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.