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Why Abortion Challenges Us All

Sunday 20th March 2005

An article by the Archbishop of Canterbury for the Sunday Times.

For a large majority of Christians – not only Roman Catholics, and including the present writer - it is impossible to regard abortion as anything other than the deliberate termination of a human life. Whatever other issues enter in to the often anguished decisions that are made about particular cases, they want this dimension to be taken seriously.

Equally, though, for a large majority of Christians, this is a view which they know they have to persuade others about, and which they recognise is not taken for granted in these terms in our society. The idea that raising the issues here is the first step towards a theocratic tyranny or a capitulation to some Neanderthal Christian Right that is plotting a takeover is alarmist nonsense. One of the confusions that has arisen in the past week is the idea that we are somehow going to be swept up into a British re-run of the US election of 2004, supposedly with a sort of moral conservative panic dictating votes. It's far from clear that this is in fact what happened in America; and even if it were, we are a long way from any comparable situation here.

The plain fact is that no party has made or is likely to make commitments on this matter as part of a set of electoral pledges. No party has given the least indication that it would seek anything but a free vote on any related question. For all the political parties in this country, this has always been a matter of conscience; the Parliamentary Pro-Life group is an all-party alliance. In other words, while constituents may well take the opportunity of questioning individual candidates on their attitudes, they will not find a consistent pattern that follows party lines.

But – a very large but – all the party leaders have admitted in various ways that they are far from happy with our abortion law as it stands. Former defenders of the law, even David Steel, who piloted the 1967 Act through Parliament, have expressed real dismay at many aspects of what the Act has made possible. And in the country at large, not least among young people, there is a groundswell of distaste and dis-ease about it.

Some of this is to do with sheer statistics. Since very few people are actually bland or triumphalistic about abortion, a rising number of abortions means a rising number of – at best – tragic and humanly costly options. But the advance of technology has also reinforced anxieties. Whether it is a matter of evidence about foetal sensitivity to outside stimuli (including pain), the nature of foetal consciousness, or the expanding possibilities of saving early foetal life outside the womb, the trend is inexorably towards a sharper recognition of the foetus as a natural candidate for 'rights' of some kind. In the light of this, it is a lot harder to reduce the issue to an individual right to choose. And this is not something said primarily by patriarchal clerics, but increasingly by women themselves, and young women at that. The absolutely clear assumption that the availability of abortion was a basic element in the agenda for the dignity of women is by no means universally obvious now. There are a good few who see it now as another triumph of impersonal, even abusive, technology.

A lot of media comment last week showed a curious degree of embarrassment about the question - a certain solemnity of tone, warning people off this sensitive territory. No, of course it wasn't an election issue, and yes, legal abortion was here to stay in pretty much its existing form. Yes, the legal limit might need some discussion, but no, not just now and not just here. The ruling on Joanna Jepson's appeal about the legality of abortion for a cleft-palate condition turned on a fine legal balance of probabilities, but it did nothing to take forward the questions that agitate many about specifying more carefully the nature of the 'serious' conditions that might justify termination.

It sounds as though we don't want to be made to think awkward and unwelcome thoughts about it all. Christians are likely to feel, a little wryly, that it is strange for them to be appealing to others to do a bit of moral reflection on the advance of science. And they will want to ask something like: granted that this cannot be an election issue in the sense of being a matter of manifesto policy for anyone, what sort of an issue is it going to be? Where and when can our legislators as a body think through where we are and what needs to be taken into consideration about this?

The idea of a Commission has been floated and is worth thinking about further. Questions to parliamentary candidates might be a useful way of opening up some public debate (even if this is not a matter of settling electoral preferences) but the debate needs to go much wider. Some serious work remains to be done about legal matters (the difficult issue of rights), and about the nature, authority and implications of research around foetal consciousness.

Of course, if you begin from the conviction stated at the beginning of this article, the whole thing is a good deal more urgent. But even if that is not a shared conviction, there is more and more of a shared unhappiness and bewilderment around our current law and its effects. It would be a real failure if agreeing that it was not an electoral issue provided an alibi for taking it seriously as a public issue. It is worth pondering , with an election in prospect, just what happens to those questions that are not party matters yet are public matters of immense weight. It happens that abortion has emerged as potentially one such matter; but there will be others. The general challenge is about how we keep faith with the seriousness of such questions and resist the pressure either to make them partisan or to shelve them respectfully and indefinitely.

© Rowan Williams 2005

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