Abortion and the irrelevant viability test (yes, again)

From (London) Sunday Times letters , 25 May 2008: 

WHY is the abortion time limit linked to the time when a premature baby could, with sufficient medical intervention, survive? I fail to see the relevance (Family planning is one area in which we don’t need MPs’ help, Simon Jenkins, Comment, and Don’t mess with abortion, Rachel Johnson, News Review, last week).

If one set of doctors do their utmost to help a much-wanted premature baby to survive, why does this affect the work of another set of doctors doing their utmost to help a woman who does not want the child?

Whether, and until what stage, a woman should be entitled to an abortion is, of course, a matter of opinion. But whether the child could survive should not be a consideration.

Sarah Plummer
Tadcaster, North Yorkshire

Well and pithily said, Ms Plummer!  You join the tiny band of commentators who have spotted the nudist tendency of the emperor in the increasingly flabby debate on abortion. (And a double hurrah if you're the same Sarah Plummer who did the supertitles for Fidelio at Glyndebourne.)   But three lusty cheers if you have been reading Ephems on the same subject, for example here:  all recruits to the cause are more than welcome.

It's surprising (to me, anyway) that some of the liberal contributors to the abortion debate, Polly Toynbee and Zoe Williams among others, have pointed out the fallacy in the viability test but have done so almost in passing, instead of making it the centre-piece of the counter-attack against the priests and other luminaries of the anti-abortion lobby.  If the viability test is allowed to continue to go unchallenged even among the pro-choice reformers, the end result, once medical science succeeds in developing a newly fertilised human egg to full term in a laboratory, will be the reinstitution of the old total ban on abortion at any stage of a pregnancy — which is what most of the anti-abortionist obscurantists really want, but are too shy to say so.  


3 Responses

  1. Independent thought, though probably parallel.


    When ‘Nature’ decrees the rejection of a foetus, it is reasonable to assume something is not right in the progression from conception to full term. We have come a long way since this was ‘God’s will’. Mankind now ‘plays God’ (or would that be anti-God/anti Nature) in moving Heaven and Earth to nurture the rejected one; often with less than laudable outcomes. There is a poignant juxtaposition with the above, in the man-mediated abortion of a foetus that was NOT about to spontaneously terminate. Again, Mankind goes against the natural order, but this time with the intent to kill something Nature is nurturing as viable.

    I cannot help wondering if both actions carry the same ‘impropriety-charge’ at a fundamental level. Does this highlight the lack of philosophical thought in the abortion debate? Are we, with our clever technology, really at liberty to buck Nature with impunity?

    Brian writes:  Interesting questions.  But we "buck Nature" every time we have an operation for cancer, lower our blood pressures with medication, have a heart transplant or take other drugs to make us run faster or jump higher.  Nature is a hard taskmaster (taskmistress, perhaps) and if we hadn't been prepared to risk the 'impropriety' of interfering with her, we would still be living in caves as hunter-gatherers, dragging our womenfolk around by their hair, impregnating them with a dozen babies each (of which about eight would abort or die in infancy), and we'd all, women included, be dying at around the age of 30.   However I agree that it's often a serious mistake to keep alive foetuses that have aborted naturally because of faulty development, even when doing so is medically possible.  By the same token, more or less, I think it's a serious mistake, and an act of great cruelty, to force a woman to have a baby in circumstances where the birth is likely to cause enormous misery to both mother and child.

  2. Different angle – same point.


    When a conscious woman lies, buried irretrievably, in the rubble of a bombed building, an unborn child in her womb, perhaps another in her arms and others – silent or crying out – elsewhere in the destruction, how might we measure the sum-total of pain as they take minutes, hours or days to die? Those too young to understand, are bewildered. Those old enough to know that they have been bombed by other human beings, suffer the mental pain of being considered of no account. Those who can conceive of impending death and unending pain prior-to, have an extra layer of torture. Should they hear the shouts of a distraught father, beyond the rubble, their hell is complete.

    Contrast this with abortion. 

    Having observed the anguish of MPs regarding the killing of partly developed, minimally functional, proto-humans (over a short time-span compared to the above and free from ‘informed anguish’) I cannot help but wonder at their relative equanimity regarding the routine use of warfare, as a tool of civilisation.  

    It has been said that the anti-abortion pressure has heightened since the scanner arrived to show life in the womb. Might we, perhaps, get some enterprising war-reporter to run a fibre optic lens into the next bombed building, so that we can be similarly moved – as life ends. If the foetus could watch such images, would it not welcome termination rather than join this deranged world?

    Brian writes:  Barrie, thank you for an eloquent and thought-provoking comment.  You make an impressive point.  I wonder how many of the vocal anti-abortion, anti-choice activists (from Cardinal Archbishops downwards, or upwards) devoted anything approaching the passion of their anti-abortion campaigning to protesting against the killing of innocent children and fully developed adults — and no doubt foetuses in the womb — in the course of Blair's wars, especially the attacks on Serbia over Kosovo and on Iraq, both illegal and thus war crimes, and also Afghanistan, originally legal but now futile, purposeless and a tragic waste of young British and Afghan lives.   But this takes us rather a long way from our topic.

  3. Matt says:

    The dangers of blogging:

    You may be intereasted in this.
    It illustrates an interesting problem for a politician.
    At first glance it appears that Barak supports an extremely antisemitic line.
    In fact – in true web 2.0 style – the Obama website allows you to set up your own Blog (friend or enemy) and promulgate your own views under the Obama mast head.
    I've retrieved the link from the google cache as it Obama's people have taken it down – but the damage that this kind of thing does has already been done.


    Brian writes:  Fascinating — and worrying.   But a pretty obviously risky enterprise to allow anyone to post his or her views, however obnoxious, under your own masthead — especially if you're running for president of the United States!