Right to Choose

The arrival of my third grandchild last week set me thinking about the subject of abortion (sorry, but it’s just the way my mind works). The ‘pro-life’ lobby would have us believe that all conceptions should result in such happy events. A short blog is unlikely to settle the issue once and for all, but here are a few thoughts anyway. The ethical problems surrounding the rights of mother and foetus are complex. The religious right don’t like that. In their world, everything is black and white – God and Satan, righteousness and sin, life and death. So they try to impose that infantile mentality on ethical issues like this. Back in the real world, we try to resolve complex issues by making informed, balanced judgments, and enshrine those in laws; we rely on courts to interpret and apply the law in difficult cases with compassion and common sense. We then live with our disagreements in the knowledge that as a society, we have done our ethical best. Fundamentalists and Catholics solve the problems by inventing a thing called a ‘soul’, the existence or otherwise of which is beyond all scientific enquiry, and then by arbitrarily assigning that miraculous event, even to the point of conception, neatly create a black and white solution that leaves them free to trample all over the rights of the mother (and father) in the preservation of precious life. One wonders how much precious life could also be saved if the churches of the world liquidated their vast wealth and applied it to solving infant mortality around the world by the simple expedient of providing food and clean water.

It really does seem to me to be morally repugnant to get hot under the collar about clusters of cells that may or may not be defined as human life, when there are millions of indisputably human beings on our planet dying needlessly. As you will have guessed by now, I am ‘pro-choice’. Not because I am convinced that in all cases, the rights of the mother take precedence, but because it is usually the best pragmatic solution. In an overpopulated world that refuses to take population control seriously, we should be focussing on the quality rather than the quantity of human life. Again, this is not something the religious really understand. For them, this world is just an antechamber to the next. They practice a sort of spiritual utilitarianism: the quality of human life is unimportant compared to the quantity of souls saved. Suffering is to be welcomed because it teaches us to accept the will of the divine. Better that a child is born into poverty and disease than that a soul be lost. But at the end of the day, until the cord is cut, the foetus is part of the woman’s body. She shouldn’t be free to do whatever the hell she likes with it. But equally, the law needs to respect her choices when it seeks to protect the life she bears. In my view, we have got it about right in Britain at the moment (Britain, not the UK: in this as in so much else, the Irish - North and South - remain in the Middle Ages). We need to keep it under ethical review as scientific knowledge about the mystery of life, and medical knowledge about how to preserve it, both increase. But let us recognise that moral decisions like this require hard thought and hard judgement – not simple-minded recourse to biblical platitudes.