A thought about abortion

The girlfriend of someone I know very slightly recently had a late abortion for purely social reasons: in plain English because neither she nor the father are people anyone would trust as parents. Actually, I don’t know her, but I certainly wouldn’t entrust any baby of mine to the father and I suppose that any woman who would fall in love with him has shown deficient judgment.

My own position on abortion is that I am against late ones for precisely the reasons that I am in favour of embryo research. I think that a baby is certainly a human being, deserving to be treated as an end in itself, at the moment of birth, and just as certainly certainly no such thing at the moment of conception, even supposing you could pin down such a biologically ambiguous moment. Somewhere in between those two dates, things change so that an operation which ought to be freely available in the early part of a pregnancy should be very restricted in the later parts. After all, if a woman really doesn’t want a baby, she can always give it away for adoption. I know this is unpleasant and possibly traumatic, but so, by all accounts, is being killed. And at some stage — shall we say an arbitrary 18 weeks — a foetus becomes something that can be killed.

Now, when I have said this in the past, some women have replied that it is really unfair and brutal of me, since I cannot imagine what it is like to love a baby which has grown in your own stomach, and then to have to give it away. The case I mentioned at the start has crystallised why I feel this is unsatisfactory reasoning. It’s very simple. If the thing-in-the-womb has attained the state where it is truly lovable (and I take on trust that this can happen before birth) then it has also acquired an independent value. It should not be extinguished just to spare the mother pain.

Every week there are cases where parents kill their children rather than allow them to leave, or be taken by another parent in the aftermath of a divorce. We don’t call that love, though no doubt the murderer does. I think that any divorced parent must have heard the faint whisper of that temptation. But it isn’t love, and it isn’t right. If a foetus has grown to the point where the mother really does think of it as a baby, then she should grant it its own autonomy and let it make its way in the world with other parents if she can’t be a mother herself. Sometimes loving someone means letting them go.

Note that this is not an argument that all babies should be born or anything like that. It is directed against the specific, narrow instance in which a late abortion of a healthy foetus is defended because the alternative of adoption would be more painful for the mother. Phooey, I say.

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6 Responses to A thought about abortion

  1. quinn says:

    from my perspective the argument you’re rebutting seems like a weird one i’ve rarely heard. personally, i was very ambivalent about abortion all my life, until i got pregnant. a lot of people told me that once you’ve had a baby grow in you your views change… in my case they changed into being vehemently pro-abortion on demand. the process of pregnancy is so weird and arbitrary and capricious that idea of holding women to some higher standard than nature or god or whatever has bothered with disturbs me a great deal. Pregnancy kills babies constantly, women occasionally, is difficult to varying degrees and always violating.

    the emotional argument seems tangential. i felt nothing for ada before she was born. i felt nothing for my first miscarriage beyond “wow, that was weird.” i can’t imagine that this makes me or them more or less human. i can’t imagine that a woman who grieves for a 10 week old auto-abortion had something more human, and i didn’t at 41 weeks because i didn’t happen to care. given people can fall in love with beenie babies, i’m not sure if falling in love with unborn babies sign of anything good or bad.

    if you’re being brutal, (and you’re not, because that’s a stupid way of describing anyone for holding an opinion), i’d think it would be for asking something at least marginally conscious (a fertile woman) to endure what are often terrible physiological results of late pregnancy on behalf of something that is almost certainly not conscious, and is clearly an unwelcome parasite. few people get abortions lightly, especially late terms ones, and the people that do i’m kind of ok with them self selecting out of the gene pool.

  2. rupert says:

    “If the thing-in-the-womb has attained the state where it is truly lovable (and I take on trust that this can happen before birth) then it has also acquired an independent value. It should not be extinguished just to spare the mother pain.”

    Lovable does not equal loved (if it did, being human would be a vastly different proposition). I don’t see how you can stick an ‘at this stage, the foetus is lovable’ stake in the ground and claim it’s a usable – I should say viable – alternative to a mechanistic date on a calendar. ‘At this stage, the foetus is loved’ has possibilities – but it’s otiose, since we’re working on the supposition that the mother decides.

    Today, a baby born at 22 weeks has a 25 percent chance of survival, more or less. Infant mortality rates in the past – well, pick figures you like, but my quick google indicates between 30 and 50 percent chance of dying between birth and seven or eight in medieval or early modern times in Europe. In a hundred years time, I guess, we’ll be able to take any cell and turn it into a viable independent being without the agency of a mother, which implies we can transplant the foetus at any stage of a natural pregnancy and turn it into a human. I think this means that we can impose increasingly strict moralities on mothers and justify them by liberal philosophy.

    I don’t know whether this is right. I know I don’t like it.


  3. Ossian says:

    While I agree with your reasoning, it remains up to the mother to decide the fate of the foetus, until the umbilical cord is cut. We may not like her decision, but it’s not for others to decree what she can or can’t do with something that is physically part of her, connected to her bloodstream, composed of an outgrowth of her own flesh, and in that sense, her property. Any idea of compulsion to give birth is not sustainable. If a woman throws herself down the stairs in the ninth month of a pregnancy and the baby is lost, what is the legal status of that? Is it a crime? I don’t think so – am I wrong? We can support women, help and encourage them to continue to full term, but if they don’t want to, that’s their call.

  4. Saltation says:

    I agree with your overall ideas, but can not be as black & white about it as you here:
    > After all, if a woman really doesn’t want a baby, she can always give it away for adoption.

    The roar of the DNA is extremely loud — every newborn child is hideous except your own — and it is almost impossible for a woman to birth and hold a baby, then give it away. Even if intellectually she hates the idea of it and will destroy her life trying to raise it. A very very nasty trick I’ve heard from Irish nurses is that if they disapprove of a mother giving a child up for adoption, they simply ignore orders and take the child to the mother after the birth. End of adoption.
    It’s not just the Irish. This happened to a girl I knew slightly at uni in Australia, who consequently had her life destroyed (and hence the child grew up in dismal poverty). When I came to the UK an Irish nurse told me this was a standard trick where she came from (along with doctors who refuse to prescribe the Pill).

    Like I said, I agree with you overall. But there’s a distinction between responsible and irresponsible people and parenting. And although I acknowledge the risks, I tend to take the English Judiciary’s approach that it is better for 99 guilty men to be set free than for 1 innocent man to be convicted. 99 irresponsible girls destroying a possible life vs 1 responsible girl being held hostage to the scruples of people uninvolved with her personal consequences.

  5. H. E. Baber says:

    I agree with Andrew on this one. Abortion is basically an animal rights issue: I have no compunction about killing slugs for any reason or embryos, much less stem cells; I wouldn’t put down a dog or cat though unless it was in intractable, irremediable pain.

    The melodrama surrounding this issue comes from the way in which pregnancy out of wedlock was handled years ago before abortion was legalized. I don’t know how it was in the UK but in the US if a girl got pregnant and it was discovered she was automatically expelled from school. She could also be charged with “incorrigibility” and sent to a quasi-penal institution–solely in virtue of getting pregnant. The standard practice was to send the girl away to hide out, making various excuses in order to pull her out of school. During the latter stages of pregnancy, girls went into “homes for unwed mothers” where they were hidden away. Keeping an “illegitimate child” was unthinkable and most girls who got pregnant were only too glad to give up their babies–their chief fear was that they would be discovered, kicked out of school and demoted socially.

    The irony is that legalized abortion was desperately important precisely because of the punishment for getting pregnant but that once abortion was legalized the social sanctions more or less disappeared.

    What really gets my goat though is the “roar of DNA argument.” This is sexist–the appeal to maternal instinct. Lots of women have given their babies up for adoption without trauma–quite a few have intentionally been surrogate mothers. I have 3 kids, and I wouldn’t give them up now–I’ve become quite attached to them. But I don’t think I’d have had the slightest problem giving them up for adoption as babies if I weren’t in a position to care for them without compromising my life plans. The idea that women are so soppy that giving up a baby for adoption is an intolerable trauma is insulting.

  6. Saltation says:

    H.E.Baber: if you insist on re-casting everything you read into terms of absolute black & white, you will spend a lot of your time feeling insulted or outraged.

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