The concept of viability is a widely used argument in the abortion debate and within this specific context the term denotes a baby’s ability to survive outside of the womb. The term is often used by those who support abortion up to a certain gestational stage, after which a human infant can supposedly survive unaided outside of the womb. The claim often goes along the lines of, “abortion is acceptable up to the stage of when a baby could potentially survive by itself outside of the womb.” This claim is rooted in many inaccuracies and the purpose of this article is to provide a refutation of this claim and the argument from viability’s main points.
Does anyone live independently?
The first and indeed most obvious argument which can be refuted in the viability debate is that of understanding the child’s supposed ability to live “independently” outside of the womb. When a child is born, they enter the world completely helpless and dependent on the help and care of others to survive. For the first few years of their lives, they are completely dependent on others for their survival and this dependency exists to a lesser extent up to the age of 18 at legal adulthood and beyond. A child is dependent on the support of their parents or guardian, in addition to a large number of other individuals, for their ability to survive and thrive.
The concept of a newborn baby being “viable” or able to live independently when placed in this context is laughable. A baby is not born with the skills ready for their own survival. These skills must be grown and nurtured until that child is able to enter the adult world. Even in the adult world, an individual can in no way be said to exist in an independent, autonomous, and self-sustaining manner.
Why does need for medical assistance determine human worth?
A superficially more refined argument espousing the viability position is that it is not so much a child’s ability to live “independently” (a fictitious illusion as has already been discussed) but their ability to survive outside of their mothers’ womb with the aid of medical assistance. This argument, whilst making more sense than the one referring to a child’s ability to live “independently” outside of the womb, is still deeply flawed and steeped in inaccuracies. This is because it renders the worth of human life as totally subjective. Medical science is constantly evolving and making incredible improvements in its ability to save the lives of premature babies.
Indeed, within the Infant Life (Preservation) Act of 1929 (UK), it was presumed that only children born after 28 weeks gestation were capable of being born alive. Moreover, the presumption of viability was seen to be 24 weeks in the reform of the Infant Life (Preservation) Act as stated in its second reading in February 1987. However, of babies born at 23 weeks, “In 2016, 38% survived-double the rate 10 years previously.” Even babies at 22 weeks are viable! It is highly likely that advances in medicine will enable premature babies to survive at gestational stages even closer to conception in the future. Yet, if an individual human being has innate worth, then their ability to live outside the womb should not be the criteria by which we recognize their right to life. Whilst advances in medicine are incredibly important and necessary, a child’s inability to live outside the womb should not be a justification for abortion — the direct and intentional killing of that human life.
A common assertion of those advocating the viability argument is that a mother has a right to an abortion up until the point at which that child can survive with medical assistance outside of the womb. If viability is seen to be the benchmark and indicator of human worth and abortion is permissible when a child cannot survive without medical assistance outside of the womb, then human worth becomes subjective, not absolute, predicated on a child’s ability to survive outside of the location which should be safest for them. It is an inconsistent valuing of human worth; not only as valuing human life that is medically viable outside the womb whilst disregarding human beings that are not medically viable, but also of valuing premature babies who are able to access medical attention whilst disregarding those who cannot.
Others can take care of a baby after birth, but not before
An argument often used by those in favor of the viability viewpoint is that outside of the womb there are other individuals, notably medical experts, who can assist the child, whilst in the womb the child is totally dependent on one individual, their mother. However, this argument is erroneous in several ways. Firstly, that child is dependent on more than just their mother for survival; medical staff, their father, and other members of society play key roles in providing for and protecting both that child and their mother during her pregnancy. Many members of society are required to bring a baby to term, including medical staff and members of emergency services who would face legal consequences were they to deliberately neglect their duty to protect and safeguard both the woman and her child. It is a fallacy to assume that only the mother is crucial for the survival of her unborn child; a whole community is required to ensure their preservation.
Secondly, even if that child is totally and completely dependent on their mother, it would still not excuse the direct, intentional killing of that child. Imagine if a mother and her one month old baby are stranded on a desert island. There is enough food and drink on this island for both mother and child and other resources to cater to the needs of both. It will be roughly six months until they are rescued due to the isolation of the island but the mother knows she and her baby will be rescued.. The baby is totally dependent on their mother for survival; they cannot feed or cater to their own needs and require the mother completely to care for them. It would be morally wrong in this situation for the mother, despite her being the sole caretaker for her child, to neglect her duties and the needs of her child. Her child’s dependence and vulnerability, instead of being an excuse to abandon or even kill them, should indicate they are privy to more protection, not less. There is no meaningful difference between a mother carrying her child for the first six months of pregnancy and this situation requiring her to provide for her child for six months. The location of the child has changed; their inherent worth has not.
A counter argument to this point is that a human does not have the right to use another person’s body to survive. If we use the island example as mentioned above, in this scenario there is no way for the one month old child to survive without “using the mother’s body to survive,” i.e., through the provision and care of the mother. Yet it would still be morally wrong for the mother to not care and provide for her child in this scenario. Leaving the child to die would be a morally reprehensible act. In the same manner, simply because a child is dependent on the mother, abortion cannot be justified because of the child’s inability to care for themself or live with the assistance of medical technology outside of the womb.
The underlying assumption
This brings me to the final point, the real crux of the viability argument. Both types of arguments — a child only having the right to live upon achieving “independence” and a child having value when they are able to survive outside of the womb with medical assistance — bring us onto the key assumption: it is morally permissible to kill those who are dependent on others for survival. The first is more overt in its reasoning for this, as it renders those who are dependent as expendable because of their perceived inability to be independent and provide for their own survival. The assumption here is that a human being has to be independent and totally self-sufficient to be worthy of life. The second is a more subtle and refined argument than the first, stating that the value of human life is predicated on its ability to be viable with medical assistance outside of the womb. The assumption here is that a human being is valuable as long as there are other people and means besides the mother and her womb to keep the baby alive.
If each and every human being has innate, intrinsic, objective worth, then their dependency, rather than being a reason for allowing abortion should instead be the reason to focus on providing for and protecting them. Safeguarding the most dependent as much as possible in recognition of their increased vulnerability and need for assistance should be emphasized, not destroying those who cannot defend or provide for themselves.