Miller, Hunt and the Irrelevance of Viability to the Abortion Debate

07/10/2012 22:19 BST | Updated 07/12/2012 10:12 GMT

A 'very modern feminist' (ha!) in our very modern government has revived a very old-fashioned culture war.

A reactionary relay race kicked-off when Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities, opined that the abortion limit should be reduced from its current 24 weeks to that of 20. The new Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt grasped the baton and sprinted ahead with his pronouncement in the Times that abortion should be illegal after 12 weeks. But the race has stalled. Can't some quarter-witted backbencher be found to say women who have abortions should be burnt at the stake or stoned to death? How else will this team of third-rate Parliamentarians hope to cross the finish line and set back women's rights by decades?

Miller states that she is "riven [sic] by that very practical impact that late term abortion has on women" and opposes them for supposedly feminist reasons. Leaving aside her laughable redefining of a feminist as someone who patronisingly and paternalistically interferes with women's choices on the basis that they know what is best for them, it is Miller's other excuses that have sparked the most debate. She rationalises a reduction to 20 weeks by stating "what we are trying to do here is...reflect the way medical science has moved on."

Jeremy Hunt broadly agrees. Prefacing his comments with the disclaimer that it is "just my view" - as if he hasn't previously voted for restrictive laws that would impose his "view" on an unwilling electorate - he claims that 12 weeks is more appropriate and thinks he arrived at this conclusion by looking at the "evidence". David Cameron has also justified a 20 week limit by stating there are "some medical arguments" for it.

How might "medical arguments", "science" and "evidence" show that the abortion limit should be reduced? Such statements imply that a foetus is supposedly viable at around the 20 week stage (I'll draw a veil over Hunt's 12 week comment and pretend that it is some sort of joke). Those who want more illiberal laws believe that this is the stage where a foetus is capable of a separate existence from the mother and, accordingly, should have equal status to other beings.

Writers such as Laurie Penny, Tanya Gold and Sarah Ditum have successfully demolished Hunt and Miller's assertions by showing that science and medicine have scarcely moved on at all and that the vast majority of foetuses do not survive when born before 24 weeks. Penny, for example, states that there "is no scientific basis for reducing the abortion time limit".

However, the relevance of science itself to the abortion debate is tangential at best. Of course policy should be based on evidence and such critics are right to call out execrable ministers who get their facts hopelessly wrong. But medical science does not tell us what we should do, merely what the outcome of our actions will be if we do something. Even if a foetus became viable at 20 weeks, this does not necessarily impact on how we should treat it. Abortion is a moral issue, not a scientific one.

And viability is a wholly arbitrary basis for doling out rights. A capacity for independent existence from others cannot be a pre-requisite for obtaining moral status. For a start it would mean that Siamese twins - who are dependent on each other's bodies for their survival - would not be worthy of protection. Nor, by the same reasoning, would those who rely on 'artificial bodies' such as dialysis machines or neonatal intensive care units have a right to life.

Furthermore, when something is capable of existing independently is far from clear-cut and can only be assessed on a case-by-case basis. In the past (and in poorer countries now) many foetuses would not be viable until about 40 weeks (if at all) whereas in the West it may be much earlier. Can it really be said that an African foetus at term is of less status than that of an English one at 26 weeks? Or that a 28 week foetus in 1990 was less worthy of protection than a 24 week one today or even an 18 week one in 2020? If so, why? And if, not, it shows that viability is irrelevant.

Debating the science of when a foetus is viable rather than the relevance of viability itself implicitly accepts that a late-stage foetus's claim on existence outweighs the mother's right to bodily autonomy. One day Miller's, Hunt's and Cameron's fantasies may become a reality, with survival rates being lowered to 20 or even 12 weeks. Artificial womb technology could enable foetuses to be gestated, and thus survive, wholly independently of their mother from conception onwards. Constructing the foundations of abortion law on when a foetus becomes viable is akin to building a house on sinking sand.

By merely rebutting scientific points, and leaving moral arguments about values unguarded, those defending pro-choice positions may be strengthening the case of their opponents if or when medical developments occur. This would have terrible consequences for the liberty of pregnant women. Birth, at the earliest, is when human life should be protected.