One of the arguments put forward by some who voted for or advocated the passage of the recent Canadian abortion bill was that it could be amended. Recent developments in Britain show just how hard it can be to improve on abortion laws once they are in place; constant vigilance is necessary to see that they are not made worse – and indeed that is just what the British Parliament succeeded in doing in the late spring.
Two years ago MP David Alton tried to reduce the time up to which abortions could be performed from 28 weeks to 18. His side put up a gallant fight, but it lost. Mrs. Thatcher let it be known that her preference was for 24 weeks, and that limit was put into the recent legislation. But other parts of the bill turned what might have been a slight gain into a disastrous loss.
The Rt. Hon. Sir Bernard Braine, Dean of Conservative MPs, explained what had happened in a letter he sent to priests asking for their support. “I appreciate that many people must find it almost impossible,” he began, “to believe the truly dreadful developments in Parliament regarding protection for the unborn child.” He found it difficult to believe that a majority of his colleagues had actually voted in favour of a bill which allowed the productions of human embryos for use as guinea pigs, and also allowed abortion up to birth in cases of handicap of for some other reason. The only explanation he could find was that members did not know what they were voting for; the legislation was complex, since it brought two separate bills together, and the Health Minister who introduced it kept members in the dark about its implications. The media did not help either. In fact, Sir Bernard said, only one national newspaper ad pointed out that the bill allowed up to birth.
With his letter, Sir Bernard enclosed a statement by two eminent University lawyers, John Finnis of Oxford and John Keogh of Leicester. Whether or not there was confusion during the voting, they said, there could be no doubt about the result. The bill allowed abortion until birth in a wide variety of cases.
Abortion in the interest of the health of the woman would have an upper limit of 24 weeks.
But where the balance of risk favoured termination or where there was the possibility of “grave permanent injury” to the woman’s health, or where serious fetal handicap was suspected, abortion would be allowed at any time. Abortion for some “serious handicap (which in the opinion of some doctors would include harelip or cleft palate) would be permissible. Therefore, even during the fortieth week.
Furthermore, where a pregnancy was terminated and the fetus survived, steps to ensure that it did not live would be allowed. In other words, if abortion on any of the above grounds resulted in the delivery of a viable fetus, it would be lawful to destroy it during birth for any reason at all, from harelip to hair color.
On May 4, Most Rev. Crispian Hollis Bishop of Portsmouth issued a pastoral letter echoing and reinforcing Cardinal Hume’s condemnation of the abortion bill. The teaching of the Church, he said, is that human life begins at conception and the moral principles which govern the sanctity of human life stem from this fact. These principles were gravely breached by the 1967 Abortion Act, and Britain has been living with the consequences ever since. As a result, society has drifted towards the view that human life is disposable and has value only under certain conditions.
Bishop Hollis deplored the decision of embryo experimentation allowing research on human embryos up to 14 days after fertilization, and permitting human life to be used as a means to an end. Such legislation represents an unwarranted attack on the beginnings of human life. After he had discussed the implications of allowing abortion up to the time of birth for treasons more or less serious, he summed up the implication of this type of law in two memorable paragraphs:
“I feel that these developments are extremely distressing; we seem to be faced with a total lack of moral foundation for the formation of public policy in this most crucial area of human life and death. I feel bound to draw the conclusion that we have abandoned fundamental aspects of Christian morality; we have abandoned the traditional Christian vision of the sanctity of human life and we can, therefore, no longer claim to be a Christian society.
“There is a dignity and respect which belongs to all human life, whether young or old, handicapped or not. As a matter of urgency, we must rediscover this respect because, without it, our society becomes prey to the interests of the strong and there is no security for the weak.”
Given the impossibility of relying on the daily papers for reliable information about the abortion question, as Sir Bernard pointed out, it becomes all the more necessary for pro-life publications to keep on insisting on the truth about human life, and for pro-life supporters to keep themselves informed. Eternal vigilance will not guarantee safety, but we will be helpless without it.