A recent Freedom of Information discovered that, at the best neonatal units, survival rates for extremely premature babies have risen significantly. While official surveys like EPICure do not appear to show a rise, this fails to tell the whole story because it does not reflect the successes and breakthroughs being achieved at the biggest centres with the most expertise.
In 2013, as the Sunday Times reported on 31st August, of the eight babies born at 23 weeks who were admitted to the neonatal unit at Central Manchester University Hospital (CMUH) for treatment, six survived. At University College London Hospital (UCLH), the figure was six out of seven, and at North Bristol, five out of five. This is no mere blip. Over a slightly longer period (2010-2013), UCLH saved 20 out of 26 babies born at 23 weeks and admitted for treatment. North Bristol saved 15 out of 19 between 2011 and July 2014, while CMUH saved 10 out of 16.
Admittedly these numbers are small. But they do show something important – and it is this: the supposed justification for the current 24-week abortion time limit – that 24 weeks represents .”viability”, or the lower limit of the possibility of survival outside the womb – is out of date. Viability is not really a measure of the value of an unborn child, but a measure of the current state of medical knowledge, skill and technology. This is clear from the fact that, until 1990, the limit was set at 28 weeks.
The idea that the right to life is dependent on an unborn child’s “viability” runs into all sorts of problems when subjected to a little critical thought. For one thing, it implies that the right to life starts earlier in developed Western countries than in developing or poor countries. In such countries, the lack of medical expertise and equipment means that a premature baby born at around twenty-eight weeks is unlikely to survive. Must we therefore conclude that those babies were somehow less valuable and had less right to life than a baby born at the exact same point in a developed country with good neonatal services? Such a conclusion is bizarre, yet it is the logical corollary of the argument that the right to life of an unborn child depends on its ability to survive outside the womb. And in any case, the fact that so many pro-choicers defend abortion all the way up to birth in cases of disability suggests that all the talk about viability is a mere smokescreen.
Fundamentally, it’s not really true that any infant human being, regardless of the point in pregnancy at which he or she is born, can survive outside the womb. Even a robust, healthy, full-term newborn needs constant care and attention if it is to stay alive, and this state of affairs continues for some years after birth. I have never seen a toddler who prepares his own meals and pays his own mortgage! There is a great danger in giving false prominence to the idea that people who are dependent on others are in some way deficient or less valuable. This could not be further from the core of the pro-life message, which is that all human individuals are important, regardless of what stage of life they have reached and regardless of what abilities or attributes they have.
It is true, however, that late abortion – when an unborn child is fully formed and has begun to move and react to their surroundings – strikes many people as particularly wrong and unjust, even if this feeling is not strictly logical. The fact that a large number of late abortions take place because the child is carrying some form of disability or impairment only adds to this sense of discomfort at ending the life of an individual who is so recognisably and indisputably one of us.
Yet opposition to late abortion tends to be muted. This is doubtless partly due to the way in which abortion has become normalised over the last fifty years, and partly due to ignorance about how unusual the UK is allowing de facto abortion on demand so late in pregnancy (the European average upper time limit for abortion is 12 weeks). But it is also due, I suspect, to pro-choicers’ realisation that if you criticise late abortion, or admit that pro-lifers might have a point about the unfair discrimination inherent in abortion for disability, then that immediately calls into question the whole idea that there is nothing wrong with abortion, and that opens up an enormous can of worms.
Dogmatic pro-choicers often find themselves defending the indefensible because of this reluctance to grant any ground whatever to their pro-life opponents. We saw this most recently when the scandal of gender abortion emerged. In the face of news headlines about the abortion of little girls simply because they were girls (a practice that is common in many parts of the world and increasingly here in Britain), we heard only a very muted response from pro-choice feminists. Here was a crystal-clear case of anti-female discrimination, with potentially serious consequences for many women, and yet we heard little opposition. Many pro-choicers actually defended the right to abort on grounds of the child’s sex, despite the overwhelming evidence that it is usually female unborn children who are targeted in this way.
Abortion – including late-term abortion, when a child would be able to survive outside the womb – has become a sacred cow, whose acceptability must be defended at all costs. It all comes down to the problem of choice, to the idea put forward by the supposedly rational and scientific pro-abortion side that the right to life of a pre-born individual can somehow magically be determined by whether or not he or she is “wanted” by some other person. Once you have enthroned choice, it becomes very difficult to criticise any particular exercise of that choice, even when the life that is being ended is unmistakeably one of us.