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People are so rude in the abortion debate that it’s almost pointless trying to argue

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

By on Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Nadine Dorries speaking in the Commons earlier today (PA photo)

Nadine Dorries speaking in the Commons earlier today (PA photo)

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.

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?

  • Anonymous


  • Stephen

    Whilst I doubt you and I would agree on abortion per se, I do agree that debate is now almost impossible. When I put my own toes somewhat diffidently in this water, I soon discovered how hard it’s become to talk about these issues without hopeless and unhelpful polarisation. This does, however, apply to both sides, it has to be said.

  • Bart

    Is Nadine Dorries really the one to supply the rational argument?

  • Cathy

    I’d agree, with your interpretation of Thomson. Carrying through the difficult pregnancy IS magnificent Samaritanism. Even saintly. As Christians we are called to be saints.

    But are we called to legally enforce saintliness? Lack of law against private drunkeness, gluttony, adultery, vanity, greed, self-centredness suggests not. Thus we end up back at the discussion as before, what is the “bare minimum”. And yes, lack of civility makes that discussion extremely difficult.

  • Anonymous

    Appeals to the sanctity of  life have little or no force in a secular  culture.

  • ms catholic state

    We are legally called to protect the lives of the most vulnerable and smallest citizens!  Just as your life is legally protected.

  • ms catholic state

    Correction….I mean as Catholics we are called to legally protect the lives of the most vulnerable and smallest citizens!  Just as your life is legally protected.

  • Anonymous

    I voted for the Tories in the last election based on their track record for voting (generally) in favour of pro-life issues. I will assume that this fiasco is the shape of things to come. After this spineless back down this will be last time they will see my vote.

  • ms catholic state

    That’s why we must broaden the argument to the detrimental consequences of abortion not only the unborn child and his or her mother…..but on the wider social demographic and economic consequences of legalised abortion.  All arguments against abortion must be fully developed and used.

  • ms catholic state

    I think it is best to go by individual politician.  If a politician is pro-life then we can vote for them irrespective of which party they belong to…..since all major parties are now pro-abortion (I think!).  But pro-life politicians can work cross party for the good of the unborn child.  As happened in this case.

  • guest

    I find this a tricky issue- most Labour politicians in my city are Catholic, and say they are pro-life as they rely heavily on the Catholic vote; indeed in the past the Labour/Conservative choice was a classless issue here; it went along sectarian lines.  Although these individual Catholic MPs will vote along pro-life lines in a free vote, the policies of their party in Westminster have been resolutely anti-family and anti-life, and pro-choicers are in a majority.  I have voted for Christian parties in the past, but they always lose their deposit.  Maybe the answer is for more pro-life voters to make their voices heard to whoever is representing them; write and e-mail your views.  Pro-choice MPs assume everyone agrees with them.

  • Anonymous

    Today’s debate was filled with Doctors accusing Nadine Dorries of lying about the medical evidence for mental illness after abortion; of lying about the embryology [the Dawn Primarola/Harriet Harman/Evan Harris utterly unscientific, mendacious and ideologically fascist stitch up  during the abortion limit reduction debate] and the very nature of the amendment preventing women from being given accurate facts about abortion.

    The bitter irony – Pro-abortion activists and politicians vehemently refuse to address the embryological evidence of foetal development, early cognitive function etc…yet it’s the pro-Lifers who are accused of the deception!

  • SOSJ

    It seems to me that anything that interferes with the pursuit of pleasure, or self indulgence in any form, is to be opposed by those who run our western society today. Everything from loose monetary policy to fuel the “I want it now” mentality, the tolerance (and often) encouragement of all variations of sexual indulgence to abortion on demand is the result of this policy. We are already suffering the effects of easy money – when will the public wake up to the inevitable outcome of the other aberrations? As Christians we cannot abandon hope but in the meantime it looks very likely that we will suffer a great deal of abuse or worse from the hedonists in the meanwhile.

  • SOSJ

    Apologies for wrong punctuation and repetition.

  • Tim

    You bear out his thesis, don’t you?  “He who is not against us is with us”.  Your figures aren’t right, incidentally – live births in England and Wales were 723165 in 2010, compared with 196,109 abortions.  That is an appalling figure, and doesn’t need any exaggeration.  If you make arguments like this based on false figures, you discredit the cause you are trying to promote

  • Honeybadger

    We must never, EVER give up our fight for the rights of the fragile and vulnerable in society – the unborn child and the elderly.

    We must always be around to give them a voice and continue to grate on the nerves and consciences of those who conveniently change the name of the baby in the womb to ‘it’ or ‘blob’ to dehumanise and justify that precious life’s needless destruction.

    Pope Benedict XVI laments the loss of potential, talents, gifts and valuable contributions to humanity through abortion. We, as Roman Catholics, ought to feel the same acute pain about this and channel our just anger to stop this wanton murder. Has anyone ever stopped to think about those things? No, because one solution to a ‘problem’ is all you need according to the likes of Marie Stopes and Planned Parenthood.

    Abortion even affects the fathers of those children, too, for a long, long time. One prominent lawyer wrote movingly about this in my local paper this week.

    Please, mothers-to-be! Think OUTSIDE your invisible box. It could save lives.

  • Anonymous

    It is never pointless arguing for those who have no voice. It is our duty.

  • Dawn_young

    I had to laugh when I heard a radio presenter on LBC comment that christian pregnancy centers lied to women because they said the feotus was ‘alive’. I guess as an expectant mother I am deluded to thinging that all the feotal movement that I am feeling suggests a living being. I’m not sure Dawkins should worry much about christians being anti-science. Pro-aborts have form. (in all honesty I do give the presenter the benefit of the doubt that that was not what he meant to say but it was a bit of a freudian slip.)

  • Anonymous

    If you want civility, begin by practicing it. Make sure the pictures of bloody fetuses are absent from your demonstrations. Stop the screaming. Denounce the murder of doctors.

  • phoo

    Abortion became legal when it became pragmatic for certain socio-politcal vested interests.  These interests usually don’t get clearly defined by pro-life activists, but it is against THEM that they are really fighting, not against the poor women who are getting the abortions for distorted reasons.  The women are the fall guy in this crime.  Who benefits from the legalization of abortion, which interests?  When they STOP benefiting, abortion will be useless, and no longer need be legal, or pressured for. Very simple.  That will happen when the DNA people get the synthetic child creation process down to workable proportions. There will be no need to give birth, or abort.  Just plain obvious.  So, who profits from abortion as a state policy?

  • Anonymous

    @weezermeow”If you want civility, begin by practicing it. Make sure the pictures of bloody fetuses are absent from your demonstrations”

    I haven’t encountered screaming pro-life demonstrators, but I would like to ask you a question:
    Do  you apply the same standards to animal rights protesters?

  • Anonymous

    Tim it’s your statistics which are in error 196,109 surgical abortions [42% medical] doesn’t iclude the estimated 300,000 chemically induced abortions [abortifacients + tertiary extrapolation of the contraceptive pill and iuds] , the 250,000 estimated ‘natural’ miscarriages , the 250,000 embryos produced in IVF procedures to provide c.14,000 live births [est due to private clinics' confidentiality but at least 12,500] and that already exceeds the live birth figures before we even consider the amount of embryos created for the experimentation industry…

  • Stephen

    The difficulty here is that neither side in this debate is really interested in evidence at all. With respect, the Roman Catholic Church argues from a position of non-negotiable principle. That is, in my view, an honourable position albeit that it’s not one I share. But evidence from embryology or anywhere else is irrelevant to the argument, and it’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise.

    The pro-abortion lobby is too often also not interested in evidence: rather they likewise take a position of principle which is that the argument is nothing to do with science, but to do with women’s rights. Those of us who want to establish a position on abortion which starts from foetal developmental and which appeals to evidence to help us determine when a foetus moves from a cellular clump with no sensible (sic) actual human existence (as opposed to potential) to an organism that has proto-human reality, and to base law on that point, and be prepared to change the law as our understanding changes and improves, find ourselves equally abused by both sides.

    We do not live in a theocracy, and those of us with faith have to accept that secular law cannot be based on the devout views of a minority of the society. What we do have the right to expect, however, is that our views should be respected in the public square.

    Fr Lucie-Smith is right to identify civility as the key to unlocking this. There’s no sign whatever of anyone heeding his advice, I fear.

  • Parasum

    “The difficulty here is that neither side in this debate is really interested in evidence at all. With respect, the Roman Catholic Church argues from a position of non-negotiable principle.”
    Then arguments of a kind that can carry weight with those who reject the Christian world-view need to be made instead – arguments based on evidence that a materialist can admit, say. The metaphysical & theological arguments could then be brought on to support the first set of arguments.
    That would allow a reasoned discussion, on equal terms, using arguments & evidence that are admitted by all.  

  • Stephen

    Indeed it would. But this requires more charity on both sides than seems evident at the moment. Those of us who have faith must first admit that we do not have a monopoly on searching for the truth, or for efforts to live a “good life”. Of course we have a specific basis for what we believe constitutes a good life, but we do not have any right to demand that others accept it. And there’s rather a good model for us to follow: “He came unto his own, but his own received him not.” Men and women will always have that choice.

    But we are here talking about Caesar, not God. We are talking about the laws that will govern us all. That requires a constructive engagement with the world, not a retreat into absolutism.

  • C A Geldart

    Succinctly put and true