Changing minds and hearts: The basic moral test of a society and its laws is the treatment of human life at its most vulnerable

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Bishop John Wilson, an auxiliary Bishop of Westminster, has written an article in The Tablet on the 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act: 

The fiftieth anniversary of the passing into law of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Bill on 27 October 1967 is moment for serious reflection. Since then over 8 million abortions have taken place in Great Britain.

In 2015 alone there were 185,824 abortions in England and Wales and 12,134 in Scotland. Greater access to abortion is hailed by some as a liberation. For those who uphold the dignity of human life from conception it is a tragedy.

Anyone who has faced the situation personally knows the dilemma created by news of a pregnancy that is unplanned and unwanted. The pressure to have an abortion may have felt immense. Little practical support may have been on offer and no real sense of any viable alternative. St John Paul II recognised this in Evangelium Vitae when he wrote: ‘The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision.’ (99)

Those offering pastoral counsel to women and men affected by abortion will know that, for many, if not most, it was an act of desperation. A compassionate presence enables a story to be told, maybe for the first time, and sometimes decades after the event. It may reveal the devastating circumstances, the fear of being trapped and unable to cope, the sense of loss and regret, and a still wounded heart. Believing abortion is wrong should never prevent us from reaching out, empathetically and sensitively, to encourage those who have been hurt not to lose hope. With acceptance and love, prayers for healing can help restore a sense of inner peace. This can lead to a closer encounter with the mercy and forgiveness of God which finds its fullest expression in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

An essential part of the Church’s reaction to abortion is to help those scarred by it to find a new beginning. But there are other aspects too of the Church’s response. Important among these is seeking to change minds and hearts concerning the protection needed for the unborn child.

Before the 1967 abortion law, previous legislation had sought to expand the grounds for abortion, moving from an immediate and direct threat to maternal life to the broader rationale of a threat to maternal health. Health here meant physical and psychological well-being and so abortion became permissible for a wider variety of reasons. Successive amendments have resulted in the present-day situation where abortion is widely and easily available, and allowed to the point of birth in cases where there is disability in the unborn child. Supporting initiatives that help pregnant mothers to keep their children and urging greater protection for unborn babies diagnosed with disabilities is another aspect of the Church’s response to abortion.

Without ever underestimating the real fears an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy may bring, and never minimising them, the question is whether abortion should ever be the right response?

The Bishops of England and Wales have consistently appealed for an approach based on the sacred and intrinsic worth of human life and the call to act justly towards every new life from its first beginnings. Their 2004 teaching document Cherishing Life stated:

“Taking the life of a child in the womb is as unjust to the unborn child as taking the life of a new born baby is to the infant.” (173)

There need to be better and more widespread practical alternatives to abortion.

Many speak of their regret after having had an abortion. The circumstances seemed so impossible they felt they had no choice. Ironically, the ‘right to choose’ is the most forthright assertion proposed by advocates of abortion. Approaching decision-making in this way places personal autonomy above any other consideration. The nature of the act and its consequences are not considered. There is no objective point of reference. The rightfulness of what I choose is validated by the fact that I choose it.

This argument hinges on the invoked ‘right’ to do exactly what I want, as if choice alone could specify what is good. If everyone acts how they want, irrespective of the impact on others, or on the common good, or even fully on themselves, it is always the poorest and weakest who lose out. None of us lives in a vacuum. Our subjective wants need to be put into the context of the effects that follow and have an impact beyond ourselves. When our choices affect the lives of others, including those yet to be born, we have a duty that stretches beyond what we want. This same argument favours a more respectful care for our natural world.

Faced with difficult decisions, we sometimes speak of weighing things up, even of opting for the lesser of two evils. This can make sense in some situations. But in the case of abortion a new human life cannot be categorised as an ‘evil’, even a lesser evil. Life is so precious that some go to extreme technological lengths in order to conceive a child. How can purposefully ending any human life ever be a lesser evil? The value of a life does not depend on the desire of those responsible for conceiving that life.

Another issue for some concerns the status of the embryo. Whatever philosophical thinking is employed, and however important this may be, there remains a biological reality. The newly conceived human life has a dynamic that is distinct from the sperm and ovum that joined to bring it into being. At this most vulnerable stage of existence, he or she needs our solidarity. This human life, albeit tiny, is how we all began. Our instinct is to protect the small and defenceless.

Some argue that personhood is the key criteria and this is only acquired by an unborn child at a certain point, or – some even argue – after birth. There are, indeed, key thresholds as the embryo and fetus develop. It is conception, however, which initiates something radically new. If bestowing or withholding the attribute of personhood to a human life becomes a means to justify the ending of life, whether of the unborn, the young, the old or the disabled, a dangerous eugenics is unleashed.

At stake here are moral principles about the intrinsic value, the incommensurate good, of human life at all points and levels of being. These anchor and inform the kind of society we want to create. This is not to impose religious belief by statute, but to ask that justice should be shown to every human life and that the weakest be defended. This is surely important to everyone, including our legislators. Therefore a further response of the Church to abortion is to work in support of limiting the injustice of laws that permit abortion. Politicians deserve our support when they do this and their consciences need to be respected.

Society benefits from a moral framework based on precepts that uphold the dignity of human life. Who would argue for concessions to laws rightly prohibiting human trafficking or modern slavery? A consistent ethic of life respects human life from conception to natural death. The basic moral test of our society and its laws is to ask how they treat human life when it is most endangered. This is severely lacking when it comes to unborn life.

The first Christians were distinguished in part because they refused to expose their children to the elements, leaving them to die, and they would not practice abortion. This is our moral heritage and it resonates beyond those of our faith. Compassion for those pregnant and distressed must be without limits. The voices of those wounded by abortion are critical for our understanding. The Church’s ministry of pastoral care, healing and forgiveness is vital. We remain committed to protecting every human life, including when the other is the minutest of our brothers and sisters.

On this fiftieth anniversary of the Abortion Act we are reminded by Pope Francis of what is at stake:

“All life has inestimable value even the weakest and most vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn and the poor, are masterpieces of God’s creation, made in his own image, destined to live forever, and deserving of the utmost reverence and respect.” (Day for Life message, 2013).

John Wilson is Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster

Article first published in The Tablet Friday 20 October


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