Sermon at Matins on Sunday 25 October

25 October 2009 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence

At the Matins addresses at the beginning of this month I looked at two quasi-medical ethical issues that cause concern, those surrounding the end of life, and the question of contraception. Today I want to examine what is probably the subject that causes the most passion and concern, the issue of abortion.

In this country as is well known the Abortion Act was passed in 1967 following a private members motion in the House of Commons proposed by the then Liberal MP, David Steel. It allowed abortion in certain circumstances; subject to two medical practitioners agreeing in good faith those circumstances were met. What is perhaps less well known is that earlier in the 1960s the Church of England’s Board of Social Responsibility had set up a working party to consider the issue under the chairmanship of Ian Ramsey, at the time Professor of the Philosophy of Religion at Oxford and later to be Bishop of Durham. They had produced a report in 1965 entitled Abortion – an ethical discussion and it still remains in my view one of the best serious examination of the ethical issues raised.

They noted that there were some who sought an abortion because there was a grave risk to the mother’s health, physical or mental; that others did so because of the dangers to themselves and their existing families if a seriously deformed child was born, as was then the case if a mother contracted German measles in the early stages of her pregnancy; that yet others did so when the birth of a child either to an unmarried mother or to a married woman represented a serious social inconvenience. In those latter cases this often either led, in the case of the wealthy to resort to various private clinics that charged huge fees because of the professional risk to the doctors concerned or, in the case of the poor, to resorting to illegal back street abortionists, which in many cases resulted in serious physical consequences for the women concerned and, in some cases, even their death.

That group proposed that a law should be introduced that would permit the termination of a pregnancy if, in good faith, two registered doctors believed ‘that there would be grave risk of the patient’s death or of serious injury to her health or physical or mental well-being.’ They believed that would cover such examples as when a pregnancy occurred following, for example, rape, or when there was a chance of a seriously deformed child being born. They also went on to suggest that each decision should be reported to a Coroner to show the seriousness of the decision.

The 1967 Act passed by Parliament provided for much that, but not the reference to a Coroner. It divided up the categories when a termination would be allowed, speaking of when the risk of pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the pregnant women greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, or a risk to her physical or mental health, or a risk to the mental and physical health of any exiting children, or where there was a substantial risk if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped. The 1967 law that was passed, while not exactly what the Church of England’s report suggested, was not very far removed from their conclusions, although with the important omission of the reference to a Coroner.
A positive consequence of that Act was that death through an abortion became, and is now, very rare as back street abortions have largely ended, but the vast majority of cases of abortion that do now occur do so on the grounds of the threat to the mental well-being of the mother and the existing family, with many doctors believing that the mental stress occasioned by obliging a mother to have a child she does not want is too great, even when, as in a case I heard of the other day, a mother requested an abortion because it conflicted with the skiing holiday she and her husband had booked. I am glad to say that in that case the doctor who told me about it said that subsequently the mother did decide to have the child. But the way the 1967 Act had developed to allow effectively abortion on demand does concern many.

So the argument has raged, and part of the difficulty is that it does often seem that each side inhabits an almost completely different moral universe from the other. The issues are at least four-fold.

First, there are those who say that the sanctity of life is non-negotiable, that sanctity of life applies to a foetus, and therefore abortion is always wrong. On the other hand there are those who assert the right of a woman over her own body is paramount, and that freedom is non-negotiable. It is a real clash of absolutes, perhaps made more difficult by the language that each side uses, one claims that it is ‘pro-life’, the other that it is ‘pro-choice.’ Each claims absolutism for their point of view that by their very choice of language tries to turn the other side into a monster. It does not always make for rational or even thoughtful debate.

Secondly, there are those who say that moral decisions can only be judged by examining the inherent rightness intended by an action, and any action that ends life when it need not be ended is automatically wrong, so they argue from the very nature of the action. Others, though, take what is often described as a consequentialist view of actions, what are the consequences of doing something, or not doing it. And the consequences, they might say, of not doing something can be so serious that it justifies an action that in other circumstances might be considered wrong. They are two very different ways of approaching moral issues.

Thirdly, there is disagreement over when life actually starts. Some say that it starts from the very moment of conception, because what is created is a potential human being from that very beginning and is viewed as such by parents who want a child once they know the mother is pregnant; others argue that it is only when a child has the potential of living independently of the mother, often though not always argued as being after 28 weeks in the womb, that life can be declared to have really started. Again those views represent fundamentally different ways of viewing reality.

And then fourthly there is a problem about the role of the law. How do you formulate law in a democracy when there is real philosophical disagreement on the very bases of the discussion? Lawmakers are in a very difficult position given that fundamental disagreement over values and absolutes.

Now different churches have reacted in different ways. Some years ago the Methodist Church in this country produced a statement that many saw as being sympathetic to the case for abortion. The Roman Catholic Church on the other hand has always maintained, at least in terms of the public statements of the Pope and its Bishops, a rather different line. They have always held to the sanctity of life side on the first of the four divides I described. They have always maintained that any act has to be right in itself, and that the consequences should not be taken into account, a point expressed by Paul VI in Humanae Vitae, when he wrote ‘it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it —in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general.’ So at least in their official stance the Roman Catholic Church is against abortion even after rape, or even to save the life of a mother. They do allow when a mother’s life is at risk that medical intervention that might have the undesired consequence of terminating a pregnancy might be permitted, but they say every effort should be made to save the life of the child as well. And, of course, they have also held, at least recently, that life came into being at conception, and they have argued for the rights of the foetus even from the very earliest stage of gestation.

Now speaking personally I do believe the Catholic position certainly deserves to be taken seriously; it is coherent and logical, but I also have never forgotten what my training incumbent said to me when I was a curate: ‘Life’ he said ‘laughs at logic’. So personally I do believe that some account must be taken of the freedom a woman might wish over her own body; I do believe there is a qualitative difference between a foetus at the very early stages of its development, and what it might be at a later stage, although I certainly recognise that it is very odd if in a hospital you might have in one room a doctor struggling to save the life of a child born after, say, 23 weeks of gestation, while next door there is a doctor terminating the pregnancy of a woman at a very similar stage. Fortunately the vast majority of abortions happen at a far earlier stage than that. But most fundamentally I do not personally believe that you can judge the rightness of an action without reference to its consequences.

So again speaking purely personally I do not agree with the Roman Catholic view, and I am not opposed in principle to the current state of the law, although I would not mind if the upper limit in terms of time was reduced a bit.

But having said that, I do not believe that anyone concerned in any way at all with the sanctity of life can be content at the number of abortions that take place in this country, which  is just under 200,000 a year. But the solution, I believe, does not lie in any change of the law, which Parliament has recently demonstrated is very unlikely to happen, but in better provision of advice and practical help to those who are considering the termination of a pregnancy. A 1993 report by the Church of England’s Board of Social Responsibility I think summarized the situation well.

‘Because matters of life and death are at issue’ they wrote, ‘it is easy for assumptions to be made that those who disagree are either wicked or stupid or cruel. The Church must stand for life and for the celebration of the fact that God loves everyone unconditionally, and not just those who live ordered lives. What the Church can do is provide an arena in which honest disagreement about the implications of that fact can be worked through.’ And it went on to say ‘Insistence on the sanctity of life will not be heard as part of the Good News of Jesus Christ if in practice it is associated with a lack of sensitivity towards women and their medical advisors who face agonizing decisions….A serious commitment to reducing the number of abortions will involve a commitment by Church and Society to the creation of conditions in which women do not want to seek abortions. It is to that task that a major effort by Government, voluntary organizations, and Churches should now be directed.’

That 1993 statement, it seems to me, is properly concerned about the current situation, it is balanced and pastorally sensitive to people in very difficult situations, but it is not unprincipled.

In fact it is what might be described as typically Anglican – and it is none the worse for being that.

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