My son Nathan at four years old

The poverty of the UK abortion debate

It is with some trepidation that I wade into this topic. I am, after all, a man and have the easiest part by far in the business of bringing a child into existence. I’m also aware that some women and men are forced to make truly heartbreaking moral choices: if that is you, please don’t read even a whisper of judgement into my words; they are not for you. But I am also a father, a theologian, and a scientist. And wherever you stand on the issue, it seems to me that the public debate on abortion in this country is of very poor quality.

Take this headline: Survival of twins born at 23 weeks and new inquiry into abortion for disability reopen debate on abortion upper limits.

Actually, the piece is pretty decent, but I’d like to think for a moment about what it says here. It is fantastic that the twins Mackenzie and Cameron survived being born astonishingly early. What I find surprising is the notion that this changes anything at all in the abortion debate. What is the difference, morally, between murder and abortion? Murder is terminating a person. Abortion is terminating something falling short of personhood, and therefore without claim to the sanctity of life. Its value derives from the emotional commitments of the mother and, dare I say it, father. The big ethical question underpinning abortion is then this.

When does a foetus become a person?

Personhood

Whether or not a foetus has a chance of surviving outside the womb is a red herring. If they are persons now at 23 weeks, then they already were persons before we had the technology to keep them alive—and aborting them was morally wrong all along. Technology and science can expose the poverty of our debate, but they cannot change the argument.

Ultrasound of a 20 week old foetus

20 weeks’ worth of cell growth, or a person?

In fact, as a scientist, I would categorically deny that science has anything whatsoever to say on moral questions per se (pace the pro-choice spokesperson who opined on Radio 4 a few weeks ago that “we should leave the matter to the medical professionals”: we certainly should not).

Having said that, science can and should still inform the debate. Let’s say I have a materialistic and utilitarian view of human life. I might then say that a foetus is a person as soon as that part of the brain which carries complex thought becomes active. With that moral judgement in hand, I can then consult the scientists. They will tell me about foetal development and what sort of cut-off point I’ll end up with. That doesn’t mean that science has made the moral judgement: it is still mine.

By the way, what they would tell me is that the neocortex is pretty much vacant space until well after the birth. It would follow that after-birth abortion (infanticide) is perfectly acceptable practice. Most people, of course, instinctively recoil from such a conclusion and then proceed to fudge their way towards a more acceptable practical outcome. Small wonder the abortion debate is such a mess. We’re not really thinking very well. Face it: if the conclusion is unpalatable, that is because our moral premises were unacceptable, incoherent, or both. Don’t fudge. Think.

Mental health

Then there’s the question of acceptable reasons for abortion; after all, in theory, we do not allow abortion on demand. The most oft-quoted reason is the mother’s mental health. Interestingly, as far as I’m aware—not being an expert in the field!—the best clinical data we have actually offers no support for such mental health benefits. In other words, in an NHS supposedly driven by hard medical evidence, abortion is the elephant in the operating theater. Any other treatment that doesn’t deliver on its claimed clinical benefit would long have faced criticism and, ultimately, withdrawal.

Why did we end up in this position? Because it is another fudge. Although the law requires a medical reason to terminate, in reality abortion has become a form of contraception. “Mental health” is a convenient legal fig leaf for this, and neither politicians nor clinicians want to examine it too closely. Wouldn’t it be much better to take this horrible and dishonest fudge off the doctors’ shoulders, have an actual debate about this, and legislate accordingly?

Disability

Another medical reason for abortion is disability; this allows termination up to 40 weeks (i.e. birth) rather than 24. Isn’t it fascinating how this country can be absolutely adamant about the full human value of the disabled, yet at the same time accepts disability as a good reason to terminate an unborn life at any point? Once again, it’s a moral muddle, and Parliament seems to have noticed.

Make up your mind. Does disability make you any less of a person, or not?

If your answer is “no”, why then should disability make you any less of a foetus, not entitled to the protections afforded any other foetus? Maybe in the case of Edwards syndrome? Down’s? A cleft palate? Does this really stack up?

My son Nathan at 4 years old

Nathan at 4 years old

Let me give all of this a face. Abstractions only take you so far. The scan near the top of the page is that of my son Nathan at 20 weeks. Had the extensive brain damage that he would suffer been visible at that time, we would no doubt have been offered termination as a reasonable way forward – quite possibly even the most reasonable way forward.

Immediately above you can see a snapshot, taken a few months ago, of Nathan at 4 years old.

I’m his father. I love my boy. I’m proud of the way he deals with cerebral palsy. I thank God on my bare knees that he has defied many a bleak prognosis. So I’m hardly unbiased, but I’ll tell you this. Terminating Nathan would have been a mistake.

A terrible mistake.

For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.
Psalm 139

The bible sums it up as well as anything. In the end I can see only one moral stance that is both humane and coherent. A foetus is a person at any stage of development. Her value is not contingent on her parents’ emotional commitments or whether she quite meets their expectations. There are 190,000 people every year in the UK alone we will never get to know. But God knows them, and he laments the lives they never lived. Now they are safe in his hands. As they patently were not in ours.

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1 Comment

  1. Tracey Smith

    I have struggled for many years with Abortion in general, after losing my first daughter who was still born at 34 weeks due to medical negligence. The Catholic minister refused to bless my daughter after birth as she had not breathed out side the worm. Then the insult of the medical specialists telling me that had she survived she would most probably have had some form of disability and her quality of life therefore would have been poor. To add to this, this country valued her as a foetus at £3’000 and no more. Who knows what would have been and what gives them the right to speculate of ones outcome or value. In 1994 I was given a termination leaflet after a routine scan, as they had found cysts on my baby’s brain. yes my daughter has ASD Autism but she lives independently and is an incredible young lady at the age of 18. who’s has the right to take away the life of such a young lady. I believe every foetus is a person and has a right to life.

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