Saturday 26 November 2011

My letter in this weekend's Tablet rebutting Clifford Longley's 'pro-choice' position

The 19 November edition of The Tablet (the de facto house journal of British Catholic dissent) contains a column-piece on abortion by Clifford Longley (pictured), the broadcaster (who inter alia assists Catholic Voices, co-run by former Tablet deputy editor Austen Ivereigh). My published letter responding to Mr Longley is immediately below, and below that is (for the sake of completeness) Mr Longley's column-piece. Tabula delenda est.

The Tablet, Letters, 26 November 2011
Catholic MPs must oppose abortion

Clifford Longley’s tendentious reasoning (“The argument that criminal law must mirror moral law is surely not tenable”, 19 November) supporting Catholic MPs embracing a “pro-choice” position does him little credit.

At the heart of Longley’s account is his flawed notion of the relationship between democracy and abortion. In Evangelium Vitae (nn. 69-73), Blessed Pope John Paul II makes it clear that democratic systems cannot operate without moral foundations. He critically refers to the “commonly held” view that “the legal system of any society should limit itself to taking account of and accepting the convictions of the majority”. This “commonly held” view is and always has been rejected by the Church. “Democracy cannot be idolised to the point of making it a substitute for morality or a panacea for immorality,” says Evangelium Vitae.

The fundamental values of society – in the case of abortion, the fundamental right of an innocent person to be protected from intentional killing – are not provisional and changeable “majority opinions”, says Blessed Pope John Paul II. Democracy can only flourish when fundamental human values are protected in law. Catholic MPs, and all MPs of goodwill, have a conscientious duty to protect fundamental human values.

Evangelium Vitae (n. 73) encapsulates the matter, where MPs are concerned, in these terms: “In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it or to ‘take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law, or vote for it’.”

John Smeaton
National director, Society for the Protection of
Unborn Children, London SE11
The Tablet, "The argument that criminal law must mirror moral law is surely not tenable", Clifford Longley, 19 November 2011
Is it plausible for a Catholic MP to be “pro-choice”? The issue is raised once more by the case of Jon Cruddas, Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham and a practising Catholic, who has incurred church disapproval for saying that he thinks abortion should be – to quote President Bill Clinton – “safe, legal and rare”.

Cruddas has also said he is happy with the law as it stands in Britain, which is not quite a standard pro-choice position because of the 24-week time limit and because two doctors have to confirm that the statutory criteria have been met. But Cruddas’ views were nonetheless described by a spokesman from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales as “significantly at variance with the Church’s position”.

That position is set forth in general in the 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, that “direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder”. It therefore follows, it goes on to argue, that the law must protect all unborn human life, from the moment of conception, from deliberate harm. It would not surprise me if a Catholic MP held the first of these two points, yet hesitated about the second. Indeed the first of these two positions is probably not far from what most people feel.

Even Ann Furedi, director of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and therefore a major lobbyist on the pro-choice side of the argument, has said abortion is “always a personal tragedy”. She and many like her, however, would say it is sometimes the lesser of two evils. I have heard her liken a woman who seeks an abortion to a hunted animal caught
in a trap, which gnaws off its own foot in terror in order to escape.

The argument that the criminal law must in all respects mirror the moral law – and specifically the moral law as interpreted by the Catholic Church – is surely not tenable. Almost nobody thinks adultery, for instance, should be a crime. And while it is characteristic of the Catholic way of thinking about morality to say that ends can never justify means, there are instances where the “lesser of two evils” – killing an enemy in war, for instance – is regarded as acceptable.

Nor can we ignore the political reality. The present UK abortion law is supported by a large majority of public opinion and a large majority of MPs. The absolutist position – that every abortion from the moment of conception onwards should be punished as a crime – has minimal support. As far as I am aware, no attempt has ever been made in the House of Commons to repeal the Abortion Act, and the probability of such an attempt succeeding is zero.

Were such a law by some undemocratic means ever to be passed, with public opinion in its present state, the difficulties would be insuperable. Would juries ever convict anyone under a law they so strongly disagreed with? Would
judges, similarly ill-disposed, ever pass deterrent sentences? If not, where would be the law’s protection of the unborn? And what would this do for respect for the law, not to mention democracy?

This picture presents real dilemmas for a conscientious Catholic MP. He or she cannot simply advocate repeal of the Abortion Act without saying what should be put in its place. Repealing it would simply make all abortion legal. Yet the only option the Catholic Church would approve of on the basis of its teaching cited above, complete criminalisation, is in practice unrealistic. Are any Catholic MPs who would not support complete criminalisation for such reasons as these, therefore, to be deemed “pro-choice”?

This is the heart of the problem. Anything less than complete criminalisation would involve someone having to decide which abortions to allow and which to prohibit. The “choice” of the pregnant woman would necessarily figure in that decision. MPs in this situation would naturally prefer them to be as few as possible – or “rare”, to use one of Mr Cruddas’ terms. They would be bound to prefer them to be “safe”, to use another, rather than unsafe; and “legal”, to use the third, rather than illegal.

Would it not be reasonable for Catholic MPs to want to take into account the damage to respect for democracy and the rule of law that would follow if the criminalisation of all abortion had somehow been forced through Parliament in defiance of public opinion? Is that course of action really “the Church’s position” with which Mr Cruddas is said to be “significantly at variance”? Catholic MPs are not the only ones with a moral dilemma – it seems the bishops face one too.
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