In the interests of the case being argued, I would like to offer an alternative viewpoint to Jessica Valenti’s piece here. The modern abortion debate seems to use as its locus some conception of the individual woman’s right to choose as the primary ethical issue, a woman has absolute autonomy over the reproductive function of her body. Now such a narrow conception I believe just misses the real ethical issues at the heart of abortion — the status of unborn human being and whether they have any rights (most medical ethics textbooks would agree with me) — I argued this at great length here so will not do so again other than to reiterate the force of the conclusions that this is not so much about denying rights to a woman but rather ensuring rights for unborn human beings — civilisation is the balancing of our competing rights; but also bearing in mind that the vast majority of abortions worldwide are of female babies and so I am actually passionate about women’s rights too.
The primary ethical issue is always personhood-the worldwide campaign for veganism at the moment appropriates rights as we grant personhood:
My obvious rhetorical point is that if we grant animals (including their unborn) rights on the basis of their personhood, how much more should we grant human babies the same rights — in fact we do, once they are outside of the womb and in many other cases (rather ironically considering my motivation for writing this article), affording them protection inside the womb in a host of other cases. In most jurisdictions it is first degree murder to kill a child during an assault either inside or outside of the womb — though it is notable that the New York State legislation (cheered by the lawmakers) has seemingly removed that protection from children in the womb in a report on a domestic violence case on Feb 3:
“The Queens District Attorney announced that he could only bring one murder charge (for the mother) because the January 22 law had removed every type of abortion from New York’s criminal code. Her unborn baby no longer had legal protection.”
The controversy around the Virginia governor’s comments are another reflection of the attempt to establish the utilitarian principle that a child’s life is not valuable because it is a life in itself but because of some other “value” (often dressed up in medical-ese as “quality of life”) that society, doctors or parents attach to it:
Imagine the extension of that principle to the elderly, the sick, the disabled, ethnic minorities, criminals…get three representatives of the State to agree and you can terminate…
In the US and now being argued in the UK by the head of BPAS (British Pregnancy Advisory Service) the status of a child outside the womb is now becoming increasingly ambiguous in the cases of unsuccessful abortions where the baby is born alive. A single Democrat in the American senate objected to a unanimous consent bill that was designed to explicitly deal with this scenario.
Now whatever you might argue about first trimester abortions and whether a foetus is not a person until it is “viable outside of the womb” (babies have survived and thrived into childhood born at 21 weeks; 20–22 is considered a medically semi-viable period) there is really no argument about the viability and thus the personhood of the unborn child in the third trimester.
Late trimester abortion is not medical abortion as commonly understood — you do not liquify or suck out the “foetus” (that depersonalising term) as in a traditional abortion. The child is rather injected into their brain or their torso with a toxic dose of a poison or sedative and they are expected to die. The mother then carries the child for a day and an ultrasound is undertaken to ensure the baby really is dead in the womb and birth is then induced.
That is what is being celebrated as enhancing the rights of women.
Yet, surely only the most brutal of utilitarians would argue that we can justify killing the innocent unborn in such a ruthless manner even if we dress it up with some self-justifying emotional language, e.g. the baby might be unwanted, the woman might be mentally distressed or there is some kind of medical risk to either baby or mother. These just sidestep the emotionally difficult but important ethical issues of what justice is owed to an innocent human in the womb (since when are the ethical choices, what we ought to do rather than what would suit us in our autonomy, without psychological difficulty?), but it seems our “liberal” (a misnomer if ever there was one) politicians are lining up to deny basic human rights to the most vulnerable members of our society.