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Pro-lifers cannot win the debate by bargaining over the lives of the unborn

Gaining some lives at the cost of others is to surrender the principle that every life is of equal value

By on Monday, 3 September 2012

Nellie Gray, founder of the March for Life. Her motto was 'no exceptions, no compromises' (Photo: CNS)

Nellie Gray, founder of the March for Life. Her motto was 'no exceptions, no compromises' (Photo: CNS)

Nellie Gray, founder of the largest pro-life event in the US, the annual Washington March for Life, died on August 14, aged 88. Although I knew about the March for Life I confess that I had never heard of her. A friend kindly sent me the link for an interview Nellie gave to Mother Angelica of EWTN in 1994 and so I have now learnt something of this indomitable woman, described after her death as a “Joan of Arc” figure in the pro-life movement. Fr Frank Pavone, founder of Priests for Life, credits his own priestly and pro-life vocation to joining the March for Life as a teenager. He relates that “she was a tireless warrior for the unborn and her motto was no exceptions, no compromises”.

Nellie Gray’s motto made me sit up and pay attention. What she meant was that she would have absolutely no truck with “strategies” to save the lives of some preborn babies – but at the expense of other babies’ lives. To do a “trade off” that would grant exceptions, such as women whose babies were handicapped or who were pregnant as the result of rape or incest, was, in her view, to surrender the principle that every preborn baby had a right to life and to collude with wrong-doing. In her interview with Mother Angelica she emphasised that “you cannot do evil that good may come”.

In that interview Nellie said she had been present as a young serving officer at the Nuremburg trials. As she said, “crimes against humanity” had been committed and the US served judgment on the Germans. What appalled her was that this same America was now committing a wholesale crime against the humanity of the unborn. She pointed out that the incremental approach, where some abortions were conceded by pro-life strategists in the hope that this figure would gradually be reduced, had been proved a failed policy; once you accept that “it’s all right to kill some babies” you have lost your case, in law and in morality.

The interview between Nellie Gray and Mother Angelica confirmed my own standpoint on abortion law reform: that to bargain for some lives at the cost of others – and the latter are always the most vulnerable babies – is to surrender the principle that every life is of equal value; and judging from the history of the pro-life movement it doesn’t work. I was converted to this standpoint by reviewing Colin Harte’s book, Changing Unjust Laws Justly. Colin, who had supported David Alton’s proposed upper limit Bill of 1988, had himself been converted after meeting Alison Davis, who was then running the disabled branch of SPUC. Alison, who has spina bifida, is a fiercely eloquent reproach to those who would concede a disability exception clause in the drafting of pro-life bills.

Another convert to the recognition that “gestational laws”, as they are sometimes referred to, do not work in principle or in practice is John Smeaton, director of the SPUC. In an interview with Angela O’Brien on LifeSite News in July this year, he courageously admitted that he had been wrong in the past to support an upper limit bill. “After the upper limit of 24 weeks was instated [in 1990], the number of late abortions actually increased because the majority of politicians had voted to introduce new and broad exceptions to the abortion law,” he said. He has changed his mind in the face of strong opposition from other pro-lifer groups, and echoes Nellie Gray’s own words: “You cannot vote for intrinsically unjust legislation and you cannot campaign for it.”

I recently blogged about the late Dr Jerome Lejeune, the world-famous geneticist who discovered the extra chromosome that causes Down’s syndrome. He was devastated when he realised that his discovery was being used, not to find a cure for the syndrome, but to abort these babies. “If I do not protect them I am nothing,” he told his family. What would his response have been to the strategic approach that allows for upper limits and exception clauses?

My own position has recently been described on Twitter as “stupid”, “naive”, “misguided” and “untenable” by those who stubbornly cling to the mistaken belief that they will win this debate by bargaining over human lives. Nellie Gray was adamant that such a policy could not work; so is John Smeaton. More and more people are coming to accept this position; as James Hanink wrote in his essay Abortion, Prudence and Solidarity: “If a ‘reform’ proposal excludes some human beings from protection, it is intrinsically unjust and attacks the law’s very foundation. A law that excludes the disabled from protection is such a law.”

Some readers of my blog will know I have a daughter who has Down’s syndrome: is it stupid, naive, misguided and untenable for me to want justice for her: the right to life in law?

  • http://cumlazaro.blogspot.com/ Lazarus

    Read what I said. If you really think abortion is an evil, you should be campaigning to encourage women with unplanned pregnancies not to abort: if you don’t trust Catholics, you should be doing it off your own bat. (And you should be offering alternatives that are designed really to address the issue of mass abortion rather than (such as contraception) ones that are designed simply to be unacceptable to religious groups. Contraception, at best, simply reduces abortions slightly as evidenced by the continuation of mass abortion in the Netherlands.)

    On trust, do stop playing the rhetoric of the high moral ground! It’s not as if you just happen to have an objective interest in the issue of abortion and have strayed onto a Catholic site. Your commenting and blogging activity is pretty much centred on anti-Catholicism -certainly anti-theism- and your attitude to abortion is part of that package. (And I’m quite happy to admit that analogous things could be said about me.) Please don’t pretend to be suddenly shocked by Paul, and I won’t pretend to be suddenly shocked by Dawkins.

  • http://cumlazaro.blogspot.com/ Lazarus

    Yes, it does. But I’m not sure how much it matters. I’d take Finnis’ line (at least as far as I can understand it from the account in Hanink’s paper -and thank you, Paul, for posting a link to that paper: it’s indeed well worth reading) that a legislator’s vote for a law is not a simple endorsement of the proposition, ‘This law is morally correct’. (This is particularly the case if, eg, a legislator makes explicit that she is supporting the law precisely as a rescue attempt and not because she thinks it morally correct.)

    So there is a distinction to be drawn between the morality of a law, and the morality of the act of voting for a law.

  • Just_a_simpleton

    To say it matters if the law is unjust means that one cannot vote for a law that is unjust.

    To say that it doesn’t matter if the law is unjust means that one can vote for a law that is unjust (if there are sufficiently good reasons for doing so).

    When you say you’re “not sure how much it matters” if the law is unjust, you are allowing yourself wiggle room to vote for an incremental law that is unjust.  You cannot at the same time assert “yes” it does matter if the law is unjust, because you have effectively indicated that it doesn’t matter.

    I read the debate between John Finnis and Colin Harte in the Linacre Centre book “Cooperation, Complicity and Conscience”, and Harte puts a lot of emphasis on whether the particular legislative proposal is just or unjust. The fact that Finnis couldn’t answer his point adequately was evident from his rattled and rather ungracious response.

    Your lack of clarity in response to my question about whether it matters whether the law is unjust reminds me of the lack of clarity in Finnis’s response to Harte.

  • http://cumlazaro.blogspot.com/ Lazarus

    You have the advantage of me in possessing the full debate! So you’ll have to read the following as my putting what I take to be Finnis’ position -or at least, what I would argue in Finnis’ position.

    To say it matters if the law is unjust means that one cannot vote for a law that is unjust. 

    I don’t think that follows. To note that something has some value or disvalue does not entail that (in this case) disvalue is so overwhelming that it determines the correct action. Would I prefer the law to be just? Yes. (So it matters.) Am I compelled to vote against an unjust law? (No. My action of voting in favour of an unjust law is not necessarily itself unjust.)

    When you say you’re “not sure how much it matters” if the law is unjust, you are allowing yourself wiggle room  

    Yes, I am. However, it’s a wiggle room that’s been established by principled argument: there is quite clearly a difference in principle between voting for an unjust law and endorsing wholeheartedly an unjust law. So my wiggle room isn’t the result of some shabby overlooking of morality but is precisely the reflection of an important moral distinction between two different actions.

    Your lack of clarity in response to my question about whether it matters whether the law is unjust reminds me of the lack of clarity in Finnis’s response to Harte.i

    I don’t think I’ve been unclear! I would regard it as clearly established by Finnis’ argument that there is a distinction between the actions of endorsing a law as just and voting for a law. Given that, it is permissible at least in some cases to vote for an unjust law.

    So that leaves us essentially with the exercise of prudentia (the virtue of practical reason) by the legislator: how, in this specific situation -of a particular law- should she vote? As I said, I don’t have the original Finnis/Harte debate. But Hanink’s arguments at any rate, whilst suggestive, do not amount to a clear refutation of the claim that, given the likely Parliamentary circumstances in the UK, there may be good reason to support an unjust law in the absence of anything better as a rescue mission for at least some of the unborn. (And rereading the paper, I think he realizes this: eg ‘Might not the Christian legislator, committed to the common good, best show mercy by insisting that restrictive abortion bills do not exclude from protection the least little ones, those who are
    disabled or the victims of a special malice?’ To which I (and Finnis) would reply, indeed he might. But he might also conclude that, given the existing political circumstances, mercy is better displayed in rescue of some rather than in solidarity.)

  • paulpriest

     Complicated isn’t it?

    I’m reading and re-reading ‘co-operation, complicity and conscience’ too – until it all sinks in – so I’m not going to argue on the Harte-Finnis lines in any way except allusion until I’m finished and certain I understand every nuance of it. I get the basics so know I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Harte-ist…a denial/abrogation of solidaritism is the inherent enthymeme throughout the whole of Finnis…even if he doesn’t realise it.

    But backing Harte seems so counter-intuitive.
    Finnis makes it into such an heroic paradigm – a la ‘rescuing kids from a fire or a concentration camp’…

    But we’re looking at all this the wrong way

    We argue life begins at conception – so what’s the ontological/teleological difference between a child before & a child after any arbitrary abortion limit?

    What is the difference in worth & dignity between a normative physically/mentally able child and one who is debilitated in some way?

    Ditto one wrought out of sexual pleasure or one conceived from a nightmare violation.

    Two people are hanging from a cliff on a single rope; one lower than the other – the rope might give way and kill both…
    If the lower cuts the rope to save the life of the upper we consider it a virtuous act of martyrdom.
    But what if the upper cuts the rope and the lower falls to their death?
    Is a pregnant mother analogous to the upper or lower person?
    Is it morally justifiable that the law says the mother is always in the upper position?

    Is any jurisdiction regarding abortion restriction a ‘rescue’ or the re-signing of ‘death warrants’ [albeit potentially fewer] ?

    Is it that if we vote for that reduction law we decree that there are now two distinct types of human being – the killable and the unkillable?

    Supposing you’re a clinician on an intensive care ward?
    Five teenage patients have an incurable brain condition and will each die within a year..
    Another patient is a child days away from death on a heart machine, respirator, dialysis and all manner of chemical procedures – they need a new heart, lungs, liver, pancreas & kidneys…given those by organ transplant the child could live another 80/90 years? They are avaliable if one exercises an expedient demise of the other five patients?

    In another intensive care ward there’s a man with locked in syndrome who is being treated for pneumonia but is rapidly recovering – all his organs are perfectly functioning – which is more than can be said for the five other patients in the ward.. one needs a heart, another lungs..etc etc You get the picture?

    Do numbers matter in making the choice?
    Or is it a choice we can never morally make?

    Have you heard the old ethical dilemma of the explorer who visits a native tribe & is declared an honoured guest at a sacred festival to celebrate the end of a war against a neighbouring tribe and their enslavement – on this day the guest of honour must sacrifice the imprisoned enemy chieftain to the gods and the 99 other prisoners will be released…but if he does not kill the enemy chief all 100 of the prisoners must be executed to placate the gods – angered at the guest’s sacrilege…?

    Numbers again – and the chieftain would die anyway no matter what choice you make – so is it right for the explorer to kill him!??

    Finnis is arguing one is morally obliged to kill that chieftain ; there is an opportunity to rescue 99 – you MUST kill that chieftain..it’s not your fault he’s going to die anyway so it might as well be at your hands because in the process you rescue the 99.

    Harte is saying ‘the Chieftain is a good man, a man innocent of any crime and is only in this situation through circumstance and no fault of his own – I will not kill him – no matter what the price – the price of my soul is too high! This festival custom is evil – and if I participate how many more will die when this tribe move onward and outward to enemy villages and perform the same ritual?

    Finnis is telling everyone “it’s all right to be a Caiaphas” because the lessening of a moral evil is in the number crunching…some injustice is better than total injustice..

    Harte is telling everyone “We must say no” – because we’re all in this together and we sink or swim together – but not one of us will be left behind – at any price – for such a price is always too high – let Heaven and earth perish but let right be done…

    Crassus has made the offer – so do you hand over Spartacus or do you stand up and say “I’m Spartacus”?

    …of course there’s the issue that we’re not the ones getting killed

    But think of it this way:

    Proponents of IVF argue that people who could never have previously existed now walk among us…all it took was making [and destroying] significantly more siblings [whom would have never existed anyway]…isn’t it a price worth paying to bring forth another person into reality?

    So what’s the perspective of that IVF child?
    That they’re a miracle?
    Or that they’re a simple victim of fate in a game of in-vitro-russian roullette – they could just as easily have been the embryo being washed away down the sluice…as happened to all their siblings?
    Do they feel it’s a price worth paying or a price too high?
    What of the corresponding legislation that permitted a society to do this?
    How very different is it from abortion restriction?
    Complicated isn’t it…

    So why does Finnis say the issue is no longer debatable?
    Evangelium Vitae 73.3 according to his definition – is the end of the matter?

  • Just_a_simpleton

    I had assumed that it would be understood that saying that something ‘matters’ (especially in the context of our discussion) meant that it was something of decisive importance.  Harte’s view is that it matters (i.e. is of decisive importance) whether the law is just or unjust.  You have clearly shown by your answer that it doesn’t matter (i.e., is not of decisive importance). 

    You say you “regard it as clearly established by Finnis’ argument that there is a distinction between the actions of endorsing a law as just and voting for a law.”  All you are doing is citing Finnis’ point of view, and there is no indication that you know or can refute the argument against that view. 

    I read the Finnis/Harte debate a while ago and had forgotten a lot of it, but I’ve been reading it again this afternoon and it’s good stuff.  It struck me today that Finnis is ‘absolutist’ in refusing to admit even the possibility that he could be wrong, whereas Harte seems open to the idea that there are still various questions to address.   I think that one reason why this question has Finnis rattled is that if Harte is right it very much undermines Finnis’s ethical theory, especially what he says about intention and side effects.    So there seems to be a lot at stake for Finnis in defending his point of view.