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Andrew Lilico

Andrew Lilico: Anti-abortionists should concede neither the science nor the compassion to pro-abortionists

Those that term themselves "pro-choice" like to present their position as being "scientific" and the position of their opponents as "religious", and to claim that their position is the "compassionate" one whilst their opponents are "hard-hearted". Anti-abortionists should not concede ground on either of these points.

First, and to get it out of the way, I shall repeat my long-held view that the natural position of science is to hold that the human being is a particular sort of animal with a particular DNA structure, that there is nothing additional to being "human" than being such an animal (e.g. no "soul"), and that that animal comes into existence at conception. In a narrowly scientific sense, I believe it is uncontestable that killing an eleven-week old foetus or killing an eleven-week-old baby are both killing human beings. Most people, favouring some time limit for abortion, dispute this, but in my view they typically do so for religious reasons - they believe, for religious reasons, that initially embryos do not have souls but only acquire them later. Conversely, I have no idea what "religious reasons" people could have for being against abortion.

At present, though, the debate is not about this. Instead, the debate concerns whether the time limit for abortions should be reduced from 24 weeks to perhaps 20 or even 12 weeks. As far as I am concerned, there is no material ethical difference between killing an 11 week old foetus and killing a 21 week old foetus, so my only "stake" in the discussion is: the lower the time limit the less bad things are. But some people disagree with me.

Two high-profile such persons are Jeremy Hunt (favouring a 12 week limit) and Maria Miller (favouring 20 weeks). They claim their views are based on their reading of the evidence. I have no idea what evidence they have in mind. Perhaps they are interested in the survival rates at below 24 weeks - some one in ten babies born prematurely at that age survives at least a year. Perhaps they mean the (hotly disputed) evidence on foetal pain. Perhaps they mean the evidence of their eyes in reflecting upon modern 3D images of infants in the womb. Perhaps, even, they are Democrats and they mean the evidence on opinion polling that says most people (and especially most women) favour a reduction - that certainly seems to be part (though not all) of Maria Miller's position. I don't know. None of these things makes a difference to how I think of the matter, but then I don't take the view that the right question is "What's the right time limit?" For those that do frame the debate in those terms, these things obviously might count as evidence - albeit evidence the significance of which their opponents would be entitled to dispute.

Yet somehow it has become okay in the press simply to assert that no-one could possibly have any evidence for favouring a reduction in the 24 week limit, and that favouring any such reduction must arise from groundless "religious" beliefs. (When "religious belief" and "groundless belief" came to be synonymous, I have no idea. Conflating the two is obviously ridiculous, as the major theistic religions in particular claim all kinds of evidence supporting their doctrines. But that's a debate for another time...)

The most striking example of this I've recently come across was Justin Webb's interview of Jeremy Hunt on Radio 4's Today Programme. Webb repeatedly insisted that Hunt could not possibly have any evidence to support his view, and that his view must arise from some "religious" reason. Yet as I've noted above, there could be all kinds of evidence that might be offered to support such a reduction.

Let's consider it the other way. Suppose that the question is: "When does a foetus become a person?" And let's suppose you are a pro-abortionist. What "scientific" evidence are you proposing to offer that a foetus is a person at 24 weeks and not at 12 weeks? Perhaps you plan to offer some evidence on brain development? But what "scientific" evidence are you proposing to offer that brain development is what defines whether or not one is a person?

This debate is fundamentally philosophical. The philosophy sets out principles to which the science speaks, but one cannot hope to have a useful view on abortion without having some underlying philosophical ground properly staked out. (That's actually true of almost all debates, but it's especially worth saying in this case.) Trying to set up the debate as somehow between "facts" and "emotions" or between "scientific evidence" and "religious belief" is daft, because we cannot bring out views of the scientific evidence to bear on the debate without having some philosophy (what pro-choicers mean by "religious beliefs" and "emotions"). Almost all of the key debating points on abortion do not concern the science. Almost all of them concern the philosophy.

But, somehow, at the same time as criticising the "emotions" of the anti-abortionists and presenting themselves as the hard-headed friends of science, pro-choicers also want to present anti-abortionists as hard-hearted.

In the US, during the recent election campaign, some candidates made some very silly, and in some cases very ignorant, remarks about rape and abortion - trying to claim that women that have genuinely been raped don't become pregnant, because of some mystical process within their bodies. Utter rubbish, and rightly condemned as such.

But there were other remarks, considered almost as controversial. Senate candidate Richard Mourdock and one-time Republican nomination hopeful Rick Santorum said that babies conceived in rape are gifts from God. I must confess that the debate around this issue made me angry, because pro-choicers claimed to be outraged by Mourdock's remarks. Mourdock declares publicly, to the hearing of the many people in this world, alive today, that were conceived in rape, whether rape in developed economies or rape as a weapon of war, that the circumstances of their conception makes them no less precious in the heart of God, that they are valuable people whose lives should be honoured and to whom the rest of the world owes the normal duties of compassion, hospitality, comfort and support - he declares these things, which any decent right-thinking person ought to believe, and he is the one declared wicked and his remarks unconscionable!

To those so eager to condemn Mourdock and Santorum I offer this challenge. Go and find a child of rape in Bosnia or Sierra Leone or even just in London or New York. Find some young man and tell him to his face that he is not precious to God, that his life is not a beautiful gift to the world, that the world would be better off without him, and that anyone who tries to claim anything else is so beyond the pale as not to be welcome in polite society. Don't yell it in the press where he can overhear. At least have the decency to go and tell him he is worthless in person!

And then, when you've done that, come back and I might be interested in giving you a hearing when you condemn Mourdock and Santorum.

It's pretty clear to me, in this debate, who is interested in evidence and compassion, and who is so blinded by ideology that they can't even imagine the damage their views can cause.


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