Ed West’s interview in the Herald with Conservative MP Nadine Dorries has caught my attention – in particular her criticism of “the churches” during her fight to reform abortion law. What Nadine Dorries says is this:
“I need religious support. It is our core support. I need the churches being more involved, and the churches have been pathetic, pathetic, during the abortion debate in their support for what I was trying to do…The only person in the Catholic Church who made any comment was Cardinal O’Brien. Everybody was silent because the churches were weak and cowardly in their position.”
In 2008 Dorries campaigned to reduce the abortion time limit to 20 weeks and failed. Subsequently she has been campaigning for a woman’s right to know what happens during an abortion and the psychological scars that might follow. Indeed, I have just signed an online petition organised by LIFE, asking that counselling for women contemplating abortion be made mandatory. Surely it is a good thing to fight for this? So why has Dorries received, in her view, so little support from Christians?
I think this is the reason: the churches – and the main pro-life societies – have had a problem with any legislation touching on abortion since the failure of David Alton’s Abortion (Amendment) Act of 1987. Alton had argued for an upper time limit on abortions (18 weeks), while conceding to the pro-abortion lobby that some categories, such as disabled children and those conceived after incest and rape, could be excluded from this time limit.
In case readers of this blog don’t remember, Alton’s Bill, though attracting enormous pro-life support, was filibustered out of parliamentary time so that it never became law. Worse was to follow. His Bill was replaced in 1990 by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act which made 24 weeks the upper time limit for abortions – except for disabled babies, who could now be aborted up to birth. This was a disastrous outcome.
Naturally enough, ever since then pro-life groups have been cautious in supporting attempts to restrict abortion and in giving support to initiatives such as Nadine Dorries’s one.
Although supporting the Alton Bill at the time, I have subsequently come to see that it was fundamentally flawed; not only did it create the impression among the wider, ignorant public that before 18 weeks it would be acceptable to perform abortions, but it also made a deadly deal by agreeing for tactical reasons that certain hard case categories – the most vulnerable babies, actually – could be excluded.
What opened my eyes – and changed my views instantly and for good – was reading a book examining the whole ethical question behind Alton’s Bill: Changing Unjust Laws Justly: Pro-Life Solidarity with the ‘Last and the Least’ by Colin Harte, published by the Catholic University Press of America in 2005. I do urge everyone concerned with the abortion debate to read it. Without rehearsing here all of Harte’s carefully researched and very persuasive arguments, his main thesis is simple: Christians cannot support intrinsically unjust laws; and laws that aim to restrict abortion are always going to be unjust towards the most vulnerable members of society, the disabled.
Jesus’s remark, “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to Me”, comes to mind; indeed, Harte quotes it in order to underpin his argument. As he says, we would never endorse laws that advocate killing “some” Jews or “some” black people – yet the Alton Bill (and Dorries’s later one) agreed that “some” unborn babies must die.
I admit to a personal stake in this debate; I have a daughter with Down’s syndrome, a detectable condition, who was born in 1990, the very year that an Act of Parliament allowed babies such as her to be aborted up to birth. This legislation hasn’t changed. Fr James Morrow, who died not long ago, was mocked for his (supposedly extreme) pro-life position: that Christians must simply go for broke and fight to end legal abortion, not make tactical adjustments to save some babies at the expense of others. Before reading Harte’s book I thought Fr Morrow was an embarrassment; an extremist. Now I agree with him.
Supporting amendments to the current legislation, such as giving women full information about abortion so that their “consent” is informed, is not the same as endorsing an intrinsically unjust law. But having been badly burnt by the debacle following the Alton Bill, the churches and the Catholic laity have come to dread the fire. Is this the reason behind the “pathetic” response to Dorries?