The abortion law is an ass (with apologies to donkeys)

Legal used to be married to just, but they seem to be divorced now. Witness the case of Sara Catt, a 35-year-old woman who aborted her child within a week of the delivery date.

Jailing Catt for eight years, Judge Cooke said, ‘The child in the womb was so near to birth, in my judgment all right-thinking people would think this offence more serious than unintentional manslaughter.’

All right-thinking people would indeed think just that. They’d also know that ‘unintentional manslaughter’ is a tautology. Manslaughter is unintentional by definition. If it’s intentional it’s murder.

Therefore, in the judge’s legal opinion Mrs Catt is guilty of something ‘more serious’ than manslaughter, which is to say murder. Now the presence or absence of malice aforethought is one difference between manslaughter and murder. The other is the sentencing guidelines.

The sentence for manslaughter is discretionary: the judge is free to pass any sentence he sees fit. When the defendant is found guilty of murder, however, that freedom is no longer there: the law calls for a mandatory life sentence.

Mrs Catt clearly planned the termination. She had to get a prescription for the abortion drug Misoprostol, go to the chemist’s, buy the drug, take it. Even by much more exacting American standards, this would be construed as premeditation. In the UK it definitely is. Why wasn’t she sentenced to life then?

Obviously, the judge felt he had to go against the ‘judgment of all right-thinking people’, presumably including himself, to find some mitigating circumstances that brought this crime down a notch in the pecking order of unlawful homicide. I’d be curious to know what they might be, though I can guess.

The judge must have followed some guidelines according to which a baby isn’t fully human until it crawls out of the mother’s womb. One minute after this the baby is a human being. One minute before, it is – what exactly? A mineral, vegetable, animal? Well, something less than human. It’s human 395, 281 minutes after conception. After a mere 395, 279 minutes it isn’t quite.

These sums simply don’t add up on any level, medical, philosophical, logical – and we won’t even talk religious, that’s simply too uncool for words. If we define murder as premeditated homicide, then the only possible argument against abortion at any time – and certainly a week before birth – has to centre around an indefensible view of when a human life begins.

In the UK abortion is legal until 24 weeks, roughly six months. The assumption has to be that until then the foetus isn’t an autonomous entity but part of the mother’s body, like an appendix. If that’s the case, then the argument works. A woman must be as free to have her baby aborted as she is have a bothersome appendix removed.

But that assumption is patently wrong. We needn’t go into the graphic details of what a foetus looks like at six months – we’ve all seen the same pictures. We also know that a foetus at that age or even younger can grow to maturity outside the mother’s body. Nor is it a secret that the foetus already has a brisk cerebral activity and is capable of feeling anguish and pain.

True enough, if prematurely removed from the mother’s body, the baby will need constant care and medical attention to survive on its own. But that’s equally true of the retarded, the crippled, the very ill or old – and yet few this side of Dr Mengele would advocate a wholesale cull of such people, though I wouldn’t put it past our euthanasia junkies.

So when does a human life begin? The question isn’t trivial: after all, if we wrongly assume it hasn’t yet begun and terminate it, we may be killing a person, which, for old times’ sake, still isn’t considered a nice thing to do.

Our law presumes that life starts at 24, weeks that is. Now how about 23 weeks, six days, 23 hours and 59 minutes? Are we absolutely certain that life begins in the 60 seconds separating the two moments, and not a second earlier?

Of course we are not. The 24-week cut-off is purely arbitrary – which can be demonstrated by subtracting a minute each time its advocate pushes the allowable limit back. This means that any upper limit for abortion will be arbitrary, for we can never be sure we aren’t killing a human being.

If we aren’t sure one way or the other, basic decency would demand that the legal concept of reasonable doubt be applied. The foetus must be presumed alive until proven otherwise. No rational difference between pre- and post-natal abortion exists.

The only indisputable moment at which human life begins is that of conception. Elementary morality boosted by equally elementary logic must lead to one conclusion only: ergo, abortion constitutes the taking of a human life. As with any such act, there may be redeeming circumstances, and some – such as the mother’s inevitable death unless the pregnancy is terminated – may even be regarded as adequate justification. Fair enough, similar qualifications apply to homicides. But though they apply to some, they don’t exculpate all.

This logic seems hard to refute even at the puny rationalistic level at which our laws operate. But forget about arguments against abortion as such for a second. Let’s instead get back to Sara Catt.

By any reasonable standards, this woman is guilty of murder – as she would be had she committed the same crime a week later. Her derisory eight-year sentence means that reasonable standards no longer operate.

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