There was an odd interchange between panellist Tim Stanley and expert witness Dr Kate Greasley on Radio 4’s The Moral Maze last week. The subject, fifty years after the Abortion Act, was the ethics of termination of pregnancy. Dr Greasley was discussing “personhood” and making the point that there is a difference between a self-conscious being and a single cell zygote. “Ah!” interjected Tim Stanley. “Now you’re being medical rather than moral!” Dr Greasley called this a “rhetorical non-sequitur”. They had a rather tetchy exchange which Chairman Michael Buerk had to interrupt so that the witness could finish making her point. It all reminded me of why I don’t usually last the distance in The Moral Maze but switch over to Radio 3. When people start to get hot under the collar they tend to diffuse more heat than light. The same could be said for public discourse generally. Only this week two US ex-presidents have, exceptionally, gone out of their way to bemoan the toxic atmosphere of partisan tribalism that has contaminated American politics. Over here, debates resemble the squabbling of the sharp-suited apprentices hauled into Lord Alan Sugar’s office prior to a sacking. I’m not immune to it myself. I put my hand up. A few months ago when Michael Gove, in support of the upgrade of Trident, compared the SNP Westminster MPs (et al) to “a eunuch complaining about the cost of Viagra”, I spluttered into my cornflakes and wrote a rejoinder to the letters column of The Herald. It would have been a perfectly good letter, and I think The Herald might have published it, but that I closed by expressing the hope that somebody would tell Mr Gove where he could stuff his Viagra. Not good! It was not the first time The Herald has saved me from myself. Now I try to write them a letter only if I think I have something constructive to say.
But this time I stuck with The Moral Maze because the expert witnesses were so good. It was particularly interesting that Dr Edward Condon and Dr Kate Greasley, though expressing opposing views, were both extremely articulate. Dr Condon, a canon lawyer who writes for The Catholic Herald, cast the debate in terms of human rights, and was prepared to grant human rights to human life from the moment of conception. Dr Greasley, lecturer in law at UCL, saw the rhetoric of “rights” as a marker for a poor standard of debate. She saw “personhood” as being the factor that made life valuable. “Personhood” came into being gradually.
I thought it was unfortunate that Dr Greasley’s use of the word “zygote” seemed to compel Tim Stanley to interrupt. It seems to me that there is much to be gained by considering the issue of termination, at a cellular level. A zygote is the product of the union of two gametes. A gamete is a sexual reproductive cell, either an egg-cell or a sperm-cell. The moment of fertilisation occurs when two gametes, egg and sperm, successfully combine. If I understood Dr Condon correctly, then he was saying that the entity thus created, the zygote, has as many “human rights” as any human being at any stage of life, and that the zygote’s right to life superseded any other consideration, for example the consideration of the rights of a woman who had been the victim of rape and/or incest. One of the attractions of this point of view is its consistency. The zygote is sacrosanct; no ifs, no buts.
That stance begs the question, does a gamete have rights? The difference between a gamete and any other human cell is that the gamete only contains 23 chromosomes or half of the human cell’s complement of 46 chromosomes. The average human male ejaculate contains about 300,000,000 gametes, so the idea of granting human rights to each gamete is patently absurd. Even a woman who remains reproductive for a long time, say, from aged 13 to 55, can potentially produce about 500 gametes, but she can hardly be expected to bear 500 children.
Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that a zygote has rights, but a gamete has no rights. (I’m beginning to understand why Dr Greasley thinks the rhetoric of “rights” lowers the standard of debate.) It occurs to me that there might be a way of reconciling two opposing points of view by looking at this issue in a pragmatic way. Since the 1967 act, there have been about 9,000,000 pregnancies terminated in the UK. The current abortion rate is about 200,000 per annum. Some people would argue that is 200,000 too many; most people would argue that it is at the very least unfortunate that these situations arise, and that it would be a good thing if unwanted pregnancies just didn’t happen. There are two ways to avoid an unwanted pregnancy. One is always to remember to take the pill, or better still, get an implant or long-acting reversible contraceptive (LARC). The other (and for some reason champions of teenage contraception are loath to suggest this strategy) is to abstain from sex. This month at the annual conference of the Royal College of General Practitioners in Liverpool, John Guillebaud, Emeritus Professor of Family Planning and Reproductive Health at UCL, encouraged all the GPs to prescribe the low dose combined (oestrogen-progestogen) pill daily without breaks (or no more than four four-day breaks a year, rather than the twelve seven-day breaks a year, a fifty year old convention that has no scientific evidence base). It is so much easier to remember to do something if you are doing it every day.
Prof Guillebaud is very concerned about carbon footprints, not just the amount of carbon, but the number of feet. The human population of the world is currently increasing at the rate of about eighty million per annum. This means that the world has to create the infrastructure, the amenities, and the goods and services of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, and Aberdeen, once a week, in perpetuity. Then shortly, add Carlisle. Then… It’s not sustainable.