Late term abortion

I was wondering what your opinion is on late-term abortions? Also, at what point in a pregnancy do you think that abortion becomes killing a person?

Posted: March 6th 2012

George Locke

It is clear that first term fetuses are not “persons” in any meaningful sense. Abortion is not murder in these cases. As you know, this argument loses its force when the fetus becomes “viable” outside the womb. There is clearly an ethical difference between killing a zygote and killing a newborn infant, and the ethics of aborting viable fetuses resemble infanticide more than hormonal birth control. However, this does not mean that late term abortion is unethical in every case.

The reason ought to be obvious: though late term fetuses may be persons, there are many cases where one is justified in killing a person.

Self defense is one, and late term abortion is often self defense. There are many cases where a fetus is a direct threat to the mother, and killing the fetus is generally the ethical thing to do in such cases. A fetus has no sense of the future, no goals, no desires, no memories, whereas the mother has all these things. So when a conflict of interests arises between the mother and the fetus, the mother’s interests are generally more important: she has more to lose. (Remember, I’m talking about cases where there is a clear threat to the mother. The fetus, if brought to term, might come to gain as much as the mother would certainly lose, and of course motherhood has its own rewards, but certain danger must weigh more heavily than potential gains.)

The fetus has rights, interests, and moral value, but these facts do not imply that any threat to its interests is a moral ill regardless of circumstance. Any conflict of interest will result in one party or the other losing out, and there are cases where the mother’s interests are more important.

The other case of justified killing worth mentioning here is euthanasia. This word carries a dark cloud with it, but a rather cruel and inhumane sort of euthanasia is already commonplace, only we don’t call it that. There are many cases where a person becomes permanently incapacitated and the family decides to remove the feeding tube, or what have you. Why is this preferable to providing a swift and painless death by injection?

Likewise, it’s not so uncommon that terrible birth defects make it impossible for a newborn to thrive in any meaningful sense. One common response to such a calamity is again to withhold life-saving care. Here it seems clear that direct intervention providing a fast and humane end to the child’s life would prevent needless suffering. If the choice is between a slow, painful death and euthanasia, the ethical choice must be euthanasia. There are situations where allowing the infant to live is an act of fantastic cruelty, and such cases demand medical intervention to end the child’s life.

It seems that an incapacitated person’s interest is to remain alive in the slim chance of recovery, but it is ethical to allow such a person to die because of the immense cost, emotional and monetary, of maintaining their torpor. Horrible birth defects make it in the newborn’s own interest to die.

Late term abortion may be justified along these same lines depending on the particulars of the situation. I find it hard to defend a late term abortion when no abnormalities are detected and the delivery is not an unusual stress on the mother; pregnancy and birth put tremendous strain on a woman, but the unborn child’s interest must count for something.

The point is that there are many considerations, and the idea that late term abortion is always an abomination just doesn’t stand up. The fetus’s interests are simply not the only ones under consideration, and to ignore the mother entirely is just as blind as to ignore the fetus.

Posted: April 6th 2012

See all questions answered by George Locke

brian thomson www

I don’t have a strong opinion on the topic. Instead, I would invite you to examine the definition of “person” and what that means to you. Do you hold a “vitalist” view, that there’s some “spark of life” that makes the difference between “person” and “non-person”?

The Catholic Church, for example, would have you believe that this “spark” enters the egg at the point of fertilisation, and from that instant there is now “life” and the fertilised egg is a person. That is where they draw the line.

Laws have been drawn up in various countries, on the basis of conflicting medical advice, about when in the process abortion should be permitted or not e.g. 16 weeks. So that is where the lines are drawn: without laws, there would be no consequences, and laws are written by people.

The definition of “late-term” is not settled, either. How late is “late”? Week 24? Week 30? What happens between Week 39 and Week 41? In most cases, the baby is born: it moves from one environment (the womb) to another (the outside world). It’s an event for the mother, obviously, but what does it mean to a baby whose brain is not yet fully-formed? In some societies, past and present, infanticide has been practised; you could call that a late-late-late-term abortion.

I am of the opinion – just an opinion, not a strongly-held belief – that there is no line between “non-person” and “person”. It’s a continuum, a sliding scale, and becoming a “person” is a process, not an event. It starts at conception from zero and continues until you die. On that basis, the human need to draw lines through grey areas is always going to lead to arbitrary results that will never please everyone.

I know that doesn’t answer your question, but when you don’t believe these things are decided by some external deity, then there can no “god-given” sanctity to life – whether before birth or after, at any point in our lives. If there is to be such a thing, we should ideally decide it for ourselves, through understanding of all the issues. But the reality is that we expect lawmakers to make those decisions for us, rather than trust people to do what’s right for them.

Posted: April 6th 2012

See all questions answered by brian thomson


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