None of us will have missed the chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives, Cathy Warwick, deciding, without formally consulting members of the RCM’s governing board, that her organisation should campaign for women to be legally free to have an abortion at any point in pregnancy – effectively up to the day before birth. She tells us that RCM has no policy pro or against abortion. This sits somewhat awkwardly with her position as chairman on the British Pregnancy Advisory Service which describes itself as “… the UK’s leading provider of NHS-funded abortion care.”
Not surprisingly a large number of midwives have taken exception to this decision. And no doubt most, if not all of us, find it impossible to accept what we see as a thoroughly evil policy. At the time of drafting this, Warwick has excluded retracting her view. However we must bear in mind that her case is more logical than many of her opponents.
Going by the reader correspondence which follows newspaper articles on this subject, the majority of her opponents are not in fact against abortion in principle. It is often seen as a feminist right: woman are entitled to choose whether or not to be pregnant, and no one, especially men, should be opposing this. While much is made of hard cases (pregnancy through rape, or a damaged foetus) in practice abortion should be available for any reason or none. While the 1967 Abortion Act requires certain conditions to be fulfilled, in practice abortion is on demand. Their sticking point is the viability of the foetus. (Currently 24 weeks, although some are arguing for 22 or 20 weeks.) Warwick is logical in saying that, if a women is to have full control over her reproduction, then that control is present over the full term of pregnancy.
But most people who support the principle of abortion are guided by emotions rather than by logic. You may remember the fuss when scans of the foetus became available and there was a danger that the mother’s emotions might become engaged. As long as the foetus is out of sight it is apparently possible to withhold the bonding which takes place at birth. There is a great danger here. If we remember recent history, we will be aware how easily feelings rather than rational judgment can be used as the criterion of human rights.
But we (I hope) maintain that the infant in the womb is an individual human being, and therefore has all the rights we attribute to human beings. Emotion has nothing to do with it. The Church instructs us that we should base this on the moment of conception – though we should notice that there is an argument for claiming that the embryo cannot be regarded as ‘individual’ until it can no longer split into identical twins. That is, at about 14 days. No one knows for sure.
One apoplectic reader almost shouted on the page that surely we know that a foetus is not a baby. And of course we do. We distinguish between embryo, foetus, baby, child, adolescent, adult, pensioner. These are distinct labels (although the borders may be wooly) which identify stages of human life. They are all individual human beings. And that is how I habitually refer to them in this matter. I cheerfully invite others to identify which of ‘individual’, ‘human’, or ‘being’ they would care to deny. That seems to shut them up.
But the saddest part for me is how often I find my own friends, who are good people, favour abortion – some as a matter of principle, some according to cause. A quick flick through the internet tells me that, internationally, the proportion of Catholics who approve is on the north side of 50%. There is even an active organization called ‘Catholics for Choice’, who majors on the rights of women to form their consciences. I hope they don’t extend that to the mothers (or indeed fathers) of two year old children. I hold my breath.
Ironically, in some parts of the world (I think particularly of the East — such as India and China) abortion is used to prevent the birth of girls. Now that it is relatively easy to identify the gender of the conceptus, the temptation to make a negative choice is strong. Girls may require dowries and, where small families are envisaged, there is a perceived need to preserve the line through a male descendant. The result is a disproportionate number of adult males in the future. And that makes for social trouble where testosterone fuelled young men can find no partner. And we may assume that this also renders them more vulnerable to a radicalism which they see as giving them a respectable self image.