Pro-Life Renaissance or Scam?

Steven Mosher
By Joseph A. D'Agostino
PRI Weekly Briefing
2 September 2005
Vol. 7 / No. 34
Reproduced with Permission

As in America, anti-abortion feeling is on the rise in Britain. As in America, British politicians are talking about restricting late-term abortions. And, as in America, some UK political leaders are trying to mollify pro-lifers without really doing anything that would decrease the number of abortions.

Abortion does not have the salience in British politics that it does in the States. Nevertheless, recent advances in medical technology are penetrating into British consciousness. For example, half of all British babies born prematurely at 23 weeks can now live, yet British law allows fairly easy access to abortion until 24 weeks. After this point, an abortion is subject to stricter rules. The discrepancy between viability and that 24-week limit has generated a debate in the British press, and a majority of the British people now favor pushing the 24-week limit back.

On August 29, a Member of Parliament (MP) for the left-wing Liberal Democratic Party, one of Britain's three major parties, asked for the science committees of the British House of Lords and House of Commons to investigate the possibility of lowering the 24-week limit. Most of the discussion mentions 20 weeks as a possible new gestational limit. Dr. Evan Harris, a medical doctor and Liberal Democrat MP, cited a recent poll published in the Telegraph of London that showed only 27% of the public believed the limit should remain the same. Thirty percent want the limit cut to 20 weeks, while 19% chose 12 weeks. Women were found to be more pro-life than men, with one-third of the fair sex favoring a limit of 12 weeks or earlier. Michael Howard, the leader of the Conservative Party in the spring elections that produced another victory for pro-abortion Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour Party, called for a Commons vote on adopting the 20-week limit during the election campaign.

But Britain's Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) warns that the proposal for a 20-week limit, while it seems to promise incremental progress on saving the lives of the unborn, could be used as a Trojan horse for liberalizing abortion laws in other ways. SPUC noted that in July, Harris talked about lowering the abortion time limit but also discussed making first-trimester abortions even easier, RU-486 more readily available, and taking other pro-abortion measures.

"The pro-life movement walked into a trap set by the then-Conservative government and the pro-abortion lobby in 1990 when most people wrongly think that the upper limit for abortion was lowered" from 28 weeks to the current 24, says SPUC's John Smeaton. "The fact is that it rose to 24 weeks for most abortions, and up to birth in some cases. SPUC is certain that the same sort of danger applies today."

The British Medical Association (BMA) has been moving in an anti-life direction, this summer rejecting a proposal calling for a 20-week abortion limit and adopting one ending its opposition to assisted suicide. New pictures of unborn children as young as 12 weeks making deliberate movements in the womb apparently haven't affected them as they have so many of the British people.

Here in the States, 20 weeks is coincidentally the time at which fetal pain experts believe they have so far proved unborn children begin to feel pain, perhaps more intensely than born children. Pro-life Sen. Sam Brownback (R.-Kan.) is the chief sponsor of the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act, which would require abortionists to tell women having abortions after 20 weeks that their children might endure pain during the procedure. There was a dust-up over that issue last month when the Journal of the American Medical Association published an article claiming that unborn children do not feel pain until 29 weeks or later. It turned out that two of the authors of that article had been involved in abortion promotion, while the most prominent investigators into fetal pain were not among the authors. The lead author, Susan Lee, is a former employee of NARAL.

"You have premature babies delivered at 23 and 24 weeks and you wouldn't dream of doing surgery on them without anesthesia," Brownback noted after the JAMA article appeared, according to the Topeka Capital Journal.

Some pro-life activists think that such legislation as the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act is a distraction from the true goal, and only pacifies people who would otherwise be pushing for a ban on all abortions. After all, such a bill does not actually outlaw any abortions. We at PRI believe that such legislation as this and the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act have reduced the incidence of abortion by forcing mothers to confront what happens to unborn children during the procedure.

Any committed pro-lifer already knows that all unborn children—whether viable or not, whether they feel pain yet or not—are worthy of protection. But for those who don't yet understand this, these debates over viability and abortion in Britain, and over fetal pain in the United States, help to place the status of the unborn child front and center. By shifting the focus away from the abstract, invented notion of a "right to privacy," or a "right to control one's own body" that somehow extends to another person's body, these debates serve a valuable purpose.

Of course, pro-lifers must ensure they are not being scammed. Hopefully, the pro-life movement has become too large and well-organized to be hoodwinked the way it has in the past.