I don’t agree with Jeremy Hunt about abortion. I think the 24-week limit is about right where it is, and that reducing it to 12 weeks, as he would like to, would have very damaging consequences for women’s health. It would also derail prenatal screening for serious abnormalities, most of which can only be detected at more advanced gestational ages than this.
I accept, though, that the Secretary of State for Health’s position is one which he is wholly entitled to hold. Abortion is rightly seen in this country as a conscience issue, rather than one on which politicians must follow the party whip. If he feels that abortion after 12 weeks is incompatible with his value system, that is a judgement that is his to make.
Abortion is not an issue that can be decided by science and evidence alone. If you believe that an early embryo is a fully formed human being with the rights of a born person, evidence about viability and capacity to feel pain is not going to shift your position. That’s not my belief, but if it is Hunt’s then I understand why he thinks as he does.
What I do have a problem with, however, is the way in which Hunt explained his stance on abortion in his interview with The Times. Hunt didn’t simply state that this was a decision he had reached for personal, moral or ethical reasons. He implied strongly that his position was reached rationally in accordance with evidence. And that, I think, makes him guilty of two of the different sorts of evidence abuse that I highlight in The Geek Manifesto.
“Everyone looks at the evidence and comes to a view about when they think that moment is, and my own view is that 12 weeks is the right point for it. It’s just my view about that incredibly difficult question about the moment that we should deem life to start. I don’t think the reason I have that view is for religious reasons.”
First of all, he alludes to evidence that supports 12 weeks as a sensible threshold, then fails to elaborate at all on what this evidence actually is. It is secret evidence, very difficult for his critics to scrutinise or challenge, because nobody knows what it is. In this case, it may well be secret because it does not exist. I certainly know of no evidence that suggests a human foetus of 12 weeks’ gestation is either viable, or has the capacity to feel pain — the two criteria most commonly quoted as relevant to the threshold debate.
Hunt, it has to be said, was responding to a question in an interview, and thus might reasonably claim not to have had his evidence to hand, or to have lacked the opportunity to share it. In which case, I look forward to him clarifying the evidence he has in mind.
More seriously, though, I strongly suspect that Hunt’s views on abortion were not actually reached by examining the evidence before reaching a view. Rather, he has decided that he does not like the idea of second trimester abortions — perhaps for religious reasons, perhaps because he finds them distasteful — and is now seeking to portray a position reached in accordance with his values as one grounded in evidence.
There is nothing wrong with forming a view about a topic such as abortion with reference to your values. But if you do this, you should say so, and not attempt to “spray on” evidence afterwards to justify a position taken for entirely different reasons.
As I said above, I don’t think abortion policy can be reduced to evidence alone. Neither, I suspect, does Jeremy Hunt. But he should have the courage of his convictions, and say that he thinks second trimester abortions are unethical or immoral, rather than portraying a values-based decision as an evidence-based one.
A couple of links to other good writing on this issue I’ve seen today:
Wendy Savage, in the Guardian, has a good summary of the evidence in viability here.
And Catherine Bennett, in the Observer, makes some similar points to me in her column.