Thursday, May 15, 2008

UK Abortion Law Needs To Be Reconsidered

Having watched the Dispatches documentary ‘Abortion: What we need to know’, which aired on channel 4 a while back, I feel compelled to make some observations on this endlessly divisive and controversial topic.

As this sensitive issue has been debated over so many times and on so many forums, I wish to draw attention not simply to the question of whether abortion is right or wrong, but to some of the extremely thought provoking questions that were raised in my mind while watching the aforementioned documentary.

Certainly the program’s frankness and unrelenting desire to question was refreshingly insightful, especially with an issue which rarely seems to be subject to clear and concise discussion.

For those who didn’t watch the program, its main focus was the question of reducing the upper time limit for abortion in the U.K down from the current limit of 24 weeks. The movement for such a reduction has gathered momentum in the wake of the 40th anniversary of the legalization of abortion and due to the continuing advances in medical science that allow premature babies to live longer than ever before.
This means that for the first time since the law was passed, we now have a situation where fetuses which are perfectly viable outside womb with proper care, can be freely aborted.

Further controversy has been created by the assertion by a U.K professor that fetuses may be able to feel pain after 17 weeks and that doctors should consider performing abortions under anesthetic. Clearly if this is in fact the case, the procedure at that stage is no less than barbaric, and predictably, the out cry caused by this possibility has been sizable.

However to me, the sudden apprehension expressed by professionals and laity alike, that a child may suffer in the womb is deeply unsettling in its very reasoning. To suddenly be disgusted at the practice because pain may be experienced by a fetus, and to have no problem with it if it’s done ‘humanely’ is nothing sort of hypocritical and irrational.

Surely the possibility that a fetus is sentient by reason of its ability to feel pain, and not the actual experience of pain, is what's relevant here. To
accept its probable consciousness, and then reason its destruction acceptable by ensuring it is painless, is both shocking and ludicrous in equal measure.

If we accept that logic, is it alright to kill someone on the street if it is done without the victim suffering? I believe most people would say it is despicably wrong irrespective of the circumstances. Surely their right to life does not depend on the suffering which could be inflicted upon them.

Another aspect of the documentary which struck me was the extremely graphic and disturbing footage of an abortion which was shown and labeled as ‘pro-life propaganda’. While upsetting, it seems unfair to me to label it simply as propaganda, with all the negative connotations that go with that term.

If it is merely a vivid depiction of reality, don’t people have a right to know? Excessive censorship of something so imperative cannot be conducive to a well informed public debate. In my opinion, to deny people the opportunity to see the procedure for what it really is both a belittlement of people’s rationale and a shocking form of denial. Graphic photos of war time atrocity are applauded for their ability to “bring home the reality” of war. And what about road safety campaigns?

To say one form of exposure is heroic and essential for its function to inform, while another is propaganda tugging at the heart strings, is hypocritical. It is simply because of the hugely sensitive nature of the subject that one is seen as manipulative while the other is portrayed as eye-opening.

To say that these images prevent rational debate is also fallacious. To deny that we are hugely emotional beings is to adopt an extremely utilitarian attitude which would render many of our laws and social codes obsolete. It is illegal to hurt someone else not simply because it serves society by making sure there are people still left to turn the economic cogs of capitalism, but also because murder, theft, assault etc. emotionally repel and offend us.

However the most unsettling aspect of the whole debate was one which was skimmed over, but not touched on extensively. While the termination of a healthy fetus is restricted to 24 weeks, a fetus suffering from an abnormality can be aborted up to full term.

An abnormality may even include something such as a cleft palate which is far from chronically de-habilitating. At this stage of pregnancy, questions of viability are of course obsolete because the fetus is a fully formed, independent being. So it is very difficult to credibly argue that a child is not involved.

With this type of abortion, a stark distinction is being made between people who are equal and those who are “more equal”.
“Normal” human beings in the womb are entitled to be protected from suffering by having a limit placed on termination. People with “abnormalities” however do not enjoy this same entitlement.

This sends out an odious message about how we as a society value some people as being more “useful” than others. How can it be wrong and illegal to kill a six month old fetus and it be ethical and perfectly legal to kill more a fully formed fetus that happens to have a handicap (no matter how minor, though to me the degree is irrelevant)?.

The simple reality is that this draconian law came into being at a time when knowledge of the unborn child was not what it is today. Forty years on, fresh debate and a re-evaluation of the law and our attitudes must take place.

Even far more liberal countries across Europe all have limits in place way below the 24 week limit.

Whether your stance is pro-life or pro-choice, I think the arguments for more stringent controls are over whelming. While the question of earlier abortions may be contentiously debated and wrangled over, the debate raging in Britain about late abortions is one which seems comparably clear cut and discernable.

Surely it is madness to have a situation where in one room a doctor is doing everything possible to ensure a premature baby will live, while in another room, in the same hospital, a fetus of the same age and viability, and with the same functioning organs, hands and feet, is being aborted?

Change does not come about easily and it is far, far easier to turn a blind eye and ignore the facts than to engage with a topic which has been accepted as ok for many years. Surely now is the time to reconsider and rethink?

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