The Effects of Abortion on British Society

Author: Anthony Fisher, O.P.


by Anthony Fisher, O.P.

It's good to be alive

From the beginning Christians opposed abortion. However they differed over embryology and sanctions, they were convinced that all abortions and infanticide were wrong. This marked them out from many of their contemporaries. This was probably behind the New Testament anathemas against sorcerors, for abortifacients were one of the principal poisons they provided. Within a century even clearer denunciations came forth in the , the , and thereafter from the pens of Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Basil, Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine. This attitude continued throughout the middle ages and beyond the Reformation: Luther and Calvin were every bit as opposed to abortion as their Catholic contemporaries. And in modern times the popes and bishops have been unequivocal: abortion--to quote Vatican II--is an abominable crime.

Where did all this come from? Partly from Judaism. The God of the Bible is a living God who communicates his life to all living creatures, above all to the pinnacle of his creation, human beings. Human beings are accorded great dignity, created uniquely as God's image and likeness as little less than gods themselves, intimately known by him, joined to God as in a marriage covenant, destined and oriented to him as their ultimate goal. In the Scriptural view of things, life is a trust given into our stewardship by God; we are called to choose life not death, and the ways of life not of death; any killing demands justification and the taking of human life is always contrary to God's law and to that trust. No one should assume the rôle of the Author of Life and Death.

This so-called 'sanctity of life' principle had special application to the child in the womb. God in his providence creates human beings with a vocation and a destiny even in the womb; he treasures all children and gives them as a blessing to their parents. He deplores the deaths even of the youngest. Christian faith added a radical new dimension to this. For God had taken flesh himself as a human embryo in the womb of Mary, was heralded while still an embryo by his foetal cousin, John, and developed from unborn child to infant, adolescent and adult. The Incarnation and Redemption further dignified all humanity and called us all to become 'children of God'.

This is not, of course, simply a matter of quirky religious taboos or moral dogmatics sent by express post from the Almighty to the Vatican. In common with people of other religions and none, the Christian tradition teaches that human beings matter, they matter equally, and they matter very much. The source of this dignity is complex and can be couched in religious terms, secular philosophical terms, the political rhetoric of human rights, in poetry, in song. Shakespeare in put it in these terms: "What piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals". As this last praise notes, human beings are animals, organisms, living things. So life, bodily, organic life, is a basic good for us, and it is a good irreducible to anything else like pleasure or consciousness or social usefulness. It is participation in that good of bodily life that makes much of what we do intelligible. There is not the time here to give a fuller account of how and why we regard life as a good, a sufficient reason for choices and actions, something we all share in common and part of our common good. Suffice it here to say that a very good case can be made out for the notion that life is a good , and one does not have to give further reasons for promoting life and avoiding death. And so one can construct a philosophical case, without Christian revelation, for the view that human lives are of such intrinsic importance that no choice intentionally to bring about an innocent person's death can be right. This sanctity of life principle has been much referred to in legal cases and most earlier this year in the House of Lords report on euthanasia. It is said to be deeply embedded in our law and ethics throughout the world, included in international human rights documents, and basic to our common morality. It has also informed medical ethics since at least as far back as Hippocrates.

The precept against killing the innocent is basic to morality, to community, and to civilisation. Its observance is an essential part of how we live justly and charitably. Abortion is demonstrably a case of killing. If the test of a civilised society is how it treats the most vulnerable--the old and the sick, the young and ignorant, the poor and handicapped, the homeless and despised, the dispossessed and powerless--then the death of these little ones convicts Britain of being not so much a post-industrial society as a post-civilized society.

But it does not end there. Britain's experience of abortion shows that killing is like throwing a pebble in a pond. There is an immediate and obvious splash: the death of an unborn child, relief for the mother. But there are ripples that go out in all directions. Try as we may, morality can never be privatized: our choices inevitably affect others. As John Donne put it: "any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." Here I want to explore what some of these ripples of the abortion splash are.

Death on a huge scale

Britain's abortion rate is high. Historically, it is without precedent here. It is not as high as some comparable countries (the US, Australia, Italy...), but high enough. At an official 180,000 per year, every three years we abort the same number of people as the total of British casualties in the Second World War. There has been a dramatic acceleration of the abortion rate since the passage of the 1967 Abortion Act, giving lie to the notion that there is a certain definite pool of women who will have abortions whether they are legal or not, and that laws on abortion or availability of abortion are irrelevant to the demand. In fact it is now clear that demand for abortion is at least partly supply-driven. In the next generation we are likely to see the introduction of a range of contragestive and abortifacient drugs (of which RU486 is only the first) as regular methods of birth control, so that the abortion rate may well rise even further. Whatever one's view of the respect due to the unborn--whether or not you agree with my view that they are morally equal to any older human being--this huge scale of killing of the youngest members of our species, family or community, must be a cause for serious concern. These creatures are of us, they are us, they are our potential future. And they cry out for justice, for love, to be remembered.

Effects on women

We should recognize that the results of abortion are by no means homogeneous, nor universally bad: many women (and men, families, societies) experience great relief from fear or threat after abortion, even if they are unavoidably ambivalent. Partly for this reason I would never judge a woman who has had an abortion. We cannot know how really free she was, what options she had or thought she had, what pressures she was under, or how well she understood what was involved. Odds are she was frightened and lonely, and pressured by a man or parents or our cop-out society.

None the less I think it is important to address the ill-effects of abortion because so often the abortion industry and its friends such as the women's magazines present a very deceptive picture of abortion as a simple and safe procedure with no real risks for anyone. A wide variety of physical complications are associated with abortion, ranging from death, which fortunately is increasingly rare, to the much less serious but much more common side-effects such as infections and bleeding and cervical incompetence. There is also growing evidence of considerable increases in infertility and cancer after this intrusive procedure.

The psychological complications from abortion are more significant than the physical ones. At one end of the range are those women who suffer severe psychiatric breakdowns consequent upon abortion: they are rare but with 180,000 women a year having abortions even 0.1 per cent would mean this is 180 women a year in Britain. At the other end of the range there are those women who report that they experience nothing but relief following abortion. In between there are the majority of women--perhaps three-quarters of them-- who suffer various degrees of mild psychological ill-effects such as unresolved guilt, regret, anxiety and sleeplessness, often not surfacing immediately but later when the woman first keeps a child or has difficulty having a child. Whatever the literature and the psychiatric associations might say about post-abortion syndrome, the fact is that a growing number of psychologists, counsellors, priests and pastoral workers, many working full-time, are dealing with the aftermath of abortion.

There are two difficulties in assessing the damage wrought by abortion on women. One is that there is insufficient follow-up being carried out: this is simply not a fashionable area of research. Furthermore, the abortion industry and its promoters continue to play down these ill-effects for commercial and ideological reasons. While ever being pro-abortion is the membership card for the radical women's movement, the very group which one would expect to demand rigorous research and information-giving will be mute on this issue. It is a remarkable fact of women's health history that while women groups have succeeded in demanding a more thorough examination and wider publication of the ill-effects of several pregnancy and contraceptive drugs and devices, as well as surgical procedures such as caesarean sections, mastectomies and hysterectomies, they have allowed the damage done to women by surgical and soon chemical abortion to continue unexamined and uncriticized.

Effects on the rest of the family

We know that abortion carries risks to future children of premature birth, low birthweight, and physical and mental retardation. Little is known about the effects of abortion grief upon the fathers and upon other surviving members of the family. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of ill-effects. Professor Philip Ney has shown that there is some correlation, very possibly causal, between abortion and domestic violence. Despite the predictions that abortion would produce a caring society in which every child would be a wanted child, the incidence of physical abuse of children reported to the NSPCC doubled in the 1980s and is probably still increasing.

Effects on medical staff

The most obvious effect of abortion on medical staff is the provision for some of employment and lucrative incomes. Abortion is a multimillion pound industry and while most doctors refer for abortion, its profits are concentrated in the hands of a relatively small group of professionals who have a strong commercial interest in promoting abortion.

But there are other less advantageous effects. Considerable pressure is brought to bear on staff--especially nurses and ob-stet interns--to take part in abortions despite their conscientious or emotional objections. To object can cost people their careers. And at the same time we have growing evidence of psychological ill-effects on the abortionists themselves, as evidenced by high staff turnover rates, difficulty of finding staff in some places despite lucrative pay packages, and reports of burnout and psychological disturbance.

Effects on medical ethics

The abortion spiral has also had a significant effect on medical ethics. The fundamental orientation of medical practice is less and less the "save life, cure at all costs" imperative of a previous generation and increasingly instead efficiency, productivity, the values of consumerism and the market. There is a demand for abortion so it should be supplied; there is a supply of abortion so it should be demanded. Lack of medical indication for the procedure--whatever the official position of the Abortion Act--is irrelevant. Not that all doctors have embraced this commercial, consumerist medical ethic. But there has been a discernible revolution in attitudes to early human life, previously the doctor's "second patient" presenting with a pregnant woman, in the official position of the BMA and the practice of many doctors. Likewise we are presently witnessing the breaching of the dam wall regarding euthanasia of the comatose, handicapped and elderly.

Effects on would-be adopting parents

One group which is radically effected by the abortion spiral are infertile couples. Much of my own research in bioethics has been into the new reproductive technologies: IVF and the like. What has driven this new technology, apart from scientific curiosity? The driving force has been that perhaps one in ten couples in Britain is infertile, and many of these want to bring up children. But adopting has become nearly impossible in the West, with long waiting lists and most couples unlikely ever to get to the top of the list. The reason is primarily that unwanted children are simply not born any more. Solo parenting has also contributed, but the biggest cause of the closure of the orphanages, and thus the frustration of the aspirations of would-be adopting parents, is the high abortion rate.

Effects on demography

Another ripple rarely considered is the demographic effect of abortion. Britain is a rapidly aging society: by the time I am an old-age-pensioner about half the community will be of old-age-pensioner age. We are doing precious little to prepare for the new kind of community that we will be. Meanwhile, school rolls are declining, schools are closing, the NHS cannot cope with the demand for chronic care, old aged pensions will soon have to be abolished, nursing homes have long queues, the economy lacks vitality and momentum, and a great many social and economic changes resulting from the aging of community continue apace.

Why are we getting old so quickly? The demographers tell us that the low birthrate (below long-term replacement level) is more significant than the increased longevity of the population. Why the falling birthrate? Contraception would seem to be the obvious answer, yet the experience of Britain, like that of most countries, has been that widespread contraceptive usage, rather than curbing a supposed 'population explosion' simply leads to a 'copulation explosion'. Paradoxically, the total number of unwanted pregnancies can actually as a result of the promotion of contraceptive usage. Abortion then becomes the backstop--all the more so in a babies-on-demand culture. If contraception has failed to decrease the rate of unwanted pregnancies, it is abortion which is the real cause of the falling birthrate. Children still get conceived in large numbers, it's just that nowadays many never see the light of day.

Effects on major institutions

Had I time I would have liked to review the ill-effects of abortion on major institutions in Britain such as the media, the BMA, the trades unions, the government, the NHS, civil rights watchdogs, and the women's movement. But that deserves a paper in itself. My overall impression has been that the abortion spiral--and the commitment of most of these institutions to its continuation--has had the effect of making these institutions ineffectual in important respects. The professional and union movements are less and less willing to defend doctors and nurses who are discriminated against because of conscientious objection to taking part in abortions. Civil rights watchdogs and the media find themselves ideologically, psychologically and perhaps commercially unable critically to examine the abortion issue and some others related to it. Government seems paralytic in the face of such complex moral issues but finds abortion a useful money saver, being a great social security cop-out. And women's groups, as I have already suggested, while vocal on many medical risks to women, are so attached to abortion as the symbol of reproductive freedom that they have become incapable of defending women's real interests in this area or even raising the pertinent questions.

Effects on social attitudes and taboos

Another effect of abortion is on a society's attitudes and taboos. With the abortion spiral has come a demonstrable increase in the acceptance of killing of the innocent and defenceless: infanticide, euthanasia, embryo exploitation, crimes against children and other acts of violence are all spiralling. This reflects a change in popular attitudes to human life and a decrease in instinctual and learnt taboos against homicide. How has this change taken place? It has been a complex process, involving the gradual moving of the line of who is and isn't a person, a pattern of rhetoric and rationalization, the use of well-chosen linguistic and ethical evasions, and the dehumanizing of certain classes of persons.

We've done this before in various ways at various times. My own country gives one good example. As you may know, the Tasmanian Aborigine was slaughtered to the point of extinction by the British settlers in the nineteenth century. It was publicly justified on two grounds. First it was said that Aborigines were not human, despite all the scientific and philosophical evidence that they were. They were said not to look or behave humanly; not to have the characteristics we value in a human person. Such has been the rhetoric and rationalisation of the exclusion of the unborn from the class of persons in the contemporary discourse in favour of abortion. There is a similar slide occurring in the language and attitudes concerning the comatose, severely handicapped and elderly.

Not all the settlers in Tasmania pretended that the Aborigines were not human. After all, there was plenty of evidence that a white man could have a child by one! But the Aborigines were said to threaten our quality of life so it was permissible to kill them. Aborigines threatened the quality of life of the white settlers: they stole their sheep, menaced their wives, made off with their supplies. This second string of the genocide bow has its close parallel in today's abortion debate. Many now admit that the unborn is a member of the human family and that abortion is homicide. But they say it is justifiable homicide because the unborn threatens an older person's quality of life. So too we are told do the comatose, the mentally handicapped, the Alzheimers patients and the like.

We generally now regret what we did to indigenous peoples in various lands. Unfortunately we have not learnt from the experience. We are well along the road of excluding whole new classes of human beings from the family of protectable persons.

Effects on us

The last effect of abortion, and perhaps the most important one of all, is the effect of this practice on who we are. Who or what do these decisions say we are? What do they make us individually and as a society? Moral choices constitute the person and they constitute communities. Even discounting the child killed, abortion is not victimless because the person who does it and the society that allows, condones, supports it are also significantly harmed in the process. A doctor's character will inevitably be very significantly shaped by killing, however noble his or her motives. It will change the doctor's attitudes, habits, dispositions, taboos. A doctor disposed to think that some people lack inherent worth or may be killed has seriously undermined a life-affirming, rescuing disposition indispensable to the practice of medicine. So too with a community. A society which says by its actions that some people lack inherent worth or may be killed has seriously undermined a first principle of justice and community: a willingness to treat every member of that society with equal concern and respect. And the absence of that willingness is likely to be fateful for others. Logically, psychologically and psychologically, socially- condoned medical homicide invites further extension of the killing principle.

The distortion of relationship involved in the abortion decision allows us to be violent and to be blind to the consequences of that violence, only some of which I have outlined here. The unborn child is treated as radically unequal, profoundly subordinate, to parents and medicos who decide whether she will live or die. We buy into a dynamic of violence and domination however well we rationalise it. We add a new weapon to the arsenal of discrimination and oppession--aganst the poor, the handicapped, the unwanted. We accept a patriarchal, liberal, individualistic way of relating: me against my baby, me against my community, my life and my body as my property, the freedom to do as I please is all. We buy into a selective blindness so that we can systematically ignore the sequelæ of abortion and the thousands of wounded women and others.

With the distortion of relationship comes a distortion of values. Smaller, weaker human beings are depersonalized, reduced to the status of commodities or chattels, manufactured, manipulated, and disposed of according to supply and demand. Capitalism conquers even the womb. The consumer mentality has profoundly affected the way children are viewed. The culture of the me-generation, of yuppies and dinkies, encourages us to want and have children only at the appropriate time (if at all), in limited numbers, carefully spaced, and genetically perfect. Children become one more consumer item, chosen in so far as they add to the personal satisfaction and growth of their individualist consumer parents.

Hence the ease with which our society disposes of so many; hence the spending of millions of pounds on test-tube baby technology to provide a few couples with a child. The distortion of values and relationships which the abortion spiral has occasioned allows the medical-technological establishment on behalf of society to do what on face value seems an absurd contradiction: to place two women beside each other in a hospital, the one to suffer profound and humiliating intrusions in an almost frenzied effort to achieve a live birth; the other to suffer profound and humiliating intrusion to ensure that she does not.

This is the final consequence of the abortion spiral: it makes us, as a community, an abortion clinic. That is why, for all the talk about reproductive freedom, we do precious little about provision or encouragement of alternatives to abortion. That is why abortion becomes our knee-jerk response to unwanted pregnancy. That is why we fail to address the causes of the abortion spiral and its ill-effects for so many in our society and for our community as a whole. Britain has become an abortifacient: a device which is it very dangerous for the unborn to get near. And that is at a cost to us all.

The way forward

What is to be the posture of those who care? What is the response of the Christian?

The Church holds up a mirror to an increasingly violent society. We challenge Britain to look at itself, look what you have become, where you are going. This is the posture of the social critic, the preacher, the prophet. It takes a lots of courage to be so unfashionable, to resist the internal and external pressures to conform. It also requires great humility. It is righteous but never self-righteous; holy but never holier-than-thou; of good judgment without being judgmental; rational and frank but never unfeeling; calling people 'back' to the values of the Gospel without imagining there was ever a 'golden age' free of violence and oppression. It does not assume that our opponents are all and always wicked, ill- meaning or beyond conversion. But it speaks out because killing matters. It matters terribly. It hurts. It destroys. Babies, mothers, whole societies. Yet the Christian is also driven by a positive vision. She or he is not merely a carping critic. Respect for human life, we know, requires more than just not killing people. Rather it entails many responsibilities. We express our reverence for life not merely in our respect and promotion of the precept against killing, but in our answers to the perhaps harder task of promoting life and love. Motivated by justice and compassion, we seek to build a civilisation of life and love, the making of a world where violence is not seen as an answer: where the treatment of the weak and defenceless is the measure of our community's self-esteem; where pregnancy is no longer seen as a mill-stone around someone's neck but an occasion for rejoicing; where those who have unplanned pregnancies are supported in every way possible through those nine months and for years beyond. We wait for the coming of that Kingdom where the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard lie down with the kid; when men will beat their swords into ploughshares, their spears into pruning hooks; when nation shall not lift up sword against nation; when the peacemakers will be called children of God. Such a positive vision is demonstrated in our rhetoric and our action when we promote the Christian pro-life vision in all is dimensions and act to ease the burdens of those driven to despair. In word and deed we live for the day when we can use again that ancient folk metaphor for security: "as safe as a child in its mother's womb".

BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: Sources for many of my points are to be found in: Anthony Fisher & Jane Buckingham, (1985), with updated British sources from Robert Whelan (ed), (1992). For references to and studies of the scriptural sources see: SPUC, (1994). For sources from the tradition: Daughters of St Paul (eds), (Boston, 1977), Second Vatican Council, (1965), ##27, 51, and Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, (1974). The last two documents are to be found in Austin Flannery's Vatican II collections. Some treatments of the moral and social isues include: Benedict Ashley, OP, & Kevin O'Rourke, OP, (1989); John Finnis, "Abortion and healthcare ethics," in Ranaan Gillon (ed), (1994), 547-58; Anthony Fisher, OP, "Catholic teaching on abortion," 7 (1992), 12-17; Ian Gentles (ed), (1990); Germain Grisez, (1970); Mary Parthun et al, (1987). An excellent journal on these isues and more is: (150 E 35th St, New York NY, 10016).

Taken from "Priests & People," November 1994.

The Effects of Abortion on Britain -- Fisher for P&P -- page 2