And yet if ever there was a need for rational argument, then now is the time

Abortion is back in the news, thanks to the Field/Dorries amendment which was debated this afternoon. The amendment itself is now so well known and so much discussed that I do not need to give a link to it. Just search anywhere and the details will pop up: it is all over the internet and Twitter, and the television too, for that matter.

We live in a pluralist society and thus debate is to be welcomed – or so the usual narrative goes: everything is up for discussion, right? Well, perhaps not. Try discussing abortion, and look what might happen to you. The Catholic blogger Caroline Farrow is a case in point. She has been subjected to unrelenting abuse (as she details here) simply for sticking up for Church teaching. Two verses from today’s Gospel (Luke 6: 22-23) apply to her and all those other pro-lifers who argue the case for the unborn:

Happy are you when people hate you, drive you out, abuse you, denounce your name as criminal, on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice when that day comes and dance for joy, for then your reward will be great in heaven. This was the way their ancestors treated the prophets.

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But spiritual matters aside, this absence of civility in this matter should concern everyone. How can a democracy flourish in such circumstances?

The absence of civility also means that it is pretty pointless trying to make reasoned arguments on this matter when no one wants to listen – or, rather, some may want to listen, but others are making so much unruly noise, that anyone who wants to listen cannot.

And yet if ever there was a need for rational argument, then now is the time. There are a lot of unexamined concepts out there which need to be scrutinised.

First of all, a woman’s right to choose. This phrase is deeply misleading. Women, and men too, are subject to compulsion by the law of the land in a variety of ways: they have to pay taxes, keep speed limits and things like that. In the medical field they too are not free agents: personal choice has never been the absolute arbiter in medical matters. You cannot amputate your leg simply because that is what you choose to do. You can be put in hospital when you do not choose to go there.

Again, the idea that a woman has a free choice is also misleading in another way: her choice will be conditioned by the people around her. In the present atmosphere the decision to carry on a difficult pregnancy will very much go against the grain. I have met women who have aborted, and they all spoke of the way the people around them brought pressure to bear on them. And I have spoken to women who have not aborted and who have braved the bullying of the medical profession, which viewed their decision to carry on with the pregnancy with outrage. A woman’s right to choose suggests that there is a fine balance and that a woman’s choice is what tips the balance. Not so: there is an overwhelming pressure on women today to abort. And it is a brave woman who goes against that pressure.

Yet again, surely the idea of choice must be seen in the context of that choice? We all live with other people, and Sir Isaiah Berlin was surely right to point out that there is no social life without cost.

Second, does being opposed to abortion make you a religious fundamentalist? Some pro-lifers are, perhaps, but even fundamentalists have the right to make their views heard, though they need to present rational arguments for the views they hold, drawing on a rationality that all can share.

An appeal to a shared rationality has long been the approach of the Catholic Church, which is professedly anti-fundamentalist, and which couches its opposition to abortion in terms of human rights and the rights in particular of the unborn child. Rights talk is a relatively new arrival in philosophy, and I myself am not altogether convinced by it. I agree, of course, that abortion is an offence against justice; there can be no doubt about that. But more than that, I see abortion as an offence against charity.

In all the acres of print about abortion I would recommend one single article, which is quite brilliant in getting to the point, even if it is written by someone who hardly endorses Catholic teaching. This is A Defense of Abortion by Judith Jarvis Thomson, dating back to 1971. You can read the full thing here or a summary here.

What to my mind Thomson shows is that when it comes to strictly understood justice, one will find it difficult to compel someone to come to the aid of a person in distress: what law can you make that lays down one’s duty to another? The point is that law (and with it the concepts of coercion and compulsion) cannot cover every case. But charity can. You go through with the difficult pregnancy because you feel the call of love – love for the child within you. It is not duty, but charity. Aborting a child is certainly unjust, but more than that, it is uncharitable.

For this insight I am indebted to Thomson’s discussion of the parable of the Good Samaritan. She concludes that law can force us to be “minimally decent Samaritans”, but not “splendid Samaritans” like the one in the parable. He did not have to stop; he certainly did not have to shell out two denarii for the man fallen among thieves, who was a stranger to him; he most certainly did not have to promise the innkeeper to make good any further expenses, in effect signing a blank cheque. These were the actions of a Splendid Samaritan, way beyond the call of duty.

And this is the question the parable leaves us with: do we want to live in a society dominated by minimally decent Samaritanism, where we will do for others the bare minimum laid down by law, or do we want to be generous, go the extra mile, and do for others, even people we might not know, everything we possibly can? And know, too, that perhaps they will do the same for us?

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