Pictures, foetuses and a misconceived debate

If a pro-choice argument is not propounded now, support for abortion will be sandpapered down
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The Independent Online

Can you feel the kicking? No, it's not a baby. It's the British right, thrashing desperately against the rock-solid British consensus in favour of abortion rights. This week, they have gained their best propaganda weapon in decades. A new form of ultrasound scan can show foetuses at very early degrees of development. The resulting photographs were triumphantly paraded on the front page of an anti-abortion newspaper yesterday, part of a parade of anti-abortion propaganda staged this year by the Daily Mail and its Mini-Me, the Evening Standard. There have been stories of foetuses wrenched from the womb only to die gasping in cardboard cups, and of mothers coerced by wicked doctors into getting rid of Downs Syndrome foetuses.

Can you feel the kicking? No, it's not a baby. It's the British right, thrashing desperately against the rock-solid British consensus in favour of abortion rights. This week, they have gained their best propaganda weapon in decades. A new form of ultrasound scan can show foetuses at very early degrees of development. The resulting photographs were triumphantly paraded on the front page of an anti-abortion newspaper yesterday, part of a parade of anti-abortion propaganda staged this year by the Daily Mail and its Mini-Me, the Evening Standard. There have been stories of foetuses wrenched from the womb only to die gasping in cardboard cups, and of mothers coerced by wicked doctors into getting rid of Downs Syndrome foetuses.

It is tempting to dismiss this as just another marginal debate about abortion, the kind that breaks out once every few years like an old A-level ethics paper. But these pictures have a raw emotional power that previous arguments lacked; and over the next few decades, new pre-natal technologies threaten to unpick Britain's consensus behind legal abortion stitch by stitch. Pro-choice groups need to get wise now.

For 30 years, the wind has been behind moves for safe, legal abortion, and - in Europe at least - the anti-abortion movement has seemed to be clinging to the past, often placing religious superstition at the core of their argument. But new technologies are making it easier for foetuses to survive outside the womb. Some scientists even think it is credible that foetuses could be "grown" in artificial wombs by the end of the decade. Already, some late abortions destroy foetuses that could survive (with a lot of help) if the mother were induced to give birth. From now on, those of us who support a woman's right to choose are going to be on the defensive.

If they are smart (no certainty, given their eccentricity), anti-choice campaigners will put these medical advances at the core of their campaigning. They will stop wittering about eternal souls endowed by God and start waving ultra-sound photographs. They'll use forward-looking technologies to garner support for their backward-looking moralities.

At first glance, their chances of success look poor. Since legalisation, support for abortion rights in Britain has remained absolutely solid at around 80 per cent. But do not underestimate the propaganda value of this new technology. Not all the opponents of abortion are misogynists or religious fundamentalists. There will also be some decent people concerned by these developments. If these photographs and other technological innovations are not put into a wider philosophical context, then support for abortion will be slowly sandpapered down.

The pro-choice movement needs to articulate a clear, science-based argument about the nature of human foetuses. It is not enough to simply be against the anti-choice brigade. It does not suffice to say that the world of backstreet abortions was worse (although it was), or that religious beliefs have no place in law outside a theocracy (true though that is).

The best pro-choice groups outline a positive philosophy. They explain that our consideration for the foetus should depend not on a mystical notion of the soul, but on the extent to which it is sentient. Most people understandably feel concern when they see these photographs - but not because they imagine a magical "soul" is being violated. It is because they think it is a person like you and I, a being that wants to go on living. They imagine that pain would be inflicted on a living, feeling, thinking thing by sucking out of the womb. They would be right to be worried - if these foetuses could feel or want anything. Yet there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that foetuses cannot feel anything - or be considered sentient - before 18 weeks.

In Britain, 85 per cent of all abortions happen before this point. It hardly seems a cause of grief to abort a cluster of cells that can feel nothing and think nothing. It does not want to carry on living; it does not want anything. It will feel nothing as it is destroyed. Ah, the anti-abortionists will say, but look at these pictures. It has a face. It moves. It gurgles. This is crass anthropomorphism; it projects developed adult qualities on to an insentient blob. It's like looking at a horse's long face and assuming all horses are sad.

But building a defensible moral case for abortion based on the inability of foetuses to feel pain comes at a price. It will make early abortions - the majority - easy to defend, but it will make the tiny number of late abortions conducted without good medical reasons increasingly untenable. Once a foetus develops the capacity to feel pain it becomes increasingly wrong to kill it. The longer the abortion is left after this stage, the more problematic it becomes.

But only 3,000 abortions a year are conducted in Britain after 18 weeks. It is worth ending this small number of unethical killings in order to secure the right of women to rid their bodies of unnecessary and insentient clumps of flesh. This reform would batten down the moral hatches for the anti-choice storm heading our way.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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