A study from the University of London, which was published this week, says that Down-syndrome pregnancies have risen by 70 per cent. This is put down to women having babies later in life, when the chances of a Down-syndrome conception are higher. But the study also says that fewer children are being born with the condition, as its abortion rate is now 92 per cent. Some apparent expert on the Today programme justified all of this under that lazy catch-all alibi: choice.
It is the choice of modern women to try for babies later in life because this fits in better with their desire for a career earlier in life. So the number of abortions rises steadily. Abortion is a by-product of a lifestyle choice. But because it is a largely hidden one — the sadness of abortion taking place privately and discreetly — the full cost of this demographic shift in women’s behaviour and expectations is rarely weighed. It is out of sight and out of mind — and thus so much easier to wave away with a casual flick of the word “choice”.
But the Today-programme expert is not alone in using the word as she did. It is the single most over-used, and misused, get-out-of-jail-free card in contemporary moral jargon. So let’s take it slowly. Choice is good, in so far as a free society is better than an unfree one. That moral principle is in the bank, for me.
None the less, just because something is a choice does not make it morally right. I might choose to stab the Dean of St Paul’s, but my choosing to do so makes no difference to the morality of the act. This is so obvious that it ought not to need saying.
Yet the way that many public figures segue from the importance of having choice to a blanket affirmation of the moral rightness of any and every choice made, by anybody in any conceivable circumstances, is absurd, and deeply corrosive of the moral fibre of society. I feel a bit of an idiot having to point this out. But if Grandma can’t suck eggs, she needs to be shown how.
More than 1100 Down-syndrome babies were aborted in 2007-08, compared with 300 in 1989-90. Those of us who think this a significant moral issue are often treated like religious fundamentalists who want to put women in shackles and push them into the hands of grubby back-street abortionists.
Rubbish: what most of us want to see is an end to our culture’s damaging obsession with physical perfection, something driven by our own fear of inadequacy. The false logic of choice which blocks any challenge to this cult of perfection is profoundly harmful to us all.
The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute.