On viability, and why it shouldn’t matter
Anne Onne // 22 May 2008
I’m entirely new to blogging*, and it’s very possible that this is too controversial a topic to be handled by a mere beginner, and that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. I certainly hope that other feminists more experienced and knowledgeable than I will cover this topic more thoroughly than I, and in a much more persuasive manner, because it deserves more coverage. But because of the media attention abortion has gotten recently, and the focus on viability, I think this is a good time to at least start this discussion.
We know for a fact that current scientific theory does not support the reduction of the time limit, and neither does the Commons Science and Technology Committee or the British Medical Association. Babies born around the limit for abortion (24 weeks) are nowhere near what would be considered viable in real terms. They have a high mortality rate and long lasting health problems. But this isn’t about that.
The issue of viability is misleading, because it is used to draw attention away from the women who would be having these abortions. My aim here is to put forward the idea that viability cannot be the standard with which we decide who gets abortions and when.
What would happen if abortion limits were decided by the gestation period at which babies prematurely born can survive? What will happen when science and care reach the stage at which babies born earlier and earlier can be kept alive? This will certainly be no mean feat, even if it is in the distant future, the babies that do survive very, very premature birth will even then suffer serious complications and high mortality rates. We will not in the foreseeable future be able to change the fact that once born, a premature baby does not mature just as it would if it had been carried to term, and for whatever reason, premature babies will always need a lot of close care and attention, and will always be likely to have health problems as a result. The time at which we can help some of these babies survive might get earlier and earlier, but the damage and the risks of premature birth won’t go away.
But where would that leave women, if babies born at say, 13 weeks start to survive? Pro-life lobbyists would no doubt insist that a limit at 13 weeks would be too long, because some babies born at that time would survive. After all, that was their only rationale behind lobbying for a cut in the time limit this week. The medical evidence and leading medical groups did not support them, and their main argument rested on the emotionally laden comparison between foetuses aborted at the same age as some wanted babies are born, and how they are exactly the same. They are not.
The act of birth divides them, one being a physically separate entity, a live being in its own right, and the other being attached to another body, dependent on that body for all sustenance. The prior is a baby; something legally recognised as alive, the latter is a foetus; something that is not a separate entity, but a continuation of someone’s body, that feeds off someone else.
And hence we come to the idea of control over one’s body, and the legal right to exert it. The idea here is that every person owns their body. Everyone is responsible for what happens to their body, and nobody is allowed to do something to someone else’s body without consent, or to require something of someone’s body without their permission.
Let’s go through a scenario. Carol’s brother, Steve, is ill. He has some kind of kidney problem, and is dying, and the only thing that can save him is a kidney transplant. Carol is the only match for Steve in their immediate family that can be identified.
We can argue that it would be ‘the right thing’ for Carol to nobly give up an organ for her brother. It would certainly be very nice of her. But legally, she has no obligation to do so. Even though Steve may be a model citizen, rescues grandmothers who cross the street, has a Nobel Prize and five kids, and his kidney problem was not caused by any action on his part (in other words is about as deserving a recipient as most people can picture) she has no legal obligation to give him her kidney. Even though she has two, and doesn’t technically need both kidneys to survive. It may be cruel of her in our eyes that she chooses not to. But it’s her right, something the law supports.
Why? Because legally and ethically we see it as wrong for a person to force someone else to give part of their body. We draw a line that stops people from forcing someone else to keep them alive. We value the life of the person who needs that support, yes, and we would very much like it if more people donated bone marrow or kidneys, or even their organs after they died. But we cannot, and do not force them to donate an organ, or hook up that other person onto their body, because we are aware of the serious risks and complications for the donor. It is all about the donor’s choice, and the fact that they must be willing to make the sacrifice themselves.
Now, imagine Carol becomes pregnant. Only for whatever reason, she has carried the foetus to say, 22 weeks. Why should the law force Carol to keep this ‘person’ (if you believe a foetus is alive, I don’t. At least, I don’t believe it’s alive any more than any other clump of cells) alive when she is not under any legal obligation to keep her brother, someone who she has known and loved all her life, alive? It would be the height of hypocrisy to demand that women keep foetuses, and carry them to term, because they approximate real babies enough in your eyes, when real, living people aren’t given the same privilege. Why should we give foetuses more rights than babies or adult humans?
Having a growing mass inside of you compete for your own nutrients isn’t easy, and puts many strains on the host, whether it’s cancer or a foetus. No, I’m not calling foetuses a cancer or a parasite, but medically speaking, they are in the same category of things that take nutrients from the body, grow, and can put the host body in danger. Fortunately, most of the time, women are perfectly happy to be host to a foetus, because they want the baby that will be born in a several months time. Nobody actually loves the at worst physically endangering and at best inconvenient process of pregnancy, but many women are willing to go through with it, because they love the thought of the baby they want to have at the end of it. And that’s fantastic, I’m happy for them. Babies can be a wonderful thing for those who want them.
But what about those women who don’t want a baby? Who don’t want to go through the risk and discomfort of nine months of pregnancy to give away a baby they don’t want, or a baby who will die shortly after birth, or who will be stillborn? What can we say justifies forcibly keeping them pregnant because of the age of the foetus (at 24 weeks a foetus is still very far from full grown) and forcing them to give birth, which is a traumatic, difficult, potentially dangerous process?
Would pro-lifers make a bargain with women, that if a woman doesn’t want to carry a foetus to term, she can have it removed, and it can be kept alive in an incubator and then adopted? After all, according to them, babies born at that age are perfectly viable, and that’s their issue with abortion. Except we all know that this wouldn’t happen. For one, most pro-lifers don’t tend to care much about babies after birth.
More importantly, even they recognise that we do not have facilities that are anywhere near good enough that we can deliver all the babies at 24 weeks, and have them grow up without much difficulty and risk. Otherwise, women (conservatives included) might be queuing up to cut pregnancy times in half, and have a much easier time of things. If they want this to be about viability, they should be advocating that every woman who wants an abortion should be able to deliver this ‘viable’ baby then and there, and pass it on to be looked after by someone else. Conservatives get to keep the babies, and everyone’s happy.
But we know that this cannot be a reality, for the foreseeable future. Women can’t just give birth whenever someone decides babies and foetuses are viable and pass it on to someone else. They would have to carry it to term, taking on all of the risks and dangers of a pregnancy and labour that they did not wish to continue. And that would be wrong. Since we don’t have the ability to magically take away ‘viable’ foetuses and save them, we can’t tell women what to do with their bodies. It’s their risk, and therefore their decision.
The viability argument does not take into account women’s circumstances, or whether they can get an abortion easily. It does not take into account the limits of technology, and how we test for serious disorders at this time. It does not take into account many of the complicated reasons why a woman may need a longer time period to realise that she’s even pregnant, or wants (or needs) an abortion. These should be the deciding factors in where to draw the limit, so that any woman should be able to get an abortion when she NEEDS one. We support all people in their right to keep their organs and not support anybody else with their body when it comes to organ or tissue donation, no matter how much the would-be recipient needs it, or how ‘innocent’ the recipient is. We should therefore support pregnant women in the same manner.
That’s why viability shouldn’t be what decides where we put the limit. We can’t save all ‘viable’ babies, nor can we let all women who don’t want to continue a pregnancy pass on the baby to someone else. Therefore, we still need these abortions, because we should not force any person to support another with their body. Right now, living breathing humans don’t have a right to claim someone else’s body should support them. Therefore an entity which is not alive yet should not be given special rights above those that all living people have.
This being a contentious, difficult topic, I can’t say it’s an easy question to think about. I don’t have an absolute lack of reservations about later term abortions, because the foetus is more developed. But even more, I don’t want to compromise women’s rights, and ultimately, the wellbeing of those foetuses if they are born into an environment that neither wants them, nor can care for them. There is never going to be any easy solution, nor should we lie around expecting one. We need this discussion, difficult though it is, so that we may work to find the least harmful answer we can. I’d love to see what other people think about this issue, so please feel free to comment, even if you disagree.
* Writing comments involves a lot less analysis of one’s own language and disclaimers, and I’m still in fear of starting a blog war, or making a huge faux-pas of some sort. So please tell me if I’m saying something that is privileged and ignorant, or putting my foot in my mouth. I’ll thank you. Really. I haven’t had time to do any reading of all the wonderful feminist blogs I normally lurk at recently (The F Word being the only exception), so it’s perfectly possible that someone will have covered this or done much more justice to this difficult topic, so feel free to tell me if that’s the case. I also don’t claim credit over the old ‘kidney operation’ analogy.