Will British Appeals Court Defend Rights of Unborn?

I begin with two questions. Here is a statement by a person whose name is familiar to Catholics as that of a dedicated pro-abortionist, Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advice Service: “Viewing these cases as potential criminal offences will do nothing for the health of women and their babies. There is a strong public interest in promoting the good health of pregnant women and babies, but, as longstanding government policy recognizes, this interest is best served by treating addiction and substance abuse in pregnancy as a public health, not criminal, issue.”

My questions are these: what cases is she talking about; and if she is so hot under the collar about them, why hasn’t there been any engagement in this matter, so far as I can see, by anyone putting the Catholic point of view? If Ann Furedi is against something, the general rule is that Catholics should be for it (a principle well borne out in this case). She is, it will be remembered, one of the best-known proponents of the view that “Abortion, for many, many women, is the solution to the crisis of an unwanted pregnancy. It needs to be made available to them as early as possible and as easily as possible”; she is also strongly in favor of the easy availability of the morning after pill, which she describes simply as “early abortion using medication.”

So, what’s she against now? Her remarks were prompted by a test case presently before the court of appeal, brought by a local authority on behalf of a six-year-old girl who was left disabled due to her mother’s excessive drinking—half a bottle of vodka and eight cans of strong beer a day while she was in the womb. The High Court was told the mother had been repeatedly warned about the dangers to her unborn child of the level of her drinking.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

Local government authorities want to win compensation for the girl by seeking to prove she is the victim of violent crime, specifically poisoning. Severe damage inflicted on the unborn baby by her mother’s heavy drinking during pregnancy was, the court has been told by John Foy QC, equivalent to an attempt at manslaughter. The test case, according to the Guardian report, “raises complex questions about whether the mother’s drinking constitutes a criminal act and whether the child was legally an individual within the law at the time she suffered injury. As many as 80 other claims on behalf of children suffering from foetal alcohol spectrum disorder are awaiting the outcome.”

A tribunal ruled in 2011 that the (unnamed) child had sustained personal injury “directly attributable to a crime of violence” and so was eligible for compensation. Her mother, who drank “grossly excessive quantities of alcohol” during her pregnancy, was never convicted of any offence. But she was alleged to have maliciously administered poison so as to endanger life or inflict grievous bodily harm, a crime under section 23 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, and this claim was accepted by the tribunal.

However, the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority challenged the judgment, and it was overturned in December by the upper tribunal of the Administrative Appeals Chamber. Judge Howard Levenson found that there had been “administration of a poison or other destructive or noxious thing, so as thereby to inflict grievous bodily harm.” However, he concluded that the girl was “not a person” in legal terms at the time because she was still a foetus.

That’s precisely what is now being challenged in the Court of Appeal (which has reserved its judgment): and the appeal would, if successful, legally establish, quite simply that a foetus is indeed a human person which has legal rights. The solicitor in the case, Neil Sugarman, has drawn attention to a case in which a pregnant woman was stabbed. The mother survived. The “foetus,” however, was seriously injured. It went on to be born but died after it was born: “In that case,” Mr Sugarman points out, there was a conviction for manslaughter: “and that, we say, establishes the principle that it is possible to commit a crime against a foetus.” And again, what that establishes (sorry to labour the point) is that a foetus is a person, a human being, whom it ought to be illegal to kill by any other means.

That is, no question, what Ann Furedi is really worried about. The Church has said nothing, nor, so far as I can see have bodies like SPUC or Life. I wonder why? Perhaps this silence is strategic: if the judges get the idea that this case isn’t principally about justice for the unjustly handicapped child but about whether or not this child, when unborn, actually was already a human being, they might decide that their priority has to be maintaining the legal status quo. Whatever the reason for the silence of high-profile Catholics, whether within or without the hierarchy, Catholics ought to be praying now for those three justices of appeal, who have a momentous decision to make: the case is currently being pondered on by Lord Dyson, the Master of the Rolls, who is sitting on it with Lord Justice Treacy and Lady Justice King. We do not know when they will hand down their judgment.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared November 11, 2014 in the Catholic Herald of London and is reprinted with permission. The image above depicts the Royal Courts of Justice in the UK.


  • Dr. William Oddie

    Dr. William Oddie is a leading English Catholic writer and broadcaster. He edited The Catholic Herald from 1998 to 2004 and is the author of The Roman Option and Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...