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It’s All the Same: Why Early and Late-Term Abortion are Moral Equivalents

Aug 14, 2012 / By: Michael Spielman
Category: Abortion Arguments

Last week, I talked about the Battle of Ideas abortion debate that took place between Ann Furedi and John Wyatt in 2008. It turns out that Ann Furedi had another go round in the Battle of Ideas debate last October, this time with American writer, Will Saletan. As was true in 2008, both participants were pro-choice. The intellectual dishonesty of such a pairing notwithstanding, I was again surprised by how much there was worth noting.

Ann Furedi is the chief executive director of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), which is the largest independent abortion provider in the UK. Will Saletan covers science, tech, and politics for Slate magazine, and it was an article he wrote in November 2010 that laid the groundwork for their debate–specifically his suggestion that pro-choicers should "reconsider the legality of second-trimester abortions."

Hearing that, you might think that Saletan has a moral objection to killing a baby so far into pregnancy. As it turns out, his suggestion is a purely pragmatic one. He holds it out as a negotiating tool, speculating that if pro-choicers will concede their support of late-term abortion, perhaps pro-lifers will concede their opposition to contraception. As much as Saletan "hate(s) the crudity of bringing criminal law into such personal matters," he calls this a compromise he could tolerate and believes the net result would be fewer abortions. "In exchange for a 12-week deadline on elective abortion," Saletan writes, "women would get better options for avoiding pregnancy."

In response to Saletan's article, Ann Furedi published one of her own, "A Moral Defence of Late Abortion." In it, she argues that if you're going to legally restrict any abortion, you must legally restrict every abortion. Why? Because she recognizes that there is no moral difference between aborting early in pregnancy and aborting late in pregnancy. Consider these excerpts from her piece:

To me, the argument for a gradualist approach to the ethical rightness or wrongness of abortion that depends on the gestation of the fetus is weak, lacks intellectual consistency, and seems self-serving.

To the ‘ethical straddlers’ concerned about gestation we must ask: is there anything qualitatively different about a fetus at, say, 28 weeks that gives it a morally different status to a fetus at 18 weeks or even eight weeks? It certainly looks different because its physical development has advanced. At 28 weeks we can see it is human – at eight weeks a human embryo looks much like that of a hamster. But are we really so shallow, so fickle, as to let our view on moral worth be determined by appearance? Even if at five weeks we can only see an embryonic pole, we know that it is human. The heart that can be seen beating on an ultrasound scan at six weeks is as much a human heart as the one that beats five months later.

Indeed, from the time of conception, as soon as embryonic cells begin to divide, an entity with the potential to become a person is created. It is the product of a man and a woman, but distinct from them. It has a unique DNA and, unless its development is interrupted or fails, it will be born as a child.

We may feel that a human embryo has greater moral status than a cat (which for all its conscious abilities and sensory perception can never be a human person), or we may believe that a cat has greater moral claims than an embryo, which is potentially a person but not yet an independent living being. Both of these positions can be presented as consistent, rational, logical arguments.

But it is difficult to see how it can be argued that a fetus should be accorded a moral status that differs at different stages of its development on the grounds of ‘evolving potential’, since a fetus at 28 weeks is no more or less potentially a person than one at eight weeks.

Since a fetus draws closer to fulfilling its potential from the day it is conceived, and is constantly evolving as it grows, which day - or which developmental change - matters morally? Is it when there is evidence of a beating heart, or fetal movement, or a particular neurological or brain development? Who makes this decision? And why?

Later abortions are undoubtedly gruelling for both the patient and provider, but we assume that both have made a conscious decision to undertake the procedure. The life that is destroyed is no more or less a potential person than it was in early pregnancy.

Ultimately, the distinction between early and late abortion seems reducible to our response to the appearance of the fetus – which is why so much influence has been attributed to the development of high-resolution fetal imaging, which has enabled us to see the fetus in utero. The argument seems reducible to this: it looks more like a child, so it should be treated more like a child.

Without doubt, it is much more difficult to countenance the destruction of a fetus once it looks like a miniature baby than before its body parts can be seen. It is even harder when an ultrasound scan shows movements that bring to mind familiar, endearing gestures – a ‘yawn’, thumb-sucking and grasping tiny fingers - and when we can see whether it is a boy or a girl. This is a fair enough response when it is expressed as a personal, subjective observation. It seems illegitimate, however, either dishonest or shallow, to dress it up as a moral philosophical principle.

The moral principle at stake in the debate on later abortions, the one that genuinely matters, has been ignored completely in the recent discussions. This is the principle of moral autonomy in respect of reproductive decisions. To argue that a woman should no longer be able to make a moral decision about the future of her pregnancy, because 20 or 18 or 16 weeks have passed, assaults this and, in doing so, assaults the tradition of freedom of conscience that exists in modern pluralistic society.

Either we support women’s right to make an abortion decision or we don’t. We can make the judgement that their choice is wrong – but we must tolerate their right to decide. There is no middle ground to straddle.

In a follow up piece, published a few months later, Furedi continues to attack the idea that late-term abortion is less defensible than early abortion, but she makes a significant, though subtle, adjustment to the terms of her defense. Throughout the first article, she argues that early and late abortions both kill a potential person. In the second article, she says that "early and late abortions carry the same moral burden" because "all abortions end a potential human life." She switches from the term potential person to the term potential human–which is a blatantly dishonest designation. Person may be a subjective classification, but human being is not. You can argue that human embryos and fetuses are not persons; you cannot argue that human embryos and fetuses are not human beings. That's a biologically settled question, and Furedi knows it full well–as evidenced by her remarks in the first article:

Even if at five weeks (three weeks from conception) we can only see an embryonic pole, we know that it is human. The heart that can be seen beating on an ultrasound scan at six weeks (four weeks from conception) is as much a human heart as the one that beats five months later.

Nevertheless, by the close of her first article, Furedi is already making moves towards the subjectification of the word "human." She opines that "to deny a woman her capacity to make the moral decision about abortion is to strip away her humanity." She then goes on to say that, "Part of our valuing of fetal life is the value of what it means to be the humans they have the potential to become. Moral agency is part of that humanity." How's that for a perverse twist? We value fetal life by killing unborn children, in celebration of the moral autonomy they would have had, had they been allowed to live.

In response to her recognition that "public opinion on late abortion is very shaky," Furedi maintains that the pro-choice community "need(s) to challenge public perception, not acquiesce to it." She says that nothing short of abortion on demand throughout the entire length of pregnancy "meets what women, and society, need." To that point, one of Furedi's colleagues at BPAS says, "Our society should be proud to offer [late-term abortion] to women who need it, and proud of the doctors who carry out these procedures in difficult circumstances." During the course of the Battle of Ideas debate, Furedi again uses the false designation, "potential human life," and states:

I accept that abortion stops a beating heart and I accept that abortion ends a potential human life, even in the very earliest weeks of pregnancy. So if we think it’s a morally wrong or morally coarsening thing to do, then I think we should oppose abortion right from the very earliest weeks. If we don’t think that, then we have to ask ourselves, very clearly, who decides when late is too late? Who has the capacity to make that decision, and who has the right to intervene in this area of women’s lives?

The take away from these articles and debate is simply this. The pro-choice establishment makes no moral distinction between early-term abortion and late-term abortion. They complain that most abortion pictures don't accurately portray most abortions, but when it comes to killing human embryos and fetuses, they're all in—no matter when or why. So if you count yourself "pro-choice," but object to late-term abortion, Ann Furedi says you're an intellectual hypocrite. And so do I. But while she challenges you to have the moral wherewithal to accept late-term abortion with the same open-minded embrace you give to early abortion, I would challenge you to move in the opposite direction. If your stomach turns at late-term abortion, perhaps your stomach should also be turning at early-term abortion. Because Ann Furedi is right about one thing, "there is no middle ground to straddle."

Michael Spielman is the founder and director of Abort73.com. His book, Love the Least (A Lot), is available as a free download. You can also find him on Facebook and Google+. Abort73 is part of Loxafamosity Ministries, a 501c3, Christian education corporation. If you have been helped by the information available at Abort73.com, please consider making a donation.

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