This article appears in the August 2006 edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly

The New Consensus on Abortion

It is now becoming evident that the majority of women consulted are becoming uncomfortable with abortion; to such an extent that Cardinal Murphy O'Connor is to use a private meeting with the Health Secretary, Mrs. Patricia Hewitt to call on ministers to cut the upper limit for abortions from 24 weeks. By the time this issue is out, the meeting will have taken place, as it isscheduled for 21st June. His intervention comes after Mrs Hewitt rejected demands from MPs for a free vote as she did not `want to see the legal maximum changed' and that the government believed the matter should be ‘left to back-bench MPs in Private Members' Bills.’ This of course is a recognised ploy of recent governments, for the debates are generally scheduled for Friday, when the weekend is beckoning, or the issue is clouded with amendments which the few in attendance do not understand. What is highly significant is that this intervention must be the first time a Cardinal in England and Wales has taken direct action with the government.

That the mood is changing in women is amplified by a recent survey conducted by Communicate Research Limited and commissioned by the Choose Life Group under the leadership of the Dowager Marchioness of Salisbury. 1046 women and 457 men across Britain were interviewed by telephone between 28 April and 4 May. It is claimed to be the most in-depth survey of UK women on abortion for many years. Importantly, it was conducted using women only interviewers, in order to encourage openness and honesty among female respondents. More detailed results are included in this issue, but it is evident that most Britons want to see the 200,000 abortions conducted each year reduced, women more strongly than men, the proportions being 65%: 35%. More than eight in ten women believe that aborting a baby at the current upper age limit (six months) is cruel. A massive 95% of Britons agree that the abortion law should be kept under regular review; fewer than one in twenty disagree. Most regard it as unacceptable that, under existing law, abortion is legal up to birth on grounds of disability; this appears to be strongest among the 18-24 year olds, 73% of whom regard it as unacceptable, perhaps because disability rights legislation is a more recent development. Among both men and women, those who voted Labour in the 2005 election are more likely to regard this law as unacceptable than those who voted for any other party.

It is interesting to speculate on what has precipitated such a dramatic change in public perceptions. There is evidence that we now have a better informed public debate than in 1967 or 1990. There is greater dissatisfaction that the government does not provide a better opportunity for it instead of constantly referring it to private members' bills.

The reality images on television have shocked many and shattered old concepts that life only begins at birth. A recent study of premature babies at University College Hospital, London found that almost half of those born at 23 weeks survived. At 24 weeks, the time limit for most abortions, 72% of the babies survived.

It must be acknowledged that there are views that concentration on diminishing the permitted time for an abortion may mean that the opposition is able by clever amendments to substitute other categories into a Bill permitting abortion at a later stage of pregnancy. This was achieved in the debate in 1990 when the abortion of malformed babies was sanctioned even up to birth. But it is now recognised that, in the present state of society, where it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, MPs could licitly support proposals aimed at ‘limiting the harm’ done. The number of lives saved by reducing the permitted limit would be greater than those lost by such a law.

In Evangelium Vitae John Paul II stated ‘This does not in fact represent an illicit co-operation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil consequences’

Finally we conclude with a comment that Amnesty International is moving from its neutral position on abortion to one of actively campaigning for it, as the British section has decided to do. From its declared aim of campaigning for an end to the death penalty in general, it is now to campaign for the death penalty of innocent unborn human beings.