Abortion and viability

It is irritating to see opponents of abortion seeking to restrict abortion by opportunistically using arguments which they think are superficially persuasive but which bear no relationship to their real views and which they know to be irrelevant.

There are people who believe that a human foetus is a human life with full moral rights and that all abortion is therefore wrong.  That is a coherent point of view, though it is not one that I agree with.  There are those who believe that – at least during the early stages of pregnancy – a foetus does not have characteristics which would confer moral worth sufficient to outweigh the rights of the mother.  That alternative view is also coherent.

What does not make any sense is to say that the moral worth of the foetus depends on whether it is "viable" – that is, whether it could survive outside the womb.  Yet time and again, the abortion debate is argued on this territory.

According to the BBC a Catholic Cardinal has called upon the government to revise the abortion laws on just this basis:

Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor argues that technological advances mean the abortion laws are outdated. Modern medicine can now ensure the survival of some foetuses born before 24 weeks gestation.

This does not make any sense.  If we should attach moral worth to a foetus, it is because of the characteristics it has (e.g because it feels pain or because God has infused it with a soul) or because we attach value to what it has the potential to become.  Whether or not a foetus has moral worth cannot possibly depend on whether scientists have yet developed an effective artificial incubator.   Whether or not a foetus is a bearer of rights does not change over time with scientific progress, nor does it vary between countries according to the state of the health care system.  (Whether or not those rights will in practice be recognized may well depend on these factors.)

Linking the rights of the foetuses to viability is not only sloppy thinking, it is cynical opportunism on the part of the anti-abortionists.  They know that one day in the not too distant future it will be possible for a human egg to be fertilized in vitro and incubated entirely in an artificial womb.  That means that all embryos will be "viable" from the moment of fertilization (it also means that a freezer full of egg and sperm will be "viable" but we will leave that aside).   By linking the moral value of the foetus to viability, they are hoping to make it easier to criminalize all abortions one day. 

We are being asked to abdicate the important moral judgement (what characteristics are sufficient for a living object to have rights that would compete with the rights of the mother?) by asking a different, empirical question (how likely is it that a foetus will survive outside the womb?).  For example, on the BBC's Any Questions this week, Sir Mark Tully (a journalist who is a Christian) said:

I also think that of course it is very important that we do consider the scientific evidence of this as to what actually we are doing when we abort a child, when we reach the stage when really that is that child is beyond any doubt a living being …

I think this is something which has to be left to science very much. I think if people like us or indeed religious leaders or anyone who is an amateur starts actually speculating about that question it's very dangerous indeed.  [my emphasis]

This is clearly nonsense.  Scientists can tell us the probability that a particular foetus might survive outside the womb, or at what stage a foetus is likely to be able to feel pain.  But they are in no better position than anyone else ("amateurs") to form a view about which of these characteristics ought to be regarded as determining the moral worth of the foetus.

Those who oppose abortion should stand their ground on a meaningful claim about the characteristics of the foetus.  If you take the religious view that a foetus has rights because it has been unobservably infused by a transcendental soul at the moment of conception, then say so.   If you believe that the foetus has some other characteristic that give it a moral claim – such as the ability to feel pain, or consciousness – then let's hear what these characteristics are and we can consider together whether we find it persuasive that having those characteristics is a sufficient basis to trump the rights of the mother. 

The religious fundamentalists know that they won't win the argument by saying that a foetus has moral rights because God has entered its soul at conception.   So they try to sidestep the question about what characteristics are significant in determining moral worth by pretending that it matters whether a foetus could survive outside the womb.  That is not the point, and they know it.

20 comments on “Abortion and viability”

  1. Hi Owen, I appreciate that this is a personal question so by all means tell me to mind my own business, but I was trying to infer what your own position is.

    It seems that if you take the position that a foetus takes on moral rights at some stage between conception and birth, it <i>has</i>  to depend somewhat on scientific progress.

    How can we define the stage at which a foetus feels pain without scientific methods? Surely as scientific methods progress that definition will alter? I’m no doctor (yet) but I imagine that for any possible argument about <i>when</i> a foetus takes on moral rights two factors are at play

    1. The detection of that stage (which depends entirely on medical science)
    2. The definition of that stage (which alters as science progresses)

    For any characteristics that I can think of, the period at which abortion would be morally justified will be different now than it was 300 years ago.

    I ask this coming from ignoarance – I entirely agree with you that the assignment of moral rights should stem from logic rather than empiricism, but am less confident than you that such a clear cut answer exist, and am hoping you’ll elaborate

  2. Thanks Anthony.  I certainly won’t tell you to mind your own business (if I didn’t want to know what people think, I would not have written about it in my blog). 

    I think it is helpful to distinguish between (a) the reality (can a foetus feel pain at 30 weeks?) and (b) our knowledge of that reality (we might discover something about the pain mechanism that we did not know).

    You are right that our knowledge of reality may change in the light of new scientific discovery.  But the underlying reality does not change (a foetus either can, or cannot, feel pain at 30 weeks, whether or not we answer the question correctly). 

    The  characteristics which may determine our view of  the moral status of the foetus (eg ability to feel pain, consciousness, heart-beat etc) are characteristics of the foetus.  While our understanding of the characteristics may change over time – because we make mistakes – the characteristics themselves do not.  By contrast, the problem with viability as a characteristic is that it is not a characteristic of the foetus but of science in that context.   The moral status of the foetus depends on its characteristics, not ours; though clearly our understanding of the moral status of the foetus may change over time as science changes.

    Thanks for helping me to clarify this.

  3. I disagree. Viability does matter. If, as seems highly plausible to me, the fetus does have a right to life which is simply over-riden by the mother’s right to be free of the burdens of bearing it, the possibility of an alternative to killing it becomes relevant. Equally, it doesn’t seem particularly outrageous to claim that the capacity to sustain independent life is a moral property of itself. I can’t think of an example off the top of my head, but I’d imagine there’s one to be constructed using parasites of some sort.

  4. Rob

    1. You say "the possibility of an alternative to killing it becomes relevant.".  But nobody is proposing to remove a foetus from the womb and then incubate it artificially as an alternative to abortion.  The alternative to abortion is that the foetus stays where it is, in the womb.  Viability does not "present the possibility of an alternative to killing"- it is an entirely hypothetical question which does not offer an alternative course of action to the decision about whether or not to undertake an abortion.

    2. Viability is not the "capacity to sustain independent life".  The foetus cannot sustain independent life.   It needs someone, or something, to incubate it.  As science progresses, the possibility increases that it could be successfully incubated other than by a woman.  But this wider range of possible incubators does not change the moral status of the foetus.

    Owen

  5. Viability is not the "capacity to sustain independent life".  The foetus cannot sustain independent life.   It needs someone, or something, to incubate it.  As science progresses, the possibility increases that it could be successfully incubated other than by a woman.  But this wider range of possible incubators does not change the moral status of the foetus.

    True enough, but for those who look at this issue in primarily pragmatic terms it remains a very persuasive argument because it offers the appearance of having made a decision based on something tangible as opposed to an abstract notion of moral value.

    To a considerable extent, the search of coherent position on abortion rests on what might be considered the ‘spark’ of humanity – where and at what point in its development does the embryo/foetus cross a notional ‘dividing line’ and become recognisably human and/or obtain the defining characteristics of humanity.

    If one does not accept the notion of a soul entering the body at conception (and I don’t) – and the Bible is by no means consistent on this, there being at least one passage in which the timing of the entry of the soul is expressly linked to blood, which does not develop until some time after conception – then one needs to look for another basis to measure the foetus’s apparent humanity – this could be movement (the ‘quickening’), which is very traditional view, the development of the nervous system, presence of a heartbeat, capacity to feel pain or simply derive from an aesthetic judgement of the foetus’s appearance – does it look human?

    None of these are reliable measures, yet each, in its own way, may be highly persuasive.

    Its not for me to say how we should judge such things as a society but, personally, I take an existentialist view of this issue, which holds that the defining characteristic of humanity is the capacity for cognition – which does not develop until the third trimester – so a legal limit of around 24 weeks is entirely reasonable from my point of view as there is no appreciable higher cognitive function before this stage due to the manner in which the brain develops.

    It’s a view that many would, I’m sure, choose to question, but its at least one founded on scientific evidence and has the virtue of being consistent and renders concepts such as the foetus ‘feeling’ pain entirely meaningless as without cognition and the capacity tor self-awarenees a foetus cannot ‘feel’ at all in any meaningful sense, it has only an autonomic response to pain stimuli.

  6. Thanks Unity.  I agree with you completely.   As you say, science cannot tell us what characteristics we should think are significant when we decide at what point in the evolution from embryo to child  we should consider the child to have rights.  Only when we have specified those morally-relevant characteristics can science tell us in what circumstances an embryo or foetus is likely to have them.  Science has an important role; but it cannot substitute for the moral choices we must make.

    I am not attracted to characteristics such as "movement" or "heartbeat", because there are many living creatures which move or which have a heartbeat to which we do not accord the rights of a human being.  We would have to say "human heartbeat" – but that then shifts the question: what does it take for a heartbeat to be human?    What characteristics would the embryo need to have for us to regard this creature's heartbeat as of moral concern?  We would still have to define what we mean by humanity.

    Like you, I tend to the view that cognitive function is important.  But it seems that the criterion must be more than pure "cognition" – after all, dogs and pigs have higher levels of cognition than a foetus at full term, and we are not tempted to grant them the same rights and status as a human.  I agree with you that the capacity for self-awareness or self-consciousness is important: this is a much higher standard than simple cognition.  As I understand it (and I am no expert on the development of human cognitive functions – experts please use the comment box to confirm or deny this) self-awareness develops about 15-18 months after conception (that is, generally about 6-9 months after birth).  If you believe that self-awareness is the critical determinant of moral status, then you would confer full rights on the child as living human when it is about six months old.

    However, most of us are appalled by the thought that it might be deemed acceptable to kill babies younger than six months.  There is a strong social taboo against killing, which we would do well to protect.  I think there are very few circumstances in which euthanasia after birth should be considered, though in my view there are some extreme cases in which this would be the right thing to do, such as the prospect of considerable suffering because of conditions which could not be detected before birth or which arise during or after birth.

    One possible answer to this is that rights and humanity, like cognition, is a sliding scale, not an either/or distinction.  As cognitive function grows – from the ability to feel pain up to consciousness and then self awareness – so the moral importance of the foetus or child grows.  This seems right to me.  Just as I believe that animals have some rights (though not the same as humans), I believe that a foetus in an early stage of development of cognitive functions has some rights (though not the same as fully developed, self-aware children; and certainly many fewer rights than the pregnant woman).

    In general, it is in the potential mother's strong interest that any termination of pregnancy should occur as early as possible, and so we should make it much easier for pregnant women to have abortions in the early stages of pregnancy to reduce the need for late-stage abortions.   If we take the view that self-awareness is the critical charactistic which determines whether a foetus has full moral value as a human, and if a woman makes an informed decision to have a late stage abortion, then it is not clear that we have a valid reason to prevent it.  

    Owen

  7. "But nobody is proposing to remove a foetus from the womb and then incubate it artificially as an alternative to abortion"

    Maybe they should.

    "The foetus cannot sustain independent life."

    It can sustain life independent of any one particular other life. The need for serious medical treatment does not seem to me to comprise independence.

    That’s not really the point though. What I find exasperating about the kind of approach you’ve adopted to this problem is the refusal to take actually existing moral practice seriously unless it can be fitted into a highly rationalised moral framework. The view that unless there is some bright line or hard distinction which neatly distributes cases to one side or the other of the line seems to me to miss the way in difficult moral decisions are genuinely difficult, involving balancing a plurality of competing and often apparently incommensurable considerations. The fact that concerns about issues like viability don’t fit into moral framework concerned with such bright lines stands against that moral framework, not against the claim that viability is a genuine moral concern. Moral status is hardly likely to be measured in terms of some single feature, simply because it clearly requires placing in a context: we don’t think coma patients lose the rights whilst unconscious and then suddenly regain them when their faculties return, but regard them as full moral agents despite that present lack of cognition. It is only if it becomes clear that the faculties in question are irretrievable that we cease to regard an unconscious person as the bearer of the rights one would normally grant to an adult human being. That indicates that moral status is future-oriented, for example. The fact that we tend not to treat fetuses and coma patients alike to me indicates that moral status also refers backwards, to past actions and relationships. Given that temporality, the relationship to both the past and the future of the entity in question, it seems unlikely that some bright dividing line exists, simply because the range of factors that could matter has been opened up enormously. Given that compelxity, the idea that viability couldn’t matter, when people plainly think it does, seems very odd to me. Maybe I’m reading all kinds of things that aren’t really there into this, but it does seem that the disinterest in whether or not a fetus could survive outside of its mother’s womb is typical of a ethcial formalism which would rather strip all the content out of ethics than have to fact up to the difficulty of that content.

  8. Ben

    You are right that these are complex choices and that there are not always "bright dividing lines" – and indeed as I said in my reply to Unity, there are questions of degree.  There are, as you indicate, many factors to take into account in thinking about the moral status of people, especially in the early and late stages of life.  You are right that we should cherish the myriad complexity of humanity.

    But just because the defining characteristics of humanity are complex does not mean that any old rubbish argument will do.  The concept of humanity may well be multfaceted, but one issue that is obviously irrelevant is whether a foetus is at an age at which we could successfully incubate it artificially.  

    The Cardinal who started this – not with unprepared and offhand remarks but with a visit to the UK Health Secretary to lobby her for a tightening of abortion laws – claims that because scientists are able to incubate foetuses outside the womb earlier and earlier, that this has some bearing on when we should think that a foetus has the moral status of a human.  That is not the view of the Roman Catholic church in general – they believe that human life begins at conception – so he is simply exploiting what he thinks will be popular to achieve their aims, which is progressively to criminalise abortion. 

    I am puzzled by your exasperation that we should want to examine these questions using a "highly rationalized moral framework".   These are life and death decisions: what should we use if not a rational moral framework?

    Owen

  9. Of course the Catholic Church doesn’t believe that viability matters and of course they are using it as a kind of smokescreen to get policies in line with what they do believe, which is that fetuses have the same moral status as adult human beings from conception, which is dishonest and manipulative. But that’s not what I’m pressing. I’m disagreeing with both them and you: I think that it is at least plausible that viability does matter. Although I wouldn’t hold to the strong claim that ought always implies can, there is at least some relationship between the two, and consequently, surely, the boundaries of what is and is not possible will have some impact on our moral obligations. Presumably, for example, we are not obliged to provide a certain medical treatment before its invention or discovery. Whether or not that alters the moral status of any potential recipients of that treatment may well be a different question, I concede, but the invention or discovery of that treatment surely alters our obligations to them, or, if you prefer, the practical implications of our obligations to them. The point about the rationalistic ethical framework is that those kinds of frameworks tend to be drawn to rather abstract principles, like the capacity to feel pain or the presence of consciousness you mention in the original post. This, I think, tends to obscure the complex and often competing sets of moral considerations which bear on a particular issue or decision by seeking to embrace them all under one, either empty or excessively exclusive, principle. For example, even if you were to accept that the fetus does not have an enforcable right to life at, say, 10 weeks – which I do – it would be odd, I think, to believe that there was nothing regretable (which is not to say that anyone would be culpable for it) about aborting a 10 week old fetus simply because it lacks consciousness or the ability to feel pain. If that’s true, then moral status would seem to exist on a continuum, which must make it difficult to defend any sharp dividing lines when picking out non-discrete developmental stages.

  10. Rob

    The usual argument about viability (which I sense you do not agree with) is that because a foetus can survive outside the womb in an artificial incubator, this is an indication that an embryo at that stage of development should be regarded as having signifcant moral status.  This version of the viability argument is not about what should happen to the specific foetus in an unwanted pregnancy; instead it generalizes from the hypothetical prospects of keeping a foetus alive outside the womb to reach a view about the moral status of a foetus at that stage of development. 

    You seem to be interested in a quite different point, which is that as the scientific possibilities increase, consideration should be given to incubating foetuses artificially as an alternative to abortion in an unwanted pregnancy.  As I understand it, you think this would be less bad than terminating the pregancy altogether. 

    Your idea is an interesting option, but I hope you will agree that it has no bearing on the (fallacious) argument that a foetus should be accorded the rights of a human because it other foetuses at that stage of development could be artificially incubated.  Those who would criminalize abortions at 24 weeks do so not because they advocate artificial incubation of unwanted pregnancies but because they want us to believe that an embryo that could be artificially incubated has more moral rights than one that could not.

    There is an important distinction to be drawn between ‘is’ and ‘ought’.  Clearly you are right that what we ought to do depends on what options are practically available to us – we cannot have a moral duty to give a treatment that we have not yet invented.  But purely empirical statements (such as "this foetus could survive outside the womb") do not create any imperative to act in the absence of a premise about what we "ought" to do.  You cannot derive ‘ought’ statements from ‘is’ statements alone.  The argument against abortion from viability therefore carries an implicit moral premise ("you ought not terminate a pregnancy if the foetus is at a stage of development at which it could, in principle, be artificially incubated") which, when you examine it for a moment or two, is obviously nonsense.

    Finally, in your critique of rational moral frameworks, you seem to be opposed to frameworks which are too simple to capture the complexity of moral choices (I agree) or which do not capture the reality of continuity and lack of sharp dividing lines (I agree) as well as a dislike of frameworks which are abstract (I don’t agree, if by ‘abstract’ you mean ‘based on articulated and defensible principles rather than just emotion or popular opinion’).

    Owen

  11. The argument against abortion from viability therefore carries an implicit moral premise ("you ought not terminate a pregnancy if the foetus is at a stage of development at which it could, in principle, be artificially incubated") which, when you examine it for a moment or two, is obviously nonsense.

    I'm not so sure that it is nonsense. Let's assume for the moment that we endow the foetus with some kind of rights (otherwise one could abort or not as one pleased), but not the rights of a person. The mother, by contrast, is a person, and her rights outweigh those of the foetus. We can't force the mother to carry the child to term, because her rights are stronger than the child's.

    Now let's suppose that we have designed and built artificial wombs that can bring a foetus to term. We still can't force a mother to carry a child to term, because her rights are still stronger than the child's. We do have an alternative, though – if the mother doesn't want the child, we can transplant it to the artificial womb, where it will grow happily to term. In a choice between termination or transplant, the mother's rights are not an issue. The only rights left are those of the foetus, and if we give it any kind of minimal right to life, we must surely force transplant and forbid termination.

    Owen replies:

    Sam – you are mixing two quite separate arguments. Your point is that a foetus could be removed from the womb and artificially incubated instead.  That is quite different from the viability argument, which is that because the foetus could in principle be artificially incubated, it ought not to be aborted in the first place.  On the viability view, the possibility of artificial incubation should change our perception of the humanity of a 24-week old foetus.  Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor is not asking for foetuses to be removed from the womb and incubated; he is asking for abortion of 24-week old foetuses to be made illegal. 

    Your position seems to be this: "if a mother does not want to carry a pregnancy to full term, and the foetus could be incubated artificially instead, it should be".  That is very different from the viability cut-off argument, which is: "if a mother does not want to carry a pregnancy to full term, and the foetus could be incubated artificially instead, that shows the foetus is a human and its rights outweigh the rights of the mother so it should stay in the womb".

    It is the Murphy-O'Connor argument that is obvious rubbish.  On your version of it, I am with Unity (below) – I think the rights of the mother unconditionally outweigh the rights of a foetus.  The fact that we could incubate a foetus gives us no obligation to do so.  In the near future, we will be able to  artificially fertilize any egg in vitro and incubate the resulting embryo artificially: but it would be absurd to say that we are under an obligation to fertilize and incubate every egg that every woman produces.

  12. In a choice between termination or transplant, the mother’s rights are not an issue.

    *Cough*

    So you’re suggesting that the consequence of developing an artificial womb would be that women should then be subjected to an invasive medical procedure entirely against their wishes, and you consider that ethical?

    One of major laws in the whole ‘adoption is an alternative’ is that its proponents seem to think that the moral/ethical questions arising out such a scenario cease entirely at the point of adoption – this is patently untrue, adoption, even by choice, raises a whole series of additional moral and ethical complications that cannot be ignored.

    Where in the artificial womb scenario should one consider questions such as whether the child should be accorded the right to know the identity of their biological parent and opposed to the right of the parent to sever all contact with a child they simple did not want to bring into the world? How is the balace of such rights affected if, as it grows, the child is found to have or carry an inherited genetic disorder or develops a condition which requires, say, a bone marrow transplant from a genetically compatible relative.

    The latter scenario offer particular complications – suppose the parent moves on with their life, enters a relationship and eventually has children but wishes no contact with the child that they would have had aborted, were it not for the ‘forced transplant’. Is the presumed sanctity of life then such that, were the adotped child to develop leukemia or an auto-immune disorder requiring a bone marrow transplant, the rights of the biological parent and her subsequent offspring could again be overridden and her other children be compelled to undergo screening or even act as donor, whether they wished to or not.

    Equally, the knowledge that one was adopted in ‘ordinary’ circumstances can be difficult for some children and even adults to come to terms with – how much more traumatic would this be were one to discover not only that one was not wanted by the biological parent but that one is alive only because of such overtly intrusive legal/technological intervention.

    How would people react to that knowledge? Who knows for sure but I think it safe to predict, simple from experience of the full scope of human nature, that were this scenario played out in actuality then in the most extreme cases the ultimate outcome would encompass either the suicide of the adopted child or the murder of the biological parent.

    There are no easy moral judgements to be made in this issue and anyone who suggests there are is basically a fool.

  13. So you’re suggesting that the consequence of developing an artificial womb would be that women should then be subjected to an invasive medical procedure entirely against their wishes, and you consider that ethical?

    I suggest that the foetal transplant would be about as invasive as an abortion. If there is a significant difference, then the woman's rights would come into play.

    Where in the artificial womb scenario should one consider questions such as whether the child should be accorded the right to know the identity of their biological parent and opposed to the right of the parent to sever all contact with a child they simple did not want to bring into the world? How is the balace of such rights affected if, as it grows, the child is found to have or carry an inherited genetic disorder or develops a condition which requires, say, a bone marrow transplant from a genetically compatible relative.

    Well, I don't believe there is a right for an adopted child to discover the identity of their biological parents. The same goes for children born from donor sperm. The "right" that such children appear to have been given to discover their genetic parents has no sound basis. I agree that it's nice that such children are able to find their genetic parents if they wish, but that has to occur with the consent of the parent. Discovering a genetic disorder doesn't change anything, although there's probably a moral duty on a parent to pass on (anonymously via the adoption agency) the fact that they have been diagnosed with a genetically linked illness to their genetic children.

    The latter scenario offer particular complications – suppose the parent moves on with their life, enters a relationship and eventually has children but wishes no contact with the child that they would have had aborted, were it not for the ‘forced transplant’. Is the presumed sanctity of life then such that, were the adotped child to develop leukemia or an auto-immune disorder requiring a bone marrow transplant, the rights of the biological parent and her subsequent offspring could again be overridden and her other children be compelled to undergo screening or even act as donor, whether they wished to or not.

    No, I don't think under any circumstances you can force anyone to agree to a transplant to save someone else's life. I'm not sure what premises you need to assume in order to produce that situation.

    Equally, the knowledge that one was adopted in ‘ordinary’ circumstances can be difficult for some children and even adults to come to terms with – how much more traumatic would this be were one to discover not only that one was not wanted by the biological parent but that one is alive only because of such overtly intrusive legal/technological intervention.

    Probably quite traumatic, yes. Do you suggest that we should kill people to spare them emotional pain?

    How would people react to that knowledge? Who knows for sure but I think it safe to predict, simple from experience of the full scope of human nature, that were this scenario played out in actuality then in the most extreme cases the ultimate outcome would encompass either the suicide of the adopted child or the murder of the biological parent.

    Yes, that's possible, although the biological parent would have had to permit her contact details to be passed to the child. But consider this: we already have an almost identical situation. Many countries have "safe haven" laws, where an unwanted newborn baby can be handed over to a hospital for adoption in the first few days of its life with no questions asked. A foetal transplant isn't much different from that – it just happens earlier in the life of the child.

  14. Owen,

    there are number of issues involved here – the fact-value distinction, for example (about which you might want to be less clearcut if you think the fact of the possession of consciousness grants a particular moral status, say) – but I think the central one is that you think the viability argument – which I’m merely saying is not obviously ridiculous, rather than actually advocating – intends to grant 24 week-old fetuses the full rights of an able-bodied adult human, whereas I think that, if the argument works, it merely adds a(nother) consideration against having an abortion – which may not be decisive, and even if decisive, may not be a sound basis for legal sanction. I think the coma analogy is useful here. No one thinks that granting the full rights of an able-bodied adult human to those in comas would make sense, and certainly no-one thinks that it would make sense just because now, as was not always the case, they can be kept alive for long periods of time. Why should fetuses be any different?

  15. Owen, the issue of viability is important because, if a woman wishes to terminate a pregnancy, or especially if she needs to for health reasons, and it is possible for her to give birth to a baby which could live outside her, there is a moral imperative to give birth to it and keep it alive rather than kill it. The idea is that it has a right to life but not a right to live in her body if she is unwilling to see it to term or if it poses a health risk. Prior to being viable, it cannot live without her so if she wishes to terminate the pregnancy at that time, the only way for that to occur is for the fetus to die.

    Whether or not you agree, it is still a coherent argument.

    Owen replies: Anonymous person – that is not a coherent argument. It is simply an assertion that the rights of the foetus change at the point it becomes viable. The choice being made in an abortion is between between terminating the pregnancy and taking it to full term. It is not proposed that the foetus should instead be removed and incubated artificially, so the theoretical possibility of doing this is of no relevance to the question of whether abortion should be allowed.

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Owen Barder

Owen is Senior Fellow and Director for Europe at the Center for Global Development and a Visiting Professor in Practice at the London School of Economics. Owen was a civil servant for a quarter of a century, working in Number 10, the Treasury and the Department for International Development. Owen hosts the Development Drums podcast, and is the author Running for Fitness, the book and website. Owen is on Twitter and