An unhelpful contribution to the conversation about abortion

There’s a difficult case in front of the South Australian coroners’ court at present. A baby was still born, Someone (it is not clear who) wants an inquest, but the coroner must first decide whether he can hold an inquest, because by law, inquests can only inquire about the deaths of persons, and by law, fetuses and still born babies are not persons. Local paper The Advertiser thinks that [t]he case is likely to fuel debate about the rights of the unborn child and abortion. To help that debate along, they’re running a handy little on-site poll, asking its readers to determine when life begins.

You can say whether you think life begins at conception, when the zygote develops, when the embryo develops, when the foetus develops, at birth or at first breath.

FFS! I know, this is all just a ploy to keep their on-line circulation figures up, but really. Does this add anything at all to any discussion about abortion? The casual alignment of life with sanctity, the implication that a vote is the way to settle moral disputes, the reifying of stages as though they are definite hard and fast moments instead of long and complex transitions (and that would include conception, BTW). These silly simplifications just muddy people’s understanding of how human life begins, and reinforce the thuggery of majority rules. And they certainly don’t encourage people to think about the assumptions they make, and the process of reflecting on moral issues.

Too much to ask for from what really is just a provincial newspaper, I know. Even so, would it be too much to ask The Advertiser to stop creating polls as silly as this one?

As for the case itself, as ever it will turn on legal principle and the particular facts. It’s not making a statement about abortion at all, and it would be helpful if The Advertiser didn’t try to make out that it does.

For the record, the results to date are:

Life begins at conception – 36%, when the zygote develops – 5%, when the embryo develops – 5%, when the foetus develops – 26%, at birth – 10%, at first breath – 18%.


8 responses to “An unhelpful contribution to the conversation about abortion

  1. Hmm. I went and looked at the linked article. It looks to me as though someone is trying to claim the mother or midwife is at fault. ‘Someone’ might be the ambulance person quoted as claiming the baby breathed. I consider it very irresponsible of the Advertiser to shield the accuser but publicize the accusations in this way.

    That does explain why ‘someone’ is so determined to have a legal inquest. If, say, the mother had wished to determine the causes of an unsuccessful birth, she could have a doctor examine the body without needing a formal inquest.

  2. What, no “life begins when the kid leaves home” option? Seriously, there’s a very skewed set of options there, they’re all pre-birth. Let’s have all the options on the table, right out to the Libertarian “life begins at net positive tax contributions”.

    As for the article… not impressed. Third parties misusing the legal system to punish people don’t impress me.

  3. I thought life began at 40.

  4. It’s a ridiculous question, life begins at conception. It seems hard to consider where else it would begin. But all life is not equal. The head lice we receive letters home from school about on a regular basis are also life. I’m not charging anyone with murder over them though. The transition from bundle of (alive) cells to human person is gradual, and I would say carries on well past birth.

    The interesting question is why our legal system hasn’t evolved past sharp line categories. There is no line in the sand between bundle of cells and fully fledged person, so there’s no point arguing about where it is. If there needs to be an inquest into this still birth, there should be, without any lines moving.

  5. Ridiculous question! Do people even know what a zygote, embryo or foetus is, technically? And I’m with Ariane.

    What a furfee all this is (best. Aus.word.ever!)

  6. Moz: heh! In the old Jewish joke, life begins at graduation.

  7. I wonder if half the people voting could even define a zygote.

  8. Jokes aside, the Jewish position is quite clear that it is not considered to be a life until the head emerges – until then, it has the status of a parasite in most situations, coming secondary to the welfare of the mother.