Limits of thinking?

The debate surrounding the potential reduction in the 24 week abortion limit is very timely given the recent debate as to the merits of incrementalism on the Catholic blogosphere and Twitter.

Jeremy Hunt’s remarks, whilst perhaps not a distraction as previously thought, it seems that he was answering a straight question perfectly honestly, (even if primed by No 10) do seem indicative of a sea change in government thinking, in line with the views of the electorate. He has been applauded for his honesty even if many disagree with his thinking, although the outrage as to a politician expressing a genuinely held viewpoint is comical. People seem to have forgotten that Mr Hunt is the Secretary of State for health, he is an elected partisan politician and not a civil servant, therefore he is more than entitled to speak out about health matters according to his own personal and or political viewpoint.

What new scientific facts are there to prove that abortion after a certain period of time should be outlawed? Actually the science is to a certain degree irrelevant, life issues are never scientific but always ethical. We may use science to reinforce our ideological position but how we interpret the science will always be coloured by our philosophy. So for example you have pro-choicers at one end of the scale talking about the low survivability rates of babies of premature gestation and at the other, pro-lifers using the science to point out foetal development and sentience.

The issue of late-stage abortion shouldn’t pivot around the viability or survival rates of premature babies; whenever a baby is born alive every effort should be made to preserve its life. Ethically speaking the deliberate destruction of human life is equally grave whether we are talking about a 3 week old unborn baby or a terminally ill elderly patient with only a few weeks to live, but there is nonetheless something viscerally repellant about a late-stage abortion. David Alton goes into the detailed medical specifics but I defy anyone to read his description (no graphic photos) and not feel sick to their stomachs. It is undeniable that late stage abortion is repugnant and ought to be banned in any decent society.

No reputable vet would do this to a dog and yet it’s somehow acceptable to do it to unborn children, simply because as humans we are able to make a reasoned decision?! Not only do the babies die in agony, (note that the central nervous system is formed by six weeks) but being the recipient of such a violent procedure is also no good for women, either psychologically or physically. Typical injuries include scarring on the cervix, increasing the risks of infertility or problems in future pregnancies, infections and that’s before the psychological effects of having to give birth to a fully formed baby, or having been given medication whilst awake to cause the waters to break. No wonder women are reporting struggling with future wanted pregnancies, phobias about labour and giving birth and difficulty bonding with their newborns. In addition no specialist support is given to women experiencing pregnancy after a late-term abortion, unlike women who have had stillbirths. The abortion is deemed to have been their choice and many women report feeling too ashamed to be able to discuss things fully with their midwives.

The practice is utterly indefensible and needs to be stamped out. The death of the child, the moral evil, is exacerbated by the cruel and barbaric method by which it is executed.

This talk of limits is not simply just talk. Jeremy Hunt and Maria Miller have added their voices to a chorus of leading members of the Tory government who wish to cut the limit to 20 weeks, including Theresa May and David Cameron himself. Nadine Dorries indicated yesterday on Twitter that the issue could well come up, as back-benchers are again proposing a private members’ bill, although in her column in today’s Conservative Home, she has also stated that she believes the glut of Tory support to be a sop for some of the Tory grassroots Christians who have been alienated and outraged by the government’s determination to enact gay marriage in law, despite overwhelming opposition. Interestingly, Alex Neil, the Scottish minister for health has also now added his voice to the fray, pledging his support for a reduction in the 24 week limit.

Guido Fawkes points out that the Government is publishing its sexual health strategy in the autumn which will include contraception and abortion. A proposed limit cut could be on the cards. It is not simply media hype or a Twitter storm. David Cameron can state with total honesty that he has no plans to introduce legislation to reduce the abortion limit, however there is nothing to stop a private member’s bill from being introduced. Abortion has historically always been a conscience vote for individual MPs, and not a governmental or party policy, therefore we could see a bill being introduced before the end of this Parliament in 2015.

So what does that mean for pro-lifers? Can or should we support this? Can a Catholic pro-lifer support a politician who is lobbying for a reduction in the abortion time-limits? It requires some careful thinking.

SPUC have said this week’s events are just media hype, but it’s time to take a fresh look at the abortion issue. They are right up to a point, in that the way that the government funds the abortion and abortion-related industry certainly needs to be examined, especially the relationships between the DFID and Marie Stopes, who forcibly implement China’s one child policy and are expanding their global franchise.

The problem with taking a fresh look at the abortion issue is that this paves the way for pro-choicers to demand even more liberal abortion laws, such as removing the doctor’s second signature and making early stage abortion unrestricted. I won’t link to the more outrageous polemical pro-choice rants, but one “angry woman” went off on a hysterical flight of fancy where women were simply dropping like flies through coat hangers and so on and called for abortion to be available throughout the duration of pregnancy. “As long as it’s inside it can be aborted” she cried. Whilst the public would never sanction such a thing, public opinion is firmly on the side of the 20 week limit, the trouble with emphasising the human form of the 20 week old foetus, is that it can have the opposite effect of de-humanising the early stages of pregnancy, after all it’s quite difficult to go all gooey over a blastocyst and even the little bean with paddles doesn’t have quite the aw factor. By concentrating on the foetal pain and awareness issues, as well as the revolting procedure, one risks inadvertently endorsing early stage abortions, which could be seen as more humane.

As yet the public appetite is not yet in favour of a total ban, so what we could realistically see is yet another compromise, along the lines of the debacle in 1990, when following the filibustering of Alton’s 1988 bill, a bill was passed lowering the abortion limit to 24 weeks, but allowing it up until birth for disabled babies, including conditions such as Downs Syndrome and cleft palate. Pyrrhic victory is too trite a phrase to describe the devastating effects and implications for the disabled, following this concession.

Another issue is whether or not a cut to abortion limits could render an overall abolition unlikely? Is there a chance that having cut the limits, even to an unlikely 12 weeks in line with most other European countries, that the majority of the country will be satisfied and there is little opportunity to work so that no woman ever feels the need or compulsion to abort her unborn baby?

It’s very difficult not to fall into utilitarian thinking, whichever way one approaches the issues. I think the response from right-to-life campaigners has to be qualified support. If the intentions are to primarily save lives, such as the almost 2,000 healthy babies who would undoubtedly be saved by a simple 4 week cut in limit and to prevent suffering, then morally there can be no question that this is the right course of action. The politicians have explicitly stated that such a cut would exclude disabled children – a disgusting, disgraceful and disappointing decision. If there is the opportunity to save 2,000 lives with no additional cost, then of course this should be grasped, in the same way that we grasp the opportunity to save just a single life.

Where due caution has to be exercised is in ensuring that any such cut to the limits is not accompanied by liberalising of early stage abortion, which is a real danger. I wrote last year about the realities of early stage medical abortion in response to the proposed change to allow people to administer the pill at home. Fortunately common sense prevailed in the court room, but as the case of Jessie-Maye Barlow demonstrates, destruction of the unborn child aside, early stage abortion is not risk free, particularly when the abortion clinic is negligent in terms of follow-up care.

But provided right-to-lifers are clear, not only about the sanctity of all life, provided that they take care not to endorse, encourage or condone abortion at any stage, then, they can, in good conscience support any measure that seeks to reduce the number of those killed and wounded by abortion, whilst continuing to work for total abolition, not only via parliamentary means, (including the creation of social conditions as to make abortion unnecessary) but also via prayer, practical help, education and support.

Most Catholics and those who support a right-to-life are neither qualified moral theologians, political strategists or social scientists, but simply those seeking an acknowledgement of the humanity of the unborn. It is impossible to know with any certainty what effect a rate cut might have – more legal protection for the unborn is no bad thing, although the inequality of the disabled must not simply be ignored.

What we have to ask ourselves is on that terrible day of judgement when we are called to account, was when we had the opportunity to save lives, did we grasp this with both hands, did we engage in activity such as galvanising support and writing to our MP etc? Or were we paralysed by fear that this was the wrong strategy or so concerned by the unforeseen consequences that we passed up the opportunity to outlaw a barbaric practice, enshrine advances in thinking in favour of the humanity of the unborn and thus allowed lives to continue to be lost and suffering to continue unabated, whilst waiting for the perfect solution?

9 thoughts on “Limits of thinking?

  1. I think you’ve got the balance absolutely right here. So long as we’re clear that abortion is never right, I don’t see how, if there is a realistic prospect of some reduction, that we can ignore the chance of saving some lives by not supporting a change.

    1. James Preece (sorry I can’t do link on my tablet) disagrees, thinking my approach is reckless, because of the risk that early stage abortion will be encouraged.

      James makes the point that the last limit cut had no effect on abortion rates which continued to rise. I attribute the post 1995 rise to the introduction of compulsory sex ed in schools in 1993, a pill failure scare in 1997, along with the Blair government’s disastrous teenage pregnancy strategy.

      1. Yes, seen his post and it’s a reasonable worry.

        Whatever else happens, Catholic pro-lifers need to make sure that we conduct this debate between ourselves without demonizing the other side. Putting aside those ‘Catholics’ who have abandoned Magisterial teaching, all of us think abortion is always wrong and all of us would like to make it illegal. The only question is a prudential one of whether outright opposition to a reduction is more effective a strategy in the long run than accepting whatever reduction is on offer. (And I say that not because effectiveness is the only moral question tout court but because I am convinced that in principle both positions are defensible morally, leaving only the question of effectiveness to be decided.) Faithful Catholics can disagree on their assessment here -and frankly, although as I’ve said I agree with you, I do so with a full awareness I may be wrong.

        Perhaps this is an advantage of having a pro-life movement that is divided organizationally: there is no necessity for all pro-life groups to agree on the strategy.

  2. Is seeking a lower legal time limit for abortion a moral act?

    My understanding of the principle of double effect leaves me in some doubt. The good effect – preservation of life – does not outweigh the bad – legitimising life’s destruction below the stated limit.

    As CCC 1753 states, the condemnation of an innocent person cannot be justified as a legitimate means of saving the nation. Since a single life has infinite value, this applies equally to an unborn child.

    John Henry.

    1. I’ve copied over what I said there, to here 🙂 :

      If a motion was phrased that legitimised early stage abortion, then of course no Catholic MP could vote for it.
      If however a motion was proposed to cut the limit, with no other wording, a Catholic could still support it, as a step in the right direction. A cut in limits does not imply a support or endorsement for early stage, but is a life-preserving measure. Does it entail or risk more early stage abortions? There isn’t any evidence for that, whereas anecdotal evidence shows that undecided women will leave it as long as possible as will women in a coercive situation. Again we can’t just do the maths here, all lives are valuable, but it does seem to me that the incrementalist approach seems to be what’s bothering the anti-life squad; a gradual turning in favour of the value of the unborn and recognition that a woman’s bodily autonomy does not extend to her unborn child.

      You then said:

      Is there a difference between voting to lower the limit and voting for a lower limit? In both cases, the existence of a limit is at once anticipated and intended.

      In both cases a limit is acknowledged but neither is there an intention to sanction anything under the limit. MPs can only vote for what’s on offer which doesn’t mean that by voting for a lowering of limits they are implicitly accepting early stage abortion. It’s a something is better than nothing policy.

      A 4 week cut is not going to do harm, particularly given the numbers involved, but it will do both unborn children and women a lot of good.

      One thing I omitted from the post, is that a re-examination of abortion law should also lead to a re-examination of attitudes towards the disabled. How shocking is it when the accepted discourse is “of course disabled babies can still be aborted”? It is becoming increasingly apparent is that right-to-lifer campaigners are in danger of becoming paralysed by fear. Whilst we cannot be reckless, I think it is time to seize the initiative and turn public opinion in our favour.

  3. Any law that allows abortion at all is an unjust law. Yes, abortion at 20 weeks will save lives however you are still permitting abortion up until that limit by voting for it. Pro Lifers can’t support any laws which allow abortion

    1. But what does that mean if a 20 week limit comes up? That it can’t be supported at all, even if abolition is not on the cards?

      It’s an amendment to an existing law, not a new law in itself.

      The thing is though, legal abolition is not the priority and nor should it be. We also need to create a pro-life society which means that no-one should have any need for such a dreadful choice.

  4. There are plenty of other ways of restricting abortion through parliament which doesn’t involve permitting abortion. A good example is parental consent on all clinical surgical procedures (including abortion) under the age of 18. This is a generic law which doesn’t directly deal with abortion but will have an effect of the number of abortions.

    Yes it is an amendment, but by voting for that law, are you not condoning what was in the previous law (ie. that abortion can and should be allowed in certain circumstance)? All that is being amended is the time limit, not the underlying premise of the law

    On the last point, I wholeheartedly agree, its all very well saying abortion should be restricted but we as a society need to be able to care for the women decide to go through with their pregnancies. This is where pro life efforts should be focused primarily until a larger political pro life momentum is formed

    1. I think the parental consent on all surgical procedures under the age of 18 is an excellent idea, although would this include early medical abortion?

      I understand the discussion – its whether or not it’s direct co-operation with evil.

      What we want is no abortion, but a lot depends on what is on the table and the wording of any such amendment, without which it is admittedly difficult to call.

      Should we as Catholics directly campaign for merely a 20 week reduction? The answer is an obvious no. Should we however lend our support to such a bill, should one come up? I think the answer is a qualified yes. To undermine such a bill or stick our heads in the sand because nothing else is on offer and pass up the opportunity to save lives, cannot be justified, on the grounds that it is indirect co-operation with evil.

      This is from EWTN library:

      Nevertheless a citizen who takes part in a legislative body and who has not been able to block an immoral law can take part in the determination of particular sections of the law. He can vote or abstain from voting for particular sections of the law which are not immoral and for amendments which would make the law less harmful. Even so, all scandal must be avoided and disagreement with the general content of the law must be expressed.

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