Thursday, 6 September 2012

Incrementalism or absolutism to fight abortion?

There has been much debate recently about the best strategy for the pro-life movement (if the current situation can be dignified with the name of a movement, which is itself debatable).

Should we be seeking incremental changes to the abortion laws or outright abolition of abortion?

The incremental approach is, I am told, more politically astute.  By reducing the age limit at which abortions can be conducted, from 24 weeks to 22, then to 20, then to 18, then to 16, we can create a momentum that will both save some lives in the short term, and make total abolition more achievable in the long term.

The absolute approach, I am told, is unrealistic, and just what the pro-choice lobby want us to adopt.

I am not convinced.

I am not finally convinced either way; but I incline strongly towards the absolute position for a number of reasons, some moral, and some practical.

However, I am interested in the discussion and am open to influence - particularly if I have missed or misunderstood anything.

My view at present is that the absolute position is better because, fundamentally, it is what we truly believe.  That allows us to operate with integrity and clarity.

Further, I think the general public is more usefully engaged in a debate about whether abortion is right or wrong - in the fundamental issues of the humanity of the unborn child and its rights - than in a debate about whether abortion is OK up to X weeks, but distasteful (and therefore illegal) beyond then.

I have no way of knowing which strategy is really going to be successful (and neither does anyone else). But I think we should strive to do the right thing.

The most recent change to the abortion time limit, the reduction from 28 to 24 weeks, came along with an exemption: abortion being de-criminalised up to birth, for children with (or suspected of having) a serious handicap.

It seems to me that this was a terrible price to pay: removing any shadow of protection from the most vulnerable of all, in the name of political pragmatism, even though the intentions were, presumably, good.  

People will doubtless tell me that lives have been saved as a result; though that is clearly a very difficult proposition to prove. First, one would have to do the invidious calculation of babies that might otherwise have been aborted between 24 and 28 weeks’ gestation, versus the increased number of handicapped babies aborted.  Anecdotal evidence of one or two instances one way or the other doesn't really add anything to the debate here.

But even that sum (and should one even DO sums like that?) is not the whole answer.  Human behaviour is complex, and it could well be that an earlier time limit pushes some women into an earlier decision to abort - a decision that might not have been taken with more time.  One of the brutal things about abortion is that it pushes women in distress to make catastrophic decisions with a deadline. Yet research on unwanted change suggests that over time people typically go through a predictable sequence of reactions from initial denial, through anger and despair, to (frequently) acceptance and integration.  That is why there is so much truth in the maxim that an unwanted pregnancy does not necessarily mean an unwanted baby.  There is a real risk that earlier time limits make it likely that women feel they have to make a decision as they are in anger and despair.

Further, imagine if the exemption had been for black, or Christian, or gay, or female babies.  Would anyone have voted through legislation with such an exemption, even on the grounds that some other lives would be saved?  If not, why is it OK in the case of handicap?

And why is it that such exemptions should not be voted through?  At the most profound level, simply because they are wrong. But even at the political level they are unwise: they would come back to haunt us. That I call political naivety.

That encapsulates my fear with ‘politically realistic’  solutions: that they will always involve compromises which we should not make.

But the other approach, the absolutist approach, I am told, is politically naive: total abolition will never be passed through parliament in one go.

I have various problems with that line of argument.  One is that I do not believe that humans can foretell the future with such certainty: history would certainly suggest otherwise. 

A second is that I do not buy the implied corollary: that the incremental approach is more likely deliver total abolition by a process of ‘momentum.’  The belief that it could I see as equally naive as the absolutist approach. Just think it through: we might (conceivably) get a reduction from 24 to 22 weeks; or even 20, or even 18.  I can’t imagine a political process along those lines that would take that down to 16, 12, 8 and finally 0.  So where does that strategy lead? Or am I missing something here?

A third is that focusing on such a strategy implies building alliances with others who may support us for part of the journey but not all of it.  That is likely to result both in compromises that we should not make, and also, finally in a sundering of the ways, that could make them particularly potent critics of our continued push for final abolition (for that surely must be the endgame for any serious pro-lifer.)

To be honest, I do not see either strategy as likely to deliver what we want, if we rely solely on political strategies; and to me that is the biggest danger - that we see this as a political issue, first and foremost.  It is not.  It is a spiritual battle, a moral battle, a philosophical battle, a humanist battle, and an ethical battle.  

My contention is that we should fight on those grounds: that to fight purely in political ways is already an error; that a political solution will only be possible if we can convert hearts and minds of the medical profession, of the caring professions, and of the public at large; then the political solution will become a possibility, and an enduring one, that won’t be reversed at the next change of government.

As long as we have a culture of recreational sex, of abusive sex, of contraceptive sex, of sex without commitment or consequences, abortion will always be required (licitly or illicitly) as a backstop.

That, of course, is a much larger problem, effectively the re-evangelisation of society. But as a Christian pro-lifer, that is the only solution that I can envisage.

Is it possible?  In human terms, probably not; but to God all things are possible.

And as Mother Teresa reminded us, we are not called to victory, but to faithfulness.  If we are faithful, God will deliver the victory in His way.  

So our task becomes building a Civilisation of Love: educating and converting society by our lives, example, prayer, and charity; as well as by our outreach, our campaiging and so on.

For me, the caring and educational work have always been at least as important as, and possibly more important than, the political battles.  Here at least we can point to lives saved with no others sacrificed.  And here we are operating in ways that command respect and demonstrate that our concern is human well-being, not the various motives attributed to us by political opponents.  Moreover, here we are directly contributing to building the Civilisation of Love.

I am not saying we should not fight the political battles, of course; but that they must be subordinate to, and congruent with, the larger spiritual mission on which we are engaged.

Likewise, I am not saying that we should not support a vote to reduce the time limits on abortions, should one present itself: if it has no unacceptable strings attached.  But to make that the focus of our strategy seems highly questionable to me; as does denigrating those who take an absolute position (and vice versa, of course).

To misquote Lord Acton: Politics tends to corrupt and absolute politics corrupts absolutely.

The stakes are not merely the lives of the unborn innocents (enormously important though they be), but also the souls of all involved - including our own.  We lose that perspective at our great peril.


Megan M said...

Mostly, I’m in agreement.
‘My view at present is that the absolute position is better because, fundamentally, it is what we truly believe.  That allows us to operate with integrity and clarity.’
I agree entirely with this: that is why there should be no compromises in our care and counsel of pregnant women, of struggling mothers, and in the case we put forward when arguing and debating.
As you say, if we are ever going to have a legislative ban on acts of aggression against unborn children, what we need to do is shift the terms of the debate - and to do that, we need to state our position, and act on it, clearly, not to politicians and lobbyists primarily, but instead to the people we meet in our everyday lives, to our family and colleagues, and most importantly to the mothers we are doing this all for.
‘Further, I think the general public is more usefully engaged in a debate about whether abortion is right or wrong - in the fundamental issues of the humanity of the unborn child and its rights - than in a debate about whether abortion is OK up to X weeks, but distasteful (and therefore illegal) beyond then.’
I agree with you there, as per the qualms I expressed in my (very long: sorry!) Tweet to you. There is no moral distinction to be made between killing a child at any stage of its gestation, just as there is no distinction between killing a child at any stage of its ex-utero development. This is something we need to make clear, and why Nadine Dorries’ tactic of banging on about the (by no means settled) science of foetal pain is crashingly misguided.
When it comes to politics, however, our options are always limited to two: to support a bill being passed, or not to support it. As Ed said, if we do not support a bill on absolutist grounds, then we are opting to sacrifice babies we know we could save to potentially save a hypothetical larger number of babies at an uncertain time in the future.
I think the compromises we had to accept in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act were horrendous but the case of that Act can’t really serve as a precedent around which to base an opinion on incrementalism in general... however, I’m not entirely sure on that point and am open to having my mind changed!

Mark Lambert said...

I am willing to endorse incremental improvement to the current situation, but fully agree that it contradicts what I feel in my heart. Christians are in the world, but not of the world, and by our lives and witness we can create a community that demonstrates how we should approach issues like this. I am not prepared to compromise my principles in order to make them more palatable to those who would condone abortion in difficult cases like rape or handicap; it's a moral slippery slope.

This does make me think that it is not necessary to divorce the two agendas however. I can be Catholic and against abortion, while accepting any positive moves toward that goal.

It is a fascinating argument!

On the side of the angels said...

Well I've already made my position fully clear elsewhere that

Solidaritism is the only authentic moral position we can take without some form of compromise/negotiation.

If the compromise is intrinsically unjust then we are expressly forbidden by Evangelium Vitae 73.2 [73.3 cannot & must not be read on its own - as Finnis & incrementalists claim it can]

But if the compromise is not intrinsically unjust but includes co-operation? Is it formal[always forbidden] or material co-operation? If material, as Finnis claims, is it permissibly remote or immorally proximate?

As well as urging people to comment here I'd request they also read Francis Phillips's blogpost [with apologies for my lengthy comments]

Megan - the 'science' of foetal pain IS very much settled - ask any embryologist. Mrs Dorries &C and previous politicians/pro-life advocates were not facing embryological[& foetal] experts or witnesses in Parliament - but Pro-Abortion propagandists from the medical profession - able to hoodwink on issues like viability [by using the foetal age from the mother's last period [i.e. 2 weeks greater than the surviving baby actually was] but advocating an abortion limit from 'official pregancy' i.e. when the first period is missed [and the foetus is 2 weeks older!]Their evidence on foetal pain was not merely erroneous but scandalously mendacious and duplicitous]

There are plenty resources online from which to scry the truth [RTL has some good links] regarding not merely foetal pain - but embryonic pain and their capacity for awareness and memory of it - I even wrote about it myself:

Finally I'd also urge Pro-Lifers to realise that the Incrementalist strategy is fundamentally based around a time-limit developmental argument. This is not suitable for the newly emerging tactics from Pro-Abortionists regarding the notion of 'Right to Dignity of the Foetus' which I explain more on the Herald and in my blogpost.

Ttony said...

This is the post I've been drafting and redrafting for the last fortnight or so! I wouldn't have done it so well, though.

Two separate trains of thought:

First, I'm reminded of a recent discussion on the Catholic Herald website, when I opposed the incrementalist approach of not allowing different pro-Life issues - anti-abortion and anti-euthanasia, for example - to be conjoined for public debate. In this context, I think that the Scottish Bishops' approach to the gay marriage issue, in which they have refused to accept the pre,ise of the Scottish Government and have defined the marriage they are to defend for themselves, is a fine example.

The second train of thought comes from your observation "I am interested in the discussion and am open to influence - particularly if I have missed or misunderstood anything." Apart from agreeing that I am feeling my way through this issue on the basis of a more general (informed) conscience rather than a specific expertise in the moral and theological issue of political protest in the peo-Life cause, you cause me to reflect that those who are fighting the incrementalist cause do so on behalf ogf the Hierarchy and out of the conviction that this is the right Catholic way to save lives, and that therefore I should not attack their good conscience in fighting their corner given who is informing it.

These are very deep waters, and waters which I have only recently swum into. I was much involved in SPUC in the 70s, then went to live overseas and came back to a different pro-Life context just at the time when my own situation made me have to pick and choose the areas in which I could devote my energies.

Your instincts seem to be the same as mine: but I'm sure you are as open as I am to having the principles underpinning our instinct discussed openly.

Ben Trovato said...

Megan, I think the political issue is more complex than your analysis suggests.

A chance to vote on changes to abortion legislation does not just arrive in the House of Commons: it is the result of a lot of negotiating and lobbying behind the scenes.

It is here that I think an absolute, rather than incremental, approach is particularly important; it is here that the first risk of compromising on truth, justice and love arises.

In fact, at the moment, I think it would be unwise to bring any such bill to the floor of the house, as the risk of it being sabotaged with anti-life amendments would be so high. A well-intentioned bill could end up being used to liberalise abortion provision further.

That is one reason why I think the ground work - particularly education - is so important; and of course directly saving those individual lives we can through all our other activities.

The question I am most vexed by, however, is the one I ducked somewhat. If a bill to reduce the time limit is introduced, should one support it.

It seems obvious that one should, at first glance; but if it is wrong to support an exemption on the grounds of handicap (or colour, sex, etc as I argued in the post) how can it be right to support an exemption based on age?

I find this very hard to resolve - I have read some of the arguments on both sides and feel the power of both.

I was perhaps not sufficiently clear about the unsettled state of my opinion on this in the original post, where I wrote that 'I am not saying we should not support...' such a bill. A convoluted construction that betrays my uncertainty more than the actual words do!

But my main point is the one about strategy - not what we should do should such a vote present itself but whether pro-life efforts should be to engage in the negotiations and compromises necessary to create a political consensus for such a vote or not...

Ed has pointed out, reasonably enough, that the approach taken by some who espouse the absolutist position (one organisation in particular) is open to criticism, but that of itself, of course, does not invalidate that position.

Where we all seem to agree is on the need for a much more sophisticated approach to addressing the underlying problems, in a spirit of genuine love.

Mike Cliffson said...

I think this side the pond we get confused a different USA issue:concentrate efforts state by state or USA-wide?
Not quite the same thing - it's a bit like continuing to keep N.Ireland relatively abortion-free.
In general Mr smeaton is in the right of it, ever going in as a"trimmer", after one experience, never again.

John Henry Steelson said...

Outstanding. Thank you for taking the time to write this post.

There are a three things that I would like to add. Firstly, abortion is not the starting point. The starting point is the vocation to marriage and within that, the use of artificial contraception which breaks the bond between love and procreation. We are instead called to give justice to the beauty of love in its fullest expression within marriage, and then as witnesses amongst our families, friends, colleagues, parishes and outwards.

Secondly, I cannot imagine Christ 'salami slicing' anything. He didn't say "sin 10% less today, 20% less tomorrow..." He said "repent and follow me". The Jews expected the Saviour to be political - but His Kingdom is not of this kind. His gaze is compassion, mercy and love for the individual. Which leads to my third point...

The Good Counsel Network, Life Houses, foster families, adoptive families, respite carers and all involved with caring for young mothers and children are the hands and feet of Christ. We do not need political solutions - we need the gaze of Christ in our hearts.

John Henry.

Ben Trovato said...


personally I'd use the foetal pain point only to refute pro-choicers, not to construct our case; otherwise we're in deep mire if a time is ever established when there is undoubtedly no capacity to feel pain. I assume you take the same line on that?

I also agree that we must ground our strategy in clear moral principles, as the opposition will change their approach frequently and only a profoundly moral, rather than opportunistic, approach will be proof against that.

Ben Trovato said...


Thanks for your kind words. I agree with you on all points!

Ben Trovato said...


WRT incremental solutions, how do you resolve the issue of supporting something inherently unjust? That's what m wrestling with... On the other hand, refusing to support such a solution feels wrong too...

Mark Lambert said...

I wouldn't support the incremental position except insofar as it is a step towards an absolute ban. I would state clearly that my position is to ban abortion completely, but accept a reduction as a step in the right direction.

Lazarus said...

Ben, my views are similar to yours in that I'm not convinced either way -but on the other hand I'd lean to grabbing whatever lives can be grabbed from legislative change while keeping the hearts and minds campaign absolutely clear that every life counts.

I'm not sure how likely legislative change of any sort is with regard to abortion, but it's absolutely clear that in the next few years the pro-euthanasia side are going to keep pushing until medical killing is allowed. That makes the presentation of the whole Catholic position that it's human beings that matter rather than just some types of human beings absolutely crucial, whatever tactics are adopted in response to abortion legislation.