Proposals to lower the upper limit for abortion are not pro-life

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By John Smeaton

Legislative proposals to lower the upper limit for abortion in Britain, backed by the Catholic bishops of England and Wales, are not pro-life and the bishops’ support for them is based on a misrepresentation of Evangelium Vitae — “the Gospel of Life” — Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on the value and inviolability of human life. There are two legislative proposals to lower the upper limit for abortion currently before the British Parliament. Neither of them is pro-life. Both of them expressly support the killing of unborn children up to a certain number of weeks and, in the case of disabled babies, up to birth; and both of them are backed by the Catholic bishops, who justify their position with an erroneous presentation of Catholic teaching in which they omit a key section of Evangelium Vitae.

The first proposal would replace “twenty-fourth” week with “twenty-second” week in section 1(1) (a) of the Abortion Act 1967, so that Members of Parliament are being asked to vote for abortion to be carried out where “two registered medical practitioners are of the opinion, formed in good faith … that the pregnancy has not exceeded its twenty-second week and that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family”. Under this section, virtual abortion on demand has been rendered lawful in Britain.

With the second proposal, Members of Parliament are being invited to vote for abortion up to birth for disabled babies — including babies with Down syndrome when Down syndrome is not the sole reason that the unborn child might be disabled. So quite apart from expressly permitting abortions up to birth of any disabled baby who does not have Down syndrome, MPs will also be voting for babies with Down syndrome to be killed if they have the misfortune of having congenital heart disease or one of a number of other conditions commonly associated with Down syndrome.

The amended law would allow unborn children to be aborted throughout pregnancy where two registered medical practitioners are of the opinion, formed in good faith “that there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped provided that, where that risk arises from a foetus having Down syndrome, and the foetus having Down syndrome is the sole reason why that risk arises, the pregnancy has not exceeded the gestational limit identified in sub-subsection (a).” (Emphasis added)

The Catholic bishops of England and Wales call on Catholics to contact their MP in support of both of these proposed legislative amendments. 

The bishops justify their advice to Catholics by selectively quoting from Evangelium Vitae (No 73), which states: “… when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.”

However, the bishops omit a key sentence from the immediately preceding paragraph in the encyclical, in which Pope John Paul II cites the Declaration on Procured Abortion, published in November 1974 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,

“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.” (Emphasis added) 

The meaning of this statement is 100% clear. “Never” means never. According to Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, the principle (or law) of non-contradiction is the firmest. Aristotle says that without the principle of non-contradiction, it is not possible to affirm that we know anything. On the basis of the principle of non-contradiction, therefore, it is not possible for this statement to mean both that one cannot vote for an unjust law and, at the same time, that one can vote for an unjust law — on the basis of one’s motives in doing so or for any other reason. 

There is a crucial moral difference between, on the one hand, limiting, in an ethical way, the harm of pro-abortion legislation, such as we saw in the triumphant pro-life campaign to overturn the Roe v Wade decision; and, on the other hand, campaigning for politicians to vote for abortion in the case of rape, or in the case of disability, or in the case of a baby being below a certain number of weeks’ gestation. We will never defeat abortion by campaigning for politicians to vote for abortion in particular circumstances. Once legislators accept that “it’s OK” directly to kill an innocent child in the womb, the defence against killing any unborn child is torn away.

I have no doubt that the bishops’ advice for Catholics has been produced with the aim of mitigating the effects of a bad law. Indeed, many of us, including myself in the past, have justified campaigning for legislation permitting abortion in various circumstances on such grounds. And the Catholic bishops of England and Wales are not alone in taking this approach at the present time. Various pro-life groups in many parts of the world are speaking and writing in similar terms.

But this approach to amending abortion legislation on the part of pro-life groups and Catholic bishops needs to end if we are ever to end the ever-growing holocaust of unborn children.

Imagine it was lawful in our countries to kill people over the age of 70. Imagine a member of your parliament, in an effort to save lives, put forward legislation to amend the law so that only those over 75 instead could be killed. It would clearly be wrong to vote or campaign for such a proposal, however many lives, allegedly, such a law would save. Moral absolutes are all that really protect society’s weakest and most vulnerable human beings. Adopting a utilitarian or gradualist approach to intrinsically evil acts is never ethically justified.

Even if our intention is to save as many lives as possible, we can never be complicit in the sacrifice of even one innocent life. This is the Caiaphas Principle, named after the Jewish high priest who condemned Jesus to death (Mt 26: 57–66) and argued for the sacrifice of one innocent life to save many lives (Jn 11:49–52). We can never hope to convince the world that abortion is wrong by trading the lives of the weakest, least valued or most despised for a greater number of older, healthier children. In fact, it is the most vulnerable babies who are in most need of our protection, starting from the moment of conception.

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