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Out of contention

01 June 2018

IN extending the possibility of termination of pregnancies there is always a risk that some will abuse this extension. Nevertheless, in the interests of the mothers, of the children who will be born and of the moral condition of society as a whole, the benefits of a revision of the law are likely far to outweigh any disadvantages. If we can succeed in rescuing the whole matter from its present sordid circumstances for tens of thousands of unhappy mothers, a great contribution will have been made to their health and happiness and to that of our society.”

These words might have been written in the run-up to the Irish referendum last Friday, which landed such a decisive blow on the Eighth Amendment, framed in 1983 to protect the life of the unborn in the Irish Republic. They were written, in fact, in 1965, in an article in the Church Times by Canon Herbert Waddams, just as the UK Parliament was beginning to consider legislation that would form the Abortion Act 1967, which legitimised abortion in certain circumstances in mainland Britain. Ireland, similarly, has been moved by stories of cruelties inflicted on unhappy mothers. It ought, similarly, to be concerned about the abuse of any liberalisation. The number of abortions in England and Wales since 1967 stands at about nine million, far in excess of anything imagined by legislators. The human reproductive system is naturally very wasteful — when it is not being niggardly — but many of these foetuses were healthy. Their misfortune, of being conceived in the wrong circumstances, has been overcome by very many infants whose mothers chose a different path.

What we appear to be witnessing is morality done on the hoof, where the initiative has been taken by those with most say in the matter, in this instance the mothers themselves. (Little heed is given to those in the medical profession who are given the task of carrying out the abortions.) In Ireland, the Church has been effectively silenced, discredited by abuse scandals. In the UK, the silence has been largely voluntary: the Church has withdrawn from the public debate about contentious affairs because, frankly, it is not very good at it. Engaging with modern science, considering a burning issue with others on an equal standing, dealing with internal division, mediating the views of lay men and women — these are skills still to be learnt. Before then, however, the Church’s theologians have to regain confidence in their ability to bring academic discipline to bear on pastoral matters. It is too easy to stand back from the abortion debate, say, or the Brexit decision, by reasoning that one must act as pastor to both sides.

An indication of how far the Church of England must travel may be found on its new website, with its welcoming message: “With you at life’s key moments”. Two items appear if you type “abortion” into the search box. One has no relevance; the other is a hasty and repetitive account of past synodical pronouncements. People who are personally affected by the issue, or who wish to be informed on an issue in the news, must look elsewhere for practical advice, theological guidance, and pastoral sympathy.

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