Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 15

Submission from Professor Rev Robin Gill and Professor Michael Ramsay, University of Kent

  The decision of the Science and Technology Committee not to look at the ethical and moral issues associated with abortion time limits has important policy implications. It is my aim in this invited submission briefly to outline these implications.

  The main implication is that the gradualist ethical position on the status of the embryo, adopted by the Warnock Committee and reaffirmed by the Donaldson Committee and by the House of Lords Select Committee on Stem Cell Research, remains normative.

  All three committees recognised that there are pro-life and pro-choice groups that reject the gradualist position. For example the House of Lords Select Committee noted:

    Positions range from those taken by pro-life groups and some of the churches that the early embryo is a human being in the fullest sense from the moment of fertilisation and should be accorded the same respect as a foetus or baby, to the position that, because at the earliest stage of its development the embryo is no more than a collection of undifferentiated cells, albeit with the potential to develop into a human being, it deserves little more attention than any other isolated human cell or tissue [para 4.4].

  Like the Warnock Committee, the Select Committee "adopted a position between these opposing views, concluding that the early embryo has a special status but not one that justifies its being accorded absolute protection. That view was enshrined in the 1990 Act" [para 4.5].

  It is not necessary here to rehearse the arguments given to support the gradualist position since that is not part of the remit of the Science and Technology Committee. However all three earlier committees argued that the gradualist position (articulated initially by Lord Habgood) best represents public opinion (including many, perhaps a majority, of those who are religiously active).

  The gradualist position—maintaining that ethical respect for the embryo/foetus should increase in proportion to his or her physical development—has a number of important implications for public policy on induced abortions that are directly relevant to the present remit of the Science and Technology Committee:

    —  Early abortions are considerably more preferable than late abortions.

    —  Late induced abortions need to be clearly justified.

    —  Independent viability has crucial ethical significance.

  Only pro-life groups that hold that "the early embryo is a human being in the fullest sense from the moment of fertilisation" are likely in practice to reject the first of these points (although in theory it might be regarded as irrelevant by more radical pro-choice groups). For the gradualist position it is axiomatic that if a woman has an abortion (induced or spontaneous) then it should be as early as possible. So if there is some evidence (as the BMA suggests) that current procedures are delaying induced abortions unnecessarily, then that would be a strong reason for challenging those procedures (as long as this is compatible with the properly informed consent of the woman). The role played by the requirement for two doctors' signatures in first trimester abortions, or not allowing nurses or midwives to carry out such abortions and/or not allowing them to be carried out at patients' homes are all procedures that might create unnecessary delay (as long as this is compatible with the safety of the woman). Questioning the continuing need for them, having taken careful account of the two parenthesise, does appear to be compatible with the gradualist position.

  The second point—that late induced abortions need to be clearly justified—is rejected by some pro-choice positions but is crucial to a gradualist position. For the latter the more developed the foetus the greater the ethical respect required. The nearer the foetus approaches to independent viability the stronger the justification required for induced abortion (either in terms of the health of the foetus or that of the mother). In terms of the gradualist approach I believe that a scientific or medical definition of serious abnormality would be helpful for all late abortions including those beyond 24 weeks.

  The final point—that independent viability has crucial ethical significance—is important for the gradualist position as is clearly demonstrated by the 1990 Act. 24 weeks was then deemed to be the point of foetal viability. If there is now clear scientific evidence that (say) 22 weeks (using the same scientific criteria used in 1990 to establish 24 weeks) is now the point of foetal viability, then this could well justify reducing the upper limit.

  In terms of the gradualist position it would be consistent to reduce both the upper limit for abortions and the procedures that may be delaying first trimester abortions unnecessarily.

August 2007

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