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June 26, 2006

Hattersley on Abortion

Much good stuff in this although I do disagree with one of his rather major points. Roy Hattersley on abortion:

Humanists should fill the moral vacuum. We put respect for human life at the heart of our creed and we pride ourselves in pursuing that central tenet of belief with uncompromising logic rather than reliance on mysticism or magic. The rules that should govern an ethically acceptable policy on abortion are not difficult to define. Metaphysics aside, it is reasonable to conclude that the new human being begins when the foetus is capable of independent life. Before that, an abortion is undesirable but tolerable. After that, it is only acceptable in the most extreme cases. They do not include the psychological trauma of the expectant mother. A civilised society does not kill one person in order to alleviate the distress of another, no matter how traumatic it may be.

Change "capable of independent life" to "is human" and I’m all in agreement.

Melissa Dear of the Family Planning Association argues that further study is not necessary because "only a small minority of women have an abortion after 20 weeks ... and for those there are good reasons". One of those reasons is, in her estimation, the fact that the prospective mothers "may not have realised that they were pregnant". How can that possibly be a justification for killing a potential, or an actual, human being?


The other day, as part of a radio discussion, a young lady raised the question of a child conceived by rape. Surely, she said, no one could argue against an abortion - no matter how late the date - in such circumstances. The logic of her argument is as disturbing as her lack of respect for life. I give her credit for not demanding the execution of the rapist. If she does not propose capital punishment for the perpetrator of the horrible crime, how can she justify the death penalty for one of its victims? The rational conclusion is desperately hard on the woman who has been violated. But unless the preservation of life comes first, we are savages.

He’s going to get an awful lot of stick on that but I can’t see the fault in the logic. If you’re not willing to kill the criminal (as I would not be, given my opposition to capital punishment) then how can you argue that one should kill one of the victims?

...the central issues: when does independent life begin, and should we alter the date at which, in any circumstances, it is ended?

As above, change "independent life" to "is a human" or "human life" and that is exactly the central question. When does it start, when is the child/baby/unborn child/foetus/blob of amniotic cells a human being with the right to life and the expectation of having such supported by society and when isn’t it? 

I would argue that that point is conception but I can see that others would differ. What I can’t see is how the debate can be framed in any other way. Who is human? Who is not and thus we may kill them for our convenience?

June 26, 2006 in Health Care | Permalink


How does one arbitrate between competing criteria of humanhood? By vote? Or do you think some matter of fact should settle the question?

Incidentally, a debate over the rightness of abortion could easily be framed without recourse to the notion of humanity - for instance, between two factions who agree that foetuses are not fully human, but differ over whether they possess any non-human rights. (The same factions would probably disagree over whether animals have rights.)

Posted by: Lake | Jun 26, 2006 11:17:03 AM

But Tim, what is so special about conception? An at what point in conception? (It is after all another natural process, not an instantaneous bit of magic.)

I would argue that the morally significant features of humanity are the ability to experience happiness and suffering, and to have hopes and desires and expectations. I would guess that these all come fairly late, but I would be happy to give the foetus a big benefit of the doubt by setting a limit of 20 weeks or so.

I would agree that the age of capacity for independent life is arbitrary.

Tim adds: Conception? Because it’s the point at which one has to positively act in order to prevent the birth of a live baby.

Posted by: Joe Otten | Jun 26, 2006 11:35:12 AM

Well, presently the point at which one becomes human is decreed by law (24 weeks, if memory serves). As I understand it, before the magic 24 week deadline one can abort a feotus pretty much on demand. Thereafter it requires more evidence of need, such as serious health risks etc.

Logic would indicate that the two naturally significant milestones would be conception and birth. All that occurs in between is simply a process, which will proceed at varying rates from mother to mother throughput the nine month term.


Posted by: The Remittance Man | Jun 26, 2006 12:48:21 PM

"how can you argue that one should kill one of the victims"

The unborn child is not a "victim" of the rape in any meaningful sense, unless you want to extend victimhood to close friends and family, neighbours, the outraged community, the postman, the window cleaner, and so on.

Posted by: Bob Doney | Jun 26, 2006 1:10:02 PM

Logic wouldn't indicate that, RM, though a certain sort of pragmatism might.

And I'm not sure there's such a thing as 'natural significance' in the sense you seem to have in mind - one which warrants the inference from conspicuousness to ethical importance.

Posted by: Lake | Jun 26, 2006 1:11:06 PM

Killing the rapist sounds like a good idea to me. So I guess I avoid that logical trap. I don't say every rapist should be killed but I don't see why it should not be an option and one IMO that the victim could have a final say on. One reason for this is that rape is generally about control so putting the rapist in the position where his fate is controlled by his victim seems completely appropriate.

As for conception. How do you feel about "Plan B" Morning after pills? There is considerable evidence that actual fertilization of the ova does not take place immediately so presumably you are all in favour of them?

Posted by: Francis | Jun 26, 2006 2:49:05 PM

FWIW, I think plan B is great. Everybody should have some in the bathroom cabinet just in case. (IIRC a large dose of the regular oral contraceptive will do the same job.)

Anyway, did you hear the story that the rhythm method (probably) increases the number of spontaneous abortions? That makes it more evil than proper contraception, right?

Posted by: Joe Otten | Jun 26, 2006 3:53:15 PM

Remittance Man,

As I-forget-who said, "The existence of dusk does not disprove the existence of day and night."

Posted by: Mike Solent (Husband of Natalie) | Jun 26, 2006 4:07:45 PM

Sheesh, that last was me, Natalie, not my husband.

Posted by: Natalie Solent | Jun 26, 2006 4:10:19 PM

My own stance on abortion is that we should work towards a society where it simply becomes unnecessary, by examining the reasons why mothers choose to abort, and by examining the circumstances by which the pregancy leads to an abortion.

The big problem is the unfettered nanny statism spouted by the likes of Hattersley are unlikely in a million years to come up with some sort of welfare scheme that helps all parties overcome unwanted pregnancies, no wonder abortion is seen as an "easy way out".

Outlawing or whatever is not going to solve the problem, it will just go overseas, so it is pointless to discuss the ethics of it, notice that ponces like Hattersley completely fail to come up with any real answers, just a dozen paragraphs of pseudo-philosophical moralistic twaddle.

A civilised society does not kill one person in order to alleviate the distress of another, no matter how traumatic it may be.

What a purile piece of pathetic meaningless liberal bile from the master of wooliness himself.

What better way to excuse every criminal that "no matter how traumatic" for the victim their crime is, it will be happily be tolerated by Roy's fluffy bunny "civilised society".

No, Roy, some crime will _never_ be tolerated, no matter how civilised we become, and we will have to "kill" at some point. I put the word "kill" in quotes simply because I can see the next argument Hattersley brings up will be how locking someone up for good is tantamount to "kill".

See, that's an example of my logic; Lock up rapists for good, discourage others, then less rapes, then less abortions. But somehow I don't actually see how Hattersley the Humble Humanist is going to adopt that one.

I give her credit for not demanding the execution of the rapist.

He probably thinks rapists are human too, no one else does, and certainly not me.

Posted by: IanLondon | Jun 26, 2006 4:11:47 PM

I'm a big believer in a Woman's Right to Choose - the Right to choose not to have sex. If you make the choice you have to accept the possible consequences. (After all, this is the case with the financial liability on the potential father). This is just the same as someone making a bet on a horse - you might be lucky, and you might not. And you can't ask for your money back if your horse doesn't win.

But in the case of a rape victim the woman DIDN'T exercise the right to choose. Hard as it may be, in these circumstances I have to support her right to an abortion.

Posted by: David B. Wildgoose | Jun 26, 2006 4:47:50 PM

IanLondon : -
"we should work towards a society where it simply becomes unnecessary, by examining the reasons why mothers choose to abort"

How about a fucking ectopic?

Tim adds: My argument has, for a long time, been that one can kill another human only in cases of immediate self defense or in the course of a Just War. It’s also always been clear to me that an ectopic pregnancy comes under exemption 1.

Posted by: dave heasman | Jun 26, 2006 5:25:51 PM

Lake, So how would you define the point at which a feotus becomes human?

Conception is the obvious starting point of the whole process. But if one deems that the moment that humanity is instilled then all abortion becomes murder.

The other notable event is birth. But here, if one states that a child only becomes human as it is born then, by inference, one could argue that a feotus may be aborted at any time during pregnancy.

The choice of 24 weeks, or 36 weeks or 12 weeks, is an arbitrary one based on the viability of the average child born at that time.

I don't offer any answer to the questions as I have none. I simply offer a couple of ideas for debate.

Then again, I've always felt that this was a debate in which men should play the minor role for once.


Posted by: The Remittance Man | Jun 26, 2006 5:32:02 PM

"It’s also always been clear to me that an ectopic pregnancy comes under exemption 1"

It's always been clear to me that the possibility of such an event has never occurred to 95% of the fucking men fucking bloviating on the topic.

Tim adds: At least this one of the 5% has blog archives to back up the fact that he had thought of it before you raised the subject :-)

Posted by: dave heasman | Jun 26, 2006 6:25:15 PM

Tim - you say that conception matters "Because it’s the point at which one has to positively act in order to prevent the birth of a live baby".

I'm surprised that you would build the whole case on a moral distinction between action and inaction. Though this idea has a long history, there is not much of an intellectually respectable basis for placing so much weight on this distinction.

Furthermore, if you do think that action/inaction is the key issue, it seems to me that you would to draw the line at ejaculation rather than conception.

I've got a recent post about viability as the basis for abortion laws, which has generated some interesting comments, here:


Tim adds: Indeed Owen, and I tried to leave a comment but technology defeated me. Abortion, from my (Chambers) dictionary. The premature expulsion of an embryo or foetus.

The invention of a foetal development chamber which was not a woman’s body would entirely change the morality of the argument. At present, as much as I dislike this way of putting it, it is between the rights of a woman to have sovereignty over her own body and the rights of the foetus not to die. I tend to the right of the foetus not to die.

If abortion (as above, removing the foetus prematurely) did not lead to the death of the foetus, but to its development elsewhere, then the moral argument has changed greatly, don’t you think?

BTW, there is a great weight of intellectually respectable disucssion on the difference between sins of ommission and commission. If I murder someone this is different from my failing to prevent the murder of someone else. The latter is a continuum....if I fail to, in an easy manner, stop the murder of someone right in front of me, this is indeed tantamount to murder. If I buy shoes from a factory in East Timor where the gang master has murdered someone in order to retain his position as gang master, I am less culpable. Less, not not.

Posted by: Owen Barder | Jun 26, 2006 8:22:14 PM

I believe in the woman's right to choose. She is the one who will be carrying it to full-term and dealing with the child's care for the rest of its life. If that cannot be done with love and support, then a miserable life the child will live.

As someone who had a teenage abortion, it is important that there is a choice and an option that is safe, rather than being forced underground.

It's difficult when you have an abortion at 8 weeks pregnant and then, years later, get pregnant and follow every step of your baby's progress from the moment you know.
With a wanted pregnancy you are trying to get past the 12 weeks mileston. Waiting and waiting. Hoping and hoping that everything is going to be ok. And knowing, in the past, with an unwanted pregnancy, you've wanted it to die at the earliest opportunity.

Posted by: Emily | Jun 26, 2006 8:26:14 PM

"Metaphysics aside, it is reasonable to conclude that the new human being begins when the foetus is capable of independent life. Before that, an abortion is undesirable but tolerable. "

Dear me, no.

Capable of independent life?

If that is the criterion for abortion, it would be acceptable until the child is about 4 years old.

Sorry to be pedantic, but you (or Hattersley) cannot slip that one through.


Posted by: Dr John Crippen | Jun 27, 2006 12:23:01 AM


You say:

If abortion (as above, removing the foetus prematurely) did not lead to the death of the foetus, but to its development elsewhere, then the moral argument has changed greatly, don’t you think?

Yes, but that is not what is being argued. The claim is being made that because the foetus could, in principle, be artificially incubated elsewhere, then it must have the right not to be aborted at all. That is a quite different point; and it is based on the (wholly false) notion that our ability to incubate a foetus has any bearing on its humanity.


PS Sorry you had problems commenting on my blog. What browser are you using and what problem did you experience?

Tim adds: I was in Feedreader. That program does screw up commenting a lot.

Posted by: Owen Barder | Jun 27, 2006 12:59:04 AM

I want to thank Dr. Crippen for making me aware of this blog - and particularly of this post. This is the first time I've run across someone who seems to see abortion the same way I do.

If we're going to use "independence" as a criteria, that could foreseeably lead into questions about individuals who lose their independence later in life ... and in fact, I believe it already has - Terri Schiavo, for example.

If we stopped feeding all of the elderly with Alzheimers who can no longer feed themselves, there would surely be an outcry. What about if we stopped feeding those who've had a stroke, and are paralyzed? How about someone who's been in a bad accident, and need intensive and nearly total care for months, or even years, before they're again able to fend for themselves?

Just how far can this criteria of lack of independence be carried as a justification for murder?

The child is no less human at one hour, than it is at one year ... or 100 years. The entire genetic code is set at conception - there's no chance of that child morphing into anything other - it is human.

From that perspective, we begin to have to justify ending a human life for other reasons.

Are we going to weigh it against the life the mother? Well, there may be some logic in that, since the child, at this stage, cannot survive without the mother. However, very few abortions are done with the idea of saving the life of the mother ...

... unless you want to count the idea that the mother is traumatized because she doesn't want to have to take responsibility for her actions. Sadly, I've heard that sad little piece of selfishness used more than once.

In most cases, abortion is not about saving a life ... it's about convenience, pure and simple.

It's not convenient at this stage of my life ... it's not convenient until I finish my education ... it's not convenient until I'm married ...

Very few of them even want to consider carrying the baby, and then giving it up for adoption. They don't want to give up the 9 months to carry a baby which would not even exist if it weren't for their actions to begin with.

And what it almost always comes back to is convenience. We are murdering the most innocent and helpless of our own species for the sake of convenience.

That's got to carry some pretty heavy karma ...

Posted by: Moof | Jun 27, 2006 1:12:49 AM

Without weighing in on either side of the abortion debate, I should point out that carrying a baby to term is not an easy thing to do. When my wife was pregnant with our son, she was sick more or less continuously for 7 months (as in sufficiently sick that she was unable to work).

There is a tendency, whenever the adoption option is suggested, to belittle the amount of effort involved in carrying a baby to term. We should avoid that error.

Posted by: Sam | Jun 27, 2006 3:12:22 AM

I think this debate is missing the point. We all want to reduce the number of unwanted or irresponsible or underage pregnancies etc.

Holland has shown that this can be done by education without having to restrict abortion.

As Emily points out, the person best suited to make this decision is the woman involved. It is in nobody's interest to force women to have children they don't want (least of all the unwanted child whose parents are unlikely to take proper care of it).

It is plainly ridiculous to equate a bundle of cells with a baby. Obviously later term abortions becomes more of a moral grey area but I would still support the woman's right to choose.

The facts are that there were 154 abortions at 24 weeks and reducing this will only punish the most vulnerable, poor, uneducated women. Those who can afford it will go abroad (as indeed they already do for abortions after 24 weeks).

The UK has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the EU. It is increasingly hard to find two doctors who are not religious bigots. The UK is far more restrictive than the US, where ironically despite it's reputation, abortion is completely on demand up to the point of birth.

On a more controversial point, if we want to reduce crime and the environmental impact on this planet we should not be restricting abortion. If only for the sake of the millions of children that are dying and will die in the future as a result of overpopulation and mankind's lack of concern for inequality.

Opponents of abortion just want to control women. It has little to do with protecting the foetus or many of them would realise the inconsistency of their position supporting capital punishment and animal experimentation while opposing the death of a clump of cells that just 'might' become a potential person in the future.

Posted by: Neil Harding | Jun 27, 2006 6:13:58 AM

A couple of points I forgot to add.

Most of the 24 week foetuses kept alive are severely disabled.

It is safer for a woman to have an abortion than have a baby.

Post abortion depression is rare and is anyway usually caused by religious propaganda causing guilt in women who have been indoctrinated. The typical reaction of a woman post abortion is immense relief.

Posted by: Neil Harding | Jun 27, 2006 6:26:25 AM

I would also like to add that I disagree that adoption is another option to force a mother into going full term. My father, aunt and uncle were all adopted by their grandparents. When the law came into effect in the 70s that they could access their files, they had a shock. The birth parents were not interested in two cases and my aunt discovered she didn't even have a proper birth certificate as she was abandoned.

Posted by: Emily | Jun 27, 2006 6:59:25 AM

Apropos Neil Harding's comments, the UK does NOT have "some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the EU", (far from it), and as for his comment about overpopulation, the UK in common with our European neighbours has a FALLING population only being maintained by immigration.

Posted by: David B. Wildgoose | Jun 27, 2006 8:03:28 AM

The entire genetic code is set at conception - there's no chance of that child morphing into anything other - it is human.

Erm, exactly four cells connected to each other is not human. It may become human, but then again an egg may become a chicken; the two are not the same.

Personally, I am happy with the current state of affairs whereby a foetus becomes human at the point of birth and not before. Whether a propsective mother chooses to abort her baby or not is eff all to do with anyone but her, and possibly the father.

Posted by: Tim Newman | Jun 27, 2006 9:22:52 AM