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Has technology changed the issues on abortion?

2007 October 19
by Paul Vallely

Are the moral dilemmas surrounding the question of abortion changed by advances in medical technology? That is the question facing the Science and Technology Committee inquiry on abortion this week. Two things have changed. The number of abortions have increased almost tenfold to 193,700 a year since abortion was legalised in 1968. And advances in medicine mean that babies can now survive outside their mother’s womb at 24 weeks, when abortion would still be legal. The introduction of  4-D ultrasound techniques which show foetuses of just 12 weeks showing apparent facial expressions has dramatized the debate. But has the morality altered?

New technology emphasises two arguments. The first concerns the viability of the child outside the womb and the second the amount of pain a foetus feels. Neither of these affects the arguments at the poles of the issue. At one end lies the insistence that the woman always has the right to determine the fate of the foetus within her body. At the other is the position of the Catholic Church that even a day-old fertilised egg is a human being with equal and indivisible human rights.

Most people occupy neither of these absolutist positions, which is why it was distasteful to hear a Catholic cardinal some time ago talking about the number of abortions in terms of two Dunblane massacres of children every day. There is no moral equivalence between the morning-after pill and looking onto the eyes of a six year old child and blowing her head off.

But science is changing minds. High-tech hospitals report survival rates for 24-weekers as high as 75 per cent for and about 50 per cent for 23-weekers. That means that similar foetuses can be aborted on one floor of a hospital and in intensive care on the next with one being described, in an Orwellian distinction, as a foetus and the other as a baby. Opinion polls show support for social abortions is falling, with women split 44 per cent for and 42 per cent against. (In cases of disability or danger to the mother, which are around just 2 per cent of abortions, support is much higher). Couples coming come with a photo of their baby at the 12 week scan are perhaps responsible for this shift.

Then there is the question of when an unborn child can feel pain. Some have suggested that this is not until after birth when the sedative environment of the womb is replace the stimuli of the outside world. But medical research has variously suggested that a foetus can feel pain at 26 weeks, 21 weeks, 20 weeks and possibly earlier. Certainly in all abortions carried out in the UK beyond 22 weeks, the foetus is either injected with something which stops its heart or is under a general anaesthetic.

It is often said that there is no middle way over abortion. Advances in science suggest otherwise.  Many now find persuasive the argument that abortion should be made easier in the early days before human cells have developed into a human being but would also like to see the upper time limit on abortions further restricted. Other countries have such laws; in many European countries the time limit is 12 weeks, unless the foetus is severely disabled or the mother’s life is at risk.

It is revealing that nationally there is a declining number of doctors prepared to carry out abortions. Others insist on imposing their own time limits; the head of the abortion service in Hull this week admitted that she personally would not operate beyond 20 weeks. “Every individual has their cut-off point,” said Dr Kate Guthrie. “It’s not scientific, it’s just personal, it’s just foetal size”. Beyond a certain point it just looks too much like a baby. And beyond a certain size the foetus has to be cut up inside the womb, and its skull spine and pelvis crushed, to get them out. Small wonder many local NHS trusts don’t have any staff who are willing to perform abortions much beyond 12 weeks. If the morality has not altered something has.

The Church Times

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