Thursday, May 15, 2008

DonaldS and abortion politics

There is a deep irony to the comment DonaldS left on my last post. His major contribution, before that, to the debate has been to attack politicians for failing to engage with the issue. He argues that politicians avoid it because the issue is to complex to "tabloidize". That isn't it at all. Politicians sound off on energy policy, for example, all the time despite the fact that it is ludicrously complex. Complexity may cause politicians to get an issue wrong but it won't stop them talking about it.

The reason most people whose minds aren't made up about the issue avoid talking about it is that no one who does care about abortion seems capable of having a reasonable conversation about it. Nadine Dorries may be guilty of all manner of sins. That doesn't mean that there is any real point to Liberal Conspiracy's group hate. They are free to do as they will with their blog but if they seriously think it will achieve much, beyond putting a few moderates off the debate entirely, they are mistaken. Donald's snipey response to my post is an example of how this debate is had in a manner that guarantees most ordinary people and politicians will avoid it.

So, to his arguments:

"So, by chopping the date back on the basis of no new medical evidence [his emphasis]"


He's missing the point: As I set out, I don't think that viability is relevant to whether a fetus is deserving of rights or not so neither the old nor the new medical evidence is particularly relevant to my position.

"A tiny fraction of abortions are carried out between 20 and 24 weeks, almost always for reasons of late-discovered abnormality, where the woman doesn't understand what's happening (very young, so doesn't understand she's pregnant; mentally impaired, so ditto; etc.), where a partner has become abusive, and so on."

Okay, so the provision for abortions up to 24 weeks is for exceptional circumstances?

From the Department of Health's abortion statistics it appears there were 2,948 abortions after 20 weeks gestation in 2006. That's pretty high for exceptional circumstances. However, I see no reason we shouldn't make an exception when exceptional circumstances do come up.

It would seem sensible that we can take account of these circumstances with the kind of compromise I discussed in my last post. If we were to move towards a significantly tighter limit, possibly well below twenty weeks but remove obstructions like the two doctor rule below that limit and create a rule to allow abortions in exceptional circumstances above the new limit we would move to a system like the one they have in the rest of Europe. We would have a system where only early or exceptional abortions would take place which might reassure the large number of people (probably a majority) who find abortions above twenty weeks distasteful but would also allow for people in exceptional circumstances.

13 comments:

Sunnyh said...

Nadine Dorries may be guilty of all manner of sins. That doesn't mean that there is any real point to Liberal Conspiracy's group hate.

Oh no? We shouldn't be exposing how a Tory MP twists and smears other people and completely misrepresents the science to achieve her mysoginist agenda because it puts off "well-meaning" people like yourself?

Because right-wingers are usually soooo reticent to attack the left when they feel their rights are being infringed.

Yes. That makes sense. In a parallel universe.

Sunny said...

Also, yours is a silly argument. See this from the front page of the BMA website:

"Comparison of the data gathered in the 1990s and from 2000-5 indicates that during the 12 years covered by the research, none of the 150 infants born at 22 weeks actually survived, even though 24 were admitted to the intensive care unit. In all categories, some infants were not admitted to intensive care either because they were too sick to be resuscitated or attempted resuscitation in the delivery room was unsuccessful or it was considered inappropriate. Of the 370 babies born at 23 weeks gestation over the 12 year period, only 27 survived long enough to be discharged from hospital."
http://www.bma.org.uk/ap.nsf/Content/Abortiontimelimit

The point isn't how many are aborted at that period, but about how many survive if they were born. I thought you were supposed to be one of those rational libertarians.

Shuggy said...

The point isn't how many are aborted at that period, but about how many survive if they were born.

This is only the point if your argument rests on the whole notion of viability. I was rather under the impression that, for the author of this post you've left a comment under, it isn't. I gained this impression from the following sentence:

I don't think that viability is relevant to whether a fetus is deserving of rights or not

Making you comment rather superfluous, no? As is this one:

We shouldn't be exposing how a Tory MP twists and smears other people and completely misrepresents the science to achieve her mysoginist agenda because it puts off "well-meaning" people like yourself?

Far be it for me to speak for young Mr Sinclair but he didn't say you shouldn't do it. He said do it if you want, it's just that there wasn't any point to it. I'd have thought it was a suggestion worth taking on board - unless you regard preaching to the choir a fruitful pastime?

Sunny said...

"Making you comment rather superfluous, no?"

Not really. He doesn't really offer any solid reason why the limit should be reduced apart from the fact that "moderate" people like him don't feel so bad and so because we can be aligned with the rest of Europe.

That, is superfluous.

"unless you regard preaching to the choir a fruitful pastime?"

There is rather more to what I'm doing... and why.

Either way, we're using something called facts and science to point out how a Tory MP is basically misrepresenting the debate. Why should she go unchallenged just so people like Matt and yourself don't get put off? Let's have an honest debate. With the facts. And with the right science.

I like the way he's being rather snarky and accusing us of "group hate" instead of directing his ire towards an MP who illustrates her stupidity on her blog every day.

Meg said...

I guess between your two posts on this subject I'm a little unclear as to why you would push the cutoff date earlier. If you're not concerned with viability, why 20 weeks instead of 24? So far the answers I seem to have are that people find 24 weeks distasteful and it makes you uncomfortable... but why? If not viability, what other marker do we have to go by?
Why should a feeling of discomfort (which, as you note, is subjective) be a better barometer than the point at which a fetus actually COULD become a living baby outside the womb?

Matthew Sinclair said...

Shuggy,

Thanks for that. I was away from my blog and I'm glad you were there to make my points for me.

Sunny,

Establishing that an MP has something wrong is always a good idea. However, that doesn't quite capture what you've been up to. You chose, in the run up to a vital vote on an issue we all agree is important, to have "a week of Nadine Dorries MP" rather than a week of arguments for keeping 24 weeks or a week of debate on the issue. All I'm suggesting is that one of those two might have been a better way to spend your time.

You shouldn't self-censor just to please moderates, on this issue, like me but it is worth thinking about the message you put across - the message you are putting across right now isn't much more than "we really hate Nadine Dorries".

As to the substantive matter, my case is that there is no way of making an evidence-based choice about when we set the time limit. We just don't know when that transition from 'fetus' to 'baby' takes place. As such, I'm trying to work out a stable policy solution based on an honest admission of ignorance; to err on the side of caution while making the best possible allowance for women facing unfortunate circumstances. In that sense, I think we can learn from other countries.

Meg,

I just don't see why an ability to survive without the mother is morally relevant. A baby couldn't survive if it were truly on its own. All of us make a variety of claims on other people's autonomy.

DonaldS said...

Oh, dear, Matthew, you obviously got about one paragraph in to that piece of mine and no further. Which is fine, of course, as long as you don't go commenting on what's in the rest of a piece you haven't even read. Like you I *dismiss the argument from viability*; as far as I'm concerned, it has no bearing on the moral worth of a foetus. Dorries seems to think it does (though, I'd bet that what she actually thinks is that abortion after the first heartbeat is wrong in any circumstances, she just won't say that). She then goes on to use wonky science in support of that argument; I merely pointed out in my comment the end-point of her crusade should it succeed.

Like you, I'm not wedded firmly to an absolutist position, as you'd have discovered if you'd read the piece you pretended to have read. I would add, though, that viability may be irrelevant, but in the scheme of things is infinitely more relevant that whether you feel a measure of *comfort* or not at the idea of late abortion. You have to have a pretty high bar for interfering in the processes that go on inside someone else's body. Your 'yuk' meter going off doesn't leap that bar, I'm afraid.

You also claimed people would 'disorganise' themselves around whatever time limit was set by government. Just like economic theory would suggest. I pointed out that you were in fact wrong. A tiny fraction of abortions are carried out between 20 and 24 weeks. Fact: unless you think between 1 and 2 in 100 is something other than a tiny fraction? You call that sniping; I call it being right.

Matthew Sinclair said...

Donald,

I did read the rest of your piece. I knew that you didn't think viability was crucial which made it even stranger for you to start throwing accusations around that I wasn't basing my opinions on New Medical Evidence.

As to the 'yuk' factor. It clearly can be a basis for legislation and you shouldn't dismiss it out of hand. It gets at intuitive moral feelings that shouldn't be relevant in Libertarian-Land but are in the real world. However, I haven't mentioned it at all. You seem to be attacking me for beliefs I don't hold.

My entire case is that there is clearly a transition between 'fetus' and 'baby' that takes place at some point during pregnancy but that we don't know when. People find late abortions distasteful for a variety of reasons. For some it probably is the 'yuk' factor but for me it simply the risk that we are, to use an abused phrase 'killing babies'. In a world of imperfect information risks matter.

I called your response sniping because I set out a point on which I admitted ignorance and wished someone would enlighten me. You responded by going into attack mode. This isn't crucial but is relevant to the question of why politicians and moderates avoid the abortion debate.

As I said, while 3000 may be a small, even tiny, number with respect to the total number of abortions it seems high for the result of freak occurences.

However, if freak occurences are what we're dealing with then it seems sensible to set the lower limit then specifically allow for rare mishaps specifically. That is the solution chosen by other European coutries and seems sensible. Do you disagree with that? If so, explain why and we can have a grown up debate.

DonaldS said...

You responded by going into attack mode.

This all a bit meta now, but no, I didn't go into attack mode. Merely pointed out that you were wrong. Don't be so sensitive; it happens to me all the time. Now, say I'd written a post entitled "Matthew Sinclair and fascist politics", then I'd give you the nod to go into attack mode. No complaints.

I'm not going to reiterate my position on abortion, because frankly, it's all in that piece and the long thread that follows this one. In which, if you can be bothered (personally, I wouldn't; much heat, little light), I spend much time defending myself against attack from a radical pro-choice position, and explaining why it's one that I disagree with, on generally liberal grounds.

...it seems high for the result of freak occurences.

This is the key point, I think. Those examples I cite aren't by any stretch freak occurrences.
I'm missing the cite, but for starters I believe about a fifth are for late-discovered foetal abnormality. The fact that the vulnerable are unable to face up to being pregnant, or unaware, or scared of their parents, or serious partner abuse starts when pregnancy does... and so on... is it difficult to accept this is common-or-garden stuff? Surely not.

for me it simply the risk that we are, to use an abused phrase 'killing babies'

Hmm, this is where the medical evidence is relevant. Not evidence about viability; evidence about consciousness, which if you follow the copious links that appear in my piece(s), and also the very many that Unity has written over the years we've both been writing about this (way, way before Dorries came along and poisoned the well), you'll hopefully see.

Frankly, as an evidence-based kinda guy, albeit one I generally disagree with, I'm surprised you're giving any time to Nadine Dorries' b-s campaign. While some of that stuff posted at LC is obviously angry with Dorries, what you'll find if you read it through is a forensic dissection of her pathetic case, as well as the unpleasant way she's gone about it. It really isn't, as Shuggy snipes above, preaching to the choir. It's important.

Matthew Sinclair said...

All my protests at the style you are conducting this debate in aren't about me. I've had far worse criticism than your little comment and my choice of profession would be rather masochistic if I couldn't take it.

The point is that most people aren't like me. Maybe your italics weren't designed to convey what I thought they were, but the tone of your response to my post seemed to be an example of exactly the kind that causes most people to retreat within their mental bunkers at the very thought of a debate on abortion.

That fifth of the 3000 who are for genetic abnormalities would seem exactly the kind of thing you might want special provisions for. The other four fifths may all have similar special circumstances that could only be confronted at a late stage in pregnancy.

If so, then the system I'm talking about would allow for all of them but might convince that, I think sizeable, portion of the public who want abortion to, in general, remain legal but are worried about late term abortion being abused that those taking place had to be done that late.

If just some aren't driven by inherently late-in-pregnancy factors, and the 'putting it off' factor is an issue (i.e. telling parents is hard so procrastinate till the last possible moment - it seems quite an understandable thing to do) then we might get some, possibly a significant number, of these abortions happening earlier. That would be a good thing from a variety of viewpoints I think.

As to medical evidence. I am an "evidence-based" kinda guy normally. However, effective decision making often means accepting the limits of knowledge. I have read what I can on this and I've yet to see scientists come up with a sensible idea of what makes a baby worthy of human rights and when that quality might appear in a fetus. If you have any such evidence then please provide a link.

Until you, or someone else, does I'm going to have to accept that this can't be settled by scientifice evidence. Trying to find a broadly socially acceptable compromise seems the best way forward in those circumstances.

Meg said...

I sympathize with the point you're making, but the idea of basing rights and freedoms on what's "socially acceptable" or "distasteful" makes me distinctly uncomfortable. As analogized, for example, to gay marriage.
The reason I pick viability as a good benchmark is that I think if you have to draw a bright line, viability is the point at which a fetus can be said to become a separate human being and therefore should have some sort of consideration separate from its mother. While a newborn baby needs a lot of help to survive, the difference is that it CAN survive as an independent person, whereas before viability I think the fetus is more of an extension of the woman than a person in its own right.
Obviously if one does not believe in abortion at all this difference is irrelevant; however, if one does believe that abortion should be legal for part but not all of the pregnancy, I can't think of any other place to draw the line that's not based on what makes us squeamish. Otherwise, for example, what's the moral difference between ten weeks and twenty-two?

Sunny said...

You chose, in the run up to a vital vote on an issue we all agree is important, to have "a week of Nadine Dorries MP" rather than a week of arguments for keeping 24 weeks or a week of debate on the issue. All I'm suggesting is that one of those two might have been a better way to spend your time.

Hi Matt,

Have indeed, plenty of times. See recent articles by Kate Belgrave or Laurie Penny or even Unity earlier on.

Putting forward the case isn't a problem:
http://www.coalitionforchoice.org/24-reasons-for-24-weeks/

But its also about deconstructing the continuing stream of rubbish Nadine Dorries puts out, thanks to lots of support by the MSM. See her latest:
http://www.septicisle.info/2008/05/woe-woe-is-me.html

What you're trying to do is plead for a less agressive left-wing blogosphere, despite the fact that its the right which has been more aggressive in the past over its own pet issues. Why should we be any less aggressive?

Matthew Sinclair said...

It isn't about how aggressive you are or what arguments you respond to. It is personalising it around one person in such a bizarre way (to the extent of monitoring her name on Technorati). Rebutting her arguments might be worthwhile but the last thing you would want to do, if you wanted to preach to the unconverted, is give the impression it is a personal attack on one person. It is just less persuasive that way.

In the end, I'm not trying to morally reproach you. All I'm saying is that, when the best polling available suggests you're on the wrong side of an issue, you should be trying to reach out to the 'swing voters' on this issue. Now, I think you guys will probably win this vote but, in the end, public opinion will win out. You need to start convincing people.