Last Monday I was invited onto the BBC current affairs programme Newsnight at the last minute to join a debate on abortion upper limits.
Three cabinet ministers had suggested in the previous week that the upper abortion limit for able-bodied babies of 24 weeks should come down (Abortion is legal up until birth for disabled babies).
Kathryn Attwood of the prolife group Abort67 was up against Patricia Lohr, Medical Director of BPAS, which carries out most of Britain’s private sector abortions, and Zoe Williams a pro-choice Guardian journalist.
Two to one didn’t seem fair so I was dragged in to even things up.
Jeremy Paxman (pictured) introduced the debate by saying that most people in Britain agreed that legal abortion was necessary and that the debate was largely about time limits.
We then saw a brief film put together by the BBC which discussed the science around the debate. I was pleasantly surprised at how balanced this was.
It was acknowledged that in the very best neonatal units over 50% of babies born at 23 weeks (17 weeks premature) survive. This admission, as far as I know, is a first for the BBC.
Significant viewing time was also given to Professor Stuart Campbell’s astounding 4D ultrasounds showing babies at twelve weeks gestation stretching and flexing in the womb. This was accompanied by a comment from Campbell arguing for a reduction to twelve weeks.
The only questionable claim in the piece was a claim that babies below 24 weeks were not sentient which went unchallenged.
This is the official position of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) but, as I have argued before, their report is very controversial and has been described as an ‘emperor with no clothes on’ by a leading neonatologist.
We then went into a four way debate.
Paxman seemed determined to paint all of us as extremists and, rather than examining the arguments in the debate, was more interested in pressing us on where exactly we thought the line should be drawn.
Kathryn and I said that we opposed abortion in principle and would not personally be satisfied with any specific time limit.
Lohr and Williams, by contrast, defended the status quo and argued that regardless of time limit abortion should be a woman’s choice.
All very predictable.
A spirited exchange followed with Paxman sitting back to enjoy the moment. Time precluded any in depth discussion.
The whole programme illustrated the real problem with this whole debate, and with time limits in general.
There are some MPs who hold consistent prochoice or prolife positions respectively but most, along with most members of the public, actually lie somewhere in the middle.
But a middle position is only tenable in this balancing act of mother’s and baby’s rights if you consider that the rights of the baby are dependent on its degree of neurological development; in other words that it is all right to kill babies below a certain level of cortical function.
So for example, if they lack sentience, cannot smile or swallow or fail to exhibit some other arbitrary function that older humans are capable of, then they don’t deserve legal protection.
But this approach is at very heart discriminatory. Conferring legal protection on the basis of age, size or intellectual capacity is something that we would not tolerate for any human being after birth so why should do so before birth?
The only two logically consistent approaches are either to offer protection to all preborn babies regardless of gestation, or to say that none are human beings with rights and allow abortion for any and every reason.
When people take the latter approach I usually ask them why it is all right to kill a baby in the womb at 39 weeks but not to kill a premature baby in the neonatal unit at 24 weeks. That is, if it is really about degree of development then, in order to be consistent, shouldn’t we have the same attitude to abortion as we do to infanticide if the two babies, inside and outside the womb, are the same age?
If abortion is right then infanticide must also be right and vice versa. Unless, that is, we are arguing that the woman is utterly sovereign over her body and can do whatever she likes with any baby still in the womb but nothing to one already born.
However politics, it seems, is usually about compromise and logical inconsistency.
Having said that, if someone introduced a measure solely aimed at reducing the upper limit I would support it, but only if the current law was not weakened in any other way.
Any lowering of the limit would save at least some babies.
However, many more babies' lives could be saved if parliament were to introduce properly informed consent for women with unplanned pregnancies or to insist that the current law was not abused by doctors authorising abortions on spurious mental health grounds (currently 98% of all abortions fall in this category as I have argued elsewhere).
The video can be viewed here.