Letter: Empathy the key to debate on abortion

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Sir: At the heart of the debate on abortion is how to deal with an always tragic conflict of interests between the mother and the unborn child. Almost all can empathise with the plight of the mother, and hence the general consensus on her right to choose; however, many also empathise with the child, especially at the later stages of development.

From Polly Toynbee's comments (1 January), one can only deduce she is unwilling or unable to countenance the latter at any stage; viability, she declares, should not be considered in determining the time limit on abortion. And she even claims that the issues are so crystal clear that even pro-lifers are half-hearted in their protests.

So come on, Ms Toynbee, explain. What are these supposedly self-evident truths about the nature of the unborn child? Please spell out the universally agreed stages in development at which a foetus is granted no rights/some rights/full human rights. Do you believe there are any circumstances in which society should deny a woman the right to an abortion, even up to full term?

It is precisely this inability or refusal to empathise with others - particularly society's victims - which is seen in other contexts as a major cause of the disintegration of social cohesion and the rise in violence. And it is a lack of empathy which drives the US pro-life extremists - with whom Ms Toynbee claims to sympathise - to acts of violence, and which, thankfully, is absent in this country.

MANUS HENRY

Oxford

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