Abortion law and practical politics

Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor and Cardinal O'Brien recently published an Open Letter (pdf 99Kb) on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act. There is much to applaud in what they have written. One of the most important points is made in the first paragraph:
Even without a change in the law the abortion rate could fall dramatically if enough minds and hearts were changed.
We know this to be true from the example of Poland where the abortion rate fell dramatically after the fall of communist government without any change in the law. The lesson is vital for us in the UK.

The controversial statement in the letter is towards the end. The Cardinals list a number of ways to bring about change, the last of which is:
By pressing for achievable change in the law in the light of advances in medical developments, even if Parliament will not abolish the law. Whilst upholding the principle of the sacredness of human life, it is both licit and important for those in public life who oppose abortion on principle to work and vote for achievable incremental improvement to what is an unjust law.
Most people will understand this to refer to proposals for an amendment or bill lowering the "time limit" for abortion. Support for this approach is usually claimed from Evangelium Vitae n.73 where Pope John Paul wrote:
[...] when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality.
The hope in many quarters is that the Human Tissue and Embryology Bill might be a golden opportunity for such a change to the law and that pro-life lobby should be united in pressing for such a change. The idea that EV n.73 can be used in support of "time limit" measures is the subject of considerable debate on the grounds that such measures are unjust discrimination and therefore do not "limit the harm" done by the abortion law. (Cf. Colin Harte's book)

The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) have opposed this approach. Last week, the Health Minister, Dawn Primarolo, told the House of Commons Science and Technology select committee that the Abortion Act 1967 "doesn't require further amendment at the present time." SPUC expressed relief at this, saying:
Any amendments to the Abortion Act at this time are likely to result in an increase in the numbers of abortions. SPUC calls upon parliamentarians to resist calls, from whatever quarter, to table amendments to the Abortion Act and instead to focus upon the many practical ways of reducing the numbers of abortions, in particular by addressing the pressures upon expectant mothers which lead them to consider abortion.
A number of considerations convince me that this is sound.

First of all, let us remember that we are dealing with the Human Tissue and Embryology Bill. This is a Bill which will provide greater scope for embryos to be produced for research, allow more embryos to be destroyed in the process of IVF, and legalise the creation of cybrids, hybrids and chimeras. The Bill will even allow sperm or eggs to be extracted from children or the unconscious in some circumstances without their consent. Our first duty in response to this Bill is to oppose it vociferously and call upon MPs to vote against it.

Given the massive anti-life majority in the present Parliament, such calls are likely to fall on deaf ears. Nevertheless, it is important that our unequivocal opposition is clearly stated. The danger of attempting to amend such an appallingly anti-life Bill with pro-life amendments is obvious enough. It is not simply that such amendments are likely to fail but that the anti-life majority will use the opportunity to make the law even worse.

We can already see the lines along which pro-abortionists are marshalling their forces. David Steel has made it clear that he is opposed to lowering the present 24 week limit. Members of the British Medical Association (BMA) have voted for the removal of the requirement that two doctors should consent to an abortion and have said that women should be able to exercise "patient autonomy" and take the decision for themselves. At the same time, BMA members voted against lowering the "time limit". Not surprisingly, Abortion Rights have applauded the BMA statement. The BMA statement is entirely in line with the Marie Stopes Voice for Choice campaign. In a recent article (Plans to relax law on early abortion), The Times reports on active support for these campaigns among MPs.

The plan of the pro-abortionists is to relax the law on early abortions without any change to the 24 week "time limit". This is the most likely result if there is any opportunity for MPs to tamper with the current abortion law. We should not forget the outcome of the last attempt to "improve" the Abortion Law. It was hijacked with the result that the law was changed so that there is actually there is no "time limit" for babies with a disability. In the UK they can be aborted any time up to birth.

It is always difficult for Catholics to know what to do when faced with an unjust Government that is instrumental in the killing of millions of our fellow human beings. I can understand the desire of many pro-lifers in the face of the terrible onslaught against human life in our country today to "do something". At the same time, I fear greatly that a misguided attempt to do something by trying to amend the already appalling Human Tissue and Embryology Bill will inevitably result in easier abortion and more lives lost.

We should keep in our minds the words of the Cardinals:
Even without a change in the law the abortion rate could fall dramatically if enough minds and hearts were changed.
That must surely be our priority.

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