Since Maria Miller the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, as well as also being the minister for women, revealed in a Telegraph interview that she would vote for the legal limit for abortions to be reduced from 24 weeks to 20 weeks, there have been a whole host of articles commenting on her words. I’m afraid I’ve decided to jump on the bandwagon too.
The slightly odd thing about this is that what Mrs Miller said isn’t news at all. When parliament voted on Nadine Dorries motion back in 2008 to reduce the abortion limit to 20 weeks, she voted in favour of it (as an aside, so did new Jeremy Hunt who is now Secretary of State for Health. Since Mrs Miller’s comments, he has gone further suggesting the limit should be reduced to 12 weeks). Despite the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists this week restated their view that there is no scientific evidence to justify a lower limit, and Parliament’s decision not to lower it in 2008, there is currently plenty of support for a change. Maria Miller’s reasoning is that it would be “common sense” to lower the limit from 24 weeks to 22 weeks because medical science has “moved on” and babies are surviving at ever-younger gestational ages. She explained that she was “riven by the very practical impact that late-term abortion has on women”. This piece by Caroline Farrow goes into more detail on the effects of late abortions.
According to Dr Peter Saunders’ Christian Medical Comment blog, Nearly two thirds of the public and more than three-quarters of women support a reduction in the 24-week upper age limit. 76% of the public think that aborting a baby at six months is cruel. Furthermore a 2007 poll by Marie Stopes International found that two thirds of GPs wanted a reduction from 24 weeks. Across the rest of Europe Union the average abortion limit is 12 weeks or less. We are only one of five countries to have the limit set at or above 24 weeks.
All this would suggest that Maria Miller is talking sense. However, despite having read plenty of this week’s articles on the subject, I think almost all commentators are missing an important point in the 20/24 week limit debate. It all revolves around what would happen if a baby was born during this time period. Would it survive or not? The thing is with abortion is that the baby never survives, so in one sense it makes no difference to the foetus at what point it is destroyed, be it 8, 20, 24 or 36 weeks. The only difference is how much pain it is likely to experience in the process.
We can argue endlessly about where the limit should lie, but this is just the visible face of a deeper argument regarding the ethics of abortion. Do those who campaign for a reduction in the limit do so mainly because the foetus could have survived if it had been born or because of the increased risk of psychological trauma to the mother? These are both important and valid reasons, but I suspect the underlying one for the majority is that they don’t believe abortion is acceptable in most cases. In the current political climate, to publicly declare that abortion is wrong leaves you open to a huge amount of criticism. To look to minimise the number of abortions by reducing the time limit is a realistic compromise and gives a more credible argument than, “I believe it is wrong” which is often founded on religious convictions.
On the other side of the fence, if you believe that abortion is acceptable because a woman should be in control of her body, then logically that means later abortions should theoretically be justifiable. Giving potential medical reasons for not reducing the limit where it is again gives a more defensible standpoint.
And so the battle lines are drawn with the aim of making your side look like it has the moral high ground. Jemima Lewis’ article in Wednesday’s Telegraph sums this up well:
Both sides in the abortion debate tend to favour a medieval style of battle: pull up the drawbridge, lob balls of fiery wrath at the enemy, decapitate anyone whose loyalty is in doubt. But the truth is that we are all in a muddle. Unless you believe in God – which many people in this country don’t – the only way through this moral thicket is to put our faith in science and the laws of the land. Increasingly, the science suggests that the law needs tweaking.
She is right about us being in a muddle unless we believe in God. Without that higher authority the problem is who we trust to have the right views and opinions on this subject. Who are the moral guardians in our society if we reject biblical or other faith teachings? It’s an argument that will never be won because it can never be fully objective if we don’t know or understand how to value human life beyond our own ideologies.
Rowan Williams was asked about abortion on Monday evening at the Theos Annual Lecture in London. This was his response:
“You are not going to solve ethical issues like abortion by saying it is like having a tooth out, or it is simply a material transaction. Nor are you going to sort it out by saying ‘We’ve got to work out when the soul enters the body, and somehow it’s all right before and it’s not all right after’.
“I would say that as soon as there is what you would call an individual there, we have something that begins to make the claim of a person.
“That may still leave open all kinds of complex issues about when abortion is the lesser evil. I just don’t want us to gloss over the fact that we are talking about personal relational realities here.”
When you see an unborn child through God’s eyes, you have to give it value and respect. There are more than enough good reasons to lower the abortion limit below 24 weeks, but even if that does happen sometime in the future it won’t solve any of the arguments. Only a realisation that the unborn child’s interests must always come first will do that.