The Viability Question
Is it OK to abort a viable fetus? Six pro-choice writers answer the question.
4. Yes, says Scott Lemieux:
The issue is who decides whether or not an abortion is medically necessary. It's possible that the existing exception can be evaded by doctors not operating in good faith. But more stringent regulations (such as requirements for panels of doctors or permitting late-term abortions only to save a woman's life) run the opposite risk: denying women who have a genuine medical need a safe abortion. … I strongly favor erring on the side of trusting women as opposed to giving further authority to doctors. … In Canada, late-term abortions are not legally restricted, and … [as] far as I can tell, there's no evidence that Canadian women get late-term abortions at significantly higher rates … Essentially, absent evidence to the contrary I think the presumption in favor of a woman's decision-making capacity is justified, and further restrictions are likely to do more harm than good.
5. Yes, says Anna North:
As much as I can appreciate the differences between a fetus that might be able to survive outside the womb and one that definitely wouldn't, I'm still not prepared to say that my appreciation of those differences is more important than a woman's individual evaluation of her situation. And so, in answer to Saletan's question, I'd say that I'm in favor of a woman's right to choose, whether it's at 10 weeks, 24, or beyond.
6. No, says Barbara O'Brien:
And if a woman is so ambivalent she can't decide whether to go through with the pregnancy or not, then it has to be made clear that there comes a time that nature will make your decision for you. Frankly, by the time you get to 24 weeks' gestation, it's way too late to "get out of" the pregnancy. By then most of the hormonal and physical challenges of pregnancy have arrived. … Since they are illegal in nearly every state, I question whether any post-viability elective abortions are being performed in the U.S., except in an unlawful operation such as Kermit Gosnell's. To my mind, those of us who support reproductive rights aren't giving anything away by advocating a 24-week limit. …
If all of the barriers and roadblocks to getting early-term abortions disappeared tomorrow, and if all American women had access to medical care, and if it is understood that doctors will be allowed some discretion about what is considered "elective," my preference would be to set the elective limit at some point between 15 and 20 weeks, frankly, although I won't argue with 24 weeks. … So, to the simple question, "Is it OK to abort a viable fetus?" I do wish more reproduction rights advocates could learn to just say no, and be clear about it, and stop fudging. There may be conditions attached to that "no," but it's still no.
For the record, my position is close to O'Brien's. Drawing a legal line at viability strikes me as a no-brainer. I haven't thought much about shortening the legal time frame from viability to 20 or 15 weeks. I'm wary of that for two reasons. First, I think abortion restrictions are a lot uglier in practice than they are in theory. They introduce hypocrisy, deceit, interrogations, amateur home surgery, and moral crudity backed by the force of law. And second, once we start cutting back on the weeks, I'm not sure where the slippery slope ends.
But if a Middle-East-style compromise could be brokered on abortion (which wouldn't satisfy the extremes, but might satisfy the rest of us), my guess is that the most plausible concession on the pro-choice side would be restrictions late in the second trimester. The rationale, from a pro-choice perspective, is that you have a right to choose abortion, but (in view of fetal development) that right is time-limited.
One more thing. Filipovic, in her response, raises another question. She asks me:
If you agree that accessibility and contraception access and education are all key to decreasing the number of second-trimester abortions, why aren't you doing the legwork of advocating for those things, instead of challenging pro-choicers to debate largely theoretical questions whose answers don't have much real-world impact anyway?
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.