The Abortion Debate

Jeremy “The Joker” Hunt, Secretary of State for Health.

Someone once told me that the waiting list for abortions in Dublin is ten months.  OK, it’s a good one-liner, but for women who want a termination, the availability of abortion services is no joke.

And now Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt jumps in with both feet, suggesting that the limit for termination should be reduced from 24 to twelve weeks.  Some papers are describing this idea as “halving” the available time.  But of course many women have no idea they’re pregnant until maybe six or eight weeks, so Hunt wants to reduce the time available for women to make a decision by a whopping 70 or 80%.  Indeed, some women don’t know until more than twelve weeks, and they (under Hunt’s prescription) would be denied any chance to consider termination.

One has to ask what has happened to Cabinet government.  We have Hunt dropping his twelve week bombshell.  Other Cabinet Ministers including Theresa May are suggesting 20 weeks.  Downing Street is insisting the Government has no plans to change the law, though the Prime Minister personally favours twenty weeks.

Last night on the Stephen Nolan Show, on BBC Radio Five Live, I made this point, saying it suggested a Cabinet in disarray.  Stephen argued that it was surely a good thing for MPs to be able to speak their minds, to hold honest opinions, and take a counter-consensual view.  That may be true of a plain vanilla back-bencher, but when Ministers in government appear to be at sixes and sevens, and the Secretary of State for Health takes an extreme view on a medical issue, it starts to look like another shambles.

Many people are alarmed at the overall numbers of abortions in the UK, and they have a reasonable concern.  But be that as it may, more than 90% of all abortions are within Hunt’s timescale, so that those over 12 weeks are a relative minority — and may take place later for good reasons.

There are, apparently, a number of serious congenital health conditions which simply cannot be diagnosed until well after twelve weeks.  And many young and vulnerable girls feel under huge social and family pressure to hide their condition as long as they can — perhaps until beyond twelve weeks.  They should not be denied a choice.

Personally, I hate the idea of politicians setting rules for everyone else on these issues of conscience.  I’d like to see a decision taken privately between a woman and her physician.  If Jeremy Hunt (and his wife) think that a 24 week termination is wrong, they don’t have to have one.  But they have no business to deny that choice to others.  On the other hand I have deep misgivings about the late term abortion as practised (I understand) in the USA.  If the baby is close to term, then abortion comes perilously close to infanticide, and we cannot allow that to happen.

There is a long and ill-informed political and philosophical debate about when a new life “becomes human”.  Is it the moment of conception?  Is it the moment when the child first “leaps in the womb” (to quote the Good Book, as I love to do).  But these are questions that have no answer.  In a sense, life does not “begin” at any point.  The parents are alive.  The sperm and egg cells are alive.  The embryo is alive.  The fœtus is alive.  The baby is alive.  If not alive at any of these stages, the pregnancy cannot succeed.  So it is pointless to look for a “starting point” — life is there at every stage.

It is perhaps fair, however, to ask when we should assign human rights to the child.  For me, the point at which the child becomes viable as an individual may be poorly defined, but is the best we can do.  That is where 24 weeks comes from.  And it is true that with medical advances, we can now save even earlier premature babies.  But I understand that these very premature babies, even if saved, are very vulnerable to serious and life-threatening conditions in later life, raising the question as to what extent we should undertake heroic efforts to save them.

In the USA, the religious right takes the inflexible view that an early embryo is already a human being with rights.  But an egg is not a chicken, and an acorn is not an oak.  I should think long and hard before felling a mature oak.  But I feel no special obligation to an acorn.

Amongst those of a religious bent, there is a parallel debate about when the new human life receives a soul.  Given the long, slow, progressive development of the unborn child, and the lack of a defined moment when a new human life starts, the debate on when the soul arrives seems to me as useful and as interesting as discussing how many Jesuits can dance on the head of a pin.  But of course if people want to debate it, they are free to do so.

I am fortunate to have had two healthy children, both now in their thirties and living successful, independent and useful lives.  I have the utmost respect for those parents who became aware that their unborn child had serious congenital health problems, but decided nonetheless to go ahead, committing themselves perhaps to decades of onerous caring for a child who may never be independent and lead a normal life.

But I also respect the choice of those parents faced with the same tragedy, who decide that they would rather try again, and invest their time, their care and their love in a subsequent child with a good prospect of an independent life, rather than press ahead with a seriously impaired child.  And I thank heaven that I never had to make that call.

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13 Responses to The Abortion Debate

  1. Treats says:

    ‘Personally, I hate the idea of politicians setting rules for everyone else on these issues of conscience.’ They do when they set a 24 week limit and you yourself are bemoaning late term abortions – hopefully politicians reflect their electorate. It is imperative that politicians do take a stand. It’s what we elect them for. And maybe some people (including me) feel that congenital difficulties should not be grounds for abortion. I certainly don’t think that the taxpayer should foot the bill for checking for these ‘defects’ as they do at present. You ask ‘to what extent we should undertake heroic efforts to save them’ referring to children who survive when born before 24 weeks. Don’t the opponents of capital punishment take the view that one innocent life is too many. On those grounds and on your argument of survivability the 24 week limit should be reduced.

  2. Jeremy Hunt is a first class clown, and as you may recall the debacle over a certain publisher and broadcaster, I would pose the question why he is still in Government let alone a Minister?

  3. Gary Rickard says:

    Politicians, priests and Armenian nuns seem to have had an unhealthy obsession with telling women what to do with their wombs.

  4. Rude Cherub says:

    Biblically life begins and ends with breath being drawn or not, God breathing life in the clay that was Adam, equally life ends book says and the breath leaves him. In part this poetic license in terms of use of wind, breath, spirit ( Hebrew Ruach ) and the obvious New Testament ‘Word is God’ in that spoken word is breath/spirit and the means of creation. On the other hand it’s the obvious, dead people don’t breathe.
    Babies take their first breath of air at birth, but we’re not talking literally gas if we’re considering spiritual matters, so it may seem this is of little practical help, then again babies do breathe in the womb, that is inhale and exhale amniotic fluid, so by week 24 they are capable of limited respiration.

  5. Ammonite says:

    As a woman, parent and grandparent – I agree very strongly in everything you said about this issue and Stephen Nolan. This is not a political issue.

  6. Tony says:

    As Ronald Reagen pointed out, “all those in favour of abortion have already been born.”

    I don’t often disagree with you, Roger, but society has an obligation to protect the most vulnerable, and the safest place they should be is developing in the womb.

    We are not talking about children with severe handicaps (although some otherwise healthy children have been aborted with an operable cleft pallet), but about using abortion as a form of birth control.

    Suppose your parents had aborted you?

    It is a scandal that stains our society, and no amount of glib rationalisation can make it otherwise.

    • M Davis says:

      Tony, I emphatically agree with you.

    • I question whether children should be born to those who are clearly unable or unwilling to care for them. But the whole point of my piece is that this is a moral judgement, and we are each entitled to reach different conclusions, and to live according to what we conceive to be right.

  7. Malcolm Edward says:

    I utterly agree with you Roger – you have the right balance. As you say it should be a matter between a woman and her physician. Of course it would be nice if we lived in a world where the need for abortions never arose. But we don’t.

  8. Cliff Williams says:

    Tony, in the comment section, is right on this issue. Pregnancy doesn’t happen in a vacuum and responsibility is to be taught to those who error in everything else and so should it be in this case as well. Abortion is a blight on humankind and repulsive to civilized society.

    Abortion is the ultimate act of someone else (the mother) making a permanent decision for the baby without anyone as guardian ad litem.

    • M Davis says:

      As with Tony, I agree totally with you as well, Cliff. As a mother, I could never have taken the life of my developing babies. I believe that abortion is evil and abhorrent and I do not understand how any woman could allow someone to kill her child growing in her womb. I blame the Feminists (and their male supporters) for the degeneration of morals.

  9. Let us get the Catholic position straight here, shall we?
    It is a positive position, not a negative one, actually.
    A family ought to be the result, by the Grace of God, not as a Human Right, of sacramental marriage. This means that both the mother and the father have permanence and love for their children, bringing them up carefully as Catholics to love and enjoy God’s world. It is a wonderful, positive ideal leading actually to happiness and being able to bear the blows which life brings to everyone.
    Not everyone can live up to that ideal, of course.
    So, as in everything else, we muddle through somehow with the second best.

  10. Derek says:

    An excellent article, Roger. I think you have the balance right. Those who maintain the high ground must be more tolerent of other views.

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