Doctors for Choice
Prof Isabel Stabile: Abortion Rights
This article was published in MaltaToday on 28 June 2020
In his contribution (21 June), Anthony Mifsud from the Malta Unborn Child Movement unfortunately mixes apples and oranges, so to speak. Non-voluntary euthanasia (the act of ending life without the explicit consent of the individual) cannot be equated with abortion, because a wounded soldier, or any other human being for that matter, is already a “being” i.e. a person.
Starting from the premise that all human beings are automatically persons, philosophers have long debated what characteristics impart personhood and when this state of personhood begins. I respect the views of those who, based on the teachings of the Church, believe that ensoulment makes one a person.
However, I trust that all those who espouse this faith can also reason. An unconscious person is still sentient - i.e., able to perceive - whereas there is no evidence that a foetus below approximately six months has the neural network capacity to do so. Similarly, life support is only discontinued in those who are unconscious and brain dead, that is, with irreversible loss of brain activity and hence not sentient.
Conception, viability and birth are traditionally considered possible candidates for when one becomes a person. My stance is that sharp boundaries are arbitrary and inadequate for such a loose concept as personhood. There is clearly very little difference between the foetus/baby just before and after birth, but there is a very large difference between an embryo at six weeks and a foetus at six months.
Similarly, in 1960 a 26-week-old foetus was not considered viable, whereas now it is. Does that mean that because our neonatal intensive care facilities have improved, a baby born prematurely in 2020 was a person before birth but would not have been 60 years ago? This does not make sense to me.
What makes a person? The ability to form relationships? Having a sense of one’s own identity? Endowed with the capacity for emotional response? Being able to think? Even if were to agree on all of these (and possibly others), is there any reason to believe that these characteristics all emerge at once? In my view, being a person is a matter of degree. Yes, I view a newborn as more of a person than a six-month-old foetus, which in turn is more of a person than a six-week embryo and certainly more than the fusion of two gametes at conception. In truth we do not know how the process of becoming a person begins, how fast it changes and where it ends.
Unfortunately Mr Mifsud and his colleagues will likely fail to understand (or perhaps accept) that a foetus may be a person, a potential person or even a person with potential, but a woman is definitely a person, and as such has rights that no foetus could ever have. Among these rights, is the right to choose what happens to her body. The potentiality of the foetus as a person comes at the expense of the potential of the pregnant woman to exercise her choice. I believe it is not right to force anyone to give birth.
Denying the option of abortion to all women living in Malta means that the beliefs of the MUCM negatively affect the health of these women. Of this there is no doubt.
Prof. Isabel Stabile FRCOG., Ph.D.