full grasp of the circumstances of this particular case, those leading the mother to want to abort — the mother, or society and its legislators? Some laws designed to prevent some individuals from doing what they want to do are jutified as reflecting a moral law and a practical rule which almost everyone in society would want to uphold for the protection of all its members — the law against murder, for example. But clearly that doesn’t apply to abortion: there is nothing approaching a wide consensus in society that abortion should be illegal at any specific point in a pregnancy. Which of the two entities, mother or parliament representing society, is more directly affected by the decision either to abort or to be forbidden to abort? Obviously the mother. Some, such as the Roman Catholic clergy, argue that society is in some way polluted or corrupted by even a single abortion: but even if one accepts that such an assertion has any meaning, it’s obviously the view of a very small minority in society, as the results of numerous opinion polls seem to confirm, and there’s no obvious reason why those whose opposition to abortion stems from the teachings of their church should be permitted to impose their views on the rest of us through the medium of the law. On a host of practical grounds and considerations of equity, there seems to be no case for the opponents of abortion to be able to use the law to prevent abortions, either altogether or in certain conditions or at a particular stage in a pregnancy.

    You say that “My own view is that abortion should be allowed, but with an upper limit. It is in most cases a mild restriction of a woman’s right to have an abortion to say she must decide within that time limit.” You offer no grounds for that view and no justification for your wish to restrict the freedom of action of other people who don’t share it. You say that the restriction you propose is “in most cases … mild”, but that strikes me as implausible: a woman who wants a late abortion is likely to be pretty desperate, and to force her to go through with the birth of a child that she can’t cope with is most unlikely to be a ‘mild’ restriction on her freedom to do what she judges to be necessary. In any case, the question is not whether “abortion should be allowed” but whether there is any justification for using the law to prevent those who want or need an abortion from having one. The onus is on you, me and the rest of society, to show why anyone should be prevented from doing what he or she wants to do, so long as it does no harm to other people — and foetuses are not by any possible definition people.

    One final point. The issue is not whether abortion, or late abortion, is desirable, or morally right, or something that you or others, perhaps many others, regards as abhorrent. Everyone is entitled to a view on those questions, whether derived from instinct, religious teaching, squeamishness, or a philosophical doctrine that equates a potential future human life with an actual one, and holds that both deserve equal maximum protection. The issue is rather whether those who have an objection to abortion on any or all of those grounds can be justified in imposing their objection by law on those who don’t share it. I have yet to see a convincing justification for such an imposition.

  5. Stan Cook says:

    “…It’s utterly unacceptable that anyone else should attempt to limit or deny that right”.

    Even at a late stage in the development of a healthy foetus?  What about the future father, or even grandparents? 

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I think we should distinguish between on the one hand an entitlement to express a view about an abortion, on the part of other stakeholders besides the mother including those whom you mention; and on the other a law, binding on the mother, reflecting the alleged right of others (the father, grandparents, and especially society as a whole) either to have their views taken into account by the mother (or doctors or social workers or a judge) or, in the most extreme case, to override the mother’s wishes. I see no objection to the first of these, dependening very much on the circumstances. Clearly if the pregnancy results from rape, either within or outside a marriage or partnership, the father has absolutely no status in the decision whether to abort. The grandparents might have a limited status, for example if they are committed to playing an active part in support of the mother if the birth goes ahead, but otherwise probably not. Society’s role should be strictly limited to ensuring that full, impartial, unbiased information about the implications both of an abortion and of proceeding with the birth are available to the mother.

    That much should be uncontroversial. But none of it, in my firm view, ought to abridge in any way the absolute freedom of the mother to make the final decision — having listened, to be sure, to others concerned whose advice she values or whose views she freely accepts as a factor in her decision. Similarly she may choose to hesitate before deciding to flout a generally accepted social norm which may, in some societies, strongly disapprove of abortion in any but the most extreme circumastances, and then only in the earliest stages of pregnancy. She may respect such a norm, but she must be free to reject it.

    But what our Secretary of State for health, our prime minister and our more obscurantist MPs and commentators are calling for is something quite different from any of that. They want the law, not the mother, to make the decision. They want the law — i.e. in practice themselves –to limit the mother’s options both as to the timing of her decision whether to abort and, even worse, as to the circumstances in which she may lawfull opt to abort even within the legally tightly circumscribed time limit. As soon as we accept the view that the mother’s absolute discretion and power to take the ultimate decision may be circumscribed by anyone else — be it society claiming the right to act on behalf of the foetus and to protect it against the mother. be it the father (who may walk away the day after the unwanted child is born and never be heard of again) or the grandparents who may wash their hands of the whole thing in prim religious disapproval, — as soon as we admit these peripheral actors to insist by law on their wishes overriding or limiting the mother’s absolute freedom of decision, we are on the slippery slope which has already brought us to a condition of misery, impersonal interference in the most personal of decisions, inflexible regulation that takes almost no account of individual circumstances, real personal suffering and rank injustice. We may all form a view of the rights and wrongs of abortion in an infinite variety of circumstances, we may agonise about that view endlessly, debate and defend it, and denounce with utmost vitriol those who take a different one. What we may in no circumstances do is impose our view by enforceable law on every woman in our society who becomes pregnant and is or comes to feel unable to bear a child, whatever her reasons. No other person or authority is a fraction as much affected by the decision as the mother, whose foetus until full term is as much a part of her as her arms and legs. It must be left to her to decide. Society’s obligation is to help and support her, whatever she decides: no more, no less.

  6. Julian says:

    “whether a foetus becomes a “person” before birth is not a matter of opinion or belief, but of fact”

    @Brian. Thank you for your reply. It seems that all your arguments stem from this one statement. And I suspect most people would agree with you that if a foetus is not a person, then its “rights” would not take precedence over the rights of the mother, who is a person. In your words elsewhere, that much should be uncontroversial. However, it seems to me to beg the question.

    There are many stages in the development of a human life where it could be considered that personhood arises. e.g. Conception, development of the central nervous system, development of the brain, ability to sense and respond to its environment, ability to breathe unaided if removed from the womb, birth, development of speech, development of higher level reasoning etc. It could of course be considered that there is no single point and that a foetus progressively becomes a person.

    If you think a foetus becomes a person at birth “as a matter of fact”, what are your reasons? Why is this a fact?

    Brian writes: Thank you once again. With respect, the issue of whether and if so when a foetus becomes a person is irrelevant to the point of my post. I reject the idea that those who believe that a foetus is or becomes a person whose ‘rights’ in the event of a conflict of interest override those of the mother to impose by law their views (which seem to me and many others to be perverse and irrational) on the entire community, including those who value a woman’s freedom to do whatever she likes with her own body and everything in it. Please also see my response to the comment by Stan Cook.

  7. Stan Cook says:

    Thank you.

    The foetus is “as much a part of (the mother’s) body as her arms and legs”.

    Not so surely, because it is genetically different from the mother and therefore more like an interloper.  Indeed, I believe that it’s liable to be expelled from her body by natural causes at any time whether she likes it or not.

    Apart from that, I question whether the interests of the male and his wider family could rightly be regarded as merely peripheral.  As a childless male myself, with no personal axe to grind, that strikes me as plainly unjust.  The male provides half the genetic inheritance of the foetus, without which it could not come into being.  Of course the male does not suffer the discomfort and pain felt by the female, except perhaps empathetically, but surely the average man in our society will normally do his best to support and nurture his partner and their prospective child during the whole of the pregnancy.  In other words, his role goes well beyond that of the inseminator.

    For reasons which escape me, abortion is evidently a hugely emotional subject for some, especially I believe in America.  So I’m very glad that in this country Parliament has reached a view which the majority of us seem to find that we can at least live with.  Mr Hunt may not like it, but Democracy Rules – OK!  Thank goodness for that! 

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I regard your views on this as quite moderate and perfectly tenable. But neither I nor many others share them, and I don’t recognise the right of those who do to impose them by law on the entire population. The onus is on you to show in what way a woman’s freedom to do as she thinks fit with her body and any organism in or dependent on it needs to be severely limited by law when what she wants does no harm to anyone else. Even if you insist that a foetus is or becomes a ‘person’ with ‘rights’ comparable to those of a human person, you would have a hard job to show convincingly that the rights of a foetus should override those of an adult woman of sound mind in the event of a conflict — and that this priority of foetus over human should be enshrined in law. We don’t yet live in a theocracy, thank God!