I had taken the children out for a walk when my wife, left on her own, started to miscarry – at 10 weeks. Weak and haemorrhaging, she staggered to the bathroom and baptised our baby, whom one day she will meet face to face. She has allowed me to tell the story. So you may understand why, in my philosophy group, I will not allow discussions on the morality of abortion.
I am unable to understand how decent people, my friends, can maintain that it can be right for one human being to take the life of another human being for their convenience. Yet, increasingly, our society takes abortion, effectively on demand, as routine, and indeed a human right for a woman to have such control of her body. The argument is often couched in terms of hard cases — such as an outcome of rape or a damaged foetus, and so reduces the issue to a matter of emotion. I am old enough to remember when abortion was generally regarded in our society as a great evil. Ironically the Suffragettes condemned abortion outright, claiming that human rights belonged to everyone. Today deaths by abortion grossly outnumber deaths by the Holocaust – and nobody seems to notice.
The tendency to conform to the opinions of the groups within which we move is well documented. One study, for example, described the brain mechanism which signals an error when we disagree with a value held by “people like us”. Others show how interaction, including social media, leads rather quickly to near universal acceptance. The triggers for abortion were The Abortion Act (1967) and the divorce of sexual intercourse from procreation. But if our cultures are naturally prone to such gross changes in public opinion, we would expect historical parallels.
Overlooking the Holocaust as a teutonic aberration, from the 17th century to the 19th the British Empire operated the slave trade. It was argued that it was essential for our economy and, in truth, it enabled the Industrial Revolution and the basis of our modern prosperity. When it was banned the perpetrators were neither punished nor condemned. On the contrary they were compensated. Some £17 billion in today’s money was distributed to 43,000 ex slave owners. Many of these were decent, middle class people; for others the compensation was the basis of family fortunes which exist today.
You will have read about the terrible things which occurred in slavery and you will, with me, wonder how our fellow citizens, in a country which has always valued freedom and the rights of law, could have lived with such evil for so long. You may take consolation from thinking that the Catholic Church was never entangled in such perfidy. But do not be too consoled. The Catholic Church patted the pillows of slavery and enabled it to be seen as an act of Christian virtue. Papal bulls in the 15th century gave the Portuguese the right to “invade, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ, to put them into perpetual slavery, and to take away all their possessions and property.” This was extended to Africa, and subsequently all of the Americas.
While this was reversed in the following century, the precedent for the slave trade was established. It was all the more effective because, until Vatican II, and confirmation by Pope Paul II, the Church did not accept that slavery was an offence to human dignity, and claimed that it was not prohibited by natural and divine law. Unsurprisingly, the movement for abolition came not from the Church but from the Quakers, with assistance from a handful of liberal Anglicans.
The first lesson to be learned from this bleak history is that such depraved values may not be seen as depraved by good people, or, if regrettable, are justified by perceived necessity. It challenges us to stand back from the values of our society and to review them with the same care which we might apply in a decision of conscience. Should we find that our resulting judgment is unpopular with general opinion – and perhaps causes us to lose friends — we may well be on the right track.
There are plenty of examples to consider, from the actions of government and opposition, to criminal law, to economic justice, to immigration, to the treatment of marriage, to the management of population growth. Make your own long list. Closer to home we might review the assumptions of Catholics like us on a number of issues. And, at a time when the Church itself is discussing important questions of possible development, we must consider for ourselves what we think is right. If we meet opposition, it is worth remembering that we can learn much from those who disagree with us and little from those who agree.
(published 13 November 2015)