Abortion is never far from the headlines. And in a sense, that is a good thing. The taking of innocent human life should never become mundane, commonplace or acceptable. Given the enormous consequences of the practice, it should always be newsworthy. Indeed, just as Wilberforce and the abolitionists had to keep slavery in the public spotlight until enough revulsion of the practice led to its downfall, so too abortion needs to stay in the limelight until it also becomes the object of public disgust.
But abortion can also be in the news for wrong reasons as well. For example, the issue is once again on the front pages because of a move to see it decriminalised altogether in Victoria. Labor MP Candy Broad has introduced a bill to see abortion decriminalised, and the resultant debate is again upon us.
There were two articles in today’s onlineopinion on the topic of abortion. One was a good examination of the bill and why it must be rejected. The other was a rather silly piece seeking to convince us that abortion is no big deal.
Let me deal with the latter piece first. Written by Adelaide geneticist, Michael Lardelli, the article seeks to answer the question, When does human life begin? He answers this by suggesting that individual humans are simply part of a larger humanity, and indeed, part of a bigger biology, making us not all that unique.
He says sperm and eggs are alive, so the question of when human life begins may be redundant. Indeed, he suggests we are all part of an evolutionary movement anyway, so talk of the beginning of individual human life may be pointless. We are part of a bigger chain of being, including non-humans, so talk of an individual soul may have to give way to the notion of either no soul, or some universal soul.
And if we are to try to decide the question, he takes the usual secular utilitarian approach: “Presumably, any definition of humanity will involve the development of our uniquely capable brain”.
But there are plenty of problems with this whole line of reasoning. First of all, he is wrong to imply that the debate about abortion hinges on the question of when human life begins. Actually there are three questions that can be raised, and two of them are quickly disposed of.
The first question often asked about the newly formed human embryo is this: Is it alive? Well, unless tampered with, it will simply grow and develop: it has a metabolism, the original cell continues dividing, and so on. So of course it is alive.
The second question is also a bit of a no-brainer: Is it human? The profound answer is this: a human embryo is human. It will not develop into a carrot, a dingo or a bit of Lego. Only a dingo embryo will develop into a fully formed dingo. And only a human embryo will continue to mature as a human.
But it is the third question that becomes the sticking point: Is it a person? No, according to the pro-death camp. They take a very utilitarian and functional approach to this question. Someone is a person only if he or she meets certain criteria, and/or is able to perform certain functions.
Thus many speak of sentience or consciousness or other tests for personhood. But the problem with all these tests is that we all fail them all the time. When we are in a coma, or in deep sleep, many of the proposed criteria no longer apply. Do we really waver between personhood and nonpersonhood on a regular basis, depending on our capacities and functions?
The more helpful approach is to argue for personhood as an essential characteristic of all human beings, not some secondary attribute. And even the most die hard utilitarians, when pressed, will acknowledge this.
For example, utilitarian philosopher and atheist Peter Singer quickly abandoned his long held view of personhood – at least temporarily – when his own mother was struck down with Alzheimers. He did all he could to look after her and keep her alive, even though under his own utilitarian worldview, she was not a person, and therefore should have been bumped off to make room for more deserving “persons”.
So the newly formed embryo is not a potential person, but a person with great potential. In the same way, an acorn does not at some future point become an oak tree. It already is one, but at an early stage of development. Or it can be said that an oak tree is a more fully formed acorn.
Trying to find some arbitrary point at which personhood begins (the formation of the brain stem, the development of the nervous system, at viability, at birth, etc.) is simply a philosophical cop-out. Gradualism need not even come into the discussion. A basic embryology textbook will do. We know that from the moment of conception a genetically distinct and unique individual is formed. And that is a human person, a person who has a fundamental right to life.
So all the pointless sophistry of Mr Lardelli need not distract us. But things like the complete decriminalisation of abortion should get our attention. The second article, by Melbourne writer David Palmer, nicely lays out the case for resisting such a move.
Says Palmer, “there are sound reasons why Parliament should reject any attempt to decriminalise abortion. The major problem with making abortion legal without qualification as Ms Broad’s Bill does, is that the general public, including the young, will begin to think of abortion – once considered morally wrong, or at the very least morally dubious – as morally right. Abortion is not morally right. Even the ancient Greeks recognised the value of the unborn so that Hippocrates bound all doctors in his oath against procuring an abortion.”
He continues, “The proposed changes to the law basically treat an abortion like any other medical procedure, when in fact it is a developing unborn child with its own unique DNA material which is being aborted. The Bill institutionalises abortion on demand – any pregnant woman at any stage in her pregnancy up to term can go to a medical practitioner and demand an abortion. The Bill fails to acknowledge and describe the alternatives to abortion that preserve the life of the developing unborn child.”
With many other medical procedures, there are compulsory warnings about possible risk; mandatory counselling is often involved; and films are often shown of the procedure. Not so with abortion. “There is no requirement in the Bill to warn women of the risks associated with abortion. It does nothing to address the trauma that many women undergo for decades after an abortion: flashbacks, anniversary reactions, temptations to suicide, difficulties in maintaining and developing relationships, turning to drugs, increased susceptibility to breast or other cancers, and so on.”
Indeed, there “is no requirement for independent pre-termination counselling from someone who is not an advocate of abortion and therefore no cooling off period between counselling and possible abortion of the developing unborn child. Nor is there any provision for post termination follow up.”
It is claimed that this legislation is necessary to safeguard both doctors and women against the threat of prosecution. Says Palmer, “This also is a nonsense claim. Who in the recent past has faced prosecution in Victoria other than the doctor who aborted a 32-week-old dwarf who wasn’t a dwarf?”
Ms Broad also claims that this bill will keep abortion safe and legal. But “who says abortion is a safe procedure? Certainly not for the unborn child. There is nothing in her Bill that renders abortion safe.”
The truth is, this is just another attempt to further normalise a barbaric and life-taking procedure that has no place in a civilised society. As Palmer says, the real message that needs to be heard is this: “Abortion is bad: there are far too many of them, and so the question to our politicians is, ‘what are you doing to reduce the number of them?’”