Wednesday, March 16, 2005

THE (UK) INDEPENDENT has a series of very interesting articles about abortion in the context of the upcoming elections in Britain. The Conservative MP, Michael Howard, wants to lower the limit for legal abortions from 24 weeks to 20 weeks; Tony Blair favors leaving the limit as it is and letting individuals make their own private decisions.

Notice that neither party is suggesting that abortion should be made illegal.

The piece entitled "Abortion: the Facts" gives a brief history of abortion from ancient Greek and Roman times to the present. This is a very different approach from that taken by the U.S. media; I don't believe I have ever seen any discussion of abortion in the press that looked at it from any context other than the Roe v. Wade decision, the contentiousness of the issue in American political and social life, how the religious right has made the issue a litmus test, how Supreme Court nominations will affect the issue, and how the issue affects elections.

Of course I am aware that women have been terminating unwanted pregnancies from the earliest days of recorded history (and before, I'm sure). What I didn't know was specifics like this:

The Ancient Greeks and Romans allowed abortions. The early philosophers argued that a foetus did not become formed and begin to live until at least 40 days after conception for a male, and around 80 days for a female.

From the 16th century, the Christian doctrine of passive conception held that the foetus was only given a soul in the fifth month. Then, in 1869, Pope Pius X changed the timing of "ensoulment" to conception.

In 1803, the Ellenborough Act made abortion in Britain after the 16- to 20-week period in which life is first felt, an offence that carried the death penalty, though it later became life imprisonment. In 1938, Dr Alex Bourne was acquitted of performing an illegal abortion after claiming that it was to save a raped girl mental harm, setting a case-law precedent. Women wanting to terminate had illegal, backstreet abortions performed by unqualified abortionists. Women were often injured in the process and some died. At least 50 were killed each year from botched surgery and infection.

In 1967, abortion became legal in Britain, up to 28 weeks of pregnancy. In 1991, the limit was lowered to 24 weeks, largely in response to advances in medical science that enabled premature babies to survive at earlier stages.

Articles like this make it more clear than ever that the emotionally charged language surrounding abortion in the United States, with opponents of legal abortion using the terminology of science to claim, as if it were biological fact, that an embryo or a fetus is a human being from the moment of conception; that "unborn babies" can feel pain; and that "innocent life" should be protected from "murder," is indicative of religious, political, and social belief, and not objective scientific or medical fact.

There are 4 other articles on this issue in the same edition of the paper: here, here, here, and here; although the last 2 are behind a subcription wall. The two that are available in their entirety have the same tone: a lack of hysteria, a lack of fear or reluctance to discuss the issue. Obviously there are differences of opinion about abortion in Britain, but apparently it is possible to air those differences of opinion while still retaining the fundamental assumption that abortion is both an ethical and a medical issue.

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