Well, Consider my Jaw Dropped.

I know it’s not long since I last posted about the Christian Medical Fellowship’s blog, and I would ordinarily leave it a bit longer… but I’m about to go off on one.  Forgive me.  I’ve had a hard week marking exam scripts, and I’m tired and stressed and cranky, and this is just… well…  Look: I hear that ginger is quite a good anti-emetic.  You might want to go and find some.

You will, of course, be aware of the recent killings in Houla: 108 civilians shot at close range or stabbed in what the UN says may amount to a crime against humanity.  You may also have read about the arrest of Mick and Mairead Philpott, suspected of the murder of their six children in a housefire.  Peter Saunders, on the CMF blog, under the title “There are Few Things More Horrifying than the Slaughter of Innocent Children”, writes that

Every child’s death is a tragedy but there are few things more reprehensible than the killing of children by adults. Children are rightly seen as amongst the most vulnerable and defenceless members of society and deserving of special protection.

It is therefore not surprising that Western governments are acting quickly at the highest level to expel Syrian diplomats and impose sanctions and the police are giving high priority to investigating the Derby fire for which the children’s own parents are now suspects.

Whether or it turns out that the Syrian government was directly involved in the latest atrocities, or whether or not the parents are charged with starting the fire, it is nonetheless deeply ingrained in the human psyche that public authorities have a duty to protect the vulnerable and that the strongest advocates for children should be their own parents.

As I read that, I had a horrible feeling about what was going to come next.  I suspect many people reading this now will have the same feeling.  The same creeping nausea.  He’s used the phrase “slaughter of innocent children”.  He’s not going to say… is he?

Reader, he is.

It is for this reason that I find the relatively low prominence given to the 2011 abortion statistics also published yesterday profoundly bizarre.


There is no one more vulnerable, more innocent and being killed in greater numbers than the unborn child. Each year around the world there are 42 million abortions, against only 57 million deaths from all other causes except abortion.

And in Britain there have already been over 7 million abortions in the 45 years since the Abortion Act was passed in 1967.

It is understandable that people are shocked and outraged by child deaths in Syria and Derby.

But the fact that we can barely raise an eyebrow at abortion in Britain is a chilling testimony to our astounding spiritual blindness and breath-taking hypocrisy.

189,931 unborn children died in England and Wales last year – under their mothers’ instructions, at the hands of doctors and paid for by tax payers’ money. And parliament, police and prosecution service did nothing.

If the Syrian massacre was the ‘deliberate mass killing of children’ who ’were murdered one by one’ then what was this?

It’s hard to know where to start with this.   Let’s pick something nearly randomly.  Let’s start with the “unborn children” bit.  Paragraph 2.12 of the NHS report states that 91% of abortions in 2011 were carried out at less than 10 weeks’ gestation.  There’re plenty of people who’d insist that it’s stretching things to call that an unborn child.  A sub-10-week foetus is not a child in the everyday sense of the word.  A child can do things like breathe.  A sub-10-week foetus may just be developing major internal organs.  It is not a child.  It may be important, and valuable, and human, and all the rest of it; but it’s not a child.

And what about the reasons for the abortion?  Saunders doesn’t pay any attention to that: to the stories of the women who choose to end the pregnancy, or to the women themselves.  Some will be vulnerable; some will be scared.  Some will terminate because of some congenital deformity.  Some might make decisions with which we disagree, but it’s unlikely that they’ll take the decision lightly.  And in respect of those women who make disputable moral judgements – I’ll allow, for the sake of the argument, that there are some: so what?  A woman is, in one sense, a gamete machine attached to an incubation machine; but that’s not the whole story by a long chalk.  That’s just the brute biology part.  She’s more than brute biology.  She’s a person, with a biography as well as a biology.  Saunders seems not to pay any attention to that – which is odd, because it’s the biography part, rather than the biology part, that seems to me to carry the most moral weight.  Doesn’t the biography count for anything?

The thing with functioning internal organs and a biography is not morally the same as the thing with neither.

(Oh, and by the way – 98% of abortions were performed on ground C: that

the pregnancy has not exceeded its twenty-fourth 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 (section 1(1)(a)).)

Saunders thinks that a good number of these abortions might actually be illegal:

[A]s far as I can see no one has yet commented on the fact that 98% of the total are funded by the NHS through tax revenues and also that 98% were carried out on mental health grounds (see section 2.9 of report).

As I have pointed out before, this latter 98% are also technically illegal as there is no evidence that continuing with an unplanned pregnancy poses any greater risk to a mother’s mental health than having an abortion.

Not being a lawyer, I’m not going to argue with his legal analysis.  Someone else can do that.  And not being an psychiatrist, I can’t comment on the mental health risks.  Someone else can do that, too.

What I can do is offer this: suppose the abortions are technically illegal: so what?  It doesn’t follow from that that they’re wrong; and if that is the claim, then they’re easily de-wronged by the expedient of a change in the law.  I don’t think that Saunders would admit that that makes any problem go away – and on that, at least, I agree with him entirely.  What counts morally isn’t whether or not something conforms with the law.  The law tracks morality, not the other way around.  The killings at Houla were not wrong because they possibly violate the laws of war.  The killings in Derby weren’t wrong because of the homicide laws in England and Wales.  In the end, you still have to confront the moral status of the act in its own right, irrespective of the law; and that means taking into account the reasons of the actors – which means, to put it in fluffy terms, their stories and narratives.  Even prima facie wrong actions might turn out to be justifiable in the circumstances.  That is, it might be wrong arbitrarily to end the life of a foetus (and while I’m not sure I’d subscribe to that view easily, it’s not crazy); but even if you think that, you still have to ask whether or not any particular instance of abortion is arbitrary, and what else is going on in the life of the woman.  It doesn’t seem likely to me that many abortions – if any – are abitrary.  There’s a why that makes things (at the very least) complicated, and which might force us to accept certain actions of which, if carried out in isolation (as if any action ever is) we’d be more wary.  There’s more to be said about  at least a good number of abortions.  Saunders doesn’t allow space for that.

It’s unlikely that it’ll be possible to come up with a vaguely coherent why story about Houla that forces us to reassess that.

But let’s put all this to one side.  Let’s allow not only that it would be better if there were fewer abortions – noone, as far as I know, denies that, although it doesn’t entail that those that do happen are wrong, or anyone else’s business – no, let’s allow for the sake of the argument that abortion is a terrible wrong.  Even so, there’s something quite nauseating about Saunders’ post, because what he does is to take reports of two undoubted wrongs, and use them to shoehorn in a complaint about abortion: to take two utterly unrelated stories of great wrong and great suffering, and to bend them into the service of  a particular hobbyhorse.  What happened in Houla and in Derby seem to fit the word “slaughter” perfectly.  A medical procedure, carried out thoughtfully, and in good faith, is not slaughter.  These things do not belong together.

If you want to post about abortion statistics, then do so.  What you say might be right; it might be wrong.  It can be taken on its merits.

But to tie it to the stories of what happened in Houla and Derby, or to any other of the cascade of very real human misery that fills the headlines every day?  It debases what happened at Houla, and what happened in Derby, and the women who have abortions up and down the country.  I don’t think the word “vile” covers it.

  • Cathrynnf

    Unborn children are human. Abortion is murder no matter how you look at it. I am simply amazed that in our culture where our “choice” is treasured that women cannot make choices before they kill their own unborn babies. We know how to not conceive… Make choices at that point.

  • Yes, they are human – but so is a drop of blood from where I cut myself earlier: merely being human doesn’t count for a whole lot, morally speaking. And abortion isn’t murder. Murder is a legal concept, and abortion doesn’t fit in there.
    And, of course, women can make choices. That’s quite important. What makes you think that they can’t?

  • Perhaps what makes Dr Saunders’ post nauseating is the fact that it forces us to confront a very uncomfortable truth.  The starting point of your argument with Dr Saunders revolves around the age at which a foetus becomes an unborn child.  As a society we have rejected both the objective milestones of conception and birth as guidelines to when that change takes place.  Having made that choice, no matter what arguments we use in choosing an acceptable term for abortion, we remain open to the accusation (perhaps the fear?) that we are guilty of “slaughtering unborn children.”  While you find it vile to compare a medical procedure to a massacre, perhaps you can understand that those who believe in the sanctity of unborn life find the medical procedure, the law’s approval of it, and ethicists’ defence of it vile.

  • Maybe, but I’m not sure.
    What struck me about this post in particular was the way that one thing was hitched, fairly gratuitously, to another. That kind of moral ambulance-chasing is what I find particularly infra dig.
    Now, it might be that I’m more likely to pick up on that than are some others because I happen to find Saunders’ views pretty indefensible in their own right… BUT I don’t think that that’s the whole story. I can perfectly well imagine that there’re anti-abortion types who think both that a life is inviolable from the point of conception, and at the same time that using Houla and Derby as a springboard to make the point is somewhat shabby.

  • Peter Saunders

    I’m surprised Iain that you don’t seem to underatnd the difference between a drop of blood and an entire living individual human organism.

    Murder is the intentional killing of an innocent human being.

    Whether abortion is murder depends on whether the fetus is an innocent human being or not.

    I believe that it is and this was actually also the view historically of the BMA and the WMA spelt out unambiguously in the Declaration of Geneva and the Hippocratic Oath.

    In 1947 the BMA called abortion ‘the greatest crime’ so in fact the position I am taking is just that historically held by the BMA.

    There are 42 million abortions worldwide per year mainly performed by doctors – nobody is more innocent, more vulnerable and killed in greater numbers than the unborn baby.

    The fact that this doesn’t trouble most doctors speaks volumes about today’s medical profession.

    It is not the CMF which has moved its position on this issue in the last 60 years.

  • Of course I understand the difference.  The point is simply that being alive and human doesn’t mean an entity has much moral claim.
    In the legal sense of the word, it’s impossible to murder a foetus under English law.  That leaves the moral sense of the word – which amounts to something like wrongful killing – and so we have to ask whether deliberately killing a foetus is murder in that sense.  Well, not all instances of killing the innocent meet that description – there’s all manner of thought experiments we could devise based around the idea of the innocent threat, for example.  If the foetus is an innocent threat, killing it may not be wrong; and if it’s not wrong, then it isn’t murder in the moral sense.
    And that is, of course, before we even think about bringing the mother and her desires into the equation.  Once we take note of her, then it’s quite possible that the threat posed by the foetus is less central.  For some, it mightn’t matter at all whether it’s a threat or not, because fully grown adults with full biographies just trump foetuses.
    What the BMA said 65 years ago is neither here nor there.  Indeed, when we’re talking about the morality of abortion, what the BMA says today is neither here nor there – unless you think that the moral question is settled by adverting to BMA policy.  I don’t think anyone believes that.
    And in what way does the willingness to abort speak volumes about the medical profession?  I mean: couldn’t it speak volumes in the profession’s favour that it doesn’t try to stand in the way of a woman’s sovereignty over her own body?  Or perhaps, even if doctors do think abortion wrong all else being equal, they’re willing to bite the bullet and perform them when they’d likely as not go ahead anyway in a much less safe backstreet clinic?  (It’s quite coherent to dislike abortion but to think it the least-bad option in at least some cases…)