Roger Watson looks at recent changes in the abortion laws, and asks where they lead
DAVID Alton, a Catholic and Liberal Democratic Member of Parliament, recently sponsored an amendment to the legislation on embryo research which was aimed at facilitating a change in the working of the Abortion Act.
The purpose of the amendment was to restrict the practice of abortion from 28 weeks to 18 weeks after conception. • On the whole, Mr Alton appeared to have the support of the pro-life movement, Catholic laypeople in general and the hierachy of the Catholic church in Britain.
The battle lines were drawn, therefore, over the issue of the "Alton amendment", between the pro-lifers and the pro-aborters. The Alton amendment failed in as much as the abortion limit was only lowered to 24 weeks.
However, the question must be raised of whether or not a vote in favour of the Alton amendment, one which would have lowered the abortion limit to 18 weeks after conception, could have been seen as a victory and, in the same vein, whether or not the current reduction, by four weeks, represents any kind of progress towards truly pro-life legislation.
The motives of the proaborters (preferring to describe themselves as pro-"choice") were clear and easy to understand; they wanted no further restriction on the availability of abortion for women with unwanted pregnancies. Amongst the ranks of the pro-choice movement there are those who favour abortion without restriction.
The motives of the pro-lifers were, on the other hand, less easy to understand. They must, at the very least, be given the benefit of the doubt and ascribed the highest of aims; that of ultimately outlawing abortion.
However, it cannot only be a handful of the pro-life movement who realise that, in the end, they may have achieved nothing, or worse than nothing, by supporting the Alton amendment. Some
surety grasped the truth and see that their aims were, at the most, second best and they saw the Alton amendment as an opportunity to air the abortion issue, present the anti-abortion case and to rally the troops for further action.
The Alton amendment did not seek to outlaw abortion. The reason mooted for this course of action was that "politics is the art of the possible" and that it would not have been possible to gain sufficient support for a bill aimed at reducing time limit for abortions to zero weeks.
The problem for the prolifers in this approach has always been that it is a twoedged sword. Politics being the "art of the possible" is precisely the weapon which has been used throughout by the pro-choice movement. Abortion became available, initially, on medical grounds. These were stretched by practitioners to include psychological and social grounds, and the outcome has been that abortion is available for virtually any woman who requests it.
If the point at which an unborn baby can be killed in the womb is rated on a sliding scale from 0-10, ie from conception to birth, under the law as it presently stands we were recently at a value of about seven. The Alton amendment sought to reduce the value (the point at which abortion is permissible) to about four or five.
The forces in the recent struggle may have been pulling in different directions but they were both making measurements which are based on a man made scale.
This is relative morality at its most effective and, while many of the pro-life lobby would claim to subscribe to absolute moral values, they were forced, in the recent debate as they have been in the past, on tO the wrong ground.
On the relative scale of values one decision or course of action can appear subjectively better than another while both, objectively viewed for example by the magisterium of the Catholic church, are wrong. Under these circumstances the concept of a "lesser evil" does not enter into the argument since, according to the teaching of the Catholic church, abortion is always wrong.
The damage to the pro-life argument comes from the fact that their tactics could have been interpreted as an approval of abortion up to 18 weeks after conception. Also, to minds which are still in the formative stage, the parents, politicians and voters of the future, it appears that the acceptability of abortion rests on a sliding scale and that acceptability on this scale is attained below a level where the foetus is either not recognisably human.
The use of such parameters is, essentially, emotional and does nothing to support the biological and theological arguments against abortion.
Now that the outcome of parliamentary voting on the Alton amendment is known, apart from the arguments above, the effect on the present level of abortion will be minimal to non-existent. It is a fact that 96.7 per cent of abortions take place in England and Wales before 18 weeks after conception. Based on the abortion statistics for 1988 this would only have led to the saving of slightly over 3 per cent of the children who would otherwise have been aborted.
Each child saved, of course, should be seen as a major victory for the pro-lifers.
On the other hand, victory over the Alton amendment could not have led to any sense of satisfaction that progress had been made in the abortion debate.
Roger Watson BSc PhD RGN CBiol MIBiol is lecturer in nursing studies at Edinburgh University.