Explaining the Anglican abortion submission

Monday, 3 Mar 2008 The gradualist position on abortion is grounded in Scripture, tradition and reason, argues Alison Taylor, in this response to the lead letter in this month's TMA. It is inevitable that any public discussion of abortion law and practice will attract controversy. Abortion impinges upon the most deeply held beliefs, feelings and life experiences of us all, whether or not we have ever had or considered an abortion ourselves. It is truly observed that ‘regarding abortion, everyone has baggage of some sort’. In November 2007, a Submission on behalf of the Diocese was made to the Victorian Law Reform Commission (VLRC) Inquiry into the Law of Abortion. The submission was prepared by a working group including myself, appointed by Archbishop Freier. It is not surprising that some Melbourne Anglicans strongly disagree with the submission. However, readers of TMA and all Anglicans need to be aware that the ‘gradualist’ position on abortion, put forward in the Submission to the VLRC but criticised in this month’s letter, is a position very widely held in the Christian Church, and of ancient origin, dating from the fourth century at the latest and having among its proponents St Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas. The assertions of the letter’s main signatory and circulator, the Revd Tim Patrick (TMA Feb 2008), that this ‘line of argument has no biblical warrant and only reflects very modern and secular thinking’ are both inaccurate and offensive. The ‘gradualist’ approach is grounded in the three cornerstones of our faith as Anglicans: Scripture, tradition and reason. The Bible speaks of a world which God has created and which he loves beyond measure, in which all life is to be embraced as a gift from Him. However, it is a world which is fallen, and which longs for the full redemption in Jesus Christ which is to come. Sin and suffering abound in a human condition of great complexity, and at times immensely difficult decisions need to be made. What the Bible does not teach, and which has never been a part of Christian doctrine – contrary to the assertion in this month’s TMA letter – is that ‘all human life has absolute moral value’. The latter view is unbiblical because it would be untenable for Christians in situations where complex moral choices must be made, in diverse circumstances ranging from military defence and self-defence to the sometimes conflicting rights of mother and unborn child. Nowhere in the Bible is a foetus accorded the full moral status of a human person. On the contrary, in the sole biblical text on induced abortion, Exodus 21.22-23, an abortion caused by injury to a pregnant woman is regarded seriously but considerably less than murder. Other than what might be inferred from this text, the Bible is silent on the issue of the moral status to be accorded to foetal death, as it is on the question of when an embryo might be said to have a soul that survives death. These two issues, which preoccupy the abortion debate today, could probably not even have been conceptualised by writers living in the Biblical era.

The Bible was written millennia before an adequate understanding of human reproduction was possible, let alone the possibilities of IVF, embryonic stem cell research or prenatal foetal tests, and the difficult moral dilemmas involved in each of them. In summary, an absolutist antiabortion stance simply cannot lay claim to Biblical warrant. What is more in accord with the Bible is that God values all human life but that full human personhood takes time to be created. A foetus is part of the totality of all that is created by God, but it develops as a person only in stages. Decisions with regard to the morality of a specific abortion should to be made accordingly. Baron Habgood of Caverton, the retired Archbishop of York and Primate of England, a prolific writer on public and ethical issues, was instrumental in articulating for a new era this ‘gradualist’ position on abortion. He wrote in his highly influential book, Being a Person, 1998, p. 250- 251, that ‘the idea of a complete spiritual entity being created by God for each individual in a moment in time makes no more sense than the idea of a sudden transition from pre-humans to humans in the emergence of the human race. Things happen gradually, and time is a dimension of our very being… the lack of personal attributes does not imply that such an embryo is of no significance. It is significant to its parents and to God, but not so significant that its potential to become a person should override all other considerations’. The Church of England had already given a cautious support for the legalisation of abortion in the UK in the late 1960s, before Baron Habgood’s writings. In giving its support, the Church chose not to follow the Lambeth Conference resolution which had been made nearly 40 years earlier (and to which this month’s TMA letter refers). It was aware that the resolution was not binding on it or the rest of the Anglican Communion. The Church of England subsequently adopted Baron Habgood’s formulation of the gradualist position, which it has maintained ever since, including in its most recent submission to government, made to the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology in 2004, at http://tinyurl.com/yqj3dt. Following the firmly established tradition of Church teaching in this matter, the Diocesan Submission to the VLRC wrote that, ‘while we believe that the destruction of an early embryo is of moral significance, we believe the moral significance increases gradually over time, in parallel with its physical development. As a pregnancy advances, more powerful moral reasons are required to allow the destruction of the embryo/foetus. It is more serious to consider destroying a foetus at 28 weeks than at 10 weeks. We would want to see this distinction noted in any legislative provisions.’ This is far from advocating abortion on demand, or saying it is simply a matter of a woman’s right to choose, nor does it affirm an absolutist anti-abortion stance. The cases of serious threat to maternal health, profound foetal abnormality, and pregnancies resulting from rape and incest, made that stance impossible for us in conscience. The Inquiry of the VLRC is the prelude to the introduction of new abortion legislation into the State Parliament in 2008. There can be no expectation that the new legislation will attempt to reduce the access of women to early term abortions, which was first enabled in this State by the

Supreme Court Menhennitt ruling of 1969. As Anglicans wishing to reduce the number of abortions in Victoria, we must find means other than legislative prohibition, and the Diocesan Submission lists some of these: improved education on contraception; practical support for young, pregnant women on their own; financial support for families; counselling about the alternatives to abortion. The main focus of both the VLRC Inquiry and the Diocesan Submission is the question of the conditions of access of women to late term (from approximately 18-20 weeks’ gestation) abortions, and the current ambiguous legality of doctors’ performing them. The Diocesan Submission has taken a position on this which is considerably more conservative than is likely to find its way into the legislation. Late term abortions have been largely undertaken in Victoria only for very serious cases of foetal abnormality or maternal health, and have needed the approval of a hospital ethics committee. This may change under the new legislation, for it is currently being argued strongly within government circles that there should be abortion on demand well into the third trimester of a pregnancy, possibly to 28 weeks. I need not remind readers of TMA that a healthy baby born at 28 weeks’ gestation has an 80% chance of survival, given reasonable hospital care. The real question for Melbourne Anglicans is whether they see a moral difference between an early term abortion and one performed at 28 weeks’ gestation (with its concomitant requirement of removing the life of an otherwise viable foetus). If they do see a difference, they are taking the ‘gradualist’ position, and they should support the Diocesan position that all late term abortions need to continue to be subject to the most stringent regulation. Archdeacon Alison Taylor is a spokesperson for the working group which produced the submission.

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