The Viability Question
Is it OK to abort a viable fetus? Six pro-choice writers answer the question.
Over the past week, I've had an online exchange with several pro-choice bloggers about the Kermit Gosnell case. Gosnell, a Philadelphia abortionist, has been charged with butchering viable babies, causing a woman's death, and endangering other patients. A grand jury report details his alleged crimes. Initially, I cited the report as a challenge to some feminist writers (I called them pro-choice absolutists) on the ethics and legality of post-viability abortions. In response, various bloggers challenged me on other aspects of the case.
On Monday, I answered the bloggers' questions and challenged them to answer mine. The question I put to them was this:
Gosnell stands charged with abortions beyond the 24-week gestational limit prescribed by Pennsylvania law. … I agree with you on most abortion policy questions. Contraception or abstinence is best, emergency contraception is next best, early abortion is next best, and we should make these options more accessible, not less. But we'll still be left with some women who, for no medical reason, have run out the clock, even to the point of viability. Should their abortion requests be granted anyway?
Several of these writers, to their great credit, have taken up the challenge. So have others who didn't have to answer the question but took it on anyway. Here are their answers.
1. Yes, says Ann Furedi:
I'm proud to be an absolutist on this issue! I do absolutely believe in women's right to make abortion decisions. It's always struck me that being pro-choice is a bit like being pregnant: you either are or you're not! You can no more be "a bit" pro-choice than you can be a bit pregnant. … The question is: Do we think that women should have leave to make moral decisions about their abortions? Or do we only think that when we are "comfortable" with the decision they make? I believe the former … I don't [think the Gosnell] case speaks to the morality of later abortion or the moral status of the fetus at all. However, it speaks volumes about Saletan's understanding of moral philosophy that he clearly thinks that it does.
2. Yes, says Pema Levy:
For the purposes of Saletan's question, I think we're referring to late-term abortions as post-viability abortions, which means that women would be required to continue their pregnancy for 3-4 months. For me, the answer is yes, late-term abortions should be legal, even if medical complications are out of the picture. If a woman decides to have a late-term abortion, which often means traveling across state lines and spending a lot of money to have it done or submitting to a complicated procedure at a shady clinic like Dr. Gosnell's patients did, then they are obviously making a very serious decision because they feel having an abortion is what they need. Maybe their decision is financial, maybe their marriage has become abusive, and maybe she's a bad, fickle person. But being pro-choice means having the strong belief that women's bodies should not be used in any way against their will. … Dr. Tiller used to wear a pin that said "trust women," and that's a good way to sum up the pro-choice argument for late-term abortions.
3. No, says Jill Filipovic:
No, the charges should not be dropped in the name of women's autonomy. The 24-week limit is Pennsylvania law, and Gosnell should have followed it. … I fall on the side of believing that women should not be legally required to carry pregnancies against their will, which is why I'm pro-choice. But I also understand that there are a variety of interests in protecting fetuses. I think any moral interest or state interest in the fetus's well-being is almost always trumped by the interests of the woman carrying that fetus, but in legislating to strike a balance between those competing interests, it seems fair enough (if not totally ideologically consistent) to outlaw abortion after the point of viability (which is roughly what the 24-week marker does), so long as there are exceptions for the life and health of the woman and so long as abortion is widely accessible early on.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.