When Life Ends at Its Very Beginning: Moral Considerations for Lowering the Deadline for Abortion

by Dr. Nileema Conlon Vaswani in


Forty years ago, the UK Abortion Law came into force. From that time, as long as a foetus was younger than 28 weeks, it could be aborted. Other criteria such as the mother's physical and mental well-being were also employed, and the consent of two doctors was required. Later, the law was modified to lower the legal limit for abortions to 24 weeks. This week, the debate has been re-opened to ask, among various questions, whether the upper limit for abortions should be reduced to 20 weeks and at what stage in its development the foetus begins to feel pain. This article considers the ethical implications of this proposal and does not evaluate the moral permissibility of abortion per se.

There are various reasons why one might argue that the upper limit for abortions should remain unchanged. One of these is that most foetuses, if born, are not viable at that stage. It has also been argued that foetuses that are under 24 weeks do not feel pain and, therefore, the process of termination will not hurt them. This research is controversial as it has also been argued that much younger foetuses can experience pain or at least exhibit reactions that mimic the experience of pain, thereby presenting a real possibility that they might, in fact, feel pain.

Of course, if it is believed that the foetus does experience pain, every effort ought to be made to ensure that abortions, if they are to be carried out, are done so with appropriate pain relief. While pain to the foetus might be a reason to avoid an abortion, the absence of pain is insufficient in itself to justify one. When determining an appropriate legal and moral deadline for abortion, we ought to look towards something more certain and this is the ability to survive.

The 24-week limit might have been appropriate when it was impossible for medical intervention of even the most sophisticated sort to save a foetus that young. We now live at a time, however, where science and medicine enables us to sometimes save a baby that is born as young as 23 weeks. In real terms this means that a baby being born at 23 weeks is as young or old as a baby being aborted at 23 weeks. Regardless of one's views on abortion, this age-match ought, at least, to sound some alarm bells. The circumstances surrounding the abortion and birth will, of course, be different but the point remains that when we are able to save a life, we are in fact ending it.

The link between our ability to preserve a life and our duty to save it forms the basis of our Euthanasia laws. We live in a society where euthanasia is illegal. According to our laws on euthanasia, a person who is seriously unwell and experiencing tremendous suffering may not be helped to die even if this is what the person wishes. It seems difficult to justify, therefore, how a foetus that is healthy and has clearly not expressed the wish to die can reasonably have its life ended at a time when it is capable of surviving were it to be born at the time.

Opponents of this view argue that only about a quarter of 23 week old babies survive but the low numbers do not detract from the fact that it is still possible. Again, the mere possibility of recovery or even the slimmest chance that people may live a few more hours or days longer than they would if we did not intervene to shorten their lives is key to the Euthanasia laws. Our ability to preserve life confers a duty on us to do so in cases of Euthanasia. If we are to be consistent with our laws, we ought, therefore, also accord the same moral consideration to the foetus who, just like the very ill adult at the end of his life, would do little more than just survive if it were to be born at 23 weeks.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this debate is the interaction between the abortion and euthanasia laws. Under the current abortion law, it is legally permissible to abort even a healthy foetus of 23 weeks but under the current euthanasia law, we are legally obliged to do all we can to preserve the life of a baby of 23 weeks. I do believe that the latter is appropriate, i.e., we ought to try to save babies as young as 23 weeks but surely, if that's the case, how can we possibly justifying aborting foetuses of the same age?

One might argue that the difference between a foetus and a baby is what makes the difference between what is legal and moral in one case and not in the other. If this is true, then our laws and moral considerations are based on labels and location. A 23-week old is called a foetus before birth and a baby after birth. While there is nothing wrong with these labels per se, to use them to confer differing moral statues on the same entity seems inappropriate.