Here is the text of a talk delivered by Sally Muggeridge, International President, The Malcolm Muggeridge Society at the Human Life Review Great Defender of Life Dinner on October 23 at the Union League Club, New York.
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My Uncle, Malcolm Muggeridge has often been described as one of the foremost British writers of the 20th Century. Despite the fact that some of his most enduring and admired work deals with the subject of Faith, Malcolm Muggeridge did not ever regard himself as a theologian. He was to become, however, a man with an unshakable conviction in a living Jesus, a consciousness of a spirit that animated and guided our existence. Life, he asserted, was a gift of God – including that of the unborn child.
I thought it useful, coming from England at this time, to offer you a personal reflection on the present situation on abortion in the United Kingdom.
Most of the politicians in England and Wales who voted for the 1967 Abortion Act did so in the clear belief that they were making provision for extreme and tragic situations:
conception as a result of rape,
foetal or perinatal complications threatening a mother’s life.
The legislation had broad public consent. Almost fifty years on, many of these same politicians would express considerable dismay at what has happened. Indeed David Steel, then a young leader of the Liberal Party and the prime mover of the original bill has expressed deep concerns about the way the Abortion Act currently operates. As some of the issues are reopened in connection with the proposed legislation on embryo research, it is important to think about where this unease comes from and whether it has any lessons for us now.
The 1967 Act started from a strong sense of taking for granted the wrongness of ending an unborn life – that abortion was a profoundly undesirable thing and that the norm should be a universal presumption of care for the foetus from the moment of conception.
But the statistics of some 200,000 abortions a year in England and Wales today do tell their own story. Clinics are not now dealing with a relatively small number of difficult or extreme cases but a growing walk in expectation for Abortion on Demand. One-third of pregnancies in Europe end in abortion and we may well ask what has happened.
There is a growing belief that abortion is essentially a matter of individual decision and not the kind of major moral choice that should involve a sharing of perspective and judgement in a wider social context.
Certain presumptions have changed. Not only has there been an obvious weakening of the feeling that abortion is a last resort, but unfortunately the development of embryo research has brought with it the hint of a more instrumental approach to the human organism in its earliest days.
Meanwhile the understanding of ‘foetal rights’ has strengthened over the last fifty years, leading to a real tension with this growing normalisation of abortion. Foetal rights today have been widely linked directly to the length of the pregnancy – no rights upon conception stretching to full individual human rights at time of birth. Not perhaps altogether a linear progression as in practice considerable foetal rights have been widely granted to an unborn child at the time that the child is considered viable for survival outside of the womb – generally today around 24 weeks and rapidly coming down with the new advances in medical science. Very recently I sat next to a woman whose daughter went into labour at 24 weeks. This lady is now a happy grandmother.
The pregnant woman who chooses to smoke or drink heavily – or take drugs – is today widely regarded as guilty of infringing the rights of her unborn child. Yet at the same time, with no apparent sense of incongruity, there is current development of the automatic right in law of the pregnant woman herself to perform actions that will terminate a pregnancy. More worryingly, there has also been a loosening in England and Wales of the original proposals that two doctors should consent – most usually required to agree that there were mental or physical reasons for an abortion to be carried out. In practice, this decision is increasingly being taken for granted by nurses using pre-signed forms – without the pregnant woman needing to see a doctor at all – the clear intention of the original act has been lost.
The model of competing rights or liberties (the mother’s and the unborn child’s) is not useful in obtaining a coherent moral grasp of the question.
Whether in England and Wales, or here in the US and Canada, we have to accept that in most Western societies there is not a moral or ethical consensus on this issue, even among Christians. I was shocked to be reminded that in Canada abortion has long been legal at any stage for no particular reason and at any stage of pregnancy.
The Abortion Act in England and Wales certainly began with clear, perhaps absolute, principles but there can be no escaping the tough decisions. For those on the front line, situations arise each day where no answer will feel completely right and no option is without cost.
The danger we can appreciate isdrift– with tough ethical decisions once hurting the conscience becoming so familiar and routine that we stop noticing that there was ever any doubt or difficulty. We start with the presumption that abortion is unavoidably the ending of a life, but then discover there are situations where it is the least awful outcome. So we reluctantly conclude that some provision should be made for these situations – and therefore without realising it we have subtly changed our original assumptions about the life of the unborn child.
The history of the 1967 Act’s implementation in England and Wales is certainly an object lesson in how this ‘slippery slope’occurs. We started by thinking compassionately in Parliament about exceptional cases and then progressively lose the sense of a correct normative position.
This cannot be an argument for making unalterable prohibitions in law against abortion in every possible circumstance but it does provide the argument for usto keep our eyes open. Government legislation or Court decisions have unintended consequences. The eroding of something we once took for granted occurs because we do not keep in focus the fundamental convictions about the nature of our shared humanity.
Before I came to the US this week I took a look at the Marie Stopes website – a pro-choice organisation facilitating abortion. What struck me forcefully was the phrase used “remove the pregnancy”. Whatever a woman carried in her womb it was not a pregnancy – it was a human life.
I first came across the Marie Stopes organisation in 1973 when, as a married young woman, I found I was falling asleep in my University library. I arranged to visit for a pregnancy test, my finals looming shortly. With scant preamble I tested positively as pregnant and the woman who gave me the test asked me if I would prefer an abortion. Much to the consternation of the nurse, I was immediately offered an abortion. However, I declared my pleasure at the ensuing pregnancy and escaped swiftly from the organisation’s premises. Had I gone through with this offer, my daughter Ginny, here with me at the dinner tonight, might well have not had an elder sister!
In December last year the UK Government published a consultation with two weeks over Christmas to respond. In broad terms the paper sought to revise the current Abortion Act and to advocate abortion on demand – removing the legal requirement to question a woman’s request for abortion. The changes proposed seek to reflect what is currently taking place in many clinics in England and Wales – with 100,000 women each year already obtaining an abortion without ever seeing a doctor.
Interestingly, here in the US many continue to this day to quote my uncle on the humanity and sanctity of the unborn child, going right to the heart of the matter.
President Reagan in an article for Human Life Review in 1983, on the tenth anniversary of Roe vs Wade quoted Malcolm Muggeridge:
“Either life is always and in all circumstances sacred, or intrinsically of no account; it is inconceivable that it should be in some cases the one, and in some the other”.
And as Malcolm memorably wrote in the Humane Holocaust – published in Human Life Review:
“The Sanctity of life, is of course a religious or transcendental concept. If there is no God, life cannot have sanctity”.
As a Minister in the Anglican Church. I have to say he was right. The life of the unborn child is indeed a gift of God. END