Comment: The abortion argument is over

The pro-choice lobby has already won the debate on abortion, so why do we keep talking about it?

By Ian Dunt

What is it that makes us enjoy debating abortion so much? I honestly can't think of a more tedious political debate to have. Every time a news item on it comes on my heart sinks. It's like having to debate which Godfather film is better: Two or Three. No-one would ever bother with that, so why do we insist on carrying on with a stale debate in which we have already reached the appropriate conclusion? Today's report into the inability of foetuses younger than 24 weeks to feel pain, the first of its kind, corresponds with all the other data we have about the unborn child. It's time to start thinking about putting this debate to bed.

For the record, the argument is plain on a number of levels.


Logic: Society is the process of settling competing freedoms among members. For instance, the smoker wishes to smoke inside the restaurant, the non-smoker does not want to breathe his smoke. That's a debate, right there. That's a debate worth having. In the case of abortion the balance is between the woman's right to do what she wants with her own body, and the right of a foetus to live, if it could comprehend what that is. The right to live supersedes any other right of course, but that's among humans. This balance is not between humans, it's between a human and a foetus, which is, in the case of most abortions, a bunch of cells, not yet even humanoid in appearance.

Human rights: There are two kinds of political problems: those which can be solved, and those which cannot be solved. You deal with the second category through management, which usually takes the form of regulation and harm reduction. Drug use and prostitution are two prime examples of human behaviour which simply will not stop, will never stop, and therefore must be managed rather than banned, so we can ensure they do as little harm to society as possible. Abortion is identical. It will happen. There is nothing you can do to stop it. Ireland's cruel stubbornness in this regard is only possible because its young women can get a flight to the UK and have the job done then. The legislation only stands because Britain has opposing legislation. But these women shouldn't have to travel to a strange place, often alone, to do something which is anyway somewhat traumatic. It was worse when even the UK wasn't a haven. Back street abortions kill. They are sickening and a sign of a morally bankrupt society, one that values cells and dogma over real people. Anyone who believes in human rights must be pro-choice, it really is as simple as that.

Civil liberties: The state has no right to interfere in what we do with our bodies, as long as we are not hurting anyone else. A foetus is not a 'one', it is a 'thing', at least until it develops a central nervous system. Without a central nervous system, there is no capacity for thought, and while defining the term 'human' is not an easy task, I think we can all agree that thought is a basic pre-condition. The central nervous system develops at around the fourth or fifth month of pregnancy, about the time we put a legal limit on abortions.

Gender politics: For women to be equal to men, they must be able to approach the sexual act in the same way. They must be able to walk away from it. Men skip in and out of women's lives, dumping them with life changing consequences. Things will never be as easy for women, despite contraceptives and abortion. But we must strive to equalise the sexual experience as far as is medically and morally possible. It is the only way to secure full equality. A society without abortion can never be a society which respects women.

Crime: The excellent and challenging book 'Freakonomics', by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner documents a fascinating case study showing a sudden decrease in serious crime in American inner-cities. The authors posit, with a commendable indifference to the controversy they would detonate, that this began the first year that Roe Vs Wade, which effectively legalised abortion in the US, began to have an effect on society. Suddenly, the up and coming criminals, born of families which could not care, love for or afford them, were simply not being born. They were being aborted. Crime plummeted. This is not a pretty argument, but it demonstrates two thing: One, women are best placed to decide when they are ready to have a child, not the state or Christian groups. Two, babies need love and attention. Forcing women to have children when they are incapable of offering it that love is a punishment to the woman and the child both. They will suffer its consequences - and so will society.

Science: Today's report by the respected Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, one of the first of its kind, concludes that foetuses younger than 24 weeks cannot feel pain. "It was apparent that connections from the periphery to the cortex are not intact before 24 weeks of gestation and, as most neuroscientists believe that the cortex is necessary for pain perception, it can be concluded that the foetus cannot experience pain in any sense prior to this gestation," it reads. "There is increasing evidence that the foetus never experiences a state of true wakefulness in utero and is kept, by the presence of its chemical environment, in a continuous sleep-like unconsciousness or sedation."

Anyone still anti-abortion before reading the report clearly has so little interest in science or reason that I very much it will change their mind, but it is clearly time for us to start simply ignoring them.

There really is no argument for making abortion illegal, it's just the last gasp of nonsense from Britain's increasingly irrelevant religious fundamentalists. There is no public clamour. There is no political pressure. There is nothing but us endlessly having the same tired debate with each other, when all right-thinking people already know the answer. We have arrived at the sensible end point of this debate. The time set by law is scientifically and morally sound, changing it in any way removes its connection from the development of the central nervous system, and once we take away the scientific basis of the restriction it might as well be set at any point.

Hopefully, with any luck at all, this will be the last time I or anyone else has to write something like this. The debate, in Britain at least, is over. The pro-choice camp won. Now let's talk about something else.

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