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.