Wednesday, October 15, 2008

After the vote: the dilemma of late-term abortions

Last week the Bible lectionary I was following for a mid-week service had Psalm 139:13-18 as one of the set readings:

13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother's womb.

14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.

15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,

16 your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me
were written in your book
before one of them came to be.

It sat up and took notice, for this was the week leading to the final vote in the Victorian State Parliament on our new abortion law. This passage reflects on God's guiding hand and foreknowledge of the human person, and his or her destiny, while they are being formed in the womb. It is one of the clearest reflections in the Bible on the personhood of the unborn child.

There is of course, something quite hidden and secret about an unborn child. Not yet crying. Not yet needing to be held in arms, clothed, wrapped and fed. It's features are unseen.

What a painful debate this has been on abortion. On the one side the pro-choice advocates insist that the debate is about a woman's right to choose what happens with her body, without fear of criminal sanctions. On the other the pro-lifers insist that the debate is about the right of the unborn to live. Neither side grants any quarter to the other. In this end, in Victoria, the pro-choice position won the political struggle in an utter and complete rout. Now in our state abortion is legal without any reason needing to be given, as long as it is conducted by medical personel, and authorized by two doctors after 24 weeks gestation.

This is quite an extreme law. Some would say it is wonderfully progressive, an example to be emulated by other states. Others have visions of full-term babies dismembered in the womb, with no rights, not even to a pain-free death.

Why do we have this law? In 2006 the Labor Party debated their abortion policy at their annual state conference. Their policy had been: "Labor will amend section 65 of the Crimes Act to provide that no abortion be criminal when performed by a legally qualified medical practitioner at the request of the woman concerned." In other words, abortion on request, provided that it is done in a qualified medical way. So it was written, so it has come to pass.

One of the Labor politicians, Christine Campbell, opposed the law at the time, stating "Advancements in medical technology have resulted in babies surviving months before a full-term delivery. These premature babies are sentient. They feel pain and suffering and react to stimuli. This policy will allow abortion from conception to the time of full-term delivery, including partial-birth abortion." She called this 'abortion on demand.'

Was she right? Well, some say that 'on demand' is emotive language. Technically the Labor Party's wording was ' at the request' of the woman. The law as actually implemented goes further than decriminalizing abortion, and requires that any medico in Victoria who is approached by a woman seeking an abortion must refer her to someone who will not have a conscientious objection against doing it. So this is more than a request: it is one which must be obeyed. Requests which must be granted are reasonably called demands. Mirriam-Webster defines demand as asking 'with authority' or 'claiming something as a due'. That is the state of the matter in the state of Victoria. Women have the authority to ask for an abortion as their due. The Labor party promised it, the people of Victoria voted for it (by electing Labor). And they got what they asked for. Labor delivered on its promises.

One of the most interesting things about the debate has been its intensity, specifically the tendency to utterly reject the basis of the other side of the debate. Pro-lifers reject that a pregnant woman could choose. Pro-choicers reject that the unborn has any of the rights of a living person. This was illustrated in the parliamentarians' rejection of amendments to require the foetus to be anaesthetized for late-term abortions, even though the fact that it can feel pain was not disputed. In this state it is illegal to subject a pet to pain, but an unborn child cannot be granted any such compassion. The reason for this is surely not that the pro-choice advocates do not understand pain. Nor do they want to inflict it on the unborn. What they feel compelled by is the imperative to utterly deny the premise of their opponents, that the unborn have any humanity. It is necessary to insist on this, to maintain the pristine purity of denial of the humanity of the unborn, in order to arrive at the pinnacle of complete freedom of choice for the woman. This ethical stance to the unborn is shaped by political necessity: the imperative that women must have the right to choose what happens to their own bodies without being treated as criminals.

If it was a matter involving two independent adults, then the right of one to life would not impinge upon the body rights of the other For example, if I was dying of kidney failure, and there was only one person in the world whose kidney donation could save me, this other person could not be compelled to open their side and surrender their kidney in order to save my life.

In a sense the pro-choicers identify with the donor. It is the donor's choice that is sacrosanct, so they put the baby in my position, with my dud kidneys: 'Baby, it's tough you can't live without a womb, but you have no business imposing yourself on her. You can't infringe on her rights over her own body. She has a right to choose what happens to it, just as much as any organ donor would. And she doesn't want to provide her womb to you. As she will not sacrifice her bodily autonomy to you: you must be the sacrifice.'

I think I can follow such logic. The thing is, there is all the world of ethical difference between letting die and killing, and the Victorian law permits a baby to be killed in the womb which could be viable outside it.

How small a difference there is between killing a viable foetus in the womb, and doing the deed in the light of day. The difference is a few moments. But in the state of Victoria, one act would be a woman's right (as long as there is somewhere in the state a doctor to do the deed) whilst the other would be murder.

This distance between two procedures - abortion and infanticide - could be measured, empirically at least, in seconds. But under our law the moral difference is supposed to be vast - one is a right which all doctors must assist in providing, whilst the other is among the most heinous crimes we can imagine.

This ethical stretch will place great moral strains on medical workers, nurses, midwives and doctors. Some will, I am sure, avoid practising obstetrics and midwifery in our state.
This will also place a burden on our collective conscience which I don't believe we will easily be able to bear. It will create an ethical pressure which will demand resolution. There will be pressure to eliminate the huge moral difference between the two O-so-similar procedures. Either we back down on late term abortions, or we extend the freedom to terminate life to apply to those who have already been born. Some philosophers argue that infanticide is defensible on the same grounds that abortion is defensible.

When I was a trainee pastor, I spend some time working in a maternity hospital. I heard there from another carer of women who abort their late-term babies, and then want a funeral, photos, foot-prints, the whole deal. I can completely understand this. I'm sure that when the Cathaginians sacrified their children (including miscarried foetuses, the archeological evidence tells us), the lost babies were grieved. We too will grieve our missing children.

Surely it is a great folly we have committed, to place such an unbearable pressure upon our consciences, through this collective act of sacrifice.

1 comment:

  1. You are absolutely right. I believe that a society that cannot identify and protect the life and the right to live of the living unborn is in trouble of confusing and failing to defend and protect the rights of other vulnerable individuals in the society!

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