Without doubt, it is much more difficult to countenance the destruction of a fetus once it looks like a miniature baby than before its body parts can be seen. It is even harder when an ultrasound scan shows movements that bring to mind familiar, endearing gestures – a ‘yawn’, thumb-sucking and grasping tiny fingers – and when we can see whether it is a boy or a girl. This is a fair enough response when it is expressed as a personal, subjective observation. It seems illegitimate, however, either dishonest or shallow, to dress it up as a moral philosophical principle.
The moral principle at stake in the debate on later abortions, the one that genuinely matters, has been ignored completely in the recent discussions. This is the principle of moral autonomy in respect of reproductive decisions. To argue that a woman should no longer be able to make a moral decision about the future of her pregnancy, because 20 or 18 or 16 weeks have passed, assaults this and, in doing so, assaults the tradition of freedom of conscience that exists in modern pluralistic society.
The ethicist Ronald Dworkin explains it like this: ‘The most important feature of [Western political culture] is belief in individual human dignity; that people have the moral right – and moral responsibility – to confront the most fundamental questions about the meaning and values of their own lives for themselves, answering to their own consciences and convictions.’
If we accept this, it is clear that to deny a woman her capacity to make the moral decision about abortion is to strip away her humanity. It is to take away not just a right but a responsibility to come to a decision that accords with her values. This has profound consequences for how we see individuals and how they see themselves. Are they capable moral agents? Or must their agency be stripped away?