The emperor's new clothes

August 1, 2001


"Slowly, inexorably, attitudes towards the unborn, in all but the most ideologically inflexible, are changing to reflect our growing knowledge. That's not because of anti-abortion fanatics but because of undeniable science." — Miranda Devine writing in the July 26 Sydney Morning Herald.

The target of Devine's wrath is Natasha Stott Despoja, who was prominently featured in the July 25 Australian, looking concerned and sorrowful outside Melbourne's Fertility Clinic — where Steven Rogers, a security guard, was shot dead on July 16.

Much to her credit, Stott Despoja used the photo opportunity to declare herself (her party, the Australian Democrats, has no position on abortion) "a pro-choice legislator" and to call for measures to prevent harassment of women accessing abortion providers.

This horrified Devine, who argued "the abortion debate has already moved on from the old 1970s' 'pro-choice' arguments [Despoja] and her ideological forebears cling to. Because of advances in medical science, there is now an equally serious, non-ideological, unfanatical, argument for the rights of the unborn child."

Devine is not the only media commentator to be arguing that the brave new world of science has opened up "new ethical dilemmas" — the debate over stem cell research has been full of such profound assertions. But her arguments are among the most clearly articulated.

According to Devine, the new, relevant changes are twofold. Firstly, we now know what a foetus looks like — and it looks "decidedly human". Secondly, it is now possible for an infant born three months premature to survive under intense medical care.

But how much do these discoveries really change the debate?

We didn't need ultrasound pictures to tell us that a foetus is human. My hand is human — like a foetus it contains human DNA and human cells. But detached from my body, my hand has no identity — it certainly possesses no "rights" separate from me. What we recognise as a human being is not just DNA, or cells, but the capacity for independent thought and self-consciousness.

Of course, there is a difference between a hand and a foetus — a hand does not have the potential to develop self-consciousness, a foetus does. But at what point potential becomes reality has been a matter of debate for centuries. Knowing what a foetus looks like does not change this.

The ability to medically support a prematurely born child has been a great step forward for many women. It provides ill women, for whom continuing a pregnancy could constitute a risk to their health, with the possibility of having the child.

But a child born prematurely, with or without inducement, is not the same as a foetus conceived at the same time. A baby has social and physical contact with other human beings.

Social contact among humans is what makes them human beings, not the biological fact that they are composed of human cells.

This social contact is central to the development of perception of self, and the development of consciousness. It is through social interaction that humans learn to communicate, and thus learn a language through which it is possible to articulate abstract concepts.

Some naive commentators have argued that women who wish to terminate pregnancies past the 23-week mark should be forced to give birth. This argument rests upon the belief that such a solution "balances" the rights of the woman to decide what happens to her body, and the rights of the foetus to develop its potential for life.

A foetus is not the only thing to have potential for life. Yet, not even anti-choice activists argue that men should aim to offer all their sperm the opportunity to develop into separate human beings.

A woman — a human being — and a foetus — a potential human being — do not have equal rights. It is not okay to force a woman to put her body through the process of childbirth against her will.

There is nothing new about the debate over whether women should have the right to abort a foetus which is part of their bodies. However, as Devine points out, numerous surveys show that while most women still support the right to choose, this support is declining, and becoming more conditional.

This has nothing to do with medical "advances" — it has everything to do with a massive propaganda backlash against feminism, which has been largely unfought. By choosing to castigate Natasha Stott Despoja, Devine takes part in that backlash. If she, and others of her ilk, begin to dominate this discussion we will see even more murders like that of Steven Rogers.

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