The question of abortion has been raised once more in the election campaign, because of statements in both Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos. Labour includes their briefer comments in their section on Justice, in which they comment:
We will introduce protections for victims of so-called revenge porn. Labour will introduce a no-fault divorce procedure. We will uphold women’s reproductive rights and decriminalise abortions.
The Liberal Democrats, who have a long section on identity politics and appear to want to push controversial aspects of the trans agenda still further, include their comments on abortion not under Justice or Equality, but under Help to Stay Healthy within their Health and Social Care section:
We believe that everyone has a right to make independent decisions over their reproductive health without interference by the state, and that access to reproductive healthcare is a human right. We will:
- Decriminalise abortion across the UK while retaining the existing 24-week limit and legislate for access to abortion facilities within Northern Ireland.
- Enforce safe zones around abortion clinics, make intimidation or harassment of abortion service users and staff outside clinics, or on common transport routes to these services, illegal.
- Fund abortion clinics to provide their services free of charge to service users regardless of nationality or residency.
Anyone who is concerned about the issue of abortion, and the distance we have moved in practice from the intention of the 1967 Act without any major legislation changes, will have some large questions about the coherence of these positions. I don’t think I know what it means to ‘decriminalise abortion’ whilst ‘retaining the 24-week limit’. What then will happen to someone who is involved in an abortion beyond that limit? And what impact will decriminalisation have on the debate? How does that sit with all the medical evidence of the awareness and sense-experiences of babies in utero at a much earlier stage than previously thought?
Both manifestos include strong themes of defending the vulnerable and pressing for equality, and it is no small irony that neither offers any protection for the group that must qualify as the most vulnerable in our society by some way—those not yet born, who are in complete dependence on others and have no means of defending themselves.
The question then arises for Christians in their different churches: does my denomination have a formed and settled view on this question? The Catholic bishops of England and Wales have made an election statement along with giving a press conference, and mention abortion as the first of their list of the vulnerable whose dignity and rights must be upheld:
In making judgments about how to vote, the Bishops ask that the following are carefully considered and, indeed candidates can be asked how they will uphold:
- The innate dignity of every human being; defending both the child in the womb, the good of the mother and an understanding of the immeasurable good of a child not yet born;
(It is worth noting that this statement was not without its Catholic critics, both in terms of its content and the way it was presented.)
Is there a clear statement of the settled view of the Church of England, led by its bishops? Actually there is, and it is publicly available on the C of E website here. It offers a clear, consistent and definitive position, which dates back to 1993, and has been repeated at intervals since then. The 1993 position was articulated in a motion of the General Synod:
In the rare occasions when abortion is carried out beyond 24 weeks, ‘Serious foetal handicap’ should be interpreted strictly as applying to those conditions where survival is possible only for a very short period.
And this was quoted and commented on in a 2005 Briefing Paper by the Mission and Public Affairs Council (MPA):
The Church of England combines strong opposition to abortion with a recognition that there can be – strictly limited – conditions under which it may be morally preferable to any available alternative.
The MPA drafted a press statement in 2011, which made specific observations about the current situation in law and practice, and it is worth noting this in full:
• The Church of England combines strong opposition to abortion with a recognition that there can be strictly limited conditions under which it may be morally preferable to any available alternative. This is based on our view that the foetus is a human life with the potential to develop relationships, think, pray, choose and love.
• We would like to see a drastic reduction in the number of abortions carried out and stricter interpretation of abortion law.
• The case for further reductions of the time limit for abortions should be sympathetically considered on the basis of advances in neo-natal care.
• Every possible support, especially by church members, needs to be given to those who are pregnant in difficult circumstances.
Women facing an unwanted pregnancy realise the gravity of the decision they face and do not take it lightly: all abortions are tragedies, since they entail judging one person’s welfare against that of another (even if one is, as yet, unborn). We would like to see more support for them including access to information, advice and counselling from a wide range of providers that would enable them to make a fully informed decision.
This Government has found it difficult to successfully tackle the problem of teenage pregnancy. Some may think that increased abortion rates for teenagers show that teenagers have been able to get access to advice and help when facing unplanned pregnancy. However we can not view this as a success. Money and energies have to be spent in tackling the root causes. The cross-Government strategy is to cut under 18 conception and we would support that intention. Long term methods must involve strategies to avoid conception, such as good sex education accompanied by good relationship education for both boys and girls, increasing hope and choices for girls in areas of deprivation, decreasing poverty and a climate where people talk about responsible relationships, rather than viewing abortion as a readily accessible solution to personal or social problems.
That statement has been used several times since then—though in all the recent summaries, the details calling for a drastic reduction in the number of abortions carried out has been omitted, so it would be easy to forget this important and specific part of this 2011 comment.
If this is such an important issue that Anglicans cannot vote for parties who stand against Church teaching on this issue, it might look like Anglicans have no choice but to vote Conservative. But in fact I think there are large parts of all the manifestos which, as a Christian, I could not support, and which are also important. I am not sure it has in recent memory been clearer that, from a political point of view, Christians are now ‘strangers and aliens’ (1 Peter 1.1) scattered across our country.
But given the clear statement of these two parties, and the equally clear past statements of the Church of England, along with the silence of Church of England bishops on this issue in the election so far, I was very happy to add my name to an open letter on the issue, published in the Times:
The Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats have, in their manifestos, proposed the decriminalisation of abortion. This would remove all sanctions in criminal law for those who perform abortions outside the limits set by the Abortion Act 1967. These changes would amount to a declaration that a foetus was no longer a human being, worthy of the same protections against deliberate harm and termination of life. In light of the Church of England’s own teaching that “the foetus is a human life with the potential to develop relationships, think, pray, choose and love” and that the church “would like to see a drastic reduction in the number of abortions carried out and stricter interpretation of abortion law”, we write, as members of the Church of England, lay and ordained, female and male, to express our sincere concerns about these proposals, and to call on the bishops of the church to do all they can to speak out against them.
Immediately, in response to this, the seven bishops of the Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda (a group of traditionalist Anglo-Catholics) issued a short statement:
We pledge ourselves to oppose any legislation involving further liberalization of the law in respect of abortion that may be introduced by any future UK government.
We invite all Christians preparing to cast their vote in the forthcoming General Election to reflect on all issues which touch on the dignity and well-being of the human person. Furthermore we advise that parishes and individual Christians take the initiative of asking any of their parliamentary candidates what their view is on this issue and how they would vote if legislation came before the Commons.
And the next day the bishops of Newcastle and Carlisle issued a broader statement confirming this view, which at its centre repeated the previous statements.
I was grateful to see these responses—but I was puzzled by the need to prompt a response, rather than hearing anything directly. And I was puzzled when the Archbishop of Canterbury was unable to articulate this when pressed on a recent radio phone-in. The assumption that the Church of England’s position is ‘well known’ is, I think, unfounded. And if any hesitancy here is based on the idea of not alienating people with whom we want to work positively—well, that ship has long sailed. The most cursory glance at the party manifestos show how far most are from the historic view of the Churches. We are out of step with our culture on many, and we shouldn’t be embarrassed to say so.
David Baker highlighted the importance and poignancy of this issue in poetic terms last week:
Do not walk away from those of whom we shall now speak. Do not turn your head, or block your ears, or shut your eyes. Look! Listen! Now – can you hear them? There are more than 150,000 of them. They whisper – softly, almost silently; murmurs of pain echoing into the vast emptiness of the universe, all but drowned out by the noise of our society’s self-righteousness, the clamour of our self-will.
They call across the void of 18 years – forgotten, unnamed, unloved perhaps. They are the voices of those who would have been first-time voters in 2019. Their shadows stir; they are our nation’s aborted children.
One of the most striking observations he makes is that abortion was once a feminist issue; in a world committed to women’s equality and women’s perspective, how has this issue been trampled on by the juggernaut of individual rights?
Once, abortion was a feminist issue. Alice Paul (1885-1977) denounced abortion as an evil forced upon women by men. A number of suffragists called abortion “child murder” in Susan B. Anthony’s publication, The Revolution. There are those who still bravely bear that flame today, with Feminists for Life of America, being one such organisation. Feminists for Life of America first revealed and shared many pro-life quotes from the first wave feminists and on its website you can read ‘pro-woman answers to pro-choice questions’…
Let the last words be given to feminist writer and bioethicist Fiorella Nash. ‘Authentic feminism should be pro-life,’ she says. ‘It grew out of a rejection of the idea that women are the property of men; by what justification therefore, can we treat our own offspring as property? No movement that truly believes in justice and equality seeks to achieve those goals through the sacrifice of innocent lives.’
She adds: ‘Radical feminism has let women down and has betrayed women everywhere because of its dogmatic obsession with promoting and defending abortion. Where were the radical feminists… when Chinese women were being forced into abortions? Where are radical feminists when baby girls are being aborted in India at a rate of one per minute?’
It is an issue we cannot treat as just one amongst many.
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