Tuesday, April 26, 2016

In response to the Beattie petition on the Polish Abortion Law


An ‘Open Letter’ or petition has been publicised calling on the Catholic Bishops of Poland to withdraw their support for a legislative initiative to criminalise all abortion. The signatures are arranged in alphabetical order, but the second name, Tina Beattie, Professor of Catholic Studies at Roehampton, is one of the very few which will be widely recognised, and it will be convenient to refer to the document as ‘the Beattie Petition’. The text, purporting to come from signatories who ‘respect the Church’s moral stance against abortion’, is a disgraceful, but wholly unsuccessful, attempt to justify a failure to protect the unborn. It’s central contention, that abortion is not always an act of injustice towards innocent life deserving of legal protection, cannot overcome, and only ignore, Pope St John Paul II’s powerful declaration the Church’s infallible teaching on abortion, in his 1995 Encyclical Evanglium vitae §57:
Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. This doctrine, based upon that unwritten law which man, in the light of reason, finds in his own heart (cf. Rom 2:14-15), is reaffirmed by Sacred Scripture, transmitted by the Tradition of the Church and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.

Before analysing the Petition, it is well to consider what legislation can hope to achieve on the subject of abortion. The answer is simple: the criminalisation of abortion will reliably suppress the openly practiced, legal abortion industry.

Abortion’s proponents, including the Beattie Petition, invariably argue that ‘driving abortion underground’ is of no benefit, but this is far from being the case. Most obviously, in times and places where abortion has been illegal, but where the availability of illegal abortion has been widely known, and efforts to stamp out illegal abortion far from vigorous, the number of abortions actually carried out has been very small compared with the number performed when abortion has been decriminalised, even under apparently restrictive legal regimes.

There are in addition three other important benefits of criminalisation.

First, the abortion industry’s legal existence creates permanent pressure for the easing of restrictions on abortion, by its support for political campaigning in favour of abortion; similarly, its existence acts as an advertisement of its services, even if some forms of open advertisement are not permitted.

Second, the abortion industry, as countless examples from around the world have demonstrated in recent years, has scant regard for the legal limitations under which it is supposed to operate, or for the safety of its clients. Indeed, it is also a fallacy, exposed in the most painful manner by recent criminal convictions in the United States that, unsafe and even illegal abortions, with poorly trained abortionists and in unsanitary conditions, necessarily disappear when abortion is legalised.

Third, the existence of legal abortion is corrosive to the ethos of the medical profession, whose training and practice is obliged to take account of abortion as a supposedly legitimate procedure. In practice, where abortion is legal and hospitals carry it out, administrators will put pressure on practioners to perform this unpopular procedure, and will ensure that it is included in medical training. A section, at least, of the medical profession will, often against their will, necessarily become involved in abortion, and its putative legitimacy will have to be taken into account in any discussion of medical ethics, undermining a proper understanding of the role of the doctor in relation to his or her patients, in the tradition of the Hippocratic Oath and of Catholic teaching on the Natural Law.

The central contention of the Beattie petition bears on another benefit of criminalisation, which is the most important of all: its effect on women in crisis pregnancies. The Petition claims:
We appreciate the complex ethical challenges involved in any intentionally abortive act. However, we also believe that our Catholic faith calls us to be attentive to suffering in all its forms, and to respond with trust in the mercy, forgiveness and compassion of God when faced with with [sic] profound moral dilemmas that offer no clear solution. In situations where abortion is deemed necessary – such as those currently permitted under Polish law – we believe that access to early, safe and legal abortion is essential.

The cases currently permitted by Polish law are those where a pregnancy is the result of rape; where the mother’s life is endangered by the pregnancy; and where the unborn child is severely disabled or terminally ill. It is these cases alone which will be affected by a complete ban, and which are addressed by the Beattie Petition.

It is difficult to see ‘mercy, forgiveness, and compassion’ at work in the decision to abort a disabled or sick child, particularly when the serious psychological and physical dangers abortion, compared with childbirth, has for mothers. Abortion is the preferred answer, rather, of a medical and social system which would rather not be burdened by the task of supporting mothers and their children in these difficult circumstances.

When a child is conceived in rape, the motivation of the rape victim and her friends and family in seeking abortion is easy to understand. It is equally clear, however, that it can never be a healing choice for a mother to consent to the destruction of her own child. The testimony of many women to the psychological trauma caused by abortion does not encourage the view that abortion is an easy way out for victims of rape.

The Petition focuses, instead, on the case of mothers whose health in endangered by continuing a pregnancy. In this case, the question arises of whether, in the context of modern medicine, such cases actually occur. The 2012 Dublin Declaration on Maternal Health states:
As experienced practitioners and researchers in obstetrics and gynaecology, we affirm that direct abortion – the purposeful destruction of the unborn child – is not medically necessary to save the life of a woman.

This has been signed by more than a thousand medical practioners. The Declaration clearly distinguishes, as the Catholic moral tradition does, and as laws restricting abortion typically do, between abortion, as a procedure aiming at the death of an unborn child, and the medical treatment of a pregnant mother which may endanger the child’s life. In the Catholic tradition, as in the law, the latter can often be legitimate, taking account of the seriousness of the threat to the mother, the possibility of alternative treatments, and so on.

The Beattie Petition appeals to the tragic circumstances implied in each of these cases, with the implication that offering the possibility of abortion is the compassionate thing to do. For a mother in a crisis pregnancy, in some cases traumatised by rape, in other cases seriously ill, or struggling to come to terms with the news that her child is severely disabled, the offer of abortion is not a compassionate intervention. When offered, perhaps with the encouragement of doctors or family members, it will generally present itself as a recommendation. Like all medical recommendations, it will in such circumstances require a special strength of character to resist it, particularly when accompanied by the implied threat: if you don’t abort, the baby will remind you of the rape, the baby will be disabled, the baby will kill you: claims which will not necessarily be true. Such recommendations may be accompanied by pressure, of a subtle or not so subtle kind, from partners or family members, who may for a variety of reasons prefer the baby not to exist. The open door to abortion will distract the attention of all involved from the alternative possibilities: of accepting the unique and sacred character of the child’s life, and of coming to terms with the problems implied by the pregnancy with the support of doctors, family members, and where appropriate the state. Offering abortion to mothers in these cases can, in practice, be hard to distinguish from dispatching them down a pathway of convenience for others, a pathway in which the complications of a crisis pregnancy are swept aside, and the mother is left to cope with the trauma of abortion instead, a trauma the existence of which the advocates of abortion, like the signatories of the Beattie Petition, do not wish even to acknowledge.

It is precisely in these tragic circumstances, more so than in cases where abortion is motivated by apparently frivolous considerations, that the reality of abortion is apparent, as an injustice not only to the unborn, but to the mother. Legal abortion opens up the most vulnerable women of all to pressure to consent to a crime against their unborn child, and against themselves. The criminalisation of abortion, as proposed today in Poland, is a step towards the protection of women and the unborn alike.

Two other claims of the Beattie Petition should briefly be considered. First is the claim that abortion could be reduced by greater availability of contraception:
Finally, there is a body of evidence to show that the best way to prevent abortion is to respect women’s human dignity and freedom of conscience with regard to reproductive decisions, by guaranteeing access to reliable methods of birth control.

Such evidence as is commonly cited is far from decisive, however; what is widely observed and agreed is that the majority of women seeking abortion had been using contraception. The connection between a contraceptive culture and the demand for abortion was set out by Pope St John Paul II in Evangelium vitae (1995) §13. It is strange, in any case, that this claim should be thought to have bearing on the cases of pregnancy resulting from rape, or where abortion is suggested because an unborn child is disabled, or the pregnancy is supposedly a danger to the mother’s life. However rare or common such cases may be, reliable contraception is not going to prevent them arising.

The second claim is the alleged relevance of religious freedom, and Dignatatis humanae, the Declaration on Religious Liberty of the Second Vatican Council, §2. This section deals with the freedom to profess religious beliefs. Any understanding of religious freedom must distinguish between the manifestation of beliefs in harmless ways, and the alleged manifestation of religious beliefs in ways which are unjust to others, particularly others who are do not, or cannot, consent to this treatment. What is unjust must, in turn, necessarily be assessed objectively. Dignitatis humanae makes precisely this distinction, in §7, and ignoring this fact is an indication of a lack of intellectual integrity in the Beattie Petition:
The right to religious freedom is exercised in human society: hence its exercise is subject to certain regulatory norms. In the use of all freedoms the moral principle of personal and social responsibility is to be observed. In the exercise of their rights, individual men and social groups are bound by the moral law to have respect both for the rights of others and for their own duties toward others and for the common welfare of all. Men are to deal with their fellows in justice and civility.

As a matter of fact, the Second Vatican Council directly addressed the issue of abortion, in the Dogmatic Constitution Gaudium et spes, §51, which stressed the obligation to guard against what is a crime, and not just a private sin:
For God, the Lord of life, has conferred on men the surpassing ministry of safeguarding life in a manner which is worthy of man. Therefore from the moment of its conception life must be guarded with the greatest care while abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes.

The Beattie Petition also includes an appeal to ‘the call to mercy and compassion mercy’ of Pope Francis. The petitioners can find no comfort, however, in the Holy Father’s most recent publication, the Post-Synodal Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (2016) §83:

So great is the value of a human life, and so inalienable the right to life of an innocent child growing in the mother’s womb, that no alleged right to one’s own body can justify a decision to terminate that life, which is an end in itself and which can never be considered the “property” of another human being.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Nuns in the Congo: non-authoritative, but true

The Pope referred to the famous case of the 'Nuns in the Congo' in the latest aeroplane interview. The case is about nuns who, fearing rape, take some kind of contraceptive pill. Pope Francis' exact purpose in making the reference was unclear, but not nearly unclear enough for the Vatican spokesman Fr Lombardi, who relived his triumphs in obscuring the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI on the dangers of condoms for people with AIDS, and in throwing sand into the eyes of everyone trying to make sense of Pope Benedict's remarks about male prostitutes using condoms.

In the meantime, Sandro Magister seems to have uncovered the history of the 'Nuns in the Congo' discussion, which wasn't what pretty well everyone had assumed up to now, claiming that Pope Paul VI said nothing on the subject. Rather, it had simply been discussed by some theologians under Pope John XXIII.

Being a moral philosopher rather than a historian or, for that matter, a mind-reader, I think the contribution I can best make here is to explain why the Nuns in the Congo case is important, regardless of whether Pope Paul VI or any other pope authorised any ruling about it.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

The narrative of victimhood: transsexuality

Fallon Fox, born a man, competes against women in
Mixed Marshall Arts, and does pretty well...
I've just noted on my other blog that living as a transsexual has been categorised by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as incompatible with the Faith. This is about the argument in favour of tolerating or promoting this lifestyle.

The transsexual phenomenon is not entirely new, but it is taking on a new form and become a cause celebre with astonishing speed. From a common-sense point of view it seems sheer lunacy: people can now simply claim to be the sex opposite to that indicated by their biology, and have this assertion officially recognised, with or without any medical diagnosis or intervention (not that either would make any real difference).

The radicals who have promoted the social acceptance of transsexuality in this sense have followed the strategy used in a number of other successful campaigns to change attitudes. In the cases of contraception, abortion, IVF, euthanasia, and drug use the appeal is made to a victim group disadvantaged by a old law or attitude, and opponents of change are accused of lacking compassion. Drug users are perhaps the least sympathetic of the proposed victim groups, which is why the legalisation of drugs has been a harder struggle, but the efforts by the liberal media to portray them as charming and harmless are all the more evident.

The other obstacle to the success of the strategy is the existence of a rival group of victims. These are most obviously identifiable in the case of abortion, which is why liberals can't stand depictions of the 'clumps of cells' removed in abortion as they really are: looking like babies. The narrative of people being victimised by an archaic law or attitude is thrown into doubt when it turns out that the proposed new practise simply victimises another set of people. The debate then has to focus on which set of victims has priority.

I'm focusing here on the structure of the arguments, not on their soundness. In the real world, there are real victims and real oppressors. Presenting people as such, however, does not make them so.

Considering this victim/ oppressor narrative is a very crude way of looking at the debates. In reality pro-lifers, for example, argue that women who are pressured into abortion, or who are hoodwinked into thinking of it as having no psychological consequences, are also victims. But the media like dealing with these simple narratives, and their opponents, to be successful, have to find a way to derail the narrative decisively. They need to be able to show, with a simple word or image or heart-felt example, that the victim vs. heartless oppressor story is the wrong way around. That Robin Hood is robbing the poor to keep himself rich, say. Pro-lifers haven't managed this yet, though attitude trends suggest they may be making progress.

The most spectacular example of a derailment, of a victim/ oppressor story being turned around, is is with paedophilia: or, as some of its proponents like to call it, 'intergenerational sex'. Right into the 1990s attempts were being made to establish it as a story about harmless paedophiles being oppressed by outmoded laws and attitudes. The most harmful thing to do to children was to tell them (or agree with them) that sexual contact with adults was wrong, we were told. It was the children's stories which turned it around. It was impossible, in the end, to brush aside their testimony.

A good example of a contested narrative is prostitution. Are those who use prostitutes victims or oppressors? Amnesty International has decided that they are victims: they should be able to exploit the desperation of women forced into prostitution to their heart's content. Most feminists take the opposite view: men who pay for consensual sex with professional sex workers should be hounded. I've been surprised at the strength of the pro-prostitution narrative, which has led to a degree of civil war among progressives, but I don't think it can last. The awfulness of the reality of decriminalised prostitution in Germany throws a bucket of cold water over the idea that clients are (when subjected to penalties) the victims.

The lack of a rival group of victims makes IVF and contraception particularly hard to oppose. On the other hand, the establishment of the disabled as a rival victim group in the case of euthanasia has seriously complicated efforts to promote it.

In the case of the debate about transsexualism, the liberal promoters of the idea naturally depict the transsexuals as victims and anyone not playing along with it as heartless oppressors. The victimisation consists of not allowing the transsexuals to do what they want to do. The problem the liberals face in this case is a ready-made rival group of victims: women, many of whom have no desire to share their changing facilities, loos, and competitive sports with people who are biologically male. Liberals have found themselves attacking these women in most extreme terms, but these victims are not going to go away, and unlike unborn babies, they can speak for themselves.

We live in interesting times, as the saying is. I wouldn't like to bet on it, but it may be that the liberals have bitten off more than they can chew with this one. Screaming 'bigot', at seventeen-year-old girls who don't want to shower in front of a biological male, is only going to get you so far.

(For a taste of the debate about what Americans so charminly call 'rest rooms', search for 'lila perry' on Twitter. To see the gloves really come off, search for 'terf'. It stands for 'trans excluding radical feminist'.)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Conference on Human Nature

Conference on Saturday 3rd May

Human Nature: Biology, Ethics and Theology

With Rev Prof Nicanor Austriaco OP
Associate Professor, Molecular Biology and Genetics, Providence College
Visiting Research Fellow, Anscombe Bioethics Centre

Fr Austriaco will present two papers on recovering natural inclinations and disinclinations in biological and ethical discourse, looking at how biological dis/inclinations relate to the Virtues, Natural Law and Original Sin.

Dr Joost Banneke (Clinical Psychology) 
Rev Dr Robert Gay OP (Biology, Bioethics)
Dr Simon Kolstoe (Biomedical Chemistry, Research Ethics)
Rev Dr Richard Conrad OP (Chemistry, Dogmatic Theology)

10.30-4pm, at Blackfriars Hall OX1 3LY

Please register online HERE.
Or via admin@bioethics.org.uk / 01865 610212

Registration is £10 (includes lunch)

Thursday, October 03, 2013

A paradox of Utilitarian thinking: the uselessness of terror bombing

Update: another book on this subject, looking at a wider range of bombing campaigns, comes to the same conclusion: Bombing to Win by by Robert A. Pape

It is a fact that, in principle, Utilitarianism cannot be self-defeating. Since it does not specify a particular strategy or set of means to achieve its goal (the greatest possible good), any strategy or set of means which failed would be rejected.

In practice, Utilitarian agents are self-defeating with depressing regularity. The most powerful and ruthless people who seek some good regardless of the constraints of common-sense morality seem almost always to end up creating far more harm than good - even in their own terms. No one could be more calculating and unimpeded in pursuit of a goal than the great dictators of the last couple of centuries, but, despite the oceans of blood they spilt, their imperial or ideological projects came, in the end, to nothing. In some cases they had thoroughly misguided goals; in others, their disregard for conventional morality created a reaction which eventually defeated them. Both show the dangers of Utilitarianism in practice: it encourages the idea they you can dream up your own vision of the good and then promote it with complete disregard for the collateral damage - having worked out first, to your own satisfaction, that this damage will be less than the good you will bring about. Such calculations are invitations to self-delusion, not to say megalomania.

One enduring debate among historians is the value, or lack of it, of one of the greatest crimes committed by the Allies in the 2nd World War, of conventional area bombing. I was interested to see a new book on the subject, which concludes that the huge resources devoted to this would have been better used elsewhere, from the point of view of winning the war as quickly as possible: that is to say, even leaving aside the horrendous carnage it created of non-combatants.

The case of the nuclear bombing of Japan is even more controversial as to its effectiveness, though even more straightforwardly criminal in its targeting of civilians.

Here are some quotations from the Economist's review.

The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945. By Richard Overy. Allen Lane; 852 pages; £30.

The failure of Germany’s first big bombing campaign against Britain, following the allies’ unexpectedly sudden collapse in France in 1940, was in some ways typical of what came later in confused ends and inadequate means. Two things above all ensured that all the early attempts at strategic bombing (whether by the Germans, the British or the hopelessly ill-equipped Italians) were far less effective than anyone had expected.

The first was the near impossibility, given the technology then available, of landing a meaningful concentration of bombs near any target other than a large city; in 1941 only one in ten Royal Air Force (RAF) bombers got within five miles of their targets in the Ruhr valley. The second was the unforeseen resilience of well-organised societies to withstand bombing without suffering either moral or economic collapse. Shelter was found for people who had lost their homes, repairs to infrastructure were quickly made and industrial production temporarily shifted if necessary. Although more than 40,000 people died during the eight months of the Blitz and in London about 1m homes were damaged or destroyed, there were no riots and war production increased steadily. People suffered, but the majority got used to it.

Despite this experience, Britain’s Bomber Command under the brutally single- minded Arthur Harris, never doubted that “area bombing”, a euphemism for attacking cities indiscriminately. And he never lost his belief that if you killed enough German workers you would win the war. Yet even when the RAF in 1942, closely followed by the US Army Air Force, began to put together the famous “thousand bomber” raids that were supposed to “knock Germany out of the war”, German war production continued to ramp up and the Nazi regime never came remotely close to losing political control.


Mr Overy’s final verdict, however, is damning. He argues that “strategic bombing proved in the end to be inadequate in its own terms for carrying out its principle assignments and was morally compromised by deliberate escalation against civilian populations.” Nor has it left any real legacy. It was rapidly rendered redundant by the overwhelming but (since 1945 at least) unusable destructive power of nuclear weapons. More recently, bombing has come full circle. Precision-guided munitions now allow Western air forces to hit military targets while leaving even nearby civilians often largely unscathed—the precise opposite of what prevailed during the second world war.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Carts and Horses in John Haldane

The Philosophical Quarterly has just published my review of John Haldane's Reasonable Faith; they kindly inform me that I can make it available to all on-line if I pay them £3,000. Thanks, but no thanks.

Here, nevertheless, is a teaser quote.

Haldane notes the description of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, as suggesting that we should look again at notions of personal identity and post-mortem survival which allow temporal gaps in existence (p7). Haldane goes on to explore these issues in Chapter 11 (pp145-159). What is puzzling is the suggestion that we take as a starting point in philosophy a datum—if it is a datum—of Revelation. The standard Thomist approach is that philosophy deals with matters of Natural Reason, leaving Revelation to Theology: Philosophy is by definition the exercise of reason without the explicit aid of Revelation, and its role is to establish the conceptual ‘Nature’ which is perfected by Grace. Christian Philosophers have the task of showing the coherence of Christian beliefs without appeal to their supernatural origins, for the benefit of critics who do not accept those origins, and in areas such as Metaphysics and Mind it engages at ground level with non-Christian thought. Thomists might add further that the correct understanding of Scripture requires a complete theological education and the supernatural virtue of Faith. From this perspective, the argument that, since in contemporary philosophy more or less anything can spark a philosophically fruitful debate, we might as well raid the pages of the Christian Scriptures, is not altogether flattering, and may be imprudent. For those who take the Christian contribution to Philosophy seriously, Scripture is not just one more possible source of interesting ideas, along with Dostoyevsky or the study of the neurology of autism.

"Reasonable Faith. By JOHN HALDANE. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010. Ppx + 197. Price £25.99.)"
Philosophical Quarterly, Vol 63, Issue 253, start page 830 

Friday, March 02, 2012

Infanticide: coming to a hospital near you

The Bones has a good post about the way the eugenicists float 'shocking' ideas, wait for the fuss to die down, and then impose the reality. They get people used to the idea of contraception, abortion, screening for the disabled, euthanasia, by endless debate, and their chums in the media are always on hand to keep the defenders of the status quo on the back foot. The matter is never settled until they get their way; when that happens, suddenly it is very settled indeed, one might think it was handed down from the Almighty, the fuss they make about 'attacks on abortion rights' and so on.

This procedure is aided enormously if the response of Catholics is not to oppose the evil with arguments from Natural Law, but to beg to be allowed to shelter Catholic institutions and Catholic medics from having anything to do with it. The progressives are always willing to make this concession to win the main issue, after which they can remove our precious protections at their leisure. This has happened so often now it would be tedious to list the cases, but it started with Cardinal Heenan reining in opponents of abortion in exchange for a 'conscience clause' which in the long term has proved totally worthless.

There is another aspect of the progressive strategy which is worth highlighting. The Catholic Medical Quarterly has just published a short paper of mine, which the editor commissioned, on the widely used medical textbook by Beauchamp & Childress. This was first published in 1979, and is now in its fifth edition. It is a truly appalling book, a disgrace to academia, deriving not from serious moral philosophers but a self-regarding group of 'applied ethics' people who find it very easy to get grants and sell books without actually thinking anything through clearly.

The Catholic Medical Quarterly very decently lets people download pds of articles, and you can read mine here. One very striking thing about the Beauchamp and Childress approach is that they encourage medics to view every decision as a matter of balancing considerations. Not, as you might imagine, medical pros and cons to a proposed treatment, or anything as sensible as that, but 'on the one hand, Kantian ethics would suggest option (a); on the other, the patient wants (b); and then again my feeling is that we should go for (c).' This describes what may indeed be the reasoning of a medic with absolutely no ethical formation; Beauchamp and Childress want to keep medics that way, even after they've done a course in 'medical ethics'. Instead of making a decision on the basis of a coherent account of ethics which is itself subject to rigorous debate, they want medics to balance innumerable such accounts against each other and against inchoate feelings and even social pressure.

The genius of this account is that it can disguise the victory of materialism and utilitarianism indefinitely. One of the most powerful arguments against these theories is that they have extreme implications which are completely implausible. Murder five innocent people to save six? Cause great pain to one to save a large number from pin pricks? Give extra food to an indolent epicure while ignoring the needs of contented paupers? Instead of confronting these cases and concluding that Utilitarianism is simply wrong, Beauchamp and Childress say: keep it in the background, just balance it against your intuitions. So as time goes on, and healthy moral intuitions are undermined by relentless Utilitarian propaganda, not least in medical ethics courses, it can continue its relentless advance. The unthinkability of contraception, abortion, IVF, screening, euthanasia, and infanticide disappear one after the other because it hasn't been made sufficiently clear that the only reason to ignore these traditional moral prohibitions is a moral theory, Utilitarianism, which no sane  person would actually adopt, without massive and arbitrary conditions, in real life.