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.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Abortion uncertainties

I'm really grateful to Chris for writing about the subject of abortion. I've generally steered clear of it due to the strong emotions the subject provokes (even compared to this blog's normal topics). It's nice to know that I'm not the only confused moderate in the debate.

There are a few themes I'd like to cover:

Chris's points

I'm not sure either of these are capable of settling the issue:

"One is simple empiricism. Many women who miscarry feel something like bereavement, which suggests they regard a foetus as something like a living being - not as much so as an actual child, perhaps, but certainly more than just a bundle of cells."

Two points here:

  1. I have no desire at all to, in any way, play down the trauma of a miscarriage. I entirely believe it is about as tragic a thing as can happen to a person. However, I would think that people find it incredibly upsetting to lose their ability to have a child as well. Without entering into the ugly process of comparing grief it seems plausible that those who suffer a miscarriage mourn the loss of an expected child rather than the death of the fetus itself.
  2. If we are to decide the value of a foetus based on some people's subjective upset at losing one then we have to accept that the argument cuts both ways. Those fetuses that are not valued (those that the mother wishes to abort) have no value.

"The other is that a foetus can be regarded as a call option upon a human being. If human beings are valuable, an option on them must also have value - though again, less than that of a full human."

I'm not quite sure on this one. After all, every sperm has some potential to become a human. Valuing such potentials seems so complex that I'm not sure it can translate to abortion policy. Does the "value" of a fetus translate to the 'on'/'off' quality of inalienable human rights? If not, how do we translate such values to policy?

I have a friend who thinks abortion should be taxed. Is that the logical conclusion of Chris's position? It's an interesting moderate stance.

The campaigns

The extremism with which both sides express themselves, their mutual loathing for each other, is offputting. However, I'm always loathe to condemn those who feel certain about the issue. After all, one group believe that their opponents are endorsing rape, the other that their opponents are legitimising murder. If you hold either belief it seems understandable to get pretty angry about it.

However, what does surprise me is that the pro-choice camp, in particular, don't seem to be trying very hard to appeal to the median voter. The one thing I want to know is this: what use do people have for a post-20 weeks abortion?

I mean, it seems quite plausible that people will make the decision at a pace such that they're pretty much evenly likely to get in trouble and miss the deadline whenever it is set. They'll respond rationally to the deadline.

This seems like such a basic question but I've yet to find an answer. When I click for 'More Information' on the Coalition for Choice website all it gives me is a list of things they want. Nothing about why.

On the other side, I guess the pictures of fetuses that the pro-life movement use are effective but I find them distasteful. They're too similar to the pictures of animals that the animal rights movement uses. Trying to play on simple visual cues that have no deeper meaning. It strikes me as crass.

I'm the median voter on this issue but, of all the countless articles I've read, not more than a handful seem to be appealing to people like me who are uncertain - the vast majority seem to be out to get their own side angrier instead.

The crux of the issue

I really don't think this debate can effectively be settled without answering two simple, but also impossible, questions: What quality makes a human worth the unique protection of basic rights? When does a fetus develop that quality?

I can't believe that a woman has a right to choose to kill a baby. However, I think they absolutely have the right to choose whether or not to keep a fetus. That's the divide. Plain and so far from simple.

I don't believe anyone really has an answer to the first or second questions. The first must, I'm sure, have something to do with the mind; with our status as thinking beings. The second cannot be answered with so fuzzy an answer to the first. All I'm really confident of is that it happens at some point between conception and birth.

Until recently I was of the opinion that with so little certainty the best solution was simply to defend the status quo. Not because I think viability is even particularly important but just for stability's sake. On simple conservative grounds that poorly thought out change tends to make things worse.

Where I am right now

You know the argument that most convinced me?

This one. While I don't know when a fetus becomes a baby, I'd rather err on the side of caution and not have the most liberal limit in Europe. As such, I'd support tightening the limit, I think.

Here's a balance though; what if we tightened the limit and also removed the two doctor rule? That way we'd remove the unpleasantly arbitrary quality of the current system. That would seem like a decent way for both sides to take something from the present process.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The persistence of American power

Will Hutton's article today is excellent (another one on Comment is Free, I'm not sure what's happening today). He explains why the US will remain an economic leader. Traditions of argument and institutions of learning make it a natural leader in "a world where the deployment of knowledge, brain power and problem-solving are the sources of wealth generation."

There are two reasons, that come to mind, why non-Western countries have such a hard time keeping up:

1) Cultural differences

There is something about the Western individualist, adversarial tradition that is particularly productive. Frank and competitive exchanges of views produce the goods. From what I've seen such exchanges are a particularly important part of public, and indeed private, life in the West. To the extent they become a part of other countries' public life it is often associated with Westernisation.

2) Network effects

Good academics like to study with other good academics. Being around others makes it easier for them to establish a reputation (important if you want to advance your career) and bounce ideas of colleagues. That means that an established academic centre can attract new staff far more easily than a new one.

Jay Rayner on Gordon Ramsay

Brilliant attack on Gordon Ramsay's food fascism from Jay Rayner on Comment is Free:

"Indeed, let me confess. I love strawberries in season. I really do think they are better. But I have also eaten mediocre strawberries in winter and enjoyed them. And doing so didn't make me feel like a terribly bad person. So shoot me."