Tue | Feb 18, 2020

Ethon Lowe | Abortion: The war of the womb

Published:Wednesday | February 13, 2019 | 12:12 AM

Those who would defend the rights of women to decide for themselves whether to terminate a pregnancy should also engage with the argument that the developing foetus is equivalent to a person. If the foetus is morally equivalent to a child, even from the moment of conception, abortion is equivalent to murder.

The issue of aborting a healthy developing foetus is not about a mother’s choice or some religious conundrum that it is a sin. The real question is its viability, not when life begins, but when is it able to survive outside of the womb.

Sociologist Peter Espeut (‘Abortion is more than a religious issue’, The Gleaner, February 1, 2019) and human rights advocate Horace Levy agree that the zygote (the fusion of sperm and egg) is human and abortion at this time is reprehensible (at best) or a moral sin (at worst).

Oh, by the way the zygote, we are told, has a soul. Wow, thanks for that bit of info, God is good. I didn’t know that.

I contend that neither an egg nor a sperm is human. The zygote is not human, but has the potential to become human. An eight-week-old embryo has recognisable human features such as a face, hands and feet, but neuronal connections are undeveloped, so anything resembling thoughts and feelings is impossible.

Most obstetricians understand that foetal viability (the ability of the baby to survive outside the mother’s womb) occurs nearer 24 weeks gestation and more likely at 28 weeks (second trimester).

Abortions are almost never performed after the second trimester. Before this period, there is no evidence that the foetus is a thinking, feeling human (that is, a person), and it is reasonable to conclude that abortion (before, say, 24 weeks or much earlier) is not comparable to murder of a conscious sentient being after birth.

True, a young foetus is a potential human being, but potentiality is not the same as actuality. Given the choice between granting rights to an actual person (an adult woman) or a potential person (the foetus), isn’t it preferable to choose the former on the grounds of both reason and compassion?


And what are the woman’s rights to have an abortion? These include risk to life, rape, incest, serious foetal abnormality, risk to physical and sometimes mental health. These are clear-cut justifications for termination of pregnancy.

A pregnant schoolgirl offers a more difficult case. But surely, the rule here should be to prefer the actual commitments, education and future of the girl over the multiplying cells within her body, which at the very most represent potentiality.

Also, consider a woman already overburdened with other children, and now faces an additional one. Is the sanctity of life (life is regarded as God-given) of the foetus (a potential life) more important than the quality of life of the mother (an actual life)? Who is going to suffer more?

The broader the legal grounds for abortion, the number of deaths from unsafe abortions should fall.

But you can’t have it both ways. The foetus also has rights. Aborting a viable foetus is a violation of its right to life. It is like taking the life of a person.

In fairness, 79 per cent of pro-choice (those who support abortion) OPPOSE abortion in the third trimester, and they advocate that abortions should be banned starting at 22-24 weeks (with exceptions).

The conundrum is, as medical technology advances, the developmental age at which a foetus can survive outside the womb will continue to be earlier and earlier.

Roman Catholicism forbids contraception and termination of pregnancy even in cases of rape or danger to the mother’s health. Our Roman Catholic priests, apparently fired by their holier-than-thou, pious selves, glibly volunteer their help in adopting a baby rather than have it aborted. What do they know? Have they ever had families?

The psychological burden of giving up your child for adoption may be greater than the other choice – an abortion. Giving up your child for adoption is, to my mind, virtually abandoning your child.

Abortion is always a very difficult choice, for it does involve the deliberate termination of a form of human life and the claim of a foetus always competes with the established interest and goals of a human individual.

But this does not make it invariably wrong. There are many hard things that we do that are justified or necessary.

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