Life and choice – embryo, foetus, baby (Reflections on the Abortion debate part 1)

Yesterday as the polls were close to closing in Ireland on the proposal to repeal the ban on abortion, I picked up a little conversation, primarily between journalists and media commentators on my twitter feed. Giles Fraser had opened up a conversation about why women often refer to the foetus they are carrying in their womb as “a baby.” Giles was pushing at the question “If we are talking about an actual human life, then what?” It’s important to say at this stage that unlike me, Giles was taking a “pro-choice” “pro-abortion” position. He acknowledged that we had to get to an objective conclusion on whether we were talking about an actual life or a potential life. He thought we were talking about actual life but still thought that abortion should be permissible. He was genuinely asking questions, recognising that the case was difficult to argue but not sure how to make it.

So, prompted by that, I want to take a few moments to think through some of the issues surrounding the abortion debate.

The position articulated by Giles feels like a shift in the public debate. I could be wrong but generally speaking the pro-life/pro-abortion position in the past has tended to focus more on the question “When does life begin.” If we assume that up until birth, or up until a determined stage in the pregnancy, you don’t have a human life but a cluster of cells which remain part of the mother and have the potential to be a life, then you are likely to come down on the pro-choice side of the debate. Logically, you will conclude that this is about the woman’s body and her control over it.

Of course, working out exactly where potential life becomes life can be problematic.  Even on the pro-life/Christian side of things, there have been differences with some going for a “quickening” stage or looking for signs that the embryo looks human or has certain capacities such as and especially to feel pain.  Some people have suggested that the issue is whether or not the beingcan be self-dependent.  That of course is extremely problematic, what about he baby who ha not yet been weaned and cannot feed or toilet themselves? What about the severely handicapped? What about the person on life support.  It’s fascinating how interlinked start of life and end  of life ethics are.

The simplest view -and the one I take is that it begins at conception when the sperm and the egg are united. If you view the foetus in the womb as a baby, as an actual human life, then you are more likely to lean towards the pro-life position that the child has the same rights as other human beings and that especially because of their vulnerability, we -broader society have a responsibility to care for, speak for and protect the vulnerable and silent.

So, I’m struggling here because I’m not sure what the argument in favour of aborting a baby if you believe it is a baby, is a human life is. 

It seems to me that there are two possibilities. The first argument would be that we can recognise two human lives and decide that one takes priority over the other. So, the mother has lived longer, the child is dependent upon her, she has greater capacity, therefore her life takes precedent, her right to choose takes priority over any rights we might give the baby.  We rarely hear that argument articulated explicitly now because as soon as it is, we can see how problematic it is. When else would we dare to argue that one life takes priority over another – especially the strong over the weak?  It starts to sound like eugenics.

The second argument is perhaps best argued here by Tanya Gold. Legal abortion is a tragedy but is necessary because the alternative is horrific. The alternative is immense suffering and risk to life, both by women being expected to carry a baby to term when they are not able to and by the risk of illegal back street abortions.

I think we should have some emotional sympathy with that position, it comes out of a real desire to help, love, protect, alleviate suffering. However, those motives do not make the argument right.  

It’s worth pointing out here, that such an argument isn’t in fact pro-choice. It’s about medical need whether the medical need focuses on a person’s emotional or physical state. It’s about safe-guarding and prevention of harm.  This of course includes the mother who does for whatever reason wish to make a choice her-self but it also includes the mother who is compelled by her partner, lover or assailant to seek an abortion because the child is an inconvenient economic liability or evidence of their actions (that’s right abortion is as much about men controlling women for their gratification or for economic exploitation as it is about women’s rights).

So, on that basis, we shouldn’t be simply throwing in one apparent solution and demanding that everyone supports it. Rather, we should be looking more carefully. First of all, we need to be making sure that the Law does its job in protecting against abuse and violence. Secondly, we need to be looking carefully at how people are treated and looked after. However, our concern should still include the well-being of the baby. That child is not a predator, not a hostile force, not the cause of suffering. If we believe that life begins at conception, then he or she is simply a baby. That’s how they should be treated.