Another big news week in what we are pleased to call the abortion debate; Maria Miller saying she would like to see the limit reduced to 20 weeks, and Jeremy Hunt letting off what some think was a UED (unintentional explosive device) just as the Conservative Party conference is about to begin.
Just to state it upfront: I’m pro-choice, and comfortable with the 24-week limit; and yet I don’t have a problem with Conservative politicians (or anyone else) wanting to open the issue up. Polling seems to show that roughly one-third of the British population are comfortable with the current limit, one-third want it reduced, about 10 per cent are more extreme (wanting either no abortion at all, or for the current time limit to be extended). We can’t claim that the debate has yet been settled.
The national conversation about abortion in the UK seems to me to be utterly borked, for two main reasons.
Abortion isn’t like anything else
Given that most of us aren’t professional moral philosophers, our tendency when discussing ethical issues is to reach for a comparator and draw parallels. When it comes to abortion, this just isn’t possible; there is no other situation that involves weighing up the respective ‘rights’ of an existing human and something that represents a potential life. Some of the ethical aspects of abortion recall debates about end-of-life care, but only in a tangential way.
I think this is one of the reasons that so many of us struggle to express (or even form) a coherent moral position. When society needs to consider the brain-achingly complex ethical issues provoked by new reproductive techniques, we turn gratefully to super-brains like Baroness Warnock. Yet abortion – a much older process, and one with which on some levels we are all familiar – is a debate to which, for better or worse, we are all invited.
People don’t say what they mean
Few people who actively participate in this debate are prepared to explicitly express the true personal motivations that underlie their positions. Maria Miller and Jeremy Hunt this week both reached for the argument that advances in medical technology have meant that babies of less than 24 weeks gestation may now be considered viable. This is, as many have already pointed out, nonsense.
I suspect that what Miller and Hunt both actually believe is that it’s morally repulsive to abort pregnancies that are nearing viability; they want a buffer (Hunt wants a bloody large buffer). Yet neither is prepared to publicly express their underlying moral revulsion. Why not?
Pro-choice activists, on the other hand, rarely express what seems to me to be the underpinning of the pro-choice position (one that I share): that we must place relative values on the self-determination of a woman, and the potential right to existence of an unborn child. And those of us who are pro-choice conclude that the self-determination of the woman has, in an absolute sense, more value; a value that is so much greater that we are prepared to terminate a potential life. This is another thing that’s almost never said in public.
I think people on both sides are simply afraid to express their essential beliefs. Maybe we look at the murderously poisonous state of the abortion debate in the USA and think ‘fuck that, let’s deal in ideological proxies’. I don’t think it’s doing us any favours, though.
What do I think? I think abortion is not morally weightless; it is a serious thing. If a woman (and her partner) chooses to have a termination and emerges from the clinic thinking ‘thank Christ for that, let’s have a celebratory piss-up’, I don’t have a problem with that; most women are familiar with the dread that is associated with a late period or a split condom at a time when a child is absolutely the last thing you want. I’m glad that abortion is, largely, available to women who want one; I think that the two-doctor-signature thing is a disgrace.
But termination is not, morally speaking, nothing. It’s not analogous to the removal of a wart. It’s not just another medical procedure – and those who claim that it is, in my view, are not only being disingenuous; they are contributing to the degradation of the public debate, and repelling those who may be instinctively pro-choice, but who recognise the ethical discomfort contained in that position.
There are just three groups of people who, when they talk about abortion, actually say what they mean: those with strong religious faith; radical feminists; and moral philosophers. That might be a fun-sounding line-up for a dinner party, but it’s useless for forging a meaningful consensus.