The Abortion Act 1967 was frankly a disaster. The most emotionally effective argument in its favour was the prevention of illegal abortions (the number of which was grossly overstated at the time). The exceptions allowed by the Act – the physical or mental health of the mother or the severe disability of the child — turned out to be conditions of straw, as was well known to the lobbyists and indeed to anyone of common sense. So nowadays abortion is effectively a matter of choice, and we have approaching 200,000 legal abortions a year. What is more, our culture has moved on from regarding abortion as a sad necessity; it has become a virtue. It is now politically incorrect to object to it. Various estimates have been made about the attitudes of Catholics, but it is safe to say that a substantial number walk by on the other side, and include many who effectively approve.
In following discussions on the internet I find that three arguments predominate. The first is the ‘hard cases’ approach. How could we deny abortion to the mother of a baby who is severely handicapped or a baby who is the result of rape? We are of course instinctively sympathetic. But it is useful here to establish whether the arguer has only such extreme situations in mind or whether he or she would also support abortion in normal circumstances. If so, we can leave aside the hard cases and focus on the principles.
This may lead quickly to considering the status of the entity in the womb. I use a neutral term here because our instinctive use of the word ‘baby’ is likely to be attacked. So I settle for ‘individual human life’ and then ask what part of this description does not apply.
The question of exactly when a human conceptus becomes an individual is tricky. The encyclical Evangelium Vitae does not settle this but teaches that the human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception. Others, including respectable theologians, have argued that individuality is only achieved at the stage when the embryo can no longer split into identical twins. Since splitting may occur during the ten days or so following conception this has a bearing on the morality of very early abortion. This issue, and indeed many others, is argued at length in Norman M Ford’s When did I begin? Cambridge University Press).
The claim that a woman has the right to choose whether or not to be pregnant is made by Amnesty International. The Royal College of Midwives has formally recommended that there should be no legal constraint on abortions, including those at late term. Any male who criticises abortion in the public sphere is likely to be hounded for his anti-feminine obduracy. It seems odd to me that one can only defend a woman’s right to control her own body at the expense of another human being‘s right to life. It is accepted that, when a decision is made on behalf of another because of age or mental capacity, we act in the best interests of the subject. Apparently the best interest for the individual in the womb is death. Does not history warn us that making exceptions to those who have the right to life is the beginning of a sorry road?
In fact abortion is not a human right, although the UN Human Rights Committee, may appear to claim so. No UN committee can define a human right. Nor is it a requirement of international law. The UN Declaration of Human Rights declares that every human being has the right to life, liberty and security of person, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, claimed to be the most widely-ratified international human rights treaty in history, states in its preamble “the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth.” So the boot would appear to be on the other foot.
We may wonder how so many of our decent citizens claim the right to exterminate a whole class of human beings because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. But ignored evil is not a novelty. As I have mentioned before, the execrable slave trade was accepted by our society and even found a champion in a pope. (Nicholas V) The respectable bourgeoisie, no doubt regular churchgoers, accepted and often directly benefited from slavery. For them it was not a moral issue.
Finally, here is my bête noire. Let us please avoid putting contraception and abortion into the same sentence. Whatever our view on contraception may be, it is minor league compared to abortion. Linking them merely invites the world to dismiss both as Catholics’ eccentricity.