The Urge to Scribble

October 25, 2007

Britain’s abortion debate lacks moral bravery

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On Sunday the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote a comment piece for The Observer on abortion (Britain’s abortion debate lacks a moral dimension). Originally I thought the piece would make me angry, as so many articles on abortion do. Instead it left me sad and frustrated and ill at ease. In a truly Anglican style he did not come right out and argue for any particular point of view but if anything the implied opinions behind the argument made me more nervous.

 

My disagreements with the Archbishop began with his opening sentence. The Abortion Act apparently makes provision for ‘extreme and tragic situations’. The implication being that only extreme situations can be tragic, which is in no way the case. If he cannot conceive of a tragedy for women outside of rape or physical medical complications he shows a distinct lack of sympathetic imagination. And in arguing that those who voted for the 67 Abortion Act believed that these were the only situations in which the procedure would be used I believe he severely underestimates the intelligence of our legislators. The Act allows for abortion in cases of mental distress as well, it is clear from the terms of the Act that it allows abortion in cases beyond those outlined by the Archbishop and the availability of abortion in this country has long been recognised.

 

Throughout his article the Archbishop uses the scare mongering language familiar from the tabloid papers, while ostensibly speaking in reasonable terms. Statistics are ‘spiraling’, changes in behaviour show a ‘weakening of feeling’ and the history demonstrated by the 1967 Act is one of ‘slippage’ and ‘erosion’. He does not need to spell out that he is referring to moral slippage and the erosion of society that the reader should see abortion both contributing to and symbolising, a life time of extreme headlines in the newspapers has already filled in the gaps for us.

 

Despite the article insisting on abortion needing a moral perspective, when it comes to the matter of reducing the upper time limit for abortion he refers to technological developments, whereas this is one area of the debate where compassion should be uppermost. Again and again the argument has to be made that it is very few abortions that take place past 20 weeks and these are often the most desperate cases, or, in the Archbishop’s words, the most extreme and tragic. He makes no mention of the couples who discover the illness of their future child in 20 week tests or the teenage girl who has not realised she is pregnant, or was too scared to tell before. In a moral debate he would have science determine the course before he has the chance to loose.

 

Likewise the deliberately misunderstands, or refuses to consider, the moral intentions behind arguments made to allow women to administer the medicine required for a chemical abortion at home. Apparently this is to make abortion ‘simpler’, turning abortion into some kind of takeaway home-fix kit. This is both misleading and insulting. The initial stages of the abortion would still be carried out at a medical centre under supervision. Carrying out the final stages of an abortion in the privacy of one’s home does not mean that the decision is somehow taken lightly, it simply suggests that some of the medical service has the imagination to try to ease the pressure of a traumatic experience. It does not make the choice to do it easier but it might ease the pain. The Archbishop shows himself remarkably lacking in compassion in failing to consider this point.

 

As a religious leader it turns out that the Archbishop has a cowardly streak. In the article he skirts around the issues and points that he wants to make. A leader should provide guidance, especially a religious leader faced with what he believes to be a moral issue. Instead he is content to raise a controversial problem and leave it hanging, with only the small leads of what can be gleaned from his implied words as an indication of his wider meaning.

 

I have always argued that one of the strengths of the Church of England is its refusal to proscribe a moral or doctrinal position for its members so it is perhaps strange that I am berating the Archbishop of Canterbury for doing precisely that. My problem lies in the nature of the article. If he wished to provide a forum for a debate, or to begin one, then his article would surely have to be more generous in entertaining and bringing in all points of view. As it is, he does just enough in his language and through the points that he chooses to touch on to let his reader’s know of his disapproval of abortion without ever plainly stating it. He makes neither a strong moral case for his point of view nor creates a forum where debate can take place.

 

The end of the article reveals Rowen Williams’ intention to use a current debate on abortion to begin a wider analysis of moral decay in society. I would suggest that he is ill-advised to attempt such an analysis from such a beginning. Abortion is a very specific response to a very specific issue, the legislators who voted for the 1967 Abortion Act were brave in voting it through. They had the vision to recognise that what is good for society is not always harking back to an age where society magically functioned and the compassion to attempt to fight their way towards new moral choices in a difficult world. The Archbishop should not be afraid to join them.

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