Wednesday, 24 October 2012

On Abortion

Pro-life protest outside the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast
Since the opening of a Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast this month, abortion is back in the news in Ireland. The clinic, which offers first-trimester abortions only in cases where the health of the mother is at risk, was picketed on its opening day by both Free Presbyterians and devout Catholics. Other than a disgust of homosexuality, nothing else could bring such sworn enemies together.

Growing up, my parents and teachers told me that since life begins at conception, abortion is murder. As an adult, I have come to realise that such reasoning is faulty.

Human life certainly begins at conception; it is foolish of pro-choice campaigners to argue otherwise. However, scientists have determined that the structures necessary for higher brain functioning and pain perception do not develop until at least the 24th week of pregnancy. Indeed, it seems certain that the foetus does not "wake up" or become conscious until birth. Thus, I find it hard to believe that a first or second-trimester foetus is a human being with the same rights as an infant, a child, or an adult.

If you believe that humans are ensouled at conception, then you will most likely have a problem with any kind of abortion. Indeed, some pro-life advocates oppose the morning-after pill because of its potential to inhibit implantation (though recent research suggests it does not). Even if I believed in souls though, I would find it hard to believe that a fertilised egg has one.

On the other hand, I'm not sure I understand the reasoning of people who believe that though abortion is generally wrong, it ought to be permitted in the case of rape/incest. It may sound cruel, but why should it make any difference to the legitimacy of an abortion whether a woman consented to sex or was raped? Why should the foetus have more rights in the former case than in the latter? If we say that abortion is legitimate only when the woman has been raped, then we are implying that there is something wrong with terminating a pregnancy in all other circumstances. And if abortion is wrong in all other circumstances, the main reason must be that the foetus has human rights, such as the right to life. But then one is left wondering why a rape victim's foetus should be deprived of human rights just because of the way it came into being. In my view, this line of thinking is contradictory. I believe that a foetus either has human rights or it doesn't, and that this is independent of the circumstances of conception.

I do not consider myself an advocate of abortion. Indeed, given the easy availability of contraceptives and pregnancy tests these days, I find it hard to understand how any woman without a genuine medical reason would require an abortion beyond 16 weeks, let alone 20 or 24.

Whatever misgivings I may have, I do not believe that the thousands of Irish women who have had abortions in the UK this year are murderers.

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