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Friday, 24 November 2006

The Anglican Church and the sanctity of life

Yesterday, from the Vatican, there was issued a Common Declaration of Pope Benedict XVI and the Archbishop of Canterbury His Grace Rowan Williams. The declaration states that "There are many areas of witness and service in which we can stand together" and lists several such as peace in the Holy Land, the poor, materialism, the environment etc. I was surprised to see the following included:
"promoting respect for life from conception until natural death"
In Abortion - A Briefing Paper, issued by the Church of England’s Mission and Public Affairs Division in February 2005, we are given a summary of the Anglican position on abortion:
"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 Briefing quotes the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
"Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognised as having the rights of a person among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life."
and then contrasts the Anglican position with this teaching. The Briefing quotes a 1980 statement from the Board for Social Responsibility:
"In the light of our conviction that the foetus has the right to live and develop as a member of the human family, we see abortion, the termination of that life by the act of man, as a great moral evil. We do not believe that the right to life, as a right pertaining to persons, admits of no exceptions whatever; but the right of the innocent to life admits surely of few exceptions indeed."
Surely if we are talking of the right to life of the innocent, this admits of no exceptions? The words "few" and "indeed" in this statement are simply window-dressing once the principle has been allowed that in some cases it is legitimate to kill an innocent person.

The Briefing tells us that
"The Church of England rejects the oversimplification of the debate into 'pro choice' and 'pro life'."
You always know where we are headed when someone says that an absolute moral position is an "oversimplification".

The Briefing quotes the 1993 Synod which said that
"The number of abortions carried out since the passage of the Abortion Act 1967 is unacceptably high."
and states as the current view of the Church of England that
"The abortion law needs to be applied more strictly and the number of abortions carried out drastically reduced."
As ever, when people say that there are "too many abortions", my immediate question is "How many abortions is just about right?"

It is always helpful in such a discussion to take some moral norm that is currently accepted as an absolute and apply the same reasoning. Rightly, there is a general consensus that it is wrong (absolutely) for adults to have sex with children. How would it look if someone said that the ban on sex with children admits of very few exceptions and only under strictly limited conditions? Would you trust someone in your home if they said that the rejection of paedophilia was an oversimplification? Would it sound right if a Church leader said that there was just too much sex with children and that it should be drastically reduced?

In truth, this statement of the position of the Church of England on abortion is, as ever, a compromise so that people of widely differing views will all be able to subscribe to it. Every politician who votes for a liberalisation of the abortion law will tell you that they are against abortion, that it is a very grave decision, always a last resort; but that there are some circumstances in which we have to allow it. If abortion is the killing of an innocent child, there can be no exceptions to the inviolable right of that child to life. To allow exceptions is not to be a little bit less pro-life on a sliding scale between pro-choice and pro-life, it is to overturn the absolute right to life of the innocent human child.
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