ANY attempt to extend abortion provision beyond the current 24-week limit would be “vigorously” challenged by the Church of England’s bishops, the Bishops of Newcastle and Carlisle said this week.
In the past, MPs and peers have been free to vote according to their according to their conscience, they said, “and we believe firmly that it should remain so”.
The Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Christine Hardman, and the Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, who leads on health and social care, were responding on behalf of the House of Bishops to a letter in The Times on Wednesday signed by 383 members of the clergy and laity, which expressed opposition to proposals for the decriminalisation of abortion in the election manifestos of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
Organised by the assistant curate of St Peter’s, Stockton-on-Tees, and St John’s, Elton, in Durham diocese, the Revd Dr Philip Murray, the letter says that the changes “would amount to a declaration that a foetus was no longer a human being, worthy of the same protections against deliberate harm and termination of life”. It calls on the Bishops “to do all they can to speak out against them”.
In their reply, published on Friday, Bishops Hardman and Newcome welcome the letter. They write: “The Church of England’s stated position combines principled opposition with a recognition that there can be strictly limited conditions under which abortion may be morally preferable to any available alternative. This is based on our view that the foetus is a human life with the potential to develop relationships, think, pray, choose and love.
“Those facing unwanted pregnancies realise the gravity of the decision they face: all abortions are tragedies, since they entail judging one individual’s welfare against that of another (even if one is, as yet, unborn). Every possible support, especially by church members, needs to be given to those who are pregnant in difficult circumstances and care, support and compassion must be shown to all, whether or not they continue with their pregnancy.
“As a general rule we would not comment on specifics of party manifestos in the midst of a General Election campaign, but as bishops and as Members of the House of Lords we are fully committed to engagement on this with parties, MPs and Peers when Parliament returns. The issue has in the past been a matter of individual conscience for MPs and Peers where the party whip is not usually applied, and we believe firmly that it should remain so. We can provide assurance that we will also vigorously challenge any attempt to extend abortion provision beyond the current 24 week limit.”
The seven bishops of the Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda issued a separate statement on Wednesday. They wrote: “We pledge ourselves to oppose any legislation involving further liberalisation of the law in respect of abortion that may be introduced by any future UK government.”
Both statements encourage people to question their parliamentary candidates about their view on the issue.
The Archdeacon of London, the Ven. Luke Miller, wrote on Twitter that the abortion proposals were “wrong and should be vigorously opposed”.
Currently, under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, any woman in the UK who ends a pregnancy without legal authorisation from two doctors can face a sentence up to life imprisonment. The “We Trust Women” coalition of 36 organisations, including the Green Party and the Royal College of Midwives, is in favour of decriminalisation.
It argues that “it is unacceptable that women’s bodies remain governed by Victorian legislation that fossilises values well out of step with those cherished in Britain today” and says that provision in the Act prevents women’s taking the “abortion pill” (early medical abortion) at home in their own time, and that the threat of prosecution “deters many doctors from wanting to enter this fundamental area of women’s healthcare”. There is no evidence that removing criminal sanctions leads to an increase in later terminations, it says.