Thursday, May 14, 2015

Fetal Viability Has Improved, But Does That Change the Abortion Debate?

Since the case of Roe v. Wade (1973), the legalization of abortion has been highly contentious. During this case, the notion of viability played an important role because the Supreme Court ruled that a woman had the right to an abortion up until the fetus was viable. Even during the third trimester, the Court ruled that late-term abortions were determined on a state-by-state basis.

At the time of the ruling, fetal viability was placed at the third trimester. Earlier studies show that earlier viability might not have been a possibility (Stoll et al., 2010; Fellman et al., 2009). However, a new study by the New England Journal of Medicine (Rysavy et al., 2015) very well might test Roe v. Wade. According to this study, 23 percent of fetuses were able to maintain viability outside of the womb at 22 weeks, which is not only six weeks earlier than the statute in the Roe v. Wade case, but is also earlier than the medical community had previously believed.

With improved medical technology, I would imagine that viability takes place earlier in the gestation period. Even so, I find the viability argument to be bothersome. Although viability is legally defined as one's ability to live outside of the womb, it can be expanded to mean, in more general terms, "the ability to live, grow, and develop." Let's say that an individual is on life support and can only be viable if on machinery and the help of others caring for that individual. Does that person lose their sense of viability? By this definition of viable, no one is truly viable because we all need external aid and support throughout our lives. Being connected to a body is not the same thing as being part of that body, and using such a definition should not define humanness or whether someone is worth protecting.

Even if I am personally perturbed by this standard, viability is still the legal definition set by the court system. If those who are against abortion want to prevent more abortions from taking place, then they have to change the law or work within the confines of the current legal criteria. At this juncture, it's looking like the latter approach is the most viable. Many states already ban abortions once the fetus is viable. Although the United States is one of seven countries that allow elective abortion beyond the twenty-week mark, that very well might change soon, especially since the House passed the Pain-Capable Abortion Act yesterday, which will ban elective abortions after 20 weeks. In the grand scheme of things, I have to wonder how much that will change the overall abortion rate. After all, only 1.2 percent of abortions take place at the 20-plus week mark of gestation. From a pro-life stance, this is a step in the right direction because it affirms a societal responsibility to protect life. However, in the grand scheme of things, it still doesn't do much to change the overall tone of the abortion debate.

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