J. Alan Smith wonders whether a lowering of the abortion time limit might have unexpected consequences detrimental to the pro-life cause


The Infant Life Preservation Act 1929 was enacted to close a legal loophole where a baby had been killed after birth while still attached to his or her mother by the umbilical cord.
This Act made it an offence to kill a child capable of being born alive and contained not an upper time limit but a presumption that a child of 28 weeks gestation or more is capable of being born alive: in short, the capability of being born alive is referred to as ‘viability’. Note that this Act did not exclude the disabled.

Is there a moral argument for an upper limit for abortion’? If it is desired to remove a child from his or her mother’s womb and the child is capable of surviving outside the womb, then almost everyone would agree that it would be better to do so in a nondestructive manner. However, this makes viability of the foetus a sufficient condition to condemn abortion but not a necessary condition. It does not justify abortion of a foetus below the time of viability.

Effect on numbers

What would be the result of lowering the upper limit for abortions? A naive answer would be that, if the particular upper limit for abortion under discussion were lowered from Y weeks to X weeks then those abortions that would otherwise have taken place between X weeks and Y weeks would not now take place and the total number of abortions performed would be reduced. However, this view does not take account of the effect of the change in the law on peoples behaviour. Further, if the time limit were reduced drastically to, say, six weeks, an unexpectedly pregnant woman might be panicked into having an abortion because she has not the time to think about her situation before reaching the time limit.

Consider pub closing hours when, say, pubs were open from 6pm to 11pm. A group of friends may decide to go for a drink between 10pm and 11pm. If closing time were brought forward to 10pm, the pub would not necessarily lose out on the drinks sold between 10pm and 11pm because many drinkers would adjust their behaviour accordingly, by going for a drink earlier. We cannot know with any degree of certainty what effect the lowering of an upper limit would have on the total number of abortions.

Dangers of legislation

Should we support efforts to reduce the upper limit for abortion? If we could be certain that reducing the upper limit for abortion would reduce the total number of abortions then ‘an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality.

This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects’ [Evangelium Vitae 73]. However, it is not clear that the total number of abortions would be reduced. Moreover, concentration on the viability of the foetus could reinforce the false but widely held impression that the viability of the foetus was the only moral argument against abortion.

In addition, introducing a Bill to limit the harm done by abortions in a parliament that has a pro-abortion mentality runs the risk of permitting other changes to be added that would make the last state worse than the first. Remember that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, which, inter alia, introduced an upper limit of 24 weeks (though only for certain, dubious grounds), also extended the upper limit in certain other cases including disability, up to birth, nullifying the protection afforded by the Infant Life Preservation Act 1929.

In conclusion, it seems that we ought, in a cool and rational manner, to point out the dangers of legislation that reduces time limits for abortions, while recognizing the good intentions of those pro-lifers who would support it. |