I don’t know exactly why I was so upset by the death of Savita Halappanavar. In part, it was because the very people whom she trusted to save her failed in their duty to do so, but that would apply to any case of medical negligence. I think that in the main, I was just appalled that anyone would be prepared to enforce a position of moral absolutism even in the face of such distress and death.
I don’t like absolute moral rules, because I think that no rule can cover the complexity of every situation. In fact, people seem to use them simply to avoid the effort of thinking. In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a parody of totalitarian states, “four legs good, two legs bad” was a rule designed to relieve the citizens from the burden of thinking.
Though there are some issues where it’s easy to decide the side you should be on: racism, gender equality, democracy, say. I don’t think that abortion is one of those. It’s difficult, and complicated, and there is no easy answer.
But here’s how I think about it. An unfertilised egg cell is not a human being. A new-born baby is. A human life arises between those two points.
The absolutist position adopted by many (mainly religious) people who oppose abortion totally is that human life begins at the instant of conception. To me, that makes no sense. A fertilised egg might be a potential human being, but then it was a potential human being a moment before. Conception is just one of the essential stages on the way to life. Why not choose successful implantation (which often fails to occur) or some phase of cellular division?
Setting the beginning of life at the instant of conception is purely a religious, mystical belief with no basis in biology or common sense. While people are free to believe whatever ideas they like, it’s the duty of society to prevent them being imposed on others who reasonably disagree. Savita must have been distraught that her pregnancy had failed, but there is no reason to suppose that she thought she had to go to the point of death anyway. Somebody else made that decision.
Even if you do discard the mystical, if there’s to be a law, it has to be the best we can make. A law will have to say that up to some point, for some reasons, it will be legal to terminate a pregnancy, but neither of those criteria is obvious or easy.
My own instinct is to balance off the two. That is, no restriction on measures such as the “morning after pill” which prevents implantation of a fertilised egg cell; but very strict conditions from the point where a fetus might conceivably be saved medically, say 20 weeks. That’s actually more or less the UK law as it stands, but review and discussion is always good. Sticking to an absolute is never good.