Written by Lyn Bender - Eureka Street. Used with permission.
When it comes to grasping the right to life of any unborn or even unconceived living being, we are a dramatically split society. We celebrate conception, and, with compassion for the infertile, supportIVF programs. We also sanction, at a conservative estimate, 80,000terminations a year.
This dichotomy was tragically brought home by the ghastly medical error that occurred last week at Melbourne's Royal Women's Hospital. A decision was made to terminate, at 32 weeks gestation, one unborn twin, who was diagnosed with congenital heart problems. In a horror medical error, the 'wrong' (healthy) twin was killed. An emergency caesarian was then performed to terminate the surviving twin.
This case is troubling, and the trauma and grief to all involved must arouse our empathy. We may also ask why a decision would be made at such a late stage of gestation to terminate a foetus.
The event highlights the extent to which medical advances allow us to decide who shall live and who shall die; who we shall mourn and who we shall discount. On what basis do we decide? Do we need to re-examine our views and values regarding the taking, denying or promoting of new life?
These decisions are made not only in consideration of health or emotional needs, but are influenced by socio-economic factors, social constraints and many other pressures and medical possibilities, including the rejection of disability.Late term abortions present us with a particularly shocking paradox. At 23 weeks we may place a premature newborn in intensive care to fight for its life, or terminate another foetus who may indeed have survived to full term.
The debate about abortion has reflected another split. On one side are those who champion the mother's right to choose. On the other are those who elevate the rights of the child.
Leslie Cannold, president of Pro Choice Victoria, and Margaret Tighe, veteran founder of Right to Life Victoria, personify these opposing positions. Cannold argues unflinchingly in favour of the pregnant woman's right to choose. Tighe argues on behalf of the unborn child, declaring that we must protect the rights of the vulnerable unborn above all other considerations.
The community vacillates between these views and often practices a form of denial. 'We' (society), by attitude and by law, discount the 'equality' of the unborn. We make it a lesser entity.
Ending a pregnancy becomes a 'decision', rather than an almost insoluble dilemma between two opposed sets of rights: those belonging to the already-born, especially the mother, and those of the voiceless unborn being.
In my view we can only come close to an authentic place in this moral quagmire by affording equal rights to the foetus.
Many will be horrified and see this as a promotion of the old order, of the enslavement of women to the birth-life cycle. But to say we should award human rights to the foetus is not to say we may not sometimes decide in favour of termination. However we must afford the foetus the right to be heard.
It is especially true for a foetus that could survive outside the uterus, albeit with medical intervention. If our decision rests on pretending that the unborn child is just a cluster of cells, or that some can be deemed fit and others unfit for life, we run the risk of a kind of moral madness.
I am not writing this from lofty heights. I had an abortion at age 30, which I deeply regret. The prevailing wisdom was that this was not a person, and that to have a baby in adverse circumstances was irresponsible. Had my unborn child been given the status of an equal being I may have been able to make a different choice.
It is time that we face up to the inconvenient truth and grant rights to the unborn. This may be the last unexplored frontier in the implementation of human rights.
Lyn Bender is a Psychologist and a former member of the Suicide Prevention Australia Board.