Politicians and the abortion issue


Universe Column

By David Alton

Last week I attended a press conference convened by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) to announce the results of research conducted last October by MORI on contemporary attitudes towards abortion in the UK. Sharing a platform with Ian Jones, Chief Executive of the BPAS, were two prominent ‘pro-choice’ MPs, Dr Jenny Tonge and Frank Dobson. Also on the platform was John O’Brien from ‘Catholics for a Free Choice’, of whom more later.

MORI’s research purported to show that two-thirds of the British public believe that “abortion should be made legally available for all who want it”. This is hardly unsurprising. It accords with previous polls commissioned by the BPAS and, like other polls commissioned by the pro-choice and pro-euthanasia lobbies, comprises loaded questions that elicit predictable responses. One can hardly imagine the BPAS publishing a poll that disclosed widespread opposition to abortion.

The major ‘finding’ which the BPAS were keen to highlight was that a political candidate’s position on abortion appears not to be an important factor when voters are deciding whether or not to endorse that candidate. For 43% of those polled, the abortion issue is either very important or fairly important; for 50% the issue is either not very important or not important at all.

Taking into account the margin of error in opinion polls, this hardly represents conclusive proof that the abortion issue is irrelevant. However, as far as Dr Tonge and Mr Dobson were concerned, this particular aspect of MORI’s research allowed them to bask in self-congratulation. According to Dr Tonge, “It is very important for MPs to know that for half the public, a political candidate’s position on abortion is not important, and by supporting a woman’s right to choose they are speaking for the majority”.

Notwithstanding the inaccuracy of these sorts of polls, if 43% of British voters still regard a candidate’s position on abortion as important this still represents a sizeable minority whose votes could prove decisive, particularly within marginal constituencies – even in Dr Tonge’s perhaps? After all, Richmond was a Tory seat prior to the 1997 election.

Yet just in case we in the pro-life lobby get carried away by this, MORI have also discovered that of this 43%, two thirds are pro choice. So the abortion issue isn’t important but just in case it is, the pro-life lobby is the loser. The BPAS have all angles covered.

According to Ian Jones, Chief Executive of the BPAS, their poll demonstrates that, “It’s about time we recognised that abortion is an essential reproductive healthcare need that people should not be afraid to talk about”. This has been a clarion call of the pro-choice movement for years. But regardless of how many polls are commissioned and what types of loaded questions are asked, I remain convinced that for the vast majority of people, not just in the UK but world-wide, the destruction of unborn human life is distasteful and not just another “healthcare need” that can be equated with the removal of tonsils. No amount of persuasion and manipulation on the part of the BPAS and their pro-choice allies can alter this fact.

Perhaps this is why the pro-choice movement are introducing their ‘secret weapon’ into the UK debate in the form of the US based organisation, ‘Catholics for a Free Choice’ (CFC). This organisation seeks to undermine the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of human life and campaigns for, amongst other things, liberal abortion laws. Claiming to work “in the Catholic social justice tradition”, CFC’s website declares that “reproductive rights protect human dignity and autonomy at a basic level”.

Recognising that the Catholic Church has been a major thorn in their side, the BPAS and their allies must be delighted to be able to ally themselves with a ‘Catholic’ organisation that shares their pro-abortion ideology. As John O’Brien from CFC addressed the BPAS press conference I could see Dr Tonge, Mr Dobson and Ian Jones nodding their approval. “Now this is the sort of Catholic we can do business with”, they will have thought to themselves.

John O’Brien, a former director of the Irish Family Planning Association, advised his sympathetic audience that the Catholic hierarchy is fundamentally out of touch with its members. His mantra was that “Catholic are doing it for themselves”, following their own consciences on issues such as abortion and contraception and that it is about time the Church realised this and adapted Herself accordingly. For Mr O’Brien, the average Catholic family now bears a striking resemblance to the cartoon family, ‘The Simpsons’. Sounds familiar? – I didn’t think so

Basing his observations largely on his US experience, Mr O’Brien endorsed the results of the BPAS commissioned poll as reflecting the ‘reality’ that for the vast majority of Western Catholics abortion is not important. Yet is clearly is for him and his organisation which chooses to give itself the ‘Catholic’ label.

Not only did he contradict himself, Mr O’Brien also displayed a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the Catholic Church. Whilst CFC may be able to cite dozens of (most probably inaccurate) polls suggesting Catholics neither endorse nor follow official teaching on abortion and contraception, the fact remains that the Holy Father and his Bishops are not there to pander to public opinion. Rather, they are ordained to preach and uphold universal and unchanging truths, guided by the Holy Spirit. The foremost of these truths is “the natural law written in the heart, the sacred value of human life from its very beginning until its end…. Upon the recognition of this right, every human community and the political community itself are founded”. (Evangelium Vitae)

CFC and its allies may claim that conscience is pre-eminent but as Catholics we are called to a “cultural transformation” that “consists in forming consciences with regard to the incomparable and inviolable worth of every human life. It is of the greatest importance to re-establish the essential connection between life and freedom. These are inseparable goods: where one is violated, the other also ends up being violated. There is no true freedom where life is not welcomed and loved; and there is no fullness of life except in freedom” (Evangelium Vitae).

Faced with the caricature of the Church presented by organisations such as CFC the challenge for Church hierarchy, but more importantly her lay members, is to demonstrate just how inaccurate this caricature is.

The pro-choice lobby, as I witnessed at the press conference, remains determined to bring forward legislation that would further liberalise UK abortion laws. No doubt the pro-choice lobby is frustrated at seeing the social and political agenda dominated by the pro-life lobby – witness the accumulating evidence of a link between abortion and breast cancer and the judicial triumph of the ProLife Alliance over the transmission of their election broadcast.

Not content with a law that already allows abortion on demand in practice, calls are being made for the relaxation of the need for two doctors to authorise each abortion and for abortion to be formally made available on demand within the first twelve weeks of pregnancy.

With MPs like Dr Tonge and Mr Dobson seemingly happy to oblige their pro-choice allies outside Parliament if their names came forward in the private members ballot, allied to a sizeable pro-choice majority within the Commons, the threat from the pro-abortion lobby is real.

Consequently, we need to redouble our efforts to ensure that our political representatives are fully cognisant of their obligation to uphold the sanctity of human life in the in the truest sense of the Catholic social justice tradition, not the distorted sense promoted by Catholics for a Free Choice.