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'MPs have voted, but the debate on abortion is only just beginning': Cardinal's article in the Daily Telegraph

posted on 23 May 2008

The following article by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, appeared in the Daily Telegraph of 23 May 2008


The politicians may have cast their votes on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, but is the conscience of the nation at ease with itself? Far from settling the issues until the next Bill comes along, this week's extraordinary debates have in fact woken us all up to the reality of what is being done in our name. Many people are left deeply uneasy and perplexed, profoundly worried about the direction we are now taking.


And yet, for me it has been one of the most significant debates that the House of Commons has had in recent times, undertaken with a sober recognition that it was dealing with fundamental questions which transcend party politics. Although I would have much preferred other outcomes on all four of the debates, including the issue of fatherhood, I was glad at the sincerity and thoughtfulness of the discussion.


However, it would be wrong for us to think that the debate within society is over. A vote alone cannot and should not close the discussion. Underlying it are crucial questions. What is it to be a human being? What conditions do we need for our flourishing? In what sort of society can we put our faith and know that we are cherished and valued and above all enabled to grow in our search for what is right and true? It is in this context I want to make two practical suggestions.


First, it is increasingly clear that we need a statutory National Bioethics Commission. The parliamentary debate showed that for the moment we will have to live with an unresolved and deep tension between competing views on these fundamental questions. We need to use that tension creatively. We must search together to discover the deeper truths that enable us to secure the common good with justice for all, especially the disadvantaged and disabled, the elderly and, yes, the unborn too.


The bodies set up to regulate embryonic research and to comment on bioethics are too limited in their scope. A high-level national bioethics commission with the best expertise from different disciplines might not always be unanimous in its view. But it could greatly serve the common good simply through continuing dialogue and exploration.


As a society we urgently need to create the capacity for continuing ethical reflection. Ethics needs to keep pace with the science, and the public must not be left behind. Many other countries have such a commission and the UK is badly served without one.


Second, the vote to maintain the current status quo on abortion is not the end of the question. The idea of 'viability', prominent in the debate, is a concept dependent on the availability of resources and technology; not one that is able to found a moral distinction between a life that is worth our respect and protection and one that is not.


Life in the womb needs all our resources and protection and makes that claim from the moment of conception. For everyone involved, abortion is often a painful and shattering decision and it can only be a source of profound distress. That is why I believe we must all, whatever our beliefs, work together to find a better solution.


There are many people of all sides of the abortion debate who yet agree that 200,000 abortions a year is far too many. Even without a change in the law, the number of abortions could fall dramatically if more people worked together to foster a new understanding and approach to relationships, responsibility and mutual support.


Over the past few weeks, these profound questions have sometimes been falsely polarised as science against religion. The truth is that 'science' is never in itself on one side or the other. Of course we all need to understand what scientific advances tell us about the physical and biological worlds, about the material out of which human lives are made, and the breathtaking beauty and complexity of human development from the embryo.


But science remains a human activity. It takes place in moral space not a moral vacuum. What we are dealing with are profound ethical judgments which are informed, but not determined, by the insights of science. Our views will be shaped not only by scientific facts but also by our basic understanding of what a human life is, and also our philosophy of life (which may or may not be informed by a religious belief). Science cannot replace ethics.


I believe there is no conflict between faith and reason, and the positions articulated by people of faith about the ethical basis of law should, like those of anyone else, be tested at the bar of reasoned debate. They should not be excluded or marginalised simply because they come from a religious perspective, and nor should they be given special privilege in democratic debate.


The Church puts forward its teaching, but does not seek to impose its views nor indeed to tell any individual how to vote. What matters is the appeal to reason and intellectual argument, and the coherence of the vision of human life that we present. Reason and faith go hand in hand, and, for me, faith brings an insight into the truth which helps reason.


The gift which the Christian faith brings to all these discussions is a vision of humanity in which every human life has infinite value and dignity because it is made in the image and likeness of God. Whether or not we share this vision of faith, cherishing life and protecting the vulnerable, especially those who are unseen or unheard, is a central value of every society that wants to flourish.


This week's debate does not mark the end of the discussion but in fact, paradoxically, opens up the possibility of one that is much deeper. I hope this can become a conversation for everyone marked by a new openness and mutual respect in which we have much to learn from each other. This is because it is a common search about nothing less than the ultimate truth of who we are and what we are called to become.


© Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2008