This day, exactly 50 years ago, the Abortion Act, introduced as a private bill by David Steel MP, received its Royal Assent. It came into effect in the following April. In 2016 there were 190,406 abortions in England and Wales, of which 38 per cent were to women who had had one or more previous abortions. Over eight million human beings have been aborted since the Act.
We might date the modern view towards abortion from the Rex v. Bourne case of 1938. The law already allowed abortion where the mother was in danger of death; the case extended this to a qualified doctor who in good faith removed a pregnancy for the purpose of preserving the mother’s life. The distinction between danger of death and the preserving of the mother’s life introduced a broader level of judgement with particular emphasis on the good faith of the doctor. I happened in the 1950s to be privy to the records of an expensive West End doctor from which I concluded that a chequebook might be helpful too. As Roy Jenkins (then Home Secretary) described it, it was one law for the poor and another for the rich.
So it was no surprise in the 1960s, when the prospect of more liberal legislation was in sight, that much was made of the frequency and the dangers of illegal abortion, to which the poorer class was vulnerable. The picture of knitting needles, old hags and backrooms in the slums was vivid. At the emotional level the issue became one of proletarian danger and death. But big round numbers are powerful in emotional debate and much was made of the claim that 100,000 illegal abortions took place every year. The number, estimated at that time by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists at some 15,000, could not cut the mustard by comparison.
Fortunately there was another level of debate. I got involved in this as a result of a letter I sent to the Spectator. I was a very young man and I must have assumed that the simple case I laid out was so incontrovertible that the issue would be abandoned: the forces of evil would retreat to their holes. They did not. The initial positions that the foetus was either a human being and thus sacrosanct, or that it was not yet a human being and thus had no rights, never changed. The Anglican bishops lay in between: the foetus was a potential human being and thus had a secondary right to life which should be protected unless the mother’s life was in danger.
It was in this context that I found myself meeting with the Abortion Law Reform Association. I believed that brief exchanges in the Press could never resolve the question, and that it required a written debate which would lay out the arguments in extenso. ALRA, with whom I had several meetings, appeared to be open to this but said they were unable to find the time. I was less keen on the offered alternative which was a public debate and would be more dependent on the quality of the speakers than the quality of the argument.
In the Act a fundamental condition for a legal abortion was that the risk to the mother’s life was greater than if the pregnancy were terminated. And thereby hangs an irony. The amendment which led to this was introduced in the House of Lords at the behest of a strong opponent to abortion who believed that that it would exclude most abortions. The members of ALRA present in the gallery could not believe their luck. It was a sound medical opinion that medical abortion would always be safer than continuing to term. A key condition in the Act, arguably legalising virtually all abortions, was in effect written by the anti- abortionists.
Of course ALRA and their friends won. Nowadays abortion can be obtained with little difficulty even when it is no more than a convenience for the mother. Two doctors are required to approve an abortion and we read newspaper reports which suggest that the process can be effectively nominal. (See CH Letters, October 13, Dr Dermot Kearney.) Yet we should have compassion for those for whom pregnancy is a life-changing moral dilemma. Their choice may be an agonising one.
One group suffers in a different way: doctors and medical staff. The Act contains a conscience clause which protects those who refuse to take part in the treatment. It does not apply to indirect activities which contribute to abortion. Certainly every would-be Catholic doctor or nurse should be aware of how their prospects may be affected in a profession ostensibly devoted to human life. In 2012 two Catholic nurses who were required to delegate, supervise and support staff who carried out abortions were refused the protection of conscience because their involvement was indirect. We might contrast this with Reinhold Hanning, an administrative guard at Auschwitz, who was found guilty under German law as an accessory in the death of 170,000 people.
It is now broadly accepted that the rights of the foetus, if any, must give way to the choice of the mother irrespective of other issues. And there is an outstanding controversial question about whether the conceptus can be regarded as an individual human being before the “primitive streak” at 14 days. This is morally significant to the “morning after” pill and the coil. The Church, while prohibiting abortion from conception onwards, does not claim that individual human life necessarily starts at that point.
The emphasis nowadays is on the rights of the mother, although, this is inconsistent with the key United Nation’s documents. It is beginning to be claimed that opponents of abortion are extremists and, in the case of Catholics, indoctrinated by a Church which has sometimes been shown to be wrong on moral doctrines derived from faulty science.
Some recent incidents illustrate the sign of the times. The Royal College of Midwives, the BMA and the RCOG argue that abortion should be decriminalised. The President of the RCM believes that the normal time limit (40 weeks) should be removed, but here she appears to be going against the public grain . She compared the medical status of the operation to removing a bunion.
The recent British Attitudes Survey tells us that 61 per cent of Catholics approve of legalised abortion. We do not know how many of these are nominal. But it may be that our emphasis on the Church’s prohibition is counterproductive. We might instead explain that it is our conscience which tells us that every individual human being has a fundamental right to life. We do not have to look far back in political history to see the dangers of abandoning that principle.
Finally, on a more cheerful note, it is clear that the British public, as a whole, do not want the right to abortion to be extended. A large poll, taken this year, demonstrated this comprehensively. Gratifyingly, only one per cent favoured abortion being allowed up to birth. No room for more details here, but http://bit.ly/2t5VKTE is a starting point.
To review arguments on both sides, try Moral Maze on BBC IPlayer (14 October). This was a well- balanced programme, and naturally ended with disagreement.