Abortion of a viable foetus (henceforth late-term abortion) is a highly contentious topic and a source of growing concern. Despite raising truly exceptional legal issues, late-term abortions have not yet received systematic attention from legal experts. In order to fill this gap, the proposed research will be the first to systematically, and by way of international comparison, analyse the challenges that late-term abortions pose for medical and human rights law. Such an analysis is of exceptional importance in that it will highlight the possible limits of (the application of) essential principles of medical and human rights law.
The focus will be on the legal tension that may exist between the legal recognition of the interests of the viable foetus and the rights to self-determination of the pregnant woman, which may impact significantly upon the physician's duty of care. This analysis will help determine whether we are witnessing the emergence of a new legal doctrine, that is focusing on the "best interests of the viable foetus", shows parallels with the "best interests of the child" standard and may require or prohibit certain medical interventions in the context of late-term abortions. More generally, it will shed fresh light on the unique and highly fascinating legal concept of "progressive legal protection", whereby legal protection is gradually extended to a foetus as it matures, reaches viability, and is born.
The urgency and topicality of the project is further demonstrated by the fact that, within the Belgian context, the legal status of late-term abortions is not even settled, major legal developments are anticipated, and empirical data on the subject are completely lacking. For that reason, the project will give particular attention to the outstanding legal issues under Belgian law and to the merits and implications of position statements and legal initiatives that have recently been formulated. The project will result in recommendations to improve abortion legislation. Crucially, to provide an evidence base to inform these recommendations, we will be the first to, in close collaboration with other research groups that very recently have obtained access to two unique and relevant data sets, analyse empirical data on the practice of late-term abortions in Flanders.