When is an unborn baby viable? The question is central to abortion law and to the trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, an abortion provider. Dr. Gosnell is on trial in Philadelphia for the murder of fetuses at his abortion clinic, forcing this question back to the political front burner: When is terminating the life of a fetus murder? According to this professional legal services website, abortion law in the U.S. is a state-by-state affair. The site explains, “Virtually all states begin with the presumption that abortion is a crime […]” Each state then sets out the particular conditions by which an abortion can be conducted legally in that state, though some general principles apply across the country: “Legal abortion is universally defined in terms of the mother’s convenience or health. Though few definitions mention the life or health of the fetus, many refer to its ‘viability’ as a standard for when an abortion may be performed with impunity, and without further attempt to define the term.”
The Good on Both Sides of the Abortion Debate
I believe that the failure to define “viability” is an ethical failure on a grand scale, yet I’d like to take time out from finger-pointing and political posturing. Please accept this premise for the sake of argument: There are no wicked people among “right to life” advocates or “abortion rights” proponents, only sincere people trying to protect victims and alleviate suffering. Each group attempts to protect a potential victim. For right to life advocates, the victim who needs protection is the unborn child. For abortion rights proponents, the potential victim is a pregnant woman. No matter what you think of this contentious debate about victims, my point is, both sides are comprised of good people trying to do the right thing.
But how do good people remain good as they act on their beliefs? In other words, how do good people keep from doing bad things? Honest self-criticism is the only way. If, despite our best intentions, good people on either side of the debate discover they have been the cause of harm, then the only way to continue to be good is to accept the truth of our complicity in that suffering. Being good requires moral courage. In the case of abortion, being good requires looking squarely at this word “viable” despite the risk that we may, in the process, indict ourselves.
Gosnell on Trial for Murder
So let’s begin modestly. Merriam-Webster’s definition of viable is “capable of living; especially: having attained such form and development as to be normally capable of surviving outside the mother’s womb <a viable fetus>”. In the Philadelphia trial, Dr. Gosnell is accused of performing late-term abortions in which the fetus gave signs of life such as jerking an arm or drawing a breath. Then he or his medical assistants severed the spinal cord with scissors. It is this last act, the severing of the spinal cord outside the womb, that is the subject of the murder charges. That he injected a drug to stop the heart of the fetus inside the womb, a drug that apparently failed regularly, is not part of the legal proceedings. The New York Times poses the thorny ethical issue this raises, asking why is “an abortion procedure performed in utero legal, but a similar act a few minutes later, outside the womb, considered homicide”?
Viability: Legality Meets Science
The question of legality depends on how viability is determined. Aborted children are not supposed to be “viable”, but what does that mean? The most common cut-off point for legal abortion is 24 weeks gestation, a line that seems to have been chosen for medical reasons. Even though the 24-week-old fetus would not be able to sustain its own life outside the womb, it can survive with medical assistance. Is this, then, a good definition of viable: capable of living with artificial help? If so, why is artificial help privileged over the biological support the mother was providing in the womb?
I find it paradoxical that the protection of women’s rights involves the devaluing of our bodies in this way. When our bodies support the life of the fetus, the fetus can be killed with impunity. When a machine supports its life, then the life of the fetus is protected by law. Why is the effort of a machine protected by law and not the effort of a woman’s body? I think it would be more reasonable and respectful of a woman’s capacity to support life to define viable as “capable of surviving with natural or artificial help.” But this would mean that, from the moment of conception, every unborn child is technically “viable.” In that case, every abortion would be illegal.
Full-Term Newborns Are Never Viable
This conclusion about viability is one that defenders of abortion rights are loathe to make. But unless we include some form of help or assistance in our definition, no newborn could possibly be considered “viable” because there is no such thing as a newborn who can survive without help. Babies cannot feed themselves, protect themselves from danger, or even regulate their own body temperature without help. This “natural” help provided by a caregiver is just as “natural” as the biological help provided inside the womb, and just as necessary for the baby’s survival as the artificial help given to prematurely-born infants. No newborn is viable by itself; every “viable,” full-term newborn depends on help to survive. In fact, being viable cannot be divorced in any way from the reality of natural or artificial assistance.
Are Adults Viable on Their Own?
How did we become so confused about what it means for fetuses to be “viable?” I think it is intimately connected to the false idea of adult autonomy. We adults in the post-Enlightenment West are enamored with the concept of our independence. We believe we can and should go it alone and do it ourselves. Asking for help is a sign of weakness; depending on others (family, friends or public aid) for support is condemned as parasitic. I have even seen fetuses described as parasites living off their mothers’ bodies. The truth is that no human being is viable without biological or emotional assistance.
Who we are, what we believe, what we desire – all that we are has been given to us by the culture into which we were born as unviable, dependent, helpless newborns. If as adults we were to find ourselves stranded, lost, isolated from all others, our survival would be as tenuous as an infant’s. Even if an infant’s physical needs are met, if left without human contact they can wither and die. Remember the Tom Hanks character in the movie Castaway? He created a companion from a volleyball he called Wilson to prevent dying from loneliness. It’s not so far-fetched a thought. People who have friends and social connections live longer than those who are alone. Like the unborn fetus and the newborn child, adults are not viable on their own.
How to Be Truly Good
It is a failure of logic and ethics to condemn a fetus because the help it needs is different than the help needed by adults. This attempts to construct a difference where there is none. If viability is a precondition for murder, we are left with a baffling paradox: Since no human being is completely viable on their own, then no murderer could ever be convicted of a crime. If “viability” requires complete autonomy, Dr. Gosnell will be acquitted and abortions will remain shrouded in the legal haze of an ill-defined term.
If we accept that viability is always entangled with some sort of support, then we may be able – as a nation of good people, state by state – to see that our attempt to alleviate women’s suffering has caused unintentional harm not only to their unborn children, but to women as well. Our shared commitment to goodness demands that we be honest about our collective inability to be viable on our own, both in the womb and outside it. Where will we go from that realization? I don’t know, but not knowing is not an excuse for the status quo.