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  1. World
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7 December 2007updated 27 Sep 2015 5:44am

Making perfect babies

James Medhurst turns his gaze on the controversial issue of selective abortion

By James Medhurst

Just over a month ago, the Commons Science and Technology Committee published its report of recommendations about abortion.

One curiosity of the current law is that most foetuses older than 24 weeks must not be aborted, because they are deemed to have rights but this does not apply to disabled foetuses, even with relatively minor impairments such as cleft palates or even club feet.

The committee concluded that the definition of the word ‘serious’ should be tightened but that there was no need to remove this particular anomaly. Oddly, it also suggested that viability outside of the womb should remain the main test for when the rights of the foetus outweigh those of the mother, even though no-one could plausibly suggest that children with club feet are not viable and nor do they feel no pain.

Of course, there is more to philosophical arguments about abortion than balancing rights. There are also utilitarian calculations to be made regarding the economic impact upon the family into which the child will be born.

According to the guidance issued by the British Medical Association, such factors should be taken into account when the late abortion of a disabled foetus is contemplated. But, when it is extrapolated, this reasoning can lead to dangerous conclusions.

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This week, a BBC investigation found that the selective abortion of girls, a common albeit illegal practice in India, is now becoming increasingly popular in the UK.

It is a route often taken by desperate parents on economic grounds because of the prohibitive cost of a dowry for a daughter who will have little or no earning power in a sexist society. It also costs more to raise a disabled child, at least in part because of an appalling lack of state support, but equality is surely a better goal than selective abortion.

For this comparison to work, I needed to be sure of the level of political consensus about the abortion of girls in India and I could imagine a radical pro-choice stance in which it might be considered to be acceptable.

Therefore, I needed to find the most socially liberal and economically pragmatic publication I could find, and I did not have to look further than The Economist. In 2003, one of its disturbingly anonymous drones wrote that, “the resulting dearth of females is already wreaking social damage, which can only worsen,” and, “it may be too late to avoid serious social trauma.”

Either the piece somehow slipped through the rigorous editorial filter of the magazine or it was making a rare concession that there are necessary limits which occasionally have to be placed on human freedom.

One of the problems that I have with libertarianism is the inevitable hypocrisy that British freedoms are somehow treated as being more valuable than foreign ones.

Nevertheless, it can often be a fruitful practice to examine the social practices of other cultures as a way of looking at ourselves from the outside. By doing so, we may learn to understand their internal logic and become more tolerant of them as a result.

Conversely, it is sometimes necessary to see the obvious flaws in the reasoning of other societies before it is possible to be alert to similar deficiencies in our own ways of thinking. With regard to selective abortion, I am happy to be a cultural imperialist and to declare that Western abhorrence of the practice is based on solid foundations.

However, in acknowledging this, I wish to point out that what is true of girls in India may also apply to disabled children in the UK.

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