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Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor argues that technological advances mean the abortion laws are outdated.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.