Abolition and Abortion Part 2: Incrementalism

Having established that the tactics of fetishisation employed by the abolition movement needs updating for the twenty-first century pro-life cause, it’s worth once again revisiting the thorny issue of incrementalism and seeing how this tactic was successfully employed by the eighteen and nineteenth century reformers.

Talk of incrementalism and abortion tends to provoke the ‘no true Scotsman’ fallacy amongst various contingents of Catholics and pro-lifers. The difficulty with adopting an incrementalist strategy that aims to take a series of gradual steps to tighten the laws surrounding abortion, is that it could be argued to be inadvertently sanctioning and supporting the deaths of some of the unborn. By supporting a reduction in time-limits for example, one could be said to be ignoring the plight of all the unborn who have yet to reach the cut-off limit. A period of time does not add value to a life, a 24-week-old foetus does not possess any more dignity or worth than a 12-week-old foetus. The only difference being that one is more likely to survive than another outside of the uterus. The viability may add an extra dimension to the tragedy, not least as its likely that the infant would experience pain at this stage in an abortion procedure and is capable of being nursed to health, but it does not render the baby any more deserving of the basic right to life.

My attitude to incrementalism has always been pragmatic. Consider a sinking ship which does not possess enough lifeboats for all the passengers and crew. If a rescue vessel turned up with only enough capacity to rescue half of the remaining passengers without endangering its own stability, should it refuse to save them on the grounds that it is unable to to help everyone?

Pragmatism is no substitute for moral theology, however Evangelium Vitae (73) lays out very clearly the circumstances in which incrementalism can be acceptable:

when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.

Without re-hashing the previously rehearsed arguments about incrementalism, it’s worth noting that the current political climate does not seem amenable to discussing a total ban, Nadine Dorries’ proposed counselling amendment, which would in no way have altered the legality of or access to abortion, was bitterly fought against tooth and nail with the former MP Louise Mensch attempting to cobble together some sort of weak-kneed compromise and resulting in yet another hand-wringing committee being set up to consider the issue, so it’s fair to observe that tighter legislation is at the current time, unlikely. Britain is in a unique position of having experienced forty years of increasingly liberal abortion, despite the law being framed in such a way that makes it clear that abortion is still technically illegal, it seems an impossible task attempting to slam the door firmly shut, without first taking a series of gradual measures.

What makes many wary is that British political history does not have a very good record in terms of incrementalism and abortion. In 1990 when the HFE Act, amended the 1967 Abortion Act, the previous limit which had been based upon the baby’s ability to survive outside of the uterus, and set a limit of 24 weeks, but this was accompanied by a disastrous amendment which removed the right to life for every baby capable of being born alive, and allowed for abortions of disabled children, right up until the moment of birth. It might be possible to support a reduction in time-limits, it is right to campaign for and support equal rights for disabled unborn children, but not if it comes with a price tag of liberalisation elsewhere, such as with early stage abortion. Bargaining over human life is unacceptable and unjustifiable.

But if politics is about the art of the possible, it’s worth looking at the history and the success of the abolition movement and how they used incrementalism to achieve their aims.

In 1537, Pope Paul III issued a papal bull Sublimus Dei, which stated that indigenous people of newly discovered lands were fully human, rational beings with souls who had rights to personal freedom, liberty and property and called for their evangelisation. The bull generated a lot of controversy, it was later rescinded by Paul III, his record on slavery seems to be rather flaky, but nonetheless its principles contributed to a debate at Valladolid and was the position adopted by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain.

What intrigues me, is had the Catholic commentariat been around in the UK in these days, is whether or not they would have resisted every single gain made by the abolitionist movement by shouting “nothing short of full abolition is unjust, un-Catholic and must be avoided”?!

Slavery like abortion is an unjust violation of human rights, but instead of a wholesale sweeping away of the practice, the abolition movement went for achievable small steps. The UK movement was launched by the Somersett’s case in 1772, which held that no slave could be forcibly removed from Britain. It was however interpreted to have ruled that the condition of slavery did not exist under English law and as a result ten to fourteen thousand slaves in England and Wales were emancipated. It made no judgement upon the morality of slavery.

In 1787 the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded in the UK and in 1788, William Dolben’s Act which regulated the the conditions on board British slave ships was enacted. Slavery was not yet abolished, indeed the amelioration of conditions could have been used as a justification for slavery. It wasn’t until 25th March (note the significance of that date, Our Lady is always involved) 1807, that the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act abolished slave trading in the British Empire. Note – abolished slave-trading, not slavery per se. Captains found to be slave-trading were fined £120 per slave – a huge sum.

This is a tactic that the US pro-life movement is employing to great success. They are not seeking a direct abolition, but instead imposing swingeing fines on abortion clinics for disobeying stringent health and safety regulations. Licences to operate are being removed left, right and centre and clinics are going out of business because they cannot afford either to upgrade their facility to meet with sanitation laws, nor can they afford the fines. Tim Stanley wrote about the success of this tactic back in 2011, and it’s still having a tremendous effect all over the USA. Operation Rescue have been at the forefront of exposing malpractice of abortion clinics and as a result Delaware is currently a surgically abortion free state, Planned Parenthood has been forced to suspend their services. For those who might vociferously complain, surely anyone who cares about the health of women would support such measures?

North Dakota has not gone for an outright ban on abortion, instead the Governor has signed a bill that bans the procedure once a heartbeat can be detected, in many cases as early as six weeks. Furthermore the only state abortion clinic is in danger of shutting due to laws that require doctors working there to have hospital admission privileges. Whilst for the purists nothing short of a ban that will include the contraceptive pill, the coil and the morning-after pill is acceptable, a society that is putting huge restrictions on abortion, is significantly further along the road than the UK in terms of recognising and accepting the sanctity of life and the gravity of the procedure and certainly having a lot more success in curtailing and containing the scourge of abortion that hurts so many women and children.

An examination of the incrementalist tactics used by the abolition movement, demonstrates how sticking to morality but taking tiny steps to tackle an embedded cultural issue bears fruit. It wasn’t until 1811 that slave trading was made an actual felony in the British Empire punishable by transportation. It took until 1814 and 1818, for various treaties to be enacted with other countries to halt the trade. A treaty between Britain and Sweden wasn’t signed until 1827 and finally in 1834 the Slavery Abolition Act came into force which abolished slavery throughout most of the British Empire. Further treaties followed with France and Denmark in 1835 and in 1838 enslaved men, women and children in the Empire finally became free following a period of forced apprenticeship after the 1833 act. Britain continued to make treaties with other countries banning the slave-trade right up until the end of the nineteenth century.

For slavery to end over Europe, the new worlds of the Americas and Africa, a system of compensated emancipation had to be brought in, which was something of a compromise deal. Instead of taking the morally licit position of insisting that the slave-owner had no right to their slaves and ought to immediately free them, they were instead financially compensated or by the slave completing a period of apprenticeship for a set period of time. The latter proved unpopular because it amounted to forced labour on minimum wage and put a new financial burden on the slave-owner. But slavery was phased out gradually, not on an all-or-nothing basis, with laws passed that granted freedom to children of slaves born after a certain date.

Perhaps a mirrored tactic would be for the NHS to set a cap on funding for private abortion clinics and gradually reduce this? Abortion is not healthcare and contravenes basic medical ethics to ‘do no harm’. If people wish to abort their children, it should not be funded by the public purse. If people had to be responsible for the financial cost of their choices, it would put a whole new complexion on attitudes to risky sexual behaviour.

In the aftermath of the horrific Kermit Gosnell case, a clarion call has gone out for a modern-day Wilberforce, a Parliamentarian with the courage and bravery to fight for the plight of the unborn. There are already such individuals in the Commons and the House of Lords. We have Lord David Alton, Jim Dobbin, Joe Benton and Fiona Bruce, but more are needed. Great as Wilberforce was, he was not a lone ranger but instead the voice of the grassroots, which consisted of an alliance of Quakers and Anglicans. The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade had many influential polemicists and speakers who travelled up and down the length of the country and who formed several local branches or chapters, and its a structure that SPUC appear to be emulating.

Wilberforce was aided by Thomas Clarkson, one of the founders of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, who spent twenty years collecting a large body of evidence against the slave trade. The other lessons we can therefore draw from the abolitionist movement, aside from fetishisation and incrementalism is that of the importance of unity, forming local communities to reinforce and encourage each other as well as convince others and using all the tools at our disposal.

Without back-up or overwhelming public support, Wilberforce would not have been successful. There is no doubt that he was concerned, as was Clarkson, to put an end to slavery all over the globe, but took a shrewd approach, being prepared to listen to evidence and change tactics as necessary instead of dogmatic adherence to principle. The principle itself never changed but the strategy for achieving it did, without once using bad means to an end. It was the maritime lawyer James Stephen who suggested the theme of the 1807 Bill, which banned British subjects from aiding or participating in the slave trade to French colonies, ostensibly because the Empire was at war with France, meaning that as a result most British ships involved in the slave trade were flying under American flags. This new bill put responsibility on the individual, effectively banning the trade and the abolitionists in Parliament decided not to speak on this in order to avoid drawing attention to its effects.

In the global information age, wildly inaccurate speculation is inevitable. But there is much we can learn from replicating and modifying the tactics of our forebears. Abortion is wrong, slavery is wrong, but as the abolitionists showed, injustice can be tackled morally and in small stages. Incrementalism is being used very effectively to change mindsets in all kinds of ways, one only needs to look at the success of LGBT lobbyists with same-sex marriage. It’s why any tiny amendment to abortion laws is angrily shouted down by abortion activists who cannot allow any sort of mindset that may accept the tragedy of abortion.

A dogmatic absolutist approach brings to mind the chicken and the egg scenario. Which do we need first? Legislation against abortion or a more welcoming pro-life society? An incrementalist approach forces the latter to organically evolve.

But before we can think about Wilberforce we need to get our own house in order, which includes unity and an ability to dialogue, be open-minded, listen and change approach where necessary. Essential to this is good local leadership. Which is where our clergy, priests and bishops need to take a much more pro-active role, as do those within other Christian and other sympathetic communities. Hand-wringing and tiny cliques aren’t going to cut it. We need clear leadership and direction to build that platform upon which the modern-day Wilberforce can stand, which includes voting more pro-life MPs into the Commons.

There are some encouraging green shoots. The future clearly lies in the young (and I’m thinking of a specific group of young women), we should all be working to support them if we want progress in our lifetime.

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