Abortion. The “Pro-Life” and Catholic Case Carefully Examined

I have tried very hard over several years to get a Catholic theologian or member of the hierarchy to address the points made here, or in my shorter paper “Who Suffers?”   I did this by sending bishops and cardinals copies of my shorter paper “Who Suffers” asking them to respond to the actual points made.  So far to my surprise they have politely ducked out and refused to do so or have just ignored my letters and emails.  I find this very sad.  If anyone is prepared to address the main points made here or in “Who Suffers?” I will gladly add them as an appendix to the article – together with my response.Please send your comments as an email to john@nulljohnbaxter.org

  • Before you read more please note that I do respect the right and the example of people to refrain from abortion and to witness and argue against it even if some of the reasons they give seem to me to be seriously flawed. Certainly I do not think abortion should be encouraged or used casually as a method of birth control. That I think can desensitise and have a negative effect on those who do.  Nevertheless I I do not see termination as the moral equivalent of murder, but as a painful moral choice which the law and society should allow a woman to make and that it should be recognised that it may be the best choice for some women to make in some circumstances.

Abortion.  Murder by Another Name?

People feel strongly about abortion.  This is to be expected for the deliberate termination of a pregnancy is clearly an issue of life and death and considering it makes us think hard about our fundamental values.  It is though an issue over which divisions can easily become so deep that opponents find it difficult to see any moral honesty in those they disagree with.

The Current Context.

Prior to the sixties Abortion was illegal in Britain, most European countries and the United States.  Since then it has been legalised in many countries, but a wide variety of religious and political groups which describe themselves as Pro-Life have been seeking to make abortion in all or almost all circumstances illegal once more.  These include in the UK Life, the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, the Pro-Life Alliance,  the Roman Catholic Church and many Evangelical Christians.  In the U.S. the Christian Coalition campaigns constantly against abortion and under the presidency of George W. Bush, the US has withdrawn aid from any NGO or government that supports abortion.

The Moral Approach of this Paper

This paper seeks to examine Christian arguments and is written from a broadly consequentialist point of view.  This means I see good actions as actions which promote the lasting happiness of persons and reduce unnecessary suffering while bad is the opposite.  Such an approach also involves an acceptance that the rightness or wrongness of an action can never be seen in simple absolute terms, but has to be judged in the light of its intended and likely consequences.  It also follows from this that we cannot escape from making the best practical moral judgements we can in any given situation, but that also means we must recognise that others, using their own intelligence and sensitivity, may read a given situation differently and come to differing conclusions as to what is the right course of action to take – both in terms of exercising personal moral choices and in formulating law for the whole of society.  This of course is not a weakness, but the justification for careful dialogue and debate within a democratic process so that consensus and agreement can be achieved where possible, and differences recognised with respect.

Such an approach may be condemned by those who see morality as being based on divinely decreed absolutes to be accepted  “on faith,” but I think a careful examination of this issue also shows that such an approach to morality is hard to sustain.  I also think others may find that the approach taken here is not incompatible with the basic teachings of Christianity or any of the major religious traditions.

This paper supports the provisions of the ’67 Abortion Law and its minor amendment in ’90 for England and Wales as providing a reasonable legal framework for regulating the practice of abortion, but argues that having an abortion is a sad and serious step for a woman or a couple to contemplate and that the present annual number of abortions is cause for concern.

Primarily however this paper seeks to examine the arguments of those who have or would campaign for the outlawing of abortion and the criminalising of those who practice it.  It examines and finds their central claim that the fetus is a person unconvincing and seeks to show that there can be good reasons for having an abortion which deserve if not agreement from everyone, at least some tolerance and respect, and that to make abortion once more illegal would be wrong.

This paper does not intend to encourage anyone to have an abortion, but I hope it may help anyone involved in contemplating such a step to see that whether in their particular circumstance they go ahead or not, abortion is not the moral equivalent of murder and that suffering by the fetus should not be an issue to worry about.

Abortion in England and Wales.

The present 1990 law which slightly changed the original 1967 Abortion Law introduced by David Steele is the legal basis for a system which allows abortion up to 24 weeks into pregnancy to be carried out under the NHS or privately in licensed clinics after the mother has been able to satisfy two doctors that she has met the grounds set.  These are (putting together the seven grounds of the ’91 bill under four headings) that a woman may have an abortion if:

1. As a result of her pregnancy her life or physical or mental health is seriously at risk, (In practice very rarely claimed 0.3%. Abortion allowed up to full term in emergencies).
2.  The well-being of her other children would be adversely affected by the arrival of another child (Fairly commonly claimed 9.5%.  Abortion within 24 weeks.).
3  The child may be born seriously handicapped, ( 1.1%, Because of the nature of the tests carried out, the ’90 amendment allows abortions allowed up to full term).
4.  The physical or “mental health” of the mother would be adversely affected (The most common ground 89.1%.  Abortion within 24 weeks.).

By 1996 over 90% of the year’s abortions were carried out within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and numbers had grown to around 200,000 a year.  The system is not abortion on demand although a determined woman will usually be able to get one, particularly if she goes to a private clinic.  In some areas and from some doctors she may get little help in her search for abortion.  On the other hand for a woman to have to justify why she wants an abortion to two doctors (in practice the discussion is mainly with a specialist counsellor) reduces the chances that the decision is simply impulsive or the result of pressure from others.

Why the Law was Introduced

Like all legal and administrative systems then it is not perfect, and in practice it gives rise to widely variable treatment dependant on GP attitudes and the provision or lack of it in NHS hospitals and private clinics, but one consequence has been the virtual disappearance of illegal back-street abortions and there has been a great reduction in the deaths of women which flowed from that.  In fact it was the rising awareness of the numbers of women who were dying attempting to have an abortion, that was the strongest reason for Parliament passing the Abortion Law Reform Act of 1967.  Certainly it is reasonable to believe that if abortion was again made illegal, backstreet abortions would start up again and women die as a result.  Current estimates are that for every two legal abortions carried out now, about one illegal abortion was carried out before legalisation, but accurate figures will never be known and are disputed.

Law and morality, while linked, never can be the same thing.  A good law needs to be enforceable, and to be enforceable it requires widespread public support. If it does not have it, like the ’30’s American legislation prohibiting the sale of alcohol, it is likely to bring about unwanted consequences (in that case the growth of organised crime) which can be worse than the problem it seeks to control (drunkenness)  It is thus quite compatible with believing that having an abortion, is virtually always morally wrong, to believe that the law should nevertheless allow it. (to discourage illegal and dangerous abortions and the practice of infanticide)  Public opinion surveys in this country show a high degree of acceptance of the current abortion law, even by those who consider that they would never resort to it for themselves.  A significant minority however wish to see abortion again made illegal.

The Central Issue. Is Abortion Murder?

The reasoning of those who hold that the laws allowing abortion are a terrible mistake is based on their understanding that abortion is in fact, an example of the fundamental crime of killing an innocent human life.  Morally, and (they would hope to see it regarded as such legally) it is a form of murder.  Those who would agree with the law as it stands then need to understand the basis for this charge and to be able to refute it convincingly so let us look carefully at the claims.

Respect for Human Life based on Man as the Image of God.

In it’s new Catechism the teaching of the Catholic Church as promulgated by Pope John Paul 11 is that,

“Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception.  From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognised as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.   (2270 CCC)  What is more this is, “a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation” and “the law must provide appropriate penal sanctions for every violation of the child’s rights.”

The position for Evangelical Christians is put forcefully in the book “Love Your Unborn Neighbour”(LYON) produced by the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) in 1994.  They assert that,

“The clear evidence of the Bible and the united witness of the Christian Church through the centuries point us to the fact that God made all human beings in his image and likeness and lead us to the conclusion that direct abortion is contrary to his revealed will.”p14

So we see this Evangelical approach is very much the same as that of the Roman Catholics.  As Steven Foster, Chairman of SPUC Evangelicals says in his introduction,

“In our society no group suffers a more terrible plight than unborn children.  Their sufferings compare with the worst to be found around the world, both in degree (deliberate and brutal killing) and scale (at least one in five of all children conceived in the UK are aborted) and yet our society ignores them, passing by on the other side.” p.xii

We will return to that statement.  Cardinal Ratzinger, chief architect and compiler of the Catechism in a published keynote address to the cardinals in 1991 states:

” A violent attack is made on developing life by abortion (with the result that there are 30 to 40 million a year world-wide), and to facilitate abortion millions have been invested to develop abortifacient pills (RU 486).  Millions more have been budgeted for making contraceptives less harmful to women, with the result that most chemical contraceptives on sale now act primarily against implantation, i.e., as abortifacients, without women knowing it.  Who will be able to calculate the number of victims from this massacre? (Human Life Under Threat HLUT p4)”

The heart of the Roman Catholic and Evangelical Christian case is then that the fetus, from the moment of conception, is a genetically distinct being with the rights, morally if not legally, of a full person and both justify this by saying that what gives the human person this dignity and value is that Man is Made in the Image of God.(Genesis 1:26) This means in the words of Cardinal Ratzinger that

“Man is characterised by an immediacy with God that is proper to his being, he lives under the personal protection of God.  He is sacred.  Human life is sacred because it is divine property.” HLUT p1

Similarly the SPUC Evangelicals argue that what makes human beings distinct from other creatures is that they are made in the image of God.  Such an argument raises an important  moral issue.

Does an Argument based on Faith Preclude Dialogue?

In arguing that their objection to abortion is based on the specifically religious ground that “man is made in the Image of God” rather than on general moral principles which might carry weight with people regardless of their religion or lack of it, such as the rights of the child, respect for the person, or the prevention of needless pain and suffering, these Catholics and Evangelicals appear to refuse to enter into serious dialogue with those who do not share their theological presuppositions.

There is no acceptance here that many thinking people have good reasons for not believing in God or in the authority of either the Catholic Church or of the Christian sacred writings and therefore good reasons for not considering that the assertion  “Man is made in the image of God” describes the case. In  a diatribe against godless utilitarianism Cardinal Ratzinger says:

“The ultimate root of hatred for human life, is the loss of God.  Where God disappears, the absolute dignity of human life disappears as well.” p10 HLUT

To then go further and urge or attempt to introduce legislation to abolish and criminalise abortion in our multi-denominational, religiously diverse and predominantly secular society  may strike one as displaying considerable intolerance. It also seems to show a fear that the arguments will not stand up to scrutiny outside the sphere of faith.  Still, if we attempt to unpackage just what these Christians mean by saying that we are persons made in the image of God we may still find grounds for dialogue.

What is a Person?

Christianity has taught that a human being, a person, is a unity of soul and body and that in the teaching of the Catechism:

‘Every spiritual soul is created immediately by God – it is not ‘produced’ by the parents – and also that it is immortal:  It does not perish when it separates from the body at death,’  CCC365

From the time of St Augustine ( 354-430 C.E ) it was argued by theologians that the soul was implanted by God when the fetus was “quickened”, that is when the mother became able to discern movement within her womb, some months into the pregnancy.  As knowledge advanced it had to be accepted that there is in fact no time when the fetus is still, so the view was adopted that the soul is implanted at conception.  To destroy the unborn fetus at any stage then, because it is the bearer of the immortal soul, thus becomes morally the same as murder.  What happens however if one has doubts about the existence of such an incorporeal and immortal soul?  Cardinal Ratzinger seems to be aware of this problem when he notes that,

“No experimental datum can be in itself sufficient to bring us to the recognition of a spiritual soul” (HLUT p6)

Instead then of talking about possession of an immortal soul as being what is really important about being human, the Catholic Church (and the Evangelicals ) rather emphasise that what is important about human beings is that they are persons.  Here again the Catholic and Evangelical position is to treat the unborn child as if it simply is a person.  This raises the question, what makes a person or what are the attributes of a person?  Is a person simply any and every human being?  Again the Catholic Church seems to go down this road .  Cardinal Ratzinger says:

“How could a human individual not be a human person? Regarding this question if the Magisterium (that is the teaching authority of the Church) has not expressed in a binding way by philosophical affirmation, it has still taught constantly that from the first moment of its existence, as the product of human generation, the embryo must be guaranteed the unconditional respect which is morally due to a human being in his spiritual and bodily totality.  The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception.” HLUT p6)

Yes, but to say that the embryo must be given the respect due to a person is not quite the same thing as saying that a human embryo or human being is by definition a person.

This reticence to say that the embryo actually is a person is probably because the cardinal is aware that such an identification raises serious problems.  Is a child born with no cerebral cortex or a very severely damaged brain a person?  Is a brain dead accident victim still a person?  Is being a person simply dependent upon having a functioning brain, or is becoming a person something to do with attaining a particular level of awareness, something we grow into, a result of nurture and social interaction?  Is a newly fertilised zygote a person, is a fetus really a person.?

The Evangelicals also examine just what is meant by the term person on p 42-43 of LYUN where the authors discuss the distinctions developed by a Professor Gareth Jones who together with several others has put forward the idea that we should think of:

“the human fetus as a potential person, in contradistinction to an actual person (a normal adult human being) or a being with a capacity for personhood (a temporarily unconscious person) or a possible person ( human sperm or ovum) or a future person (a person in a future generation.)

The LYUN authors then object to this distinction between a potential person and an actual person saying:

“Though many who advocate the potential person argument would wish to be generous in their assessment of the unborn child’s personhood, it must be pointed out that others could give good reason for a very different assessment.  Once the potential person principle is admitted, the enormous amount of development still needed in unborn children must tell heavily against them.  Even infants and toddlers have much potential unrealised, and this principle therefore undermines their protection as well.  Jones cites Michael Tooley, who uses the categories of ‘potential person’ and ‘quasi person’  in his justification of the killing of children up to three months after birth ( potential persons) and possibly even up to one year (quasi-persons.)”

How then do the writers of LYUN seek to demolish this argument?  First, by pointing out the distinction is not made in their scriptures which is hardly surprising as the issue was not raised in this form over the time they were written. Their second objection is to say,

“Once a difference is accepted between human beings who are persons and those who are not, a dangerous path is opened and that could lead almost anywhere.  The criteria ..must necessarily be arbitrary and subject to opinion and change.  It could result in non-Aryans being labelled as non-persons.” p. 45 LYUN.

This is of course the famous slippery slope / thin end of the wedge argument, often rolled out when a case is weak.  The way to answer it is to ask if philosophers and scientists actually are coming up with arbitrary and constantly changing criteria.

Persons as Self-conscious Moral Agents

Philosophers, theologians and scientists have however long argued over what is distinctive about being a person, particularly in drawing a distinction between human beings as persons and animals as not.  Their answers since the time of Kant are reasonably clear and do not simply say that what is special about being a person is membership of the species Homo Sapiens.  They have noted that persons, like animals, are conscious.  Persons, like animals, are capable of suffering.  Persons unlike most animals are self-aware or self-conscious, aware of themselves in relation to the world, able to reflect on their behaviour in the past, predict the future, communicate through language or at the least gesture, and to act as responsible moral agents.

Interestingly theologians have seen these characteristics as signs that human beings bear that “Image of God”.  Again  to quote LYUN p24,

“Men and women have ordered the world to meet their needs because they are made in the image of God.  That is to say, God has endowed them with the heavenly gifts of reason, self-awareness and foresight.  They can choose between different courses of action, just as they can choose between right and wrong.”

Here then we have a fairly clear list of criteria as to what is special about being a person, and the most obvious of these is self-consciousness or self-awareness, being able to think of oneself in relation to the world and other people.

Non-Human Persons?

Until quite recently everyone considered as Kant had that these attributes were exclusive to members of Homo Sapiens and neither the Catholics nor the Evangelicals in the books I have consulted appear to have even glanced further.  More recently ethologists who study animal behaviour and psychologists have been investigating whether or not these capacities are shared, at least to a significant degree, with members of other species, namely the primates like the chimpanzees, dolphins and the whale family.  For the primates a simple test is used for self-awareness which is to provide the subject with a mirror.  A chimp shows by its behaviour that it sees itself in the reflection, thus showing it is self-conscious.  A baboon however behaves as if it sees only another baboon.  It is not self-conscious.  I am not aware if any definitive tests have yet been thought up for whales or dolphins.

This research in turn has raised several questions. One of these is if members of other species share with us key characteristics of personhood, in particular that they seem to be self-conscious and to have some capacity to use language, do we have a moral obligation to extend to them the respect and protection we give human persons and at the very least should we not protect them and their environment and refrain from using them for dangerous medical experiments, or as a source for transplant organs?  (The UK Government report just published has said there is no ethical objection to using pigs for transplants, but primates should not be used.)

The relevance of this work as regards the status of the fetus is that it shows there are consistent criteria for regarding a being as a person and that the most important of these is to what degree a being shows evidence of self-consciousness.

Persons and other Sentient Beings

Thinking about animals though raises another relevant question, which is this:  Because an animal is conscious ( though not self-conscious) and because an animal is able to suffer, (i.e. sentient) then are human persons justified, and if so to what extent, in imposing upon them suffering and death in pursuit of food, sport, entertainment, animal products and medical research.  It was the original Utilitarians Bentham and Mill, who argued that we have a moral obligation to refrain from inflicting unnecessary pain on animals, not because they are self-conscious, but because they are sentient.  We must ask then, even if the fetus is not self-conscious, is it significantly sentient?

Three Crucial Questions

As regards the issue of abortion then, three questions need to be looked at.
The first is Is the unborn child a person?
The second is Is the unborn child a sentient being? ( is it capable of suffering, at least on the animal level, as a dog or cat might suffer)
The third question is What respect and protection does the unborn child deserve ? (If an unborn child is neither self-conscious nor capable of suffering)

Question 1. Is the unborn child a person?

I was present at the birth of my children and what struck me really forcibly was how they came into the world so vigorous, alive and fully formed.  I was amazed so much energy and personality seemed there from the start.  Even as tiny infants they seemed so ready to react to the world and relate to us, to look, listen, taste , smell and learn, and from the start to demand attention.  Clearly a great deal more had been going on than I had fondly imagined, which was – save for a few random kicks – that they had been growing quietly in their mother’s womb rather like peas in a pod.  In fact I now know that their foetal growth of necessity involves periods of intense activity of body and brain together with pauses of comparative stillness. . Towards the end of pregnancy we also know that the fetus responds to sounds, may recognise the pattern of its mother’s voice, and responds to bright light.  The question this raises then is by the time a baby is born is it already an awake, self-conscious person, or simply ready to become a person?

In an important article entitled Fertile Minds in Time Magazine  Madeleine Nash summarises the conclusions of recent medical research into the growth of the human brain both before and after birth.  Researchers can now see through the microscope in fine detail just how the brain grows and develops.  At birth the brain stem has only the neural pathways functioning as are needed to control such basic operations as heartbeat, breathing and a dim response to sight, sound, smell and touch. The rest of the brain consists mainly of undifferentiated and immature cells and their further restructuring into “wired” sequences of neural pathways is completely dependent upon experience.

“Electrical action, triggered by a flood of sensory experiences, fine tunes the brain’s circuitry -determining which connections will be retained and which will atrophy”. p53.

The central discovery has been that activity changes the brain and the central nervous system of an embryo is not a miniature of the adult system, but is more like the tadpole that gives rise to a frog – having a number of temporary features which will disappear after birth and the buddings of others that will grow and transform into new mental structures.  Only as a result of receiving a vast new flood of sensory experiences which course through the brain as electrical activity, can the new paths and neural connections, the “wiring” grow which form the necessary basis for memory, learning and the gradual development of the higher mental functions.

Not only does the brain grow more in the first two years after birth than at any time before or after, but its size is directly related to the stimulation it receives.  Internally also, its structure of neural pathways changes radically in direct response to external stimuli.  For example the brains of well stimulated babies are up to 30% bigger than those that are not and if a baby is born with a damaged eye, unless it is very rapidly put right, the brain will not develop the necessary “wiring” for vision and later surgery will be useless.

The researchers have also observed that there are a series of vital “windows of opportunity” when the growing brain must receive the right input of external stimuli so that the next step in its growth and “wiring ” can take place.  If these opportunities are missed through neglect or abuse the child may never be able to catch up.  There is a subtle sequence for the development of such capacities as muscular co-ordination, biocular vision, sound and speech recognition, syntax and vocabulary.  This also applies to the capacity of the child to feel and express emotions such as happiness, contentment, anger, fear and distress.  In all these developments early experience and parenting is crucial and physically mark the brain and the child for life.

I would thus submit that the study of early infancy points to the conclusion that however much a baby moves and wriggles, responds to blurred light or the sound of music and voices before birth, the evidence is clear. The crucial linguistic, thinking and affective abilities are dependent on post natal brain growth and can only develop if the child receives the right experiences and input from other people.  Without this experience of the world and of other people, gathered over a considerable period of time after birth, there is simply no mental capacity available for the child to reason, to imagine or even to express a range of emotions, and as a consequence of this inability, no capacity to function as a self-aware person.  The conclusion which I thus think we need to draw is, that the fetus and newly born are not yet self-conscious persons and are best thought of as potential persons, living beings born with the capacity to become persons.


Certainly we know from our own personal experience that we are without recoverable memory of anything that took place in the womb before we were born, or of our births or early infancy.  In the light of the evidence reported in the Time article this is now more understandable.  At the time of birth our brains were simply too undeveloped to be capable of memory..  Our lack of recoverable memory of anything that happened to us while in the womb or during birth or of what happened to us while we were small infants such as circumcision for Jewish boys, must surely lead us to be ready to accept the conclusion that our self-consciousness unfolded and developed after birth.

Premature Births

Modern Obstetrics now make it possible for babies to be born or removed from the womb from about as early as the 23rd week of pregnancy.  This faces medicine with a double dilemma.  The first is that some babies can survive a premature birth earlier in pregnancy than others who are aborted late.  Once an infant is removed from its mother and placed in an incubator, it is regarded as having the legal rights of a person, in particular that to kill such a child intentionally would legally count as murder and be condemned by most people as being morally wrong.

Thus many doctors and nurses find themselves very unhappy with a situation where, while they are exerting enormous effort and dedication to enable a tiny premature baby to live, they may also be involved in the destruction of a more developed, healthy and potentially viable unborn child.

Their reaction is understandable.  The Panorama documentary of March 97 contained pleas from doctors that they feel the law and public debate has largely side-stepped the issue of exactly what they are doing.  Are they really involved in the murder of a person or not?  What constitutes “a substantial risk” that if a child is born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped, and what constitutes a serious handicap?  Downs syndrome?  Having an arm missing?  They emphasised also that there is a huge difference medically and psychologically both for the pregnant woman and the medical staff between the abortion of a twelve week pregnancy where the operation takes about a minute and the fetus is minute and the much more risky, difficult and harrowing operation involved in killing and removing an unborn child close to full term.  (About 85 being carried out each year where the existence or likelihood of severe handicap has been diagnosed.)

The second dilemma is that while it is possible to keep such early “prems” alive, the younger they are the greater the probability that they will either die after several weeks or even months of extremely intrusive, personally and professionally demanding and expensive (£1,000 per day) treatment, or if they survive will suffer from overwhelmingly serious mental and physical disabilities.  Again the question is being asked whether it is right that such infants should be given such treatment bearing in mind the probable outcomes.

For those responsible for carrying out late abortions probably nothing can take away the sadness that many feel at ending a life, however a wider recognition that there are good reasons for recognising that the unborn child is a potential person and not a self-aware actual person should re-assure many in society and them that they are not murderers, the unborn did not suffer and that in terminating such lives, they have almost certainly prevented a great deal of suffering and human misery.

Logically the same arguments should apply to the “prems” if we recognise, as is not difficult, that they are still far from being self-aware persons, even if they may, with the help of the panoply of medicine, be almost viable.  Again legal steps need to be taken to sanction doctors in consultation with parents to decide if the very premature can be allowed to die if it is likely that the child will not survive or have to suffer serious mental and physical damage.

It is also important to note that what we know about premature babies supports the conclusion that self-conscious personhood only develops after birth.  Premature babies do not show, as a result of their earlier birth, more rapid physical growth or mental development than babies born after nine months.  As regards time from conception their development is the same or slower than that of normally born babies.  This demonstrates clearly that mental and physical development needs to go through a sequence of stages which cannot be speeded up (it can of course be held back or disrupted) and that only as each “window of opportunity” is reached can the next sequence of mental and physical development take place.


Of course I can now hear those who would say, “Not only is he condoning abortion, but his emphasis on our unremembered earliest years and argument that self-consciousness only unfolds after birth, and his remarks about the very premature would condone infanticide as well.  This is just the conclusion we feared if you allow the distinction to be accepted between a person and a human being.”  My reply is yes it does and in certain special circumstances which need to be legally defined, yes it should.

In saying that I am not attacking the general legal and moral presumption that infants, either full-term or premature, should be treated as if they were persons with the rights of persons both legally and morally.  In fact there are good practical reasons why physical separation from the mother should be used as the decisive point.  As regards the normal full-term infant, birth is the start of a separate life when it is ready for the enormous acceleration of mental and physical growth that exposure to its parents and the outside world brings and from which self-consciousness evolves.  From birth it must be thought of and treated by its parents as a person and has a right to their care and support and the protection of the law. if it is in any way abused.

In the case of the early “prem” however, birth marks the start of a life which is totally dependant on the care not of parents, but of health professionals and their complicated life-support systems in intensive care and the “prem’s” development is still far short of the point where it is capable of responding to its new world in a way that brings on the emergence of self-awareness.  Still, given this important difference the central point is that the newly-born, both full-term and “prem” is still a potential rather than an actual self-aware person and I would argue that in special circumstances the law should allow the terminating of such lives after birth.

When my wife was carrying her first baby, our neighbours were expecting their first who was born a couple of weeks later.  The mother had a sudden, very rapid breach delivery, and the baby girl arrived with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck.  She was beautiful and perfectly formed but it soon became clear that she had suffered massive oxygen starvation and was in what we now have come to call a persistent vegetative state.  Her only response to the world was the capacity to breath unaided and to suck.  Her mother lavished all the love and affection upon her that she could and she lived until she was twelve years old.  For her last few years she was kept in a hospital and repeatedly prescribed doses of antibiotics when she succumbed to infections.  Finally pneumonia killed her.  After her birth her mother had other normal children, but they felt neglected and her husband left as soon as the child died, their relationship dead, a sad but not uncommon outcome.

It was an awful tragedy, compounded I am sure by the “supportive” behaviour of doctors and nurses in using antibiotics and in not helping the mother gradually face up to the fact that her daughter was not and never could become a self-aware person, and that to let her go would not cause her suffering, however sad the mother herself might feel.  This took place more than 25 years ago and I am hopeful that present medical practice would probably be to give that child palliative care when it contracted pneumonia rather than antibiotics and it is surely right that this should be so.

The relevance of this case to the question of abortion is that it shows how important it is that we recognise the distinctions between being a person, and being a potential person.  To painlessly kill, either actively or passively, a severely damaged human being incapable of self-awareness ( or even consciousness) or to destroy or kill an unborn child with a future capacity for personhood, but no present self-awareness, is a very serious step to take, particularly since it goes against our natural instinct to treat them both as persons.  Such steps however have always been taken informally and surreptitiously by doctors (and by midwives before them) when faced after birth with the extremes of physical deformity and mental handicap.  The exercise of such medical judgements without consultation with the parents is increasingly seen as no longer acceptable, but surely it is a greater outrage than not consulting parents to keep alive severely damaged infants with miserable prospects simply out of fear of prosecution.

If then we are to be consistent we need to recognise that as with abortion, to end the life of a severely disabled new-born infant (full term or premature) before it is able to develop self-awareness is morally a quite different act from killing an already self-conscious person.  As a 1997 case in Scotland showed both doctors and parents need the protection and clarity of legally binding decisions.  In this case the parents of a very  premature baby, after initially accepting the hospital doctor’s judgement that their child was not viable and should have no further treatment, subsequently believed that more should have been done to keep the child alive and sued him and the hospital.  Greater legal clarity also is needed to safeguard the position of relatives and doctors to enable the ending of the lives of accident or illness victims who have permanently lost the capacity to show any signs of self-awareness.

Both these cases  highlights an important secondary issue.  Once a mother has experienced over several months the presence in her body of her child, her natural reaction is to think of that unborn child as a person.  The reactions of the mothers in both cases quoted was entirely natural and predictable.  The child in the womb is usually thought of and the newly born is talked to and treated as a responding listening being and parents inevitably project onto that child emotions, awareness, feelings and capacities, which, if initially not there in the way the parent imagines, rapidly grow, respond  and come into being as a result of this treatment in the months and years after birth.  Nevertheless, while bearing that in mind, the conclusion we should draw is not that we have reason to think that the unborn child or the premature child is already a self-conscious person who has an inalienable right to have its life preserved, whatever the cost, but that respect for persons and the quality of their future lives means difficult and painful decisions cannot be ducked by taking refuge in simplistic moral rules like saying that “all human life is sacred and should be preserved.”  Sometimes it is better that it is not.

The Slaughter of the Innocent?

Roman Catholics and Christians of an Evangelical bent are sometimes asked why, as in the US, many are against abortion, but at the same time in favour of the death penalty.  The point they make to justify this distinction is to say that those on death row are guilty, but those destroyed in an abortion clinic are innocent victims, as if guilt or innocence is all that separates them.  Now in this paper I am neither condemning nor supporting the use of the death penalty, although I do find it strange that those who profess such an absolutist respect for human life are so often also those who accept legal execution.  (see CCC p2266)

More to the point is the fact that rightly or wrongly execution causes suffering to the person executed.  To forcibly take the life of a self-aware person (however  comparatively painlessly) is quite a different thing from preventing a potential person who has never been conscious from growing into an actual person through abortion, and to fail to acknowledge this betrays a gross insensitivity.  It also betrays moral insensitivity to fail to draw any distinction between the innocence of a moral agent who has done good and refrained from evil and the “innocence” of an unborn child that is incapable of moral behaviour, good or bad, and has therefore simply done nothing.

This same insensitivity is displayed in a way bordering on the dishonest in the statement of Steven Foster that:

“In our society no group suffers a more terrible plight than unborn children.  Their sufferings compare with the worst to be found around the world, both in degree (deliberate and brutal killing) and scale.” LYUN p xii.

No group? What about abused children, battered wives, or the victims of torture?  Then there is the apocalyptic language used by Cardinal Ratzinger when he talks of

“a true war of the mighty against the weak in which colossal means have been used against people at the dawn of their life” HLUT p4.

No distinction is either hinted at or made by these writers between the self-conscious suffering of those like the Jews during the Holocaust or the children who died at
Dunblane and the ending of the lives of fetuses through abortion. It seems that by ignoring or refusing to accept the distinction between a person and a potential person, these people end up devaluing the horror of real personal suffering.

Question 2. Is the unborn child a sentient being?

If then we were to agree that there is no medical or psychological evidence to lead us to believe that a fetus is at any stage a self-aware person, there are still two other questions to answer.  The second is even if the unborn child is not yet a person, is it a sentient being capable of suffering in the way that a non-self-conscious animal, like a dog or a cat might suffer, and if so does it suffer during abortion?

As regards the unborn in the early stages of pregnancy, it is obvious that they certainly do not have the developed brain, nervous system and sense-organs needed to be capable of consciousness.  It is hard not to conclude that their capacity to feel pain is thus non-existent.  In contrast to an early fetus, a dog or a cat has very finely developed senses and is very aware of the world around it and can remember and learn from painful or pleasant experiences which modify its behaviour even if it is not self-conscious.

What though of the later stages of pregnancy?  Should we assume that if not self-aware the unborn child in its final few months in the womb may be as susceptible to suffering as a dog or a cat with an immediate and powerful awareness of pain?.

The British Medical Journal (28.9.96) raised the issue for debate,  asking a range of specialists to answer the question Do fetuses feel pain? Their responses are interesting and worth quoting at length.

In “Fetal Pain” is a misnomer Dr S.W.G.  Derbyshire and Dr. Anne Furedi argue that the fetus does not suffer pain because “whether the fetus feels pain, hinges not on its biological development but upon “a complex multidimensional experience incorporating sensory, emotional and cognitive factors.”  “Unless the fetus has a conscious appreciation of pain after 26 weeks, (the time by which the basic neural structure of the brain will have grown into place) then the responses to stimulation must be essentially reflex, exactly as before 26 weeks.”  They conclude, “Children and adults come to a conscious appreciation of pain through a developmental process which the fetus has yet to experience.     “Fetal pain” is therefore a misnomer at any stage of Fetal development.” p795.

Such a conclusion is very much in line with what came out of the Time article.

In We don’t know, better to err on the safe side from mid-gestation  Dr Vivette Glover of Queen Charlotte’s and Professor Nicholas Fisk argue that, “to experience anything, including pain, the subject needs to be conscious, and current evidence suggests that this involves activity in the cerebral cortex and possibly the thalamus.”  They argue that they “do not know for sure, when or even if the fetus becomes conscious” but they are inclined to feel that by 26 weeks the growth of the brain is sufficient that, “it seems very likely that a fetus can feel pain at this stage.” p729  They conclude that clinical practice should be such that steps are taken to reduce the possibility of fetal pain by the use of analgesics.

Dr. Vivette Glover’s views were also clearly and interestingly expressed in a BBC Panorama documentary on Abortion (24.3.97)  As a research scientist studying the consciousness and capacity to suffer of the fetus, she argued that while the fetus by the age of twenty weeks showed responses to stress, this did not mean that the fetus was sufficiently developed to suffer pain until it was close to full term, and interestingly argued (presumably because the unborn child lacked self-awareness) that the unborn child should not be thought of as a person, but that as with the killing of an animal, we have a duty to make sure that terminations are carried out in such a way that the possibility of the fetus suffering is minimised or eliminated.  This the film went on to show is something which English doctors, faced with the small proportion of terminations which are carried out within the last three months, feel they certainly are able to do. They either inject directly into the heart or cut the umbilical cord.  From watching on a scan they can see that death for the fetus is without stress and virtually instantaneous.

In the third contribution, Probably no pain in the absence of “self” Zbigniew Szawarski, a philosopher working in the medical ethics area from the University of Wales, Swansea, points out the distinction we have already alluded to between the suffering of a conscious animal and the suffering of a self-aware person.  He says, “Even if we admit that some animals have a conscious experience of the world around them, it is still problematic whether they can be subjects of their own conscious experiences.” p796.  He concludes, “I do not think we can experience pain unless we are aware of ourselves and our own bodies.” and points out quietly that those who speak of fetal pain are attempting to admit the possibility of the fetus experiencing “unconscious mental events or unconscious pain.”  To attempt to do this he concludes would be “highly controversial.”

This I take it is simply a polite way of saying that he thinks that the idea of unconscious pain is illogical and inherently contradictory.

In Reflex responses do not necessarily signify pain  Dr Adrian R Lloyd Thomas of Great Ormond Street and Professor Maria Fitzgerald of UCL also address the issue of “unconscious pain” by pointing out that reflex responses do not necessarily signify pain, although they would argue that “early exposure to noxious stimulation may not need to penetrate consciousness in order to substantially alter the course of sensory development.” (p798)  All this means though is that “the effects of trauma of any kind on the developing nervous system should be minimised as far as possible to avoid changing the course of normal human development.”  That however is a reservation which does not apply to fetuses about to be aborted, and they conclude that as far as the fetus feeling pain is concerned, “given the (accepted) definitions of feeling and pain the answer must be no.”

In a subsequent letter to the BMJ 25.1.’97 p 303.Can fetal suffering be excluded beyond reasonable doubt. Dr Peter McCullagh of the National University, Canberra and writer of an article on fetal sentience for the Parliamentary Pro-life group in ’96 takes up the statement of Glover and Fisk that, “currently we have no direct way of assessing pain in fetuses.”  He argues that to exclude the possibility of the fetus suffering we need  “a comprehensive understanding of the structure of pain pathways in the developing nervous system. ” However, accepted correlations between structure and function in this context, are he claims, still unreliable.  “That being the case we must give the fetus the benefit of the doubt and refrain from any procedure that might just possibly be experienced by the fetus as pain.”  This position is also asserted by P.J. Saunders writing to the BMJ in the same issue on behalf of the Christian Medical Fellowship.

In a letter to the BMJ 19.4.97 Definition of pain needs clarification Professor Patrick D. Wall of St Thomas’s, argues that Glover, Fisk and McCullagh are all confused because they have slipped into defining pain as simply a response to injury.  This is inadequate because, “adults under general anaesthesia respond to injury with movement and endocrine changes and yet have no sensation.”  He gives several other examples to show that responses to injury which do not involve consciousness cannot be meaningfully described as pain.

Dr Stuart Derbyshire then replied to McCullah and Saunders 19.4.’97 Analgesic and anaesthetic procedures are being introduced because of shoddy, sentimental argument. criticising them similarly to Wall for apparently defining pain as “any aversive behavioural response” and also for attempting to argue that only rudimentary development of the cortex or even of the thalamus may be necessary for the fetus to be able in some sense to feel pain when there is no evidence that this is so.  As a result, “Disturbingly, gynaecologists around the world are being encouraged to introduce analgesic, anaesthetic and maybe even surgical procedures into their practice not because of clinical trials proving or disproving their efficacy, but because of shoddy sentimental argument.”

That may sound a harsh judgement, but the argument that the possibility of fetal suffering cannot be excluded beyond reasonable doubt which at first sight sounds reasonable, if it is based upon no positive evidence of consciousness, becomes extremely suspect if it is used either as a justification for not carrying out abortions at all or as a reason for adopting medical procedures which could have an adverse effect on the mother.

Anti-abortion Propaganda

It is necessary to pin down these arguments carefully and in detail because playing on what has been a legitimate fear that the process of abortions might inflict suffering on the unborn has been used repeatedly by anti-abortion pressure groups such as Life.  In its pamphlets and leaflets it has made much of the fact that the methods used for early termination during the first twenty weeks involve the breaking up and sucking out of the tiny fetus and that the process used for late abortion involves a drug induced (prostaglandin) miscarriage preceded by giving the fetus a lethal injection to prevent the possibility of it being born alive.

The anti-abortion Pro-Life Alliance group that surfaced to fight the 97 election attempted to show these procedures in a party political broadcast on TV, and certainly Life/SPUC in the posters it sends out to schools has photographs of the tiny remains resulting from scraping out the womb.  In drawing attention to this they imply or assert that the process of abortion causes the unborn child great suffering.

It is thus interesting  and to their credit as anti-abortionists that in a careful chapter on Abortion and the Doctors the authors of LYUN nowhere assert that in fact these procedures inflict pain on the fetus.  In doing so they are accepting the medical consensus that abortions carried out in this country either early or late do not involve the fetus in suffering..

Our conclusion then is:

Abortion is not the killing of a person,
but the ending of the dependent life of a potential person,
a potential person that is quite unaware of itself or of its situation.
The fetus is safely regarded as being incapable of an awareness of pain for most of its time in the womb.
In the case of very late abortions, where some rudimentary capacity for animal pain is theoretically possible, though unproven, care can and is  taken to kill the fetus without it experiencing an adverse reaction.

Abortion is not murder and to assert it is amounts to a way of making people feel guilty for a crime they have not committed

Question 3. What respect and protection does the unborn child deserve?

This brings us to the third question.  Even if an unborn child or fetus is neither self-conscious nor capable of significant suffering, what respect and protection should be given to such a potential person?

The first point I would make is that it is quite wrong for a woman or society to simply think of the unborn child as disposable tissue.  The Cardinal and the Evangelicals are both right in asserting that a fetus is a unique new life with awesome potential.  To forget this is to behave in a callous and inhuman way which devalues all human life by oversimplifying and distorting what is being done.  To make light of it is insensitive in the extreme and those who still conclude that they have good reasons for taking such a step should be helped to acknowledge and face the entirely proper feelings in themselves and in others that to destroy a potential person is a sad and serious thing to do.  (This I know is what is done by good abortion counsellors who are very aware that their clients facing the abortion decision find there are no easy answers.)

The second point I think needs to be made is that part of the respect due to the fetus as a potential person is that every child born should be wanted and loved and come into the world with a reasonable chance of having a supportive and nurturing home.  It is going to require sustained support, careful parenting, help and love for many years, and considerable material resources need to be available, either from the parents or provided by the community.  It may show more respect for a person to end its growing life before its potential becomes actual as a self-conscious person, than to consign it to be born to suffer a high probability of more than ordinary misery, abuse or neglect.  Experiences which we know could deform and mar its life.

Guiilt and Regret

There is a need for careful counselling and something like the provisions of the UK abortion law, where abortion is not just given on demand, but where the agreement of two doctors on the grounds for the abortion provides a context where a woman is able to think and talk through her decision, her feelings, the consequences and other options carefully.  This is never an easy thing to do, or easy to ensure that it is properly done.  Neither is it simply the immediate situation which needs to be considered.  As a significant number of women are now testifying, feelings of guilt, loss and regret can become very deep-seated and for some become worse with the passing of time years after an abortion.

Of course a woman is likely to feel very guilty if she really does think and feel that abortion is murder or if as a result of being exposed to highly emotive propaganda she imagines that the abortion will cause dreadful physical suffering to the unborn child..

The Panorama programme also highlighted the problem young women and couples face when confronted by an unsympathetic doctor who is against abortion and who, as often happens apparently, blocks or delays their access to abortion so ensuring that the woman has to go though the harrowing experience of a late termination with an added sense of guilt if she does not give in and have a child which she does not want.

Guilt and remorse can however also be a perfectly valid response.  It is right and natural that irresponsible behaviour and failure to take precautions should cause remorse and a sense of guilt.  Such feelings however do not of themselves constitute a good reason for keeping the child.  If the woman is very immature, unstable, mentally ill, or severely traumatised as a result of rape or abuse so that she is quite inadequate and unable to provide the child with the love, sustained care and support it deserves, having an abortion at this stage in her life may be the more responsible decision.

Even where a woman may have no reason to feel guilt over irresponsible behaviour and is convinced that she will not be killing a self-conscious person, she may still feel that to destroy the new life she is bearing is a terrible thing to do and that she has to accept responsibility for her child,  go ahead and keep the baby,  or if she feels she could not provide for it properly,  put the child up for adoption,  knowing that there is no shortage of good homes available  That would then be the right choice for her, but as a lot of recent experience has shown, not the simple one people once thought.

Again, a woman needs to think very carefully before terminating a badly timed and inconvenient pregnancy because of a job, opportunity for education or relationship.  Reasons which at first may seem to provide good grounds for not having the baby, may turn out to be comparatively unimportant and transitory.  Later it may look increasingly as if a good (or the only) opportunity for the woman to have a child has been lost and a terrible mistake made.
Against this it must be said that most women who have carefully examined their feelings and reasons do not regret having taken the step of having an abortion, though they would much rather not have had to be faced with having to deal with an unwanted and unplanned pregnancy.

Bearing a Handicapped Child

Then again what if the child is diagnosed during pregnancy as likely to be severely handicapped?  Some parents look back on the life and death of a handicapped child with a deep sense of thankfulness, despite the difficulties.  Others feel on hearing that the fetus is or might be severely disabled that this is something they just cannot or are not prepared to take on.  We know from what happened before abortion was available that if forced to go through with it, some parents will simply abandon the child to the back wards of a hospital, or  walk out on their partner.

Others feel after many years of supporting a severely disabled child that they made the wrong choice in letting the pregnancy continue, and that they condemned the child, the rest of the family and themselves to such suffering that if they had their time again, they would choose abortion as best for all of them.

The option of late-term abortion for the potentially severely disabled as the doctors in the Panorama programme noted is a particularly difficult one.  For the doctor there is the giving of advice on the basis of interpreting what remains uncertain and ambiguous evidence.  How likely is it that the child will be handicapped, and as in the case of Downs, how handicapped is it likely to be?  Advice can sometimes only be given on the basis of crude probabilities.  For the parents this means tough choices often taken within a short time.  Considerable stress for both parents and medical staff thus seems inevitable – as is the case often in medicine.  Given the options, different parents will respond in different ways and no decision is going to be without risk or without possible painful and negative consequences.  That however cannot be a good reason to remove choice from them.

The same problems have to be faced in dealing with the increasing numbers of early premature births.  Again it is difficult for doctors to say how probable or how extensive mental or physical handicap is likely to be for such children, beyond the general prediction that the earlier the child is born, the greater the likelihood of handicap.  At least doctors advising abortion are able to do so within a clear legal framework, those dealing with premature babies are in a more difficult position which the legislature needs to face.  Those who oppose abortion will be the ones to mount the loudest campaign against any attempt to regularise or sanction legally the ending of any such lives in the name of the sanctity of human life.

The possibility of aborting those who are or are likely to be seriously disabled and of keeping alive an increasing number of early “prems” with the same prognosis is not just an agonising choice for parents and doctors, it also raises issues of public policy and the allocation of resources.  At £1,000 a day the cost of intensive care has to be rationed and allocated and providing proper care so disabled young people can be given the medical, educational and material support needed so they can make the most of their lives, is also enormously costly.  It is surely right that if a couple learn that their child is likely to be seriously disabled that they should know that the extra material, medical and educational needs of that child will be met out of public funds.  At the same time they are offered the option of having the pregnancy terminated if they feel they could not give such a child a life worth living.  It seems right for both potential child and parents that the parents should have that choice.

Again if the anti-abortionists were to rob them of choice, the increased burden on public finances could be and in the case of the “prems” already is very considerable and probably unsustainable.  The resources for all the disabled, whose numbers and longevity continue to increase as a result of medical advances are not generous now and could be further reduced.  Is it not better in terms of promoting happiness and reducing suffering for all concerned to be able to have an effective partnership between willing parents and the social services in supporting disabled children and adults, than to overwhelm public resources with the need to care for many more disabled, a significant number of them unwanted or inadequately supported by their families?

Too Many Mouths

Those who are married may also need to consider their other children and the effect and strain on marriage and family if a pregnancy comes at a time of particular stress and difficulty, or when there are already several other children.  Here it would seem those against abortion are blind to the evidence that there is a greater moral obligation to care for an existing child than for a potential child because the first is self-aware and can suffer and the second does not.

Married couples are also faced with economic issues and issues about personal fulfilment..  Is the woman of forty one, re-established in her career after raising her children, right to choose to terminate a late unplanned pregnancy simply because she now wants to enjoy her job and family or only if the standard of living of the whole family has become dependent on her salary?  In the end surely, she should be free to decide whether or not she wishes to take on the care and nurture of another child.

For some then abortion may turn out to have been a mistake bitterly regretted, for others however, having been able to choose an abortion at a particularly difficult time in life is something which is later looked back on as having been a painful, but correct decision, and there are many others who will always regret that they did not have an abortion when they had the chance.

Looked at globally however, for most women of course the choices are harsh.  Most women who work are comparatively or very poor and their incomes very important to their families.   An unplanned pregnancy may spell financial disaster and family breakdown, particularly if the woman is the only one employed.  We should also never forget that in those countries which do not or cannot afford a social security safety net the major reason women seek abortions is because they are desperate to get rid of mouths they cannot feed, and where abortion is not available the other option they resort to is infanticide.

As a young man in South Africa I was shocked to come across black parents who had deliberately allowed infants to starve to death in order to be able to continue to have enough to feed their older children.  They were migrant fruit-pickers on starvation wages with no security and when I investigated their circumstances I could understand how desperate and hopeless they had become to do what they had and that they were not cruel insensitive parents.  They would rather give only water to the tiny infant a few weeks old than watch their older children suffer and starve.  When that mother fell pregnant legal abortion had certainly not been one of her options.

In conclusion then we can see that abortion, is sometimes necessary and that it is important that it be legally available, but that it is never going to be an easy option.  It is always a difficult and painful choice and a serious and thoroughly sad step to have to take.  When we then read that on average some 190,000 abortions are carried out in England and Wales each year, we must see that this figure, like the figures for unemployment and homelessness, draws our attention to a great deal of often hidden misery and anguish being experienced by many women and their partners.  Surely there are better ways of making sure unwanted pregnancy does not take place.

This will not however be achieved by making abortion into a criminal offence, but by encouraging people to behave considerately and responsibly in their sexual relationships and to promote a youth culture where unprotected unsafe sex is not considered acceptable.  Sadly however, as we shall see, the strongest opponents of abortion are also opponents of every method of birth control except not having intercourse which can be trusted to be effective.

Abortion,  Birth Control,  Sexuality and Guilt

Catholic teaching that the fetus is a full person from the moment of conception also affects its thinking about all forms of birth control.  For this reason the coil and the morning-after pill which may dislodge the newly fertilised ovum are regarded as being mini-abortions, and thus in themselves as morally bad as the murder of a child.

To insinuate or denounce birth control as well as abortion as “murder” is all part of a view of human nature and human sexuality propagated by the leadership of the Catholic Church that

“sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, and isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes. CCC 2351

What this means is that it teaches most of its members to feel that their sexual desires are grossly excessive, if not twisted and perverted, and something they should feel guilty about.  So it is that the Catholic Church, particularly under the leadership of Pope John Paul 2 and his predecessor has linked its attack upon abortion and “artificial” forms of birth control with an attack upon what it sees as other “unnatural and sinful” forms of birth control and sexual practice.  This includes all forms of masturbation, interrupted intercourse, use of the Pill, the condom (and in passing of course all forms of homosexual practice.)  In fact any sexual expression between a man and his wife is condemned as sin if

“each and every marriage act is not open to the transmission of life”

That means being open to the possibility of it resulting in pregnancy. See CCC 2351-2391.

To justify this teaching, together with references to Scripture and its Tradition, the Catholic Church has resorted to a theory of “natural law” where it is argued that as God’s purpose in giving us eyes was that we might see, so the only divine purpose to be discerned in his giving us genitalia was that we might use them for reproduction. The CCC p2366 says:

“There is an inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.”

This is theologian speak for saying that God only designed the pleasures of sex to encourage us to use them for reproduction and any sexual enjoyment separated from that end is “disordered”, unnatural and therefore immoral.  For this reason the Papacy has condemned not only “abortifacient” forms of birth control which disrupt implantation or destroy a fertilised ovum, but the condom and those pills which simply prevent sperm and ovum from coming together.  The only way a Catholic married couple may attempt to limit how often the woman gets pregnant is by restricting intercourse to those times during the menstrual cycle when she is likely to be infertile, something which even the latest technology can only gauge with limited accuracy, being wrong 6% of the time.

This is not the place to spell out in detail the case against this understanding of sexuality. but it cannot go unchallenged.  Briefly then any moral reference to what is natural should be based upon very careful observation and comparison of actual patterns of sexual behaviour and all that the human and biological sciences tell us.  Here the evidence is that our sexuality is not an add on, but a fundamental part of our nature and a constant part of our mental and physical functioning,   Overt sexual behaviour is exercised most frequently (besides in solitary masturbation) for bonding and sustaining relationships, and in no human society has it ever been observed as not involving a degree of multiple partner and same sex activity among some members.  (as is also the case with much animal sexual behaviour, and in particular as has been carefully observed among the most intelligent of the primates, the Bonobo chimpanzees who constantly indulge not only in heterosexual, but in same sex and across generation sexual activity.)

Surveys also show that the strength of the sex drive varies considerably between individuals, and, hardly surprisingly, declines with age.  Also as is obvious, sexual attraction and behaviour trigger the long-standing bonding (falling in love) needed between a woman and her partner if they are to provide effective parenting to their long dependent children.  (who are more dependent and for far longer than the offspring of any other animal)  The physical pleasures of sex then have the obvious purpose of helping sustain and deepen this bond within the various forms of marriage, which again are to be observed as having evolved in all types of human society, but sexual activity only rarely results in pregnancy or has pregnancy as the intended outcome.

For example a healthy couple during their first twenty years of monogamy will probably have made love twice a week on average, that is 2x52x20 = 2,080 times.  If they were highly fertile and had ten children, the percentage of acts of intercourse which resulted in pregnancy would be 0.48%, and in addition to that there would also have been a considerable amount of solitary masturbation.  Was all that non-reproductive sex healthy, natural, loving, or a sign of grossly excessive, disordered desire?

One also has to point out that a natural fertility rate of six or seven children per couple which evolved to cope with the high infant mortality of pre-modern societies, desperately needs to be reduced in the context of the explosively high survival rates brought about by modern medicine and hygiene.

It is hard not to conclude that the Roman Catholic Church under the leadership particularly of Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II has become saddled with an extremely unrealistic and unnatural understanding of sexuality, and a flawed understanding of birth control.  As a result its immense influence as a huge global organisation, which can and should be a force for good,  inspiring people to practise the way of Jesus, live better and more responsibly, and be dedicated to the relief of poverty and suffering, is instead being used by its leadership to block the promotion of all effective forms of birth control through the UN and national aid agencies, including the distribution of condoms in areas of Africa where AIDS is endemic.

At this point it is important to compare the Evangelical Christian anti-abortionists view as seen in LYUN with the Roman Catholic view, for in the US certainly and in the UK too, as many anti-abortionists are Evangelical Protestants as are Roman Catholic.

As we noted at the outset both Catholics and Evangelicals start from the point that they consider the Jewish scriptural teaching that Man is made in the image of God to be crucial.  For the Evangelicals their authority is the Jewish and Christian scriptures which are silent on the subject, but which do clearly see human life as starting from conception.  They also take note that the Jewish rabbinical writers and the early fathers of the Church condemned abortion and infanticide and point out that the idea that abortion could be considered to be compatible with Christian belief is unknown until well into the 20th Century.  This is on the face of it a strong argument for Christians, though perhaps they might find it less so if they remember how long it took the churches to condemn slave-owning unequivocally, the treating of women as less than equal to men, the immorality of cruelty towards animals and the need to respect and cherish nature and the environment.  A deeper understanding of what it means to be a person than simply being a member of the human race, should I think, be added to that list.

As they agree then with the Roman Catholics that a human being is a person and that a fetus is a human being, it is perhaps not  surprising to discover on reading LYUN (p81-84) that the Evangelicals accept that the logical conclusion of this position is to agree with the Catholic arguments that abortion is morally the same as murder and that to use any abortifacient method of birth control, (that is the pill, the coil and the day after pill,) is to be guilty in the eyes of God of murder.  Surely this is the point where the anti-abortionist position is exposed at its weakest and most unbelievable.  A conscious, thinking, suffering, self-aware person is infinitely more valuable, than the collection of cells which provide the material and biological triggers out of which such a person can grow and the two should not be confused. .

The Evangelical Christian understanding of sexuality is also much the same as the Catholic, declaring that while the unborn child may be morally innocent of any sinful acts,

“she shares the same moral status as the rest of us, she is sinful” p25 LYUN
.The Evangelicals, like the Catholics, see human beings as fallen, tainted by original sin, weakened in our moral resolve and unable unaided to be consistently good, and nowhere is this taint of wickedness and weakness more obvious they think, than in the human desire for sex.

God, the Evangelicals believe,  as do the Catholics, has decreed that sexual intercourse is only right between husband and wife, and all pre, extra and same sex intercourse is wrong.  Masturbation is generally if not universally condemned as a sign of weakness and sinfulness.  Unlike the Catholics they do not condemn the use of the condom within marriage, but the authors of LYUN see nothing wrong or dangerous with the explosive growth of human population, or reason for Christians to be involved in programmes of birth-control to limit it. (p34-39)  In fact some Evangelicals seem more worried that the easy availability of condoms will encourage promiscuity than that failure to use them may result in pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases or AIDS, and some have seen AIDS as divine punishments for the “perverts”.

The paradox is that these Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, in attempting to suppress and control what they see as rampant, hedonistic sexuality, simply by commending the alternatives of sex within marriage or abstinence, contribute towards ignorant, irresponsible and exploitive sexual behaviour, the spread of appalling disease, unplanned and unwanted pregnancies, a desperate tide of legal and illegal abortions, infanticide and family break-down.

The teaching and discipline of the Catholic Church actually stimulates the birth rate in many countries where it is strong at a time when the population of the world has trebled in fifty years, and is still growing exponentially.  As population continues to explode misery and poverty are more widespread than in all human history and the environment itself is brought ever closer to catastrophic collapse (points ignored in the Catechism)

Of course as a result of this teaching on sex, virtually all members of the Catholic Church “fall short” of its standard and are taught to see themselves as sinners, sinners desperately in need of the Grace that only the Catholic Church can bring through its sacraments, sacraments administered by a celibate male clergy.  The authority and respect due to this clergy is considered to be heightened by their acceptance of a life without sex or marriage, and this way of life is seen not just as a good alternative to Christian marriage, but as a higher, holier  way.

“The most excellent good is something even better than what is admitted to be good.” CCC 1620.
Thus a sense of guilt, moral inferiority and dependence is induced in the laity and the authority of the clergy re-enforced as a class of better, higher, purer beings.  (except of course when things go badly wrong, as sadly and inevitably they sometimes do)  Meanwhile those of its lay members who plan the size of their families through their use of contraception are made to feel like disloyal libertines, or if they use the common methods , to be guilty of child murder.

The consequences of Evangelical teaching and practice may not be quite as drastic, but it also amounts to the promulgation of an impossible standard which will ensure that almost all of them will see their own sexual desires and behaviour as proof of their tainted and sinful human nature.  Most sadly however, because of their refusal to see that there is a real difference between an unborn child with great but unrealised potential and a self-aware conscious person, they find themselves driven to the position of asserting that not only is a late abortion a form of murder, but that taking the pill or using a coil is too.

Thus the so-called Pro Life anti-abortion campaign, is part of a wider anti-sex, anti-birth control morality based on a distorted and unrealistic understanding of human sexuality and an inappropriate view of the fetus as already a person which is blind to the distinction between what happens in abortion and the real sufferings of conscious people.

After reading such comments some may feel that this paper is simply anti-Christian and anti-Catholic.  It is not, although inevitably in examining the assumption of the anti-abortionists that they have adopted the moral high ground on this matter,  it has been necessary to point out that an alternative case is there to be answered.  It is however very critical of the present leadership of the Catholic Church and the shameful way the reforms of Vatican 2 have been rolled back by a small clique and of the fear of dialogue and discussion with outsiders that is so often the case in Evangelical Christian circles.  The views of such people however represent only a minority of Roman Catholics and of Protestant Christians and they would do well to remember that before claiming to speak for everyone or even on behalf of their churches.

Of course birth control cannot be regarded in isolation to sexual morality, and abortion is the worst and saddest form of birth control, even if on occasions some may find it a justified one.  We should also be grateful to the anti-abortionists for exposing the dishonesty of those who would trivialise abortion as being medically and psychologically no big deal, and for continuing to emphasise the value of women choosing adoption as a possible alternative.  The point to be emphasised though is that abortion is to be avoided because of the misery, unhappiness, guilt – in a word the suffering it can bring to the mother, partner and family of the unborn child, and not because it causes the unborn child to suffer.

We may also thank both Catholics and Evangelicals for emphasising in their teaching on marriage the value of long-term commitment and mutual sharing of the responsibilities of parenthood.  If children are going to be able to grow up secure and self-confident, and themselves be good parents and make sustained relationships, they need the experience and continuing support of happy family life and parents who love them.

We may also all deplore unthinking, exploitive and irresponsible sexual behaviour which ignores consequences, though to condemn all masturbation as sinful and all homosexual acts and relationships as unnatural and sinful however honest and responsible they may be, is a refusal to come to terms with human nature as it is and seems particularly cruel and unnecessary.  Who is such behaviour hurting?

We may also agree with Catholic and Evangelical critics that birth control programmes alone will never encourage the growth of a balanced and sustainable population and strong families, but without them, given the ability of modern medicine to reduce infant mortality, it is already very clear that programmes of education, health and economic development (which are also needed) will be jeopardised or destroyed by exploding population.

John Baxter
January 1998  Revised  2001 .

Further reflections 2009.

Since writing the above things have been revealed which are far worse and more widespread than I ever imagined could be the case.  These it seems to me should make the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in general and Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict in particular, to look at their position not just on abortion, but on married love, birth control and sexuality very hard.  This month we have seen the truly aweful revelations in the report on child sexual abuse in Dublin and the way four successive heads of the Irish hierarchy have covered up exposure and moved perpetrators in what amounts to the most terrible betrayal of the Irish Catholic children and their families.  This of course comes on top of similar revelations of widespread sexual abuse and cover ups in the US.  The result now is that the moral authority of the Catholic hierarchy in one of the most piously Catholic countries in the world is widely regarded as having been destroyed. This report comes on top of another which exposed the terrible story of how “fallen women” and boys and girls in care were savagely and cruelly treated by members of the Irish religious orders that declarted they were there to care for them.

It seems to me one can have one of two basic responses to this as a Catholic.  The first is to say that such behaviour as has been shown by paedophile and sadistic priests and nuns is a wicked abberation and that the cruelty and sexual abuse caried out is simply the result of individual human sinfulness (or the work of the Devil to discredit God’s Church) and that the teaching of the hierarchy in these areas remains unquestionably right and in line with what Jesus would wish.  To continue down that road it seems to me is to cling to a terrible faith induced blindness, a refusal to look reality and human nature in the face.  The second reaction is surely to say enough is enough.  Not only is this a time for penitence, shame and the aknowledgement of corporate responsibility, but the hierarchy in their teaching and attitudes to sex, birth control, married love, sexual orientation, and the equality of men and women need to look again at their thinking and recognise that perhaps they have consistently got it wrong.  These grotesque and horrible cases and the way they have been hushed up and denied are not simply examples of  individual wickedness, but of systematic institutional wrongdoing. They are a direct consequence of deeply flawed teaching and moral insensitivity. It is time for such teaching to be re-examined in an open and rigorously honest way, and revised.

Abortion and the Church What are the Issues? Report of the Board of Social Responsibility. ISBN  0 7151 6578 x  1993  An excellent lucid exposition of the problems, but draws no conclusions.

Human Life Under Threat by Joseph, Cardinal Ratzinger (HLUT)  ISBN 0 85183 837 5  CTS 1991.  The voice of Pope John Paul II’s most loyal and powerful theologian.

Catechism of the Catholic Church 1994. (CCC)  ISBN 0 225 66794 0  “A sure norm for teaching the faith”. Pope John Paul 11.

Love Your Unborn Neighbour (LYUN) ISBN 1.898864 00 4 Society for the Protection of Unborn Children 1994.

Summary of Sexual Behaviour in Britain, by Kaye Wellings et al. Penguin Books published in the Independent, 16.1.94.  The biggest study ever done in the UK

Fertile Minds by Madeleine Nash, Time Magazine 10.2.97  A summary of the latest research on how a child’s brain develops.

British Medical Journal 28.9.’96 p795-797. Debate. Do Fetuses Feel Pain?  Letters 25.1.97 p302,  19.4.’97. p.1201.                         13,841 words


I read Theology at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa, and at Trinity College, Oxford.  I also hold an M.Ed. in the pPilosophy of Education from Bristol University and taught Religious Education in Bristol and Devon for twenty-five years.

If you would like to respond to the points raised in this article, send your E mail to john@nulljohnbaxter.org

Just finished reading your paper Abortion, Murder by Another Name? 

Don't think I have ever arbitrarily written to someone I do not know, about something they wrote but it is so brilliant, comprehensive, well researched, clear .... I could go on. Form now on if I find myself dragged into another anti-abortion debate I will simply tell people to read your paper. It is very compelling.

But the thrilling part at the end was to see you too went to varsity in South Africa, and then went on to Oxford (I did my PhD at Cambridge). 

Please don't reply, this is meant purely to compliment you, and compliments don't need acknowledgement.
Best wishes from a stranger,
Angela TaitA.T.

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