Thursday, 5 June 2008

Human Fertilisation & Embryology: a woman's right to choose.

I posted on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology bill prior to the Parliamentary debate, and then had an interesting discussion with the Political Umpire, through the comments attached to both my original post and his own on the same subject. In fact, I think I probably achieved greater clarity in those comments than in my first post. I said that I would return to the subject when the dust had settled, and it has so I am.

Re-reading my original post, I'm not sure whether my sense of priorities at the time was correct. The stem cell research proposals, horrendous as they seem to me, have such an uncertain outcome that it is difficult to be absolute in condemning them. Scientists will in the end disregard legal niceties anyway, particularly as the technology already exists. So I'm deeply unhappy, but have nothing to add to what I said at the outset. However the other two issues (abortion, and the need to consider the need for a father) were not covered as I now wish they had been, so I'll set down my thoughts on them in separate posts.

Abortion. As I said previously, I support the existing 24 week limit on obtaining a termination, and believe that they should be easily available. However undesirable it may be it is the lesser of two evils (unwanted, abandoned babies and the return of the back-street abortionist seeming worse). Nevertheless, I think that the limit is a subject that it is entirely reasonable to review from time to time.

Those who oppose abortion outright tend to do so from religious conviction, and are entirely entitled to do so. However the debate as to whether we permit abortion or not took place in 1967, and there has been no likelihood of abortion's opponents even beginning to approach a majority in the Commons since. This leaves a difficult problem in its wake, because when you have the secondary debate as to the point in a pregnancy where termination should no longer be permitted, it becomes skewed by the opponents always supporting the shortest period available as an option, regardless of any evidence to the contrary. It is a dilemma that is just about impossible to resolve, but it does mean that any final decision is likely to err on the side of caution, and that at least is no bad thing.

What struck me most about the debate itself though was the repeated invocation (by supporters of the status quo) of a woman's 'right to choose'. What on earth is this supposed 'right', and where might it come from? Women have clear rights with regard to pregnancy in this country, in particular the right not to get pregnant unless they wish to do so. They are not compelled to have sex, and if they should choose to do so they are not prohibited from using contraception (including a 'morning after' pill).

Pregnancy though is not a right it itself, rather it is a responsibility. A woman who chooses to get pregnant takes on a responsibility for her unborn child, to which her own rights are entirely secondary. Regardless of the law, she should not for example place the child at risk through the excessive use of alcohol or of other drugs; to do otherwise would be immoral and entirely to be condemned.

It is offensive that women claim a 'right to decide'. If they possessed such a right (and they don't) it would surely permit that they be allowed terminations right up to the point of delivery, maybe of infanticide beyond that. There is of course no such right, and those who claim that there is simply encourage women to disregard the immense responsibility that comes with conception.

I recognise that there are many unwanted pregnancies that arise from emotional and sexual immaturity, from lack of education, and sometimes as a consequence of non-consensual sex, and that there are many other valid reasons why a woman might need a pregnancy terminated. But if we talked less about rights and more about responsibilities, I suspect that the number of terminations would fall, regardless of the limits set out by the law.

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