Abortion: how late is 'too late'?

Sunday 30 October, 10.45am until 12.15pm, Students' Union

International concern about the problem of late abortions was sparked in January when the horrific story emerged of a Philadelphia doctor charged with providing illegal late abortions and infanticide in the USA. While many accept women should be able to access abortion early on in pregnancy, there is growing concern about whether it is acceptable - even for those who consider themselves to be ‘pro-choice’ - to argue the case for abortion at gestations where the foetus might be ‘viable’ if it were born. Some pro-choice advocates have argued for placing limits on women’s choice, on the grounds that abortion will be more acceptable if we can all agree that it is unacceptable to abort a fetus after 16, or 20, or 22 weeks.

In the 2008 debate about Britain’s abortion law, a number of parliamentarians argued for lowering the ‘time limit’ for abortion: it is currently illegal to abort a pregnancy after 24 weeks’ gestation, except in exceptional circumstances, and some argued that 24 weeks was ‘too late’. Advances in ultrasound images make us sensitive to how early on in pregnancy a fetus looks like a baby; discussions about the development of fetal pain often suggest a late-term fetus ‘feels’ like a baby too. New state laws passed in the USA often focus on restricting later term abortions, including those carried out for fetal anomaly.

What do we know about why women have late abortions? Is there a moral difference between early and late abortion - and if so, where in pregnancy can that line be drawn? Are there practical measures that can be taken to reduce the incidence of late abortions, even if they remain legal, and if so, should this be the focus of ethical concern? Can the practices of illegal abortionists tell us anything about the doctors who provide legal services, and the women who use them? Is late abortion more justifiable in cases of fetal anomaly than for ‘social reasons’?  Ultimately, can choice be meaningful if it is limited?

Ann Furedi
chief executive, British Pregnancy Advisory Service; author, The Moral Case for Abortion

William Saletan
journalist, Slate; author, Bearing Right: how conservatives won the abortion war

Bríd Hehir
writer, researcher and traveller; retired nurse and fundraiser

Produced by
Bríd Hehir writer, researcher and traveller; retired nurse and fundraiser
Recommended readings
An irreligious approach to abortion

Is it possible to come up with a non-religious justification for rejecting an unrestricted right to abortion?

Andrew Brown, Guardian, 28 February 2011

The Baby Butcher

Pro-choice absolutism and the grisly abortion scandal in Philadelphia.

William Saletan, Slate, 20 January 2011

A moral defence of late abortion

The chief executive of bpas urges faltering pro-choice campaigners to rediscover their respect for women’s moral autonomy.

Ann Furedi, spiked, 20 December 2010

Second Trimester Abortion Restrictions Are Not an Option: Response to Saletan and Kissling

When leaders in the pro-choice movement start to speculate about restricting abortion rights to appease the anti-choice movement, they have lost sight of what the pro-choice movement is about: respecting women as moral decision makers.

Steph Herold and Susan Yanow, RH Reality Check, 8 December 2010

Can we ever say a woman can't choose?

It's hard for pro-choicers to admit sometimes a woman shouldn't be allowed to choose abortion -- but we have to

Frances Kissling, Salon, 21 June 2009

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