Faith in the abortion debate

Forget the clergy: the question is whether we have faith in the ability of women and their doctors to make moral choices.

Ann Furedi

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Topics Politics

The positioning of abortion as a British election issue has, understandably, taken political commentators by surprise. During 2004, policymakers grumbled about whether the 24-week legal ‘time limit’ for having an abortion should be reduced, there was a legal challenge to the definition of severe abnormality that allows for an abortion beyond 24 weeks, and there were (unproven) allegations about the probity of specialist abortion providers.

But despite all this, certain tenets that underpin the British political discourse on abortion have remained unchallenged.

In Britain, abortion is traditionally a matter of parliamentarians’ individual conscience rather than of party politics. There has not been a substantial debate in parliament since 1990, and it is one of those areas that party leaders traditionally steer away from. So it was rather refreshing that, when interviewed about potential election issues of relevance to young women voters, all three main party leaders provided Cosmopolitan magazine with their views on the abortion time limit.

Cosmopolitan had been running a campaign in defence of legalised late abortion, and what started as an innocent review of party leaders’ attitudes opened a Pandora’s box of moral concerns. Prime minister Tony Blair said that he didn’t intend to amend the law, but lest anyone think him too pro-choice he acknowledged that ‘abortion is a difficult issue’, because ‘I think people do understand that, at some point, there must be rights for the fetus that are valid’.

Tory leader Michael Howard condemned the availability of abortion ‘on demand’ and declared himself in favour of a reduction of the legal limit to 20 weeks. For the Lib Dems, Charles Kennedy admitted he didn’t know what he would do in a vote. Faith leaders raised the temperature by adding their statements. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor said that Howard’s comments were commendable. The Archbishop of Canterbury wrote about the ‘groundswell of distaste’ at the way the abortion law works.

So why did the debate make the headlines? Did anyone think the Tory Party leader was a feminist? Did anyone think the leader of the Catholic Church was pro-choice? Did anyone think the Archbishop of Canterbury would issue anything other than a woolly statement calling for moral reflection?

It’s easy to understand why faith leaders have seized on the discussion. It is a lifeline to mainstream debate on an issue that allows them a semblance of moral authority, a quality that the clergy have been lacking lately. Anglican leaders must be gagging to discuss anything that doesn’t involve women clergy or homosexuality. For the Catholic hierarchy, abortion will be a welcome distraction from concerns about paedophile priests. Those who have claimed that the Christian right are setting the agenda and that we should look to their influence in the USA to see our future are wrong. This is not an issue of the religious leaders setting the agenda, so much as feeding off it.

It is increasingly common for political commentators to peer into the entrails of the American elections to detect the trends here. An editorial in the Sunday Times (London) on 28 March cited the protests against Jerry Springer – the Opera and the debate on abortion as representative of ‘a stirring in Britain’ of ‘moral values that are playing an increasingly significant part in American politics’. Those active in abortion advocacy are used to this. For the past decade we have been living with warnings that American anti-abortion debates and ultimately violence will cross the Atlantic.

But the transatlantic projections are fantasies, and show commentators’ unwillingness to see the respective socio-political scenes. McDonald’s may serve the same burgers in London and Washington DC, but religion is different.

Despite a House of Lords populated by bishops and a head of state that also heads the Church of England, the church in Britain wields far less power than in the USA. As an editorial in The Economist on 17 March 2005 pointed out: ‘Religion in Britain is a minority, mostly middle-class preoccupation.’ And the middle classes have traditionally been less hostile to abortion. A key determinant in the future of an unplanned pregnancy, particularly an unplanned teenage pregnancy, is the socioeconomic status. If you have a middle-class future you are more inclined to get an abortion, whether you go to church or not; even if you are one of the 1.6 million UK Catholics who regularly attend mass.

There are also differences in what we say we care about. The Economist reports that 20 per cent told US pollsters that ‘moral values’ were a top election issue. Only six per cent in Britain said that morality was very important. What we mean by moral values is also different. In the USA, a politician’s attitude to abortion is a litmus test of moral value: when people here judge a politician’s morality, it is more likely to be based on whether he tells lies, hunts foxes or sends his children to private school.

But this would not necessarily rule out abortion becoming the British election issue the Daily Mail would like it to be. A key reason why the rest of the media has been so worked up about Cosmopolitan’s survey is that it actually uncovered a declared difference between the party leaders. Even if this difference is just a four-week window on the abortion law that facilitates the termination of fewer than 3,000 pregnancies a year, it is significantly greater than the difference on many other policies. And it is rather more interesting than many of the others jostling for attention: in a political climate where a celebrity chef can make school dinners into an election issue, you can see how abortion might just make it into manifestos.

Whatever is discussed in the election, it is likely that the debate on abortion in Britain will open up in a way that has not happened since the law was last changed, in 1990, to adopt a 24-week time. Health secretary John Reid has said that he would want to see time for a debate, and because any debate will focus on late abortion – as opposed to abortion in general – it is not easy to predict how the arguments will unfold.

For almost 40 years, the British pro-choice movement has had it easy. The British law frames termination of pregnancy in the context of health rather than rights – an arena for doctors’ judgement where politicians interfere at their peril. Of course, the medicalisation of abortion is fraught with frustrations. A woman exercises choice at the discretion of her doctors (in plural, since two doctors must certify that she meets the legal requirements). But British society has evolved to accept early abortion in a way that American society never has.

It is no longer controversial to argue that early abortion is a legitimate back-up to birth control. New Labour’s focus on public health in general, and sexual health in particular, has led to rapid access to early abortion being established as a key target against which local health services are officially scored. Abortion is still seen as problematic, but less so than ‘irresponsible parenting’. Early abortion is justified as a ‘pragmatic’ solution: a moral ‘wrong’ in the abstract, but the ‘right’ thing in certain circumstances.

Many commentators have remarked that there are too many early abortions (begging the question of what would be the right number), but there seems to be little demand for legal restrictions that would compel women to continue early pregnancies. Policymakers can acknowledge that the demand for early abortion is not necessarily a bad thing, if it means that young women are choosing to stay in college, at work and off welfare benefits.

With late abortion, it is a different matter. The pragmatic arguments lose their bearing in the face of claims that advances in science allow us to understand more about the fetus, and retracted the limit of viability. Yet there is much evidence to suggest that, while great gains have been made in keeping alive babies born at 24 weeks, this is still considered borderline viability. Despite the media hype, just 10 per cent of babies born at 23 weeks survive to leave hospital, at 22 weeks this is down to one per cent (1).

The much published ‘4D’ scans pioneered by Professor Stuart Campbell tell us that the fetus has human physical characteristics from as early as the first trimester in pregnancy. But, wonderful as this is for women with wanted pregnancies keen to view their anticipated child through a window into the womb, it contributes little, if anything, to medical knowledge and nothing about the discussion that is relevant to late abortion.

The Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson’s extraordinary collection of photographs tracking a pregnancy from ovulation to birth showed us, 15 years ago, the human physical characteristics of the ‘unborn child’ as early as six weeks’ gestation (2). By the time she is 20 weeks pregnant, even the routine scan offered to every woman shows an ‘unborn baby’. By this time she doesn’t need a scan to demonstrate that it kicks and punches; women feel that movement, and few are unaffected by it.

Visualising the fetus in the womb certainly underlines what abortion involves – the destruction of a potential child. Many of those who pragmatically accept that ‘abortion is the lesser of two evils’ in early pregnancy balk at procedures that seem uncomfortably close to child destruction. The issue of late abortion is veiled by moral repugnance that is difficult to cut through.

Arguments that rely on pragmatism seem cheap. Abortion providers and advocates have done their best to explain the difficult circumstances that drive women to request late terminations. This is necessary in the context of a discourse that often assumes that the need for late abortion could be eliminated if women took greater responsibility for their lives. But unless we are prepared to address the issues of moral rights and wrongs we risk leaving the ethical high ground to the bishops and politicians, which does a disservice to women and doctors who are quite as competent and concerned to address the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of their actions.

In expressing their condemnation (or ‘distaste’) for late abortion in the way they do, politicians and faith leaders display their moral illiteracy. Respect for fetal life is laudable and moral in the abstract – who would not rather preserve life than end it? But we have to ask if it is still so right if the cost of conferring protection on the fetus is preventing a competent woman from making decisions about her life.

Some will argue that when a woman is pregnant there are two lives to consider – and the need to protect the child-to-be trumps a woman’s autonomy. Pro-life advocates often accuse women seeking abortion of balancing their convenience, or their lifestyle, against the life of the unborn. A ‘good’ woman would surely make the necessary sacrifices to bring another human into this world.

But this is to miss the ethical principle that is at stake. That principle is that individuals should have an absolute and unambiguous right to decide whether or not to undergo medical treatment. The importance that English law attaches to patient autonomy has led the Court of Appeal to decide that a woman’s right to refuse a caesarean section is absolute, even if that decision would inevitably result in the death of her fetus. In the words of the court: ‘[P]regnancy…does not diminish [a woman’s] entitlement to decide whether or not to receive medical treatment…. Her right is not reduced or diminished merely because her decision to exercise it may appear morally repugnant.’

In Britain, unlike in the USA, women have not been criminalised for their actions during pregnancy – the principle of the bodily autonomy of individuals is sacrosanct. And it is right and moral that this should be so. And it is wrong, and immoral, that this principle is set aside in the case of abortion. To take away a woman’s control over this fundamental aspect of her life is to diminish her as a human being, because the ability to make choices, to weigh up values and decide on the rightness of them, is one of the things that differentiates us from mere animals; it makes us human and defines us as adults.

Ronald Dworkin, the respected professor of jurisprudence, has argued that the right of procreative autonomy has an important place in our political culture. He explains: ‘The most important feature of [our] culture is belief in individual human dignity: that people have the moral right – and moral responsibility – to confront the most fundamental questions about the meaning and value of their own lives for themselves answering to their own consciences and convictions.’ (3)

There are those who argue that the ‘abortion culture’ leads to a coarsening of society and a degraded morality. But what really degrades society is the stripping away of moral decisions from those whose consciences are most directly connected to the choice and whose lives are most affected by it. Any woman who experiences late abortion will live with the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of that decision every day of her life. So do the doctors who know that they end the lives that would otherwise have been born.

Society does not become coarsened by insisting that individuals make moral choices. It becomes coarsened when politicians and church leaders insist on making personal decisions on people’s behalf. There is an important issue of faith at the heart of the abortion debate – it is whether we have faith in the ability of women and men, and their doctors, to make moral choices.

Abortion, the destruction of a potential human life, is a crucial moral issue. And as such it is far too important to be left to politicians and the clergy. Faced with a potential termination of pregnancy, somebody must decide whether it is right or wrong. Is anyone more morally competent to make that decision than the woman who will experience it and the doctor who will perform it?

Ann Furedi is chief executive of British Pregnancy Advisory Service. She is writing in a personal capacity.

(1) ‘The EPICure Study: Outcomes to discharge from hospital for infants born at the threshold of viability’, Costeloe K, HennesyE and Gibson AT, 2000, Paediatrics 106(4):659-671

(2) A Child is Born, Lennart Nilsson, Doubleday 1990

(3) Life’s Dominion: an argument about abortion and euthanasia, HarperCollins 1993

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