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Saturday, 6 October 2012

Legalizing Infanticide or Limiting Abortion

UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has said that the legal time limit on abortion should be halved from 24 weeks as it is now in the UK to 12 weeks, although Home Secretary Theresa May, interviewed yesterday about the extradition to the USA of Abu Hamza and other four suspect terrorists, has made it clear that the government does not intend to follow that recommendation.

On the question of abortion, I think that the debate has been too fixated on some "demarcation points", magic moments where the moral status of the organism would suddenly change.

Typically these are two: the moment of conception and that of birth. No doubt these are crucial biologically, but biology should not necessarily dictate ethics.

The moral philosopher Peter Singer was right when he wrote some considerations to the effect that there is nothing about birth that can alter the morally relevant characteristics of a being.

A foetus one day before birth is very much like a baby after birth. This argument has been used by Peter Singer, and now by others following his argument, to justify infanticide. The BMJ's Journal of Medical Ethics published in February 2012 an article entitled "After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?", which repeats what Singer says. This could be the slippery slope that the pro-life campaigners have warned about.

Obama has been accused of legalizing infanticide for voting three times in the Illinois Senate against the Born-Alive Infant Protection Act, which was designed to ensure that, if a live baby fully emerged before an abortion was successfully completed, the baby would be saved.

Singer's argument is logic, indeed is what I always thought even before reading his books. But it coud be used in the opposite direction, to cast ethical doubts on the acceptability of abortions in advanced stages of pregnancy. There are foetuses perfectly viable at 6 months, the time when abortions are still allowed by the UK law. Premature babies can survive, sometimes in incubators.

I suggest that maybe we should think in terms of degrees of increasing moral worth, rather than a clearcut demarcation line - be it conception or birth, neither of which per se, and especially birth, is conducive to difference in morally relevant characteristics of the being in question.

The moral and legal answer to the question of allowing abortion should not, perhaps, be a black-or-white yes or no, but depending on many curcumstances, and very prominet among those should be the age of the embryo or foetus.

What is absurd is for women to shut all the discussion by saying "it's my body, so I decide".

It makes as much sense as for a killer to say "I used my hand to kill, the hand is part of my body, therefore no-one can tell me what I can or cannot do with it".

 The fact remains that, even if a foetus is inside a woman's body, it is still a different living, and in some stages sentient being, so should not be treated just like an appendix of her body.

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