Letters From Abroad: No Religious Right

British politics, as has been widely observed, is looking increasingly American—with Opposition Leader Tony Blair imitating the tactics of Bill Clinton, recent Tory leadership challenger John Redwood imitating those Newt Gingrich, and John Major imitating the mistakes and, in all probability, sharing the fate of George Bush. But one crucial difference between our two political cultures is that we in Britain have no equivalent of the American Christian Right. As a result, moral issues such as abortion remain largely outside party politics.

In Britain our politicians, apart from polite badgering at election time, are happy to find shelter behind the assertion that their attitude to abortion is a “matter of conscience” and thus properly a matter for them rather than pressure groups, party managers, or even the electorate. The implications of that use of the word “conscience” bear close examination. It does not on the face of it say much for the way politicians view their other areas of responsibility, where by implication only party advantage rather than principles prevail.

More seriously, however, it betrays a peculiarly muddled, distinctively British idea of what conscience is. Conscience a l’anglaise has nothing to do with truth, but rather with emotional reactions prompted by events. And where feelings run high—as they do on abortion—conscience is thus deemed to hold sway.

Feelings are important, of course; without them conscience could barely operate at all. But feelings can be dulled, distorted, and indeed perverted. There is no evidence that the Nazis felt remorse—or even sadistic pleasure—in implementing the Holocaust. They saw their victims not as human beings but models of a detested stereotype and acted accordingly. Six million or so of those human beings died as a result. Attitudes toward the fetus offer some unnerving parallels. For example, writing in the Daily Mail, the political columnist and leading feminist Polly Toynbee, having dismissed the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion as of no concern to “those not of the faith,” asserts bluntly: “For the rest of us, the question is whether the unborn child is a person. In my view, it is not.” Miss Toynbee sees no need to reveal by what train of logic she reaches this conclusion. Presumably she just “feels” it to be so. And on the basis of such hunches 4 million unborn children have been killed since the Abortion Act of 1967 came into effect.

Both major changes—the 1967 Act and the 1990 Human Fertilization and Embryology Act—were preceded by campaigns to soften up public opinion by subjective, sentimental argument larded with just enough scientific assertion to lend its weight. The intention in 1967 was not that abortion should become more frequent, let alone that abortion be effectively available on demand. Rather, the “back street” abortion clinics should he put out of business. It was the abandoned, potentially suicidal mother whose plight was evoked to justify abortion where there was “the risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman.”

Similarly, the 1990 act—which rests uneasily on my own conscience, since a member of the Downing Street Policy Unit at the time I raised no murmur of disapproval of its provisions—was passed against a background of futuristic imaginings about the possibilities for ameliorating the human condition as a result of the new techniques of experimentation. But under cover of that, the provision was also introduced that allows the abortion of handicapped babies up to and even during birth.

Within the ranks of those who have led the campaign to widen the availability and incidence of abortion it is possible to perceive a number of more or less unsavory groups: doctors who make rich pickings, left-wing politicians who play up to political correctness, and right-wing ones who have a taste for eugenics. But it is the decent sentimentalists who have constituted the body of this particular kirk. These are people that no amount of abstract talk of the rights of the person would ever convince. They can understand only what their outward senses show them—men and women whose lives would for various reasons be infinitely more comfortable if the child in the mother’s womb were never born.

These are also the same people who have recently been objecting vociferously about the conditions under which British veal calves are exported to continental Europe. They see the calves in distress. They feel upset. They demand it be stopped. And it probably ultimately will be. 120 Members of Parliament signed a House of Commons Early Day Motion—the classic way of making a public point in Westminster—protesting about the practice. But interestingly, of these more than half have subsequently refused to sign another Early Day Motion calling on Parliament to give greater protection to unborn children. And although scientific evidence has existed since the 1960s that the human fetus is sentient, British statute law protects fetal, larval, or embryonic animals from any scientific procedure likely to cause pain, but not the human fetus in the womb.

Yet it seems that we have passed the high point of the topsy-turvy concern with animal rights at the expense of human rights. For there is increasing evidence that human feelings are now becoming unreliable allies in the cause of discrete infanticide; turning traitor, they are recruits to the cause of life. The abortion lobby is right to be alarmed by all this. For the more that science—that other former ally of the abortionists to turn against them— shows of what happens in the womb, the more that people without any particular religious or moral disposition on the matter feel that abortion is simply unacceptable.

For example, by means of the ultrasound technology, parents can now watch their own unborn children from a stage of development at which the present law permits abortion even of healthy babies. They can thus judge for themselves whether Miss Toynbee is right to describe the obviously human being that is the fetus as a non-person. Moreover, the growing body of scientific evidence now suggests that the fetus can experience pain, and from a very early stage. Although within the confines of the Place of Westminster and the Department of Health bad scientific argument continues to drive out good, the way in which the fetus reacts to interference— recoiling and showing measurable clinical signs of stress—is now well detailed. Moreover, the previous view that pain could only be experienced from the time that the fetus’s cerebral cortex has been developed has been shown to be false.

Of course, the question as to whether pain is actually being experienced can never be definitely answered of anyone; pain can only ever be experienced subjectively. Even an articulate victim of pain could always be lying about his condition. An inarticulate one lacks even the power to describe it. But we can make something much better than an informed guess. As we have to do with animals, in the case of the human fetus we must judge from its physical reactions what it is experiencing. This is not really so difficult in practice, as any farmer or vet or even pet owner knows. Some species of animals will howl from pain, some hiss, some screech, some moan, and some just stare into space. For their part, human animals show the particular sort of agitated reactions denoting stress that we know from our own behavior in pain. It would surely take a very stupid and insensitive person indeed to doubt seriously that if the human fetus reacts in very similar ways to the way we react, say, having a needle stuck into us, it is experiencing something very similar to what we experience.

The potential danger of all this to the lucrative abortion industry and its clinical offshoots is obvious. For the more people become convinced that unborn children feel as other children feel, the less they are likely to have them regarded as disposable objects for mutilation, experimentation, and extinction. Every effort must therefore be made to keep dramatic demonstrations of fetal sentience off the television screen. So while the television channels do not hesitate to link up with hospital wards to show the most gory live operations, none has yet got around to broadcasting the film The Silent Scream made here some eight years ago, which shows the agitated reactions of the human fetus to the process of its dismemberment by abortion.

Cardinal Newman once famously observed that “it is almost the definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain.” This very English consideration can surely nowadays be applied to all classes and both sexes. Even in the nineteenth century we were a nation of sentimentalists, as our dog-loving tradition shows; and as the decades go by we have become more so. The same sentimentality that in the ’60s let to the sweeping away of legal constraints on personal behavior, that in the ’80s led to an obsessive environmentalism, and that in the ’90s has led to the granting of greater protection in some respects to immature cattle than to immature humans is now about to be brought to bear against abortion. Already there are growing signs of a generation gap, with younger people’s opposition to the destruction of unborn human life causing amazement and even outrage among their elders—particularly among that generation of women now in their fifties for whom the liberation of themselves at the expense of their conjugal and maternal duties seemed the highest pinnacle of social progress.

But looking ahead it is possible to perceive two further changes. First, we can expect to see the issue of abortion play an increasingly powerful role in politics, polarizing attitudes and dividing parties, as in the United States. And second, we may witness the first signs of conscience about the scale of this other Holocaust of the unborn, in which politicians—and their advisers—doctors, journalists, and other public and professional figures are implicated.


  • Robin Harris

    Dr. Robin Harris (born 1952) is a British author and journalist. He has written for The Daily Telegraph and Prospect. He attained his undergraduate degree and doctorate in modern history from Exeter College, Oxford University. Harris was Director of the Conservative Research Department from 1985 to 1988 and a member of the Prime Minister's Policy Unit from 1989 to 1990. He helped draft the Conservative Party manifesto for the 1987 general election.

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