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Saving premature babies and abortion rights.

Updated: Apr 18



Here's a question that may seem weird: Should we let premature babies die to preserve abortion rights?

The New York Times thinks so. It reviewed an article showing improved survival rates for babies born at 22 weeks. (https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1410689 ) Most of the article was about those babies and about how many of them not only survived but thrived. But the beginning of the article was all about the "implications for the debate about abortion." (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/07/health/premature-babies-22-weeks-viability-study.html)

A story in Newsweek also focused on the implications of preemie survival for abortion. (https://www.newsweek.com/babies-born-22-weeks-can-survive-medical-care-new-study-finds-329518)


Roe v. Wade made abortion legal until the end of the second trimester, 24 weeks. Why? Because, at the time, that was the borderline of viability, the gestational age at which a baby was thought to be able to survive outside the womb. The Supreme Court did not declare that 24 weeks was the unchanging threshold of viability. They only said that it was the prevailing one at the time.

Since then, as noted, the borderline of viability has shifted. Some centers now report survival rates over 50% for babies born at 22 weeks.

Do such babies have a right to life?

Doctors disagree. A recent poll in the New England Journal of Medicine found that, most doctors thought we should defer to the parents when deciding whether to try to save those babies.


Many doctors and bioethicists worry that the costs are too high or that survivors will have severe disabilities. But NICU care, while costly, is remarkably cost-effective. And most survivors do not have severe disabilities.

Such outcome studies are important to help doctors, parents and policymakers decide when to try to save such babies and when, instead, to provide palliative care and a pain-free death. But such decisions have nothing to do with abortion policy.


Viability may be the appropriate criteria for deciding whether abortion should be legal. But we should not let babies die to preserve an obsolete threshold of viability.

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