Pictures are more powerful than principles. A few weeks ago, newspapers published photographs of a 12-week-old male foetus. It was not a blob of tissue but a proto-human. Yet for a further 12 weeks after the pictures were taken it would have been legal to kill this pre-baby in the womb. Other stories appeared. A child had been born at 23 weeks. That is within the legal limit for abortions. It had lived.
Nor did all aborted foetuses die in the womb. Occasionally, mistakes were made and little creatures emerged alive. They were put on one side, until they alleviated everyone’s embarrassment by expiring.
The photographs and the details led to a lot of foot-shuffling. David Steel said that his original 1967 Abortion Act, which legalised it, was not intended to allow abortion on demand. Tony Blair announced that the law on abortion ought, perhaps, to be reviewed. There was a lot of talk about ‘viability’, the age at which foetuses became capable of surviving outside the womb. The implication was clear. If only the scientists could advise us on the technology of life, we could forget about the morality.
Rarely has such an important debate been conducted with such shallow arguments. If Lord Steel was not aware that his Act had led to abortion on demand, he must have gone to considerable lengths for many years now to avoid all contact with the abortion statistics. Recently, one woman and her abortionist did get into trouble. That was because they told the truth. They admitted that the pregnancy had been terminated because the foetus had a hare-lip. It is not legal to have abortions because of the future baby’s cosmetic defects, and the abortionist would have been hard put to defend himself in court. But no one in authority wanted to bring a prosecution. The message was clear: you can have abortion on demand as long as you do not make embarrassing disclosures about your real reasons.
As for Mr Blair, what is there to review? The Prime Minister has let it be known that he is virtually a Roman Catholic, so he ought to have thought through his position. The only thing that needs to be reviewed is the working of his conscience.
There is certainly no point in discussing viability. Making it the main issue is an attempt to use pseudo-science to cloak political embarrassment. Is a foetus that much less viable than an extremely premature baby which requires well-nigh miraculous medical treatment to keep it alive? For that matter, how does viability help to distinguish between a foetus and a baby? The baby is only viable if its mother (or someone else) makes a considerable effort to look after it. Viability tells us nothing about our duties of care to vulnerable human life, or our duty to respect the sacredness of life.
It is impossible for any Christian to condone abortion (except if there were a mortal threat to the mother by continuing the pregnancy). Nor is it easy to see how a secular moralist could find a justification for destroying life. Left-wingers ought to have a special problem with abortion. It would be understandable if a caricature capitalist, denying that there was such a thing as society and insisting that there was no higher value than selfish egotism, were to brush aside the foetus’s claims. But those on the Left would surely subscribe to a measure of Kantian idealism: ‘Act as if your every action would become a universal moral law.’
The Left believes in succouring the voiceless and the helpless. What could be more so than a foetus? Equally, the egalitarian Left believes it to be wrong that some of us should enjoy rights denied to others. What right is more important than the right to life? Those who deny that foetuses have such a right ought to be grateful that someone else took a different view when they were foetuses. To elevate the right to choose over the right to life will only be possible in the lobotomised morality of asocial individualism.
Yet none of this means that it would be possible to ban abortion. Over the past 40 years, the abortion clinic has become an indispensable part of the life-support system of the permissive society. The unrestricted enjoyment of sexual licence requires not only contraception but retroactive contraception. Almost everyone now takes this for granted, though few people enjoy discussing the subject. But it would be politically inconceivable to place extensive restrictions on the right to an abortion.
Moreover, the effects of large-scale abortion are less serious than some moralists have assumed. One might have thought that any society which allowed nearly 200,000 foetuses to be killed every year would suffer a degradation in its moral atmosphere. Though a case could be made that this is occurring, no one has demonstrated a link to abortion.
It has also been suggested that women who have abortions suffer long-term psychological consequences. Yet beyond a few anecdotes, little evidence has been offered in support of that proposition. If it were true, there ought to be no shortage of evidence. I suspect that the vast majority of those who have had abortions would stand by the utilitarian assessment which they originally made. Pregnancy can be an inconvenient business.
We are at least more squeamish than the United States, which allows ‘partial birth’ abortions. As long as the infant has one foot in its mother, it can be condemned to two feet in the grave — or more likely the tissue disposal unit. That said, the distinction between an abortion at 36 weeks and one at 24 weeks owes nothing to morality. It is purely a matter of aesthetics.
Along with convenience, aesthetics will continue to determine British abortion policy. There may be some changes at the margin as a result of Mr Blair’s review, to widen the gap between the brilliant doctor who saves a premature baby and his colleague who kills a foetus. But we will continue to have abortion on demand. We can merely hope that no one disturbs us with upsetting photographs or unwelcome details.
In the 1950s, abortion was a squalid back-street secret. That is no longer true. Instead, our conscience about abortion has become a squalid back-street secret. Almost all those who have contributed towards the abortion debate have done so in hypocritical terms. They appear to want to permit abortion and to protect foetuses. None of them is prepared to avow the one honest position which underlies the present arrangements: ‘Abortion is murder and I am in favour of it.’