Thursday, 19 September 2013

Anne Furedi, Gender-Selective Abortions and Legal Permissibility

With all the controversy in the press over the failure of the CPS to seek prosecution for doctors who offer to provide abortions on the basis of gender, Anne Furedi the chief executive of BPAS (British Pregnancy Advisory Service) wades in with her thoughts. You can read her article here.


Anne is never afraid to speak her mind and in fact she at-least has the intellectual honesty to follow the logic of her position to its conclusions which a vast number of pro-choice advocates fail to do. So even though I couldn't disagree with her more about her stance on the unborn and abortion, I do respect at-least that intellectual virtue. Unfortunately the reductio ad absurdum of her denial of the moral value of the developing human being are lost on her.

So lets begin. Anne points out that the 1967 Abortion Act doesn't explicitly state that rape, incest,
abandonment or being young are legitimate reasons for abortion, and that gender-selective abortions are no different. This is correct. All such reasons are based on the impact on the women's mental or physical health, therefore if a women happens to be in an environment where having another girl would bring shame on her and her family (possibly physical abuse) and the mental anguish may be such that the abortion could be legitimately and legally procured. In fact the law actually does take into account the impact the birth of the child could have on the existing family and children, perhaps the child would be hated by their father and extended family. The 1967 Abortion Act is simply so ambiguous that in reality I can see some legitimacy to her points, it is quite possible legally speaking for the law to be interpreted by doctors so that most reasons can be construed in a way that they would be legally permissible.



Lets put this to the test, Anne points out that a 15-year old girl wants an abortion so that she can sit her GCSE exams. Anne correctly points out that procuring an abortion explicitly for needing to sit exams would not be legal grounds for abortion. However, if there is serious concern for her long-term mental health and the doctor believes this to outweigh the risk of continuing the pregnancy (what-ever that means) it would be a legal abortion. We would be naive to think this doesn't happen in reality.

As I said, nearly every request can be reasoned in such a way that it could be legal, how exactly can we empirically weigh how much injury to a women's mental health is such that it justifies killing her unborn child?

The law is primarily focussed on the impact having the child would have on the women, it is not in any obvious way interested in the unborn child. It is morally indifferent in regards to the nature of the unborn child up-to 24-weeks, unless of course they are disabled in which case you may have an abortion at any point throughout pregnancy. Once they are born of course something magical happens so that we must as a society respect and treat disabled human beings as our equals, however, previously their death was encouraged as the responsible choice. (I'm not agreeing with this thought process one bit, I'm only pointing out the moral inconsistency of such a view.)



Anne suggests that a doctor agreeing abortion on the grounds of rape would be illegal, but the law doesn't give any explicit examples of what may produce sufficient mental or physical injury, our society just assumes that abortion in the case of rape meets those requirements. There could be a potentially endless list if you were to interpret the law like Anne... through the glasses of limitless and absolute autonomy. The law was not meant to be interpreted in such a way that it would be seen as providing legitimacy for what is effectively abortion on demand. But sadly today it is.

So, if the requirements of the law are fulfilled by a women wanting to procure an abortion based on the mental or physical injury she may get from continuing the pregnancy of a child of a particular gender, then this could be interpreted as a legal abortion.

I think Anne Furedi is right, the law can be interpreted in such a way because of its emphasis on the women and the apathy towards the unborn child. Gender-selective abortions are probably covered under the Abortion Act as long as the reasons (mental and potential physical injury etc) given for ending the pregnancy are believed to be accurate by the doctors. She is right, providing the legal grounds are met there really is no difference legally speaking between procuring an abortion for gender-selective reasons, rape, being young or the disrupting of education.

Some people would argue that by allowing gender-selective abortions we would be providing legitimacy for further abuse against women and sending out a message that females are less valuable than males. Of course I think that's exactly right, of course it would be. But then many of the same people who are morally repulsed by the idea of gender-selective abortions are fine with the selective-abortions for those with disabilities, and would tell us that doing so doesn't mean that disabled human beings are seen as any less morally valuable in our society. We truly are living in a morally confused culture.

Anne makes the important point that if those that are pro-choice about abortion don't like the reasons women have abortions they need to suck it up, because if you really believed in a women's autonomy and capacity to choose they would trust her to decide what's best. Like she says 'You can’t be pro-choice except when you don’t like the choice, because that’s not pro-choice at all.'.

If you assume that unborn human beings are not sufficiently morally valuable and that a right to privacy or bodily autonomy provides moral justification for killing them then Anne Furedi would be right. However, the unborn differ in no such morally relevant way that justifies killing them. What gender-selective abortion has brought to the forefront of our society again is its moral confusion and the power of language to define other human beings outside of our moral circle. The greatest human injustices have nearly always been marked by the way they have been defined as outsiders and legitimate victims.

If a line of moral thought leads to morally absurd conclusions then it generally means that its moral foundations are mistaken. In this case, absolute autonomy and bodily rights means that unborn human beings can be killed for any reason whatsoever, whether you like it or not.We should remember that doing something autonomously isn't the same as that act being good, it just means the act was done autonomously. Many times it is actually worse to do something autonomously rather than being coerced.

So if you're pro-choice you have two options; you either remain logically confused and potentially a hypocrite who only supports abortions you agree with or you support abortion as Anne suggests. Or of course you could be philosophically and scientifically accurate and support the rights and equality of all human beings from beginning to end, because there is no morally relevant difference between the embryo you once were and the adult you are today that would justify their killing.

Abortion like all other social injustices remains acceptable in a society where it remains hidden.

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