by Peter D. Williams
As we have seen, Amnesty International (AI) is able to campaign for the decriminalisation of abortion worldwide because it ignores the humanity and right to life of unborn children. This deliberate ‘ignore-ance’ of an entire swathe of the human family allows them to find access to abortion, at least in certain circumstances, a matter of human right. By deleting the unborn from the equation, they find this centrally in two rights: the right to health, and ironically enough, the right to life.
As previously noted, Amnesty claims that “restrictive abortion laws and policies” deny women “access to safe abortion services where continued pregnancy threatens their lives or health”. Since then, to “promote non-discrimination and the right to health are fundamental areas of AI’s mission”, they believe decriminalising abortion must also be part of their advocacy.
Yet even considered on their own, these arguments simply do not fit with reality, nor do they lead to a necessity to decriminalise the killing of unborn children. Neither medical reality, nor specific examples that Amnesty and abortion lobbyists have brought up work to justify their case. Abortion, if by that we mean direct feticide (the destruction of an unborn child in her mother’s womb) is never necessary to save a mother’s life or safeguard her health. No condition can be alleviated by attacking and killing an unborn baby. It may, however, be necessary to end a pregnancy for some medical reason, and sometimes it can also be necessary to perform actions that might have the side-effect of harming the unborn child. If a woman experiences an ectopic pregnancy, for example, the pregnancy will kill her if allowed to continue. Or, if a pregnant woman has cancer, chemotherapy that risks killing the unborn baby might be necessary to save her life.
Yet these examples do not constitute abortion. Abortion involves the direct intention to kill the unborn child, and this need not be true of treatments that end pregnancy. This is because of a medical ethical principle called ‘Double Effect’. If a pregnant woman goes through, say, chemotherapy to treat cancer, the intention is not to kill her child, but to destroy a tumour. If her unborn child dies, then this is a foreseen but unintended side-effect of the treatment, and thus not an abortion. If an ectopic pregnancy occurs, then a ‘salpingectomy’ (the removal of the fallopian tube where the pregnancy is taking place) can be affected. Since this involves treating the pathologised organ, and not intentionally killing the gestating baby, again the death of the unborn child is a foreseen but unintended side-effect of the procedure. It also then, is not an abortion. Consequently, neither chemotherapy for pregnant women, nor salpingectomy for ectopic pregnancy, are banned in countries that legally protect unborn children.
The only controversial aspect of this issue comes when a child needs to be removed from the womb. After viability (officially, 24 weeks), when the child can survive outside her mother’s womb, this is no problem. Before that point, however, removing the child from the environment they need to live can indeed be seen as equivalent to an abortion. Bioethicists argue over this point, but in many countries such as Chile and Ireland, pre-viable induction can take place to save the life of the mother.
What may often happen is that doctors wait until the child reaches viability, and then ethically end the pregnancy by removing the baby through caesarean section. This is seems to be what happened with a cause célèbre that Amnesty and the international abortion lobby took up in 2013. A young El Salvadoran woman had signified for the sake of anonymity as ‘Beatriz’, presented for an abortion because she was suffering from lupus (a chronic immune system disorder) aggravated by kidney failure, and thus had grave health concerns. It was argued that her life was put at risk from the pregnancy, and that the longer the pregnancy went on, the less likely doctors would be able to treat her.
What added to the tragedy of this situation was that her child was anencephalic (lacking a major part of the brain, skull, and scalp), and thus when born would only live for a few hours. Her child at the time was also below the twenty-four week point of viability, when the baby can – all other things being equal – survive outside the womb.
Her case was taken to the Supreme Court of El Salvador, which refused to authorise an abortion. This led to a campaign from Amnesty and abortion lobby groups for her to be granted feticide as ‘treatment’. Permission was given, however, by the Ministry of Health when Beatriz was 26 weeks pregnant for a caesarean section, when her child could be incubated and given fluids. As expected, Beatriz’s baby daughter died five hours after the procedure, but Beatriz was able to recover and later left the hospital.
Despite its exploitation by the international abortion lobby, and whilst it involved an ethically difficult and very sad situation, this case did not prove the necessity of legalised abortion. The sheer fact that Beatriz survived thanks to an ethically correct and legally sanctioned series of medical decisions proved both the legal and medical systems in El Salvador capable of balancing correctly the welfare of women and the right to life of their unborn children.
There is no need therefore to decriminalise abortion to save the lives, or health, of pregnant women. Much of the worst cases and reasons given by Amnesty for decriminalising abortion do not function at all as justifications for violating the dignity and rights of the child in the womb.
No human rights argument for abortion then on the grounds of life or health is ultimately workable or consistent. You simply cannot uphold the authentic rights of one person by denying those of another. Such arguments are also, however, moot, as they do not properly reflect or deal with the reality of situations to which they refer.
This post is part of the ‘Amnesty’s Travesty of Human Rights’ series, and is cross-posted on the Blog of the Life website as part of our joint #AmnestyTravesty campaign. Please go to www.shamnesty.org and sign the petition!