Friday 28 October 2016

Perennial abortion debate driven by scientific advances

Published 20/07/2015 | 02:30

The modern scan is the definitive characteristic of contemporary pregnancy
The modern scan is the definitive characteristic of contemporary pregnancy

In the ongoing abortion debate it is suggested that there are liberal progressives on one side and traditional conservatives on the other, yet both sides are the product of modern ideas and scientific developments.

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The pro-choice lobby affirms a woman's autonomy, her "right to choose" - so a woman should never be forced into motherhood.

This is a new idea; in the past, pregnancy was seen as the natural consequence of sexual intercourse and women (and to a lesser extent men) accepted the risk along with the pleasure.

But the pro-life lobby, in affirming the unborn's right to life, is also drawing on a modern idea of enlightenment, supported by the UN's 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, and is underpinned by developments in biological science.

The pro-choice movement is a contemporary feminist movement, associating itself with women's rights and equality - and gains support on these grounds.

However, the pro-life movement also affirms equality in the personhood of the unborn. When the British Abortion Act was being debated in parliament in 1967, it was claimed that the conceptus was "just a bunch of undifferentiated cells".

That is now an outdated idea and the pro-life movement has gained traction from the remarkable developments in embryology and fetology over the past 40 years.

The modern scan is the definitive characteristic of contemporary pregnancy. Scans are now taken early in pregnancy and a couple often put their 'baby bump' pictures on social media - the picture showing the unborn in utero.

The development of DNA can now establish the identity of the unborn - or the foetus, if you prefer.

The director of a well-known London abortion agency, Ann Furedi, told me that some women who are uncertain of the baby's paternity now take a DNA test to help them choose whether to continue the pregnancy.

Another modern aspect of abortion is organ 'harvesting'. Hearts, lungs, livers and other organs can be harvested from an unborn post-abortion. Dr Deborah Nucatola of Planned Parenthood in the US was recently filmed explaining this procedure.

This can be very profitable, and even useful to medical practice.

Contemporary developments in medical and biological sciences such as these can prompt support for both the pro-life and the pro-choice movements.

If people want more 'choice', DNA tests and the availability of foetal organs provide such choice.

On the other hand, greater knowledge and the wilder shores of abortion practises provides more support for reactions against the abortion trade.

The pro-life lobby is often associated with religious support, yet its strongest card is in the scientific evidence that life begins at conception.

In the long run, the pro-choice movement often wins the legal and political battles. There are many reasons for this, ranging for sympathy for women with problematic pregnancies to a powerful lobby for population control.

There are indications that this trend is occurring in Ireland, as it has elsewhere, and there is more support for a more liberal approach to abortion.

However, if the pro-choice movement often wins legal and political victories, it seldom wins true hearts and minds. Hallmark has yet to launch a celebratory card saying: 'Congratulations! You've just had an abortion!'

It's telling that those who provide abortions often feel the need to resort to euphemisms. Abortion doctors say they work in "reproductive rights". They not infrequently reinvent themselves as "fertility specialists", while hospital notes refer to "procedures".

The language used is a study in itself. Medical advice on pregnancy refers to the "foetus", but the popular media never uses that word in the context of a human story. A road collision is reported as "mother and unborn baby hurt in accident" but never "mother and foetus".

Fiction is extraordinarily ambiguous in dealing with abortion.

Ernest Hemingway's stunning short story 'Hills Like White Elephants' is a heartbreaking conversation about an abortion and a relationship, without ever once mentioning the word.

A contemporary story written by Selina Guinness in a new Irish collection begins with a supportive reference to a termination of pregnancy, but ends with a "pang of grief" for the child that would never be.

As to the future, abortion will be increasingly available with DIY pills. Yet the unborn are surviving ever earlier and the foetal transplant will become a possibility, so a woman's choice may extend to 'donating' the conceptus she does not wish to bear - an extraordinary accomplishment of modern biological science. Another modernisation - and ethical dilemma. @MaryKenny4

Irish Independent

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