The following article by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, appeared in the 'Sunday Telegraph' of 28 October 2007
WHY WE ARE FIGHTING TO LOWER ABORTION LIMIT
Whether we are pro-abortion or against it, now is a good time to look again at the values we hold most dear and the experience we have had since the Abortion Act was brought into law. The time has come for us to be honest about its consequences — personal, social and spiritual. I hope, too, we can begin a new discussion which gets beyond the slogans, in which somehow valuing and protecting human life is pitted against the claims of individual freedom. I want to ask if we cannot find another way of proceeding that enriches the common good – the good of us all.
I come to the 40th anniversary of the Abortion Act with a deep sense of anguish, but also with hope. My anguish is over the almost 200,000 abortions now annually performed in our country and for the women who felt they had no other realistic choice. Nor should we forget the need for men to accept their responsibilities for the unborn child. We allow abortion up to 24 weeks and sometimes later. We use medical and scientific language to shield us from the violence of the act and the distressful aftermath for all concerned.
Abortions are sometimes performed for relatively minor disabilities, many of which can be corrected after birth – or even before. I think this has implications for the way we view disability. I wonder if we are seduced into a search for a mythical perfection which makes victims of us all? Such developments seem to me to run counter to our deepest moral sense of what is good and just. Surely, the Act never intended this situation?
My hope does not lie in my religious faith alone but my faith in the deep sense of the value of life and our desire to protect and nurture its gift which I believe the majority of people in our country share. Emerging in the debates sparked by this anniversary is a palpable soul-searching among those with very different opinions on the morality of abortion who yet share both a profound unease with where we have come to, and an evident desire for change.
One of the marks of a mature democracy is its capacity to learn from experience. Over the last 40 years we have been learning. Now we can vividly see the unique reality of life in the womb — and we also have a much better ability to sustain viability at an earlier stage of foetal development. This rightly means we have a spontaneous sense of the claims the young life makes on us. In the light of this, it becomes increasingly difficult to continue to permit abortion, especially up to as late as 24 weeks. We also have experience of 40 years of the Act itself, and of its damaging, if unintended, consequences.
While upholding the principle of the sacredness of human life, I believe it is both licit and important for those in public life who oppose abortion to work and vote for achievable and incremental improvements to an unjust law. That is why I would support in any way I can MPs who take this stance and are pushing for a reduction in the upper time limit and opposing the removal of existing safeguards.
Medical opinion is an important factor in this discussion but such decisions cannot be reduced to medical judgements alone. We should not ask doctors to take responsibility for decisions that have a public ethical dimension. That is why we must also respect the decisions of doctors and nurses who refuse on grounds of conscience to perform or assist in procedures that they believe to be morally wrong.
I think we need to reflect deeply about the consequences of removing, as has been proposed, the need for at least two medical signatures before an abortion can take place. To relax oversight and accountability puts us on the road to unlimited access to abortion. I do not think this leads necessarily to a greater freedom. It may also expose people to greater pressure and manipulation. Reducing the need for medical consent leaves the whole burden of responsibility with a woman who may already be vulnerable.
No decision is taken in a vacuum. Freedoms cannot be claimed or achieved independently of their impact on others. If they are, they become a tyranny. There is a tension between the principle of personal autonomy and the public good that we urgently need to negotiate for all concerned. I believe we can do this by recovering some of our most fundamental convictions about the value of human life at every stage of its growth and development.
A law may make an action legal but it does not necessarily make it right. No one is compelled to have an abortion, but unfortunately many women still do not believe they have a viable alternative. No woman should have to suffer the trauma of abortion or abandon the principle that a child, from the beginning of its existence, is entitled to live its own life. To achieve a situation where there are real alternatives and practical, effective long-term support which make abortions unnecessary may take time.
It will mean a change in how we protect and cherish life in the womb. But if we want to, we can create a culture where all human life is cherished and no one feels dread at the birth of a child. If we are all convinced about the primacy of life, and make it a governing principle of our actions and laws, I believe we can build a genuinely humane and civilised society. With such foundations, our society need not fear any threat from without or from within.
The Catholic Church does not oppose abortion because it opposes human progress or fails to understand the struggles and difficulties that people have to cope with. How could the Church not believe in humanity when its whole faith is centred on God becoming human? The Church's 'no' to abortion is simply the reflection of its unconditional 'yes' to all human life, its 'yes' to a society in which the innocent and vulnerable growing life in the womb is cherished and protected. A society that protects all its children, especially the fragile child in the womb, is a society in which we can all feel at home.
If abortion is to become a thing of the past, it will not be because the Catholic Church has succeeded in imposing its views on anyone. It will be because people, of their own volition, have come to see that there is a better way. This gives me reason for hope. We can say 'yes' to life.
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