Is it a crime to drink when pregnant, given that alcohol consumption may damage your unborn child? If it can be proven that drinking does damage the child, should you be held responsible for that damage, and be made to pay for it? These are some of the questions being raised by awareness of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, both here and in the United States.
This discussion raises some very interesting questions. If we are to talk of crimes against a foetus, does that mean the foetus is a person with rights? As Zoe Williams asks in the Guardian: “What does this mean for abortion? If you can commit a crime against a foetus, it must, in the first instance, be criminal to terminate it, surely?”
Quite so. If the current test case decides that an unborn child can be the victim of a crime, then abortion becomes the greatest crime of all. Zoe Williams is right to be concerned about this case, because it points to what must be for her a very disturbing conclusion, namely, that the Church and others have been right all along: there is no such thing as “a foetus”, there is rather a human person in an unborn state, and, as a human and a person, someone with rights.
But this matter has surely always been regarded as settled. Foetuses, as they are called, do have rights in law, and always have done, and have been long, if not always, regarded as persons. An unborn child has the right to inheritance: if a man dies, leaving his wife pregnant, the child within her inherits the man’s titles, for example, or any property that may be entailed on the child. This idea is standard in fictional narratives, in which the last month’s of a widow’s pregnancy are filled with the hope or otherwise that she will have a son who will inherit, or a daughter who may not. But it also happens in real life: postumous children are taken account of when they are still in the womb. King Alfonso XIII of Spain, the present king’s grandfather, was monarch of Spain from his father’s death, an event that occurred several months before his own birth. And this rule also applies in England and Scotland.
So once again we are faced with the sheer absurdity of abortion: when it is not convenient, the unborn child becomes a foetus and an it, something that has no legal protection whatever, and who can be condemned to death on the merest whim of the mother (for this is the way our legislation, despite its fine words, works). When the child is wanted, then it is another matter entirely: that unborn child may well inherit a throne. And the absurdity rests in this – we decide, and our decision somehow makes the difference. How is it that human choice can so overrule nature? And why is this the only example where we recognise the absolute right to choose whether someone will be regarded as human, or as disposable?