Lessons from the pro-life scene in Britain
Returning to Toronto after teaching for three years in the University of Aberdeen, in
Scotland, I have been asked to try to interpret the pro-life situation in Britain in hope of
seeing what can be learned from the British experience. I believe that a look at that experience can be helpful since the present situation in Britain is considerably worse than it is in Canada, while we can look forward to a similarly bad situation here if pro-life efforts are not more successful within the next few years.
Although I was ignorant of the local scene when I first went to Aberdeen, I quickly dis-
covered that the city was an informative place from which to observe the pro-life collapse
in the U.K., because it was there that much of the British (and hence European) abortion
industry had originally been built up. Sir Dugald Baird, professor of gynecology at the
University of Aberdeen, a man of great distinction in his field, had given his blessing to
“official” abortions there long before they became legal; he had also trained virtually all
the gynecologists in the region, and used to boast that one of the effects of his work had
been to change the genetic patterns of the North-East.
During the time I was in Aberdeen one of colleagues, the professor of pediatrics, was a key defence witness in the trial of D. Leonard Arthur of Derby, charged but acquitted of
arranging the death by starvation of a new-born mongoloid child. Abortion in Aberdeen
was an option of which schoolgirls readily availed themselves, and which was urged upon married women pregnant for the third time almost as a matter of by their G.P.s.
Anti-abortion meetings, even when “blessed” by the local Catholic bishop, who unlike some of his Episcopal colleagues, was strongly and openly pro-life, could guarantee a turn-out of 20 or so people in a region whose population is about 200,000.
Even by British standards, Aberdeen is an extreme case. The work of Sir Dugald Baird—doubly respected in his day as a great doctor and son of a minister—had been done well. Elsewhere in the U.K., thousands of people, particularly Catholics in Glasgow, Liverpool or London, might turn out for pro-life rallies, and a few doctors, politicians, writers and the occasional bishop or minister might come out publicly in support of such hard-working and dedicated organizations as Life and The Society for the
Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC).
But the failure of the Corrie Bill in the House of Commons a few years ago even to limit by a few weeks the opportunity for fairly late abortions – a pathetically inadequate proposal backed out of desperation by pro-life forces – showed what any interested observer with open eyes can see without difficulty, that abortion has been largely assimilated and institutionalized as a normal feature of official society, and that it is very likely that the termination (killing) of new-born defective children soon become much more widely acceptable.
It would be easy to react to this picture by thinking that the British are morally insensitive, or hypocritical, or irreligious, or effete after the end of Empire, and that their special experience has little relevance to Canada; but such a reaction would not only be dangerous, it would also miss some of the most disturbing aspects of the British attitude to pro-life issues. I propose therefore to consider one particular feature of British life which deserves much more serious thought. Despite callousness about abortion and increasing infanticide, there is still in Britain a strong moral conscience in other areas; organizations working for the poor and needy both at home and abroad are often well-supported and regarded as highly respectable. “Sound” people support Amnesty International, Oxfam, War on Want, Shelter and various self-help schemes to alleviate the lot of the long-term unemployed. Save the Children is prestigious. Why then are pro-life causes weak and unfashionable, too unfashionable sometimes even to gain the active support of clergy seeking status for their respective denominations?
Here are a few reasons:
1) Many people have relations and friends who have had an abortion.
2) It is widely believed that women cannot be treated as equals in society unless abortion is available. Abortion is thus the price of equality.
3) It is widely believed that to deny legal abortion is merely to deny abortion to the poorer and weaker sections of the community. The rich or influential can always get their abortions. This point is most important in influencing union leaders and centre-left politicians (though not necessarily union members.) There is much truth in this belief in the U.K context, as those with experience even of public hospitals before the legalization of abortion can testify.
4) Respected members of all political parties who are not necessarily advocates of abortion often now take it for granted. Conservatism has taken over: the battle over abortion is supposed to be over, like the old battles about slavery or child-labor in the mines.
5) Respected members of society and of the “establishment”, if not pro-abortion, take a similar line to that of many politicians.
6) It is widely believed that anti-abortion legislation is a mark of obscurantist or clergy-ridden societies, like Franco’s Spain, the Islamic world in general, and in particular Khomeini’s Iran.
7) Many of those publicly worried about peace tend to observe that so-called cold warriors (Reagan?) oppose abortion.
8) Pro-lifers are inclined to misinterpret the role of the media; they note that the media frequently link abortion with “liberal” causes. While this is true. It fails to reach the heart of the problem, which is that now it is not just “wishy-washy do-gooders” who want their liberal abortions. Abortion is, for whatever reason, acceptable to large sections of the public right across the political spectrum.
9) Britain is a post-Christian society where even Anglican bishops can be rebuked by the Prime Minister for interfering where they do not belong, for example, for showing public concern for the poor and unemployed.
10) No strong lead against abortion has ever been consistently given by national religious groups; such a lead often seems to be thought unecumenical or contrary to the spirit of the nation. Pro-lifers observed with regret and in some cases considerable disillusionment that during the Pope’s recent highly successful visit, although John Paul II did speak of abortion, his remarks lacked the emphasis he gives them when he speaks (as recently in Austria) in a more friendly climate.
11) Widely distorted views of pro-lifers are almost universal. It is usually assumed (or pretended) that pro-lifers are (a) Roman Catholic whose views are merely dictated by celibate male bishops, or at best fundamental fanatics; (b) Opposed to contraception and liable to equate contraception and abortion. Such an equation seems ridiculous in a society where contraception is virtually universally accepted. Those who make the equation are thus held to be simply absurd, motivated by blind obedience or sheer irrationality; (c) In favor of capital punishment (this argument, of course, is only important to liberals; the man-in-the-street in Britain overwhelmingly supports capital punishment ); (d) Largely middle-aged or elderly (hence mistaken?) enemies of sexual pleasure; (e) Opposed to women’s rights in general; (f) Unwilling to do much to help women who choose against abortion. (Here there is often the additional assumption – very hard to eradicate – that pro-lifers will necessarily condemn a woman, especially if unmarried, who is “loose” enough to get pregnant “unnecessarily” or “promiscuously”, or even “selfishly”; that they will view her pregnancy, even if she chooses against abortion, as some sort of due punishment.)
Perhaps the most alarming result of all this, as I have suggested, is that pro-life causes can be mentally bracketed out, kept apart from other charitable activities, so that the moderately well-educated, socially conscious, charity-supporting Briton is very likely to wish to reduce rape and other forms of sexual abuse, to support schemes for better health-care, better education and more financial help for pensioners, and to be in favour of more aid to the Third World, and more facilities for abortion when required.
What all this amounts to is that in the U.K., it is now widely received truth that those who oppose abortion are motivated largely by an unreasonable wish to interfere in an authoritarian fashion in people’s private lives, hence to try to restrain sexual pleasure among “ordinary” people, and in particular to deny to women a sexual freedom equal to that long possessed by men. Frequent, worry-free sexual intercourse is accepted as a human right which should be available to all.
Because the Roman Catholic Church, with its professional army of presumably sexually-inhibited priests and nuns, is the most visible institutional opponent of abortion, and because prominent Roman Catholics repeatedly link contraception and abortion, it is generally believed that the struggle over abortion is not a struggle about justice, about whether an innocent child should be killed, but it is a struggle against paternalism for the right, particularly the woman’s right, to sexual pleasure. Although pro-lifers sometimes dismiss this attitude as merely another way males have discovered to get more sex, that is, by persuading females that sexual liberation gives the right (or even the duty) of promiscuity, such dismissals are quite unproductive.
What lessons would I suggest Canadians may want to draw from the British experience? The most important is that, after noting that Britain now basically accepts abortion, and will probably soon accept infanticide for the “defective” and experimentation on fetuses, we should recognize that it is important to achieve pro-life success in Canada quickly, before abortion becomes part of the institutionalized consensus. At the present rate of development in Western societies in general, it is likely that unless abortion and infanticide are more or less outlawed within a very few years, we shall have them on a large scale for decades to come at least.
What does this mean in practical terms? I will conclude by urging a few points which I believe are essential if pro-life causes are to be ultimately effective here in Canada.
1.Pro-lifers must never be afraid to speak out, perhaps especially among their own friends – which is often the most difficult demand.
2.Pro-lifers who are not Roman Catholics, especially if they belong to no religious group, must be given every support. Their position is often more difficult in that they have no comfortable community to fall back on. I know; I’ve been one.
3.Politicians and the public must constantly be reminded that abortion and infanticide are questions of justice.
4.Church leaders must be urged to speak out clearly. They should not be allowed to shelter behind the argument that to speak out is to weaken their attempt to secure the blessings and acceptance of secular authorities.
5.Pro-lifers, especially Roman Catholics, should not link abortion with contraception. One is an argument about justice, the other an argument about purity and the nature of sexuality. In particular, we should abandon the thinking which says that since abortion can be used as a back-up for contraception, the two should be condemned in the same breath.
6.Pro-lifers should offer as much support as possible for women, married or single, who choose against an abortion, and such support should be emphasized and, where appropriate, publicized.
7.Certain political groups under the influence of moral principles seem to wish to achieve little more than a pure heart and a self-satisfied conscience. Pro-lifers both lay and clerical, should avoid giving the impression that they are so “pure” on matters of sexual morality that their views on practical problems and dilemmas can be written off as too heavenly to be of any earthly use.
8.Most importantly of all, in view of the British experience, is that pro-lifers must be willing to be heard saying unfashionable things. This is particularly difficult for those prominent in society who constantly move in circles where different sorts of values are accepted; it may damage preferment. As in most struggles for human rights, there are those who have some idea of what is right and who move in a world where their ideas need to be aired, but prefer either not to let them be known, or at least to let their hearers rest assured that, although they personally would not kill the innocent or take part in any unnecessary infliction of pain, they “respect” other people’s right to do so if they so choose. Such are the most likely to allow injustice to prevail and become institutionalized.