One of the areas of debate on the abortion issue is the TIMING on an abortion. Should an abortion be acceptable early in a pregnancy? If so, should it become an unacceptable option after the pregnancy has developed for a certain number of weeks?
As noted in my previous articles, there are many faith communities who take an absolute position on the abortion issue. They say that God alone has the right to determine when a life starts and ends. For them, ALL intentional abortion is unacceptable, there can be no exceptions.
There are also those who reject abortion unless there are exceptional circumstances. The mother’s life being at risk is a commonly proposed exception. Where the pregnancy being the result of rape or incest is another suggested exception. I will look at these specific “exceptions” in subsequent articles.
Before looking at these “exceptions”, let’s consider the objection to what is sometimes called “late term abortion”.
There are many in the general community who accept abortion on demand, provided it occurs within a specified time – generally the first trimester. Likewise, there are those who advocate for abortion at any stage of a pregnancy. Over recent years, there has been a lot of debate between these two schools of thought.
Each year in Australia, around 65,000 women have a planned abortion. Of these abortions, more than 95% are procured before the 20th week and most of these occur before the 12th week. Abortions after the 20th week are sometime referred to as “Late Term Abortions”. Some people only use “Late Term Abortions” to refer to abortions after 25th week of pregnancy.
“Late Term Abortion” is not a medical term. In fact if obstetricians use phrase “late-term,” they are generally referring to pregnancies that have extended beyond the mother’s due date (a pregnancy in its 39th or subsequent week).
In Australia, each State and Territory makes its own laws in relation to abortion. Abortion on demand is available in Victoria up to 23 weeks and 6 days. In Queensland abortion on demand is available up to 22 weeks. In most other jurisdictions, abortion on demand is available up to 20 weeks. In NSW, abortion on demand is not legally available. In South Australia, abortion is available only where medically recommended where there’s a risk to the mother’s life and where the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.
So why is abortion reasonably easily available up to 20 – 24 weeks but after that time, needs to meet certain conditions (e.g. in Queensland, it has to be deemed appropriate by two doctors)?
The two primary reasons given this 20-24 weeks, relate to the viability of the foetus and whether or not the foetus is capable of feeling pain.
The issue of “pain” is important, it becomes a “line in the sand” for some. It is generally accepted that a baby, by its 20th week of gestation, can feel pain. It is strange then that some State Governments allow abortion on demand up to the 24th week. Thus it is accepted that as a baby is burned by a saline solution or torn apart by medical forceps, it will experience a painful death. Despite this grim reality, our “civilised” society gives its nod of approval to the practice. Certainly in any later abortions (allowed by several States with appropriate approvals), there can be no doubt that the baby will experience pain during the abortion procedure. In some places in America, for example, the mother is informed that the baby will experience pain and sometimes the doctors may offer to anaesthetise the baby before the actual abortion process begins.
The question of when a baby begins to feel pain is a point of debate in the medical world. Experts have no agreement of just when a baby begins to feel pain. Some suggest anywhere between 18 and 26 weeks. Some claim that pain can be experienced by a foetus as early as 8 to 10 weeks gestation.
The 1984 film The Silent Scream gives a graphic insight into the reality of the pain experienced by a foetus during an abortion.
The second reason for limiting abortion on demand to 20 – 24 weeks is the viability of the foetus. It must be stated that, with our present medical technology, it is possible for a baby born at 21 – 22 weeks gestation, to survive outside of the womb with medical assistance. I have personally seen a baby born at 21 weeks survive with virtually no negative medical impact. The person concerned is now a healthy adult.
With the development of medical technology and skill, the period of gestation required for the baby to have a chance of survival is likely to decrease in the future.
A deep ethical question is thus raised when an abortion is carried out at any time after this point of viability is reached. If it is possible for the baby to be born and survive with (or without) medical help, how is it ethically possible to use that same medical help to terminate the baby’s life?
An ever deeper question arises when a baby is born alive in an attempted abortion. Should medical staff be required to try to keep the baby alive? Is it ethically acceptable for the baby to either be left to die or be intentionally killed by the medical staff?
Whilst it is very difficult to obtain information on this issue, some information is available. A report to the Victorian Government in 2011, showed that 40 abortions resulted in live births in that year. It is believed that these babies were then either left to die or their life was terminated. This was still classed as “abortion”
The 2011 Victorian Government report showed that, in 2011 alone, 183 babies were aborted after 5 months of gestation for reasons related to mother’s (not baby’s) health. In addition there were 195 abortions in 2011 because the babies were deemed to have certain defects such as Down Syndrome, a malformed heart, kidney missing etc. There have been some media reports on this issue.
The law of biogenesis means that those who support abortion cannot deny that a foetus, conceived by two humans, is anything other than a human. Some then use the concept of “personhood” to justify abortion up to a certain point of gestation. This concept is a philosophical term only and has no real medical meaning. Proponents of this idea claim that “personhood” starts at particular points. Some say 8 weeks, some say 20 weeks and some even say that it starts at or soon after birth. Until “personhood” is recognised, they say that abortion is OK. However the argument over “personhood” has no foundation or common definition. It fails to address basic questions of the value of life. If personhood is “achieved” at say 23 weeks after fertilisation, what is it that actually makes the life of the unborn less important before 23 weeks? If the “risk to mother’s life” argument is used to support abortion before 23 week, why is the life of the mother less important after 23 weeks?
If “personhood” is not attained until birth, how can we morally justify late abortion but not condone infanticide?
Wherever you draw the line of “acceptability” of abortion, one must ask why the child’s life is of more value on one side of “the line” than the other?
It is important to remember that the legal answer to such a question is in the hands of our politicians. The answer that political parties give on the value of life and the availability of free abortion on demand should be a major factor in determining who gets our vote on Election Day.