THIS year marks a significant anniversary: it is 50 years since medical abortion was legalised in Britain. While a majority of churchgoing Anglicans has long supported early abortion (however mournfully), a minority remains strongly opposed, believing it to be murder. The same minority is also strongly opposed to the use, since 2002, of even primitive human embryos in stem-cell research.
Anglican bishops and theologians, however, were instrumental in cautiously enabling both early abortion and human-embryo research to be legalised, adopting what has been termed the “gradualist position”. This position — holding that our moral responsibility increases as an embryo develops from conception to viability — is now being challenged. Even those opposed to legalised abortion should be concerned about this challenge.
During the past 50 years, there have been (unsuccessful) attempts to modify the Abortion Act (1967) by making it more or less restrictive. Given their strongly held divisions, MPs have been reluctant to tamper with the Act. A group of radical doctors, however, is currently lobbying to mark this anniversary by decriminalising abortion in Britain altogether, as has happened recently at federal level in Canada.
This would, they believe, remove legal ambiguities, and prevent the (very occasional) prosecution of women or their helpers for unauthorised late-term abortions. An excellent background paper on this — Decriminalisation of Abortion: a discussion paper from the BMA — has just been published.
This studiously neutral and factual paper recognises that the gradualist position has, so far, been central to the British Medical Association’s approach to both abortion and embryonic-stem-cell research.
Yet, as it happens, there is also a group of distinguished scientists currently lobbying to extend the current 14-day restriction on human embryos used in stem-cell research, arguing that it is impeding important therapeutic developments.
CANON GORDON DUNSTAN (1918-2004) was secretary first of the Council for Social Work, and then of the Church Assembly’s Joint Board of Studies in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1974, by now Professor at King’s College, London, in The Artifice of Ethics he gave a first-hand account of Anglican influence on the Abortion Act. He lived long enough to witness (and support) its influence also on human embryonic-stem-cell research.
Dunstan first traced the way that the Lambeth Conference of Bishops came to support contraception, changing its position of outright condemnation in 1920 to cautious acceptance in 1930; and then, in 1958, to commending contraception as a justifiable response to world over-population. He followed a similar path on abortion, citing accounts of the horrors of illegal back-street abortions, fears of prosecution of doctors trying to help vulnerable women, and historical accounts of Christian pastoral lenience towards women having early abortions.
Knowing also that a contemporary NOP survey had found that only one in five people in Britain totally opposed abortion, Dunstan decided to act. He became secretary (with Bishop Ian Ramsey as chairman) to the Church Assembly sub-group that wrote the 1965 report Abortion: An ethical discussion.
One significant feature of this report was that, for the first time, an authoritative body within the Church of England agreed that abortion could be legalised, if it could be reasonably established that there was a threat to the mother’s life or well-being, and hence inescapably to her health, if she were obliged to carry the child to term and give it birth. And our view is that, in reaching this conclusion, her life and well-being must be seen as integrally connected with the life and well-being of her family (p.61).
Here both the “well-being” of a woman and of her family were deemed valid grounds for abortion. Two years later, the Abortion Act used the phrase “physical or mental health” of the woman rather than well-being, and referred to the physical or mental health of “any existing children of her family”. Yet the conclusions of the report and the Act had obvious affinities.
Its other significant feature was to introduce the gradualist position into the public debate: "It is possible . . . to argue that between the moment of conception and the full maturing of the personality — whenever that may be assumed to have been attained — there is a long period of development, and that the degree of protection which is this person’s due develops pari passu with it."
The gradualist position, which was championed also by Archbishop John Habgood, was immediately popular with politicians. It was used again in politico-ethical debates four decades later about the propriety of using human embryonic-stem-cells in research into serious neurological and genetic conditions.
Significantly, the Scottish theologian and bioethicist Alastair Campbell served as a member of the crucial Department of Health’s Donaldson Commission, whose report in 2000 first made this research possible in Britain — explicitly using the gradualist position — as did the House of Lords Select Committee that produced the equally supportive report Stem Cell Research, in 2002, chaired by Bishop Richard Harries.
WITH the implementation of the Abortion Act, it soon became evident that levels of abortion, especially within the first trimester, were high — arguably higher than the levels of illegal abortions that preceded the Act (although it is obviously difficult to measure the prevalence of illegal and thus secretive abortions with any accuracy).
In addition, it was also established by case law that the third ground in the Abortion Act — “That the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the pregnant woman, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated” — effectively allowed for all abortions within the first trimester to be legal (since continued pregnancy was generally more dangerous than a properly monitored first-trimester abortion).
By 1974, Dunstan regretted that this liberal interpretation of the Abortion Act had led to so many abortions. Yet neither he nor the House of Bishops ever campaigned actively for its repeal. I suspect that they had no wish to return to the days of maternal deaths resulting from septic illegal abortions.
Anglicans do, indeed, remain divided on the legitimacy of early abortion and embryonic-stem-cell research (although British Social Attitudes data suggest that some three-quarters of weekly churchgoers now support both). Yet the very Anglican gradualist position remains a key factor in their widespread acceptance.
It would be foolish to abandon this hard-won position (with the protection it gives to near-term babies) by decriminalising abortion altogether. Caution is also needed — without clear and pressing medical evidence to the contrary — about extending the 14-day limit for human embryonic research.
Canon Robin Gill is Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent, and Editor of Theology.