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PAGE TITLE: The Mail on Sunday
ARTICLE TITLE: Summing up on Abortion
AUTHOR: Peter Hitchens
AUTHOR INFORMATION: Peter Jonathan Hitchens (born 28 October 1951) is an award-winning British columnist and author, noted for his traditionalist conservative stance. He has published five books, including The Abolition of Britain, A Brief History of Crime, The Broken Compass: How British Politics Lost its Way and most recently The Rage Against God. Hitchens writes for Britain's The Mail on Sunday newspaper. A former resident correspondent in Moscow and Washington, Hitchens continues to work as an occasional foreign reporter, and appears frequently in the British broadcast media. He is the younger brother of the writer Christopher Hitchens.
DATE: Tuesday 6 November 2007
06 November 2007 9:34 AM
Summing up on Abortion
Read Peter Hitchens only in The Mail on Sunday
Two weeks ago I tried to do something which my many detractors would assume I was incapable of doing, given that I am, as is well known, an unhinged spittle-flecked extremist. That is, I sought a compromise between my own position and that of those who disagree with me. I tried to interest defenders of abortion in a political armistice for a good purpose, aimed at helping to achieve a reform which would - in my view - reduce the instance of a major evil. I hoped to do this in a way which might be acceptable to those who, on principle, regard abortion as a procedure which ought to be available under some circumstances. That is, rather than embarking on a restatement of the classic anti-abortion view, I assumed that my opponents were a) broadly familiar with it and b) unmoved by it in every sense of the word. I also aired the widely-unknown fact that abortion was in fact legal in Britain before 1967, and gave a broadly sympathetic view of the case of Dr Aleck Bourne, who in 1938 aborted a 14-year-old gang rape victim - even though my own moral position is (reluctantly) unable to accept abortion as right even under these terrible circumstances.
What followed was yet another proof of Jonathan Swift's warning that reason plays a very small role in politics, because you cannot reason anyone out of a position he hasn't been reasoned into in the first place. Most correspondents didn't even notice what was going on, and chose to use the thread as a weary restatement of what we already know. One, rather enjoyably, took the following passage "Does that mean that sex education increases unwanted pregnancy and STDs? I am not sure." as a dogmatic statement of certainty that sex education is the undoubted cause of this increase. I long for research to be done on this, but it hasn't been. For instance, almost identical sex-education programmes in Denmark and the Netherlands have had utterly different outcomes, probably because of the sharply different moral climates in those countries. Some did notice what I was up to, but alas they only chided me furiously for weakness in face of the enemy, in one case making fantastically sectarian remarks about the Church of England, of which I am a dissident member who has as yet not been hunted down and driven out by the authorities. On this blog, the harshest criticisms of the C of E are supposed to come from me, thanks very much.
So I am going to try again.
At the heart of my argument was a tentative acceptance that part of the pro-abortion case was powerful. That is to say, it is all very well being against something, but if the effect of your opposition is to make the thing you abhor more common, or more dangerous and equally common, or at least not to reduce it, then your 'opposition' is ineffectual and may actually have the opposite effect of the one intended.
It is much like intervening in, say, Iraq, to bring about democracy. It may make you feel good to do so, but if the actual result is not what you intended, but a violent, chaotic mixture of dictatorship and anarchy, the moral force of your position is , well, weakened and you should reconsider it.
Likewise, if an absolute ban on abortion results in a continuing high level of abortion, often conducted under dangerous and insanitary conditions, then this is an example of a moral position taken to make the holder of the opinion feel good, rather than actually to do good. This is exactly what liberals do - judge the person's moral standing by the purity of the opinions he holds, rather than by the effect of his actions.
Let me repeat what I said:"Perhaps, if the NHS had been permitted and encouraged to offer the same limited service as private doctors then provided, more readily and universally, free of charge, but under close restrictions which could land the doctor in court if he took them too laxly, the inequality could have been removed without signalling to the world that abortion would henceforth be a backstop form of contraception. For this is, without doubt, what it has become."
If anyone actually took up this point, or discussed it, then I seem to have missed it. Some people made tart remarks about Hillary Clinton being unlovely. Well, so what? You think I don't know? I lived in the USA during her co-presidency. But you don't have to approve of someone to quote them, if they have said something important or interesting. (Or in this case, deeply but unconsciously contradictory). One even complained that I mentioned her at all, apparently in the belief that it is wrong to mention American politicians in a British context. But no British politician, to my knowledge, has made this statement. The issue bubbles below the political surface here, above it in the USA. I was simply quoting her because she typified a certain position, not because I approved of her or even necessarily believed her, but because that's what she said.
William Russ made my blood run cold with his suggestion that our species is in some way 'advancing' (how can you tell the difference between forwards and backwards with any certainty, by the way?) and that abortion is an essential part of this.
I thought this sort of “higher good" tripe was discredited when the Edwardian eugenicists discovered that their arguments had been used in a terrifying way by the German National Socialists. I also thought that the belief in human 'progress' had taken a general pasting during the 20th century. But perhaps as we lose knowledge of our history, we need to have all these arguments again. Mr Russ should Google "Pirna" and "Action T4” and "Schloss Sonnenstein" and see what he finds. I don't mean to be unkind, and I am sure Mr Russ is as appalled by this sort of thing, in its ugly practice, as any other decent person. People often don't see the implications of the phrases they use, until they hear them repeated in the mouths of ruffians. That's what happened to the Edwardian idealists. Those who look up this episode might also be interested to see exactly who stood up against evil in this case (For those who haven't time to look: Roman Catholics and aristocrats, mainly, with a more muted intervention by some Protestants and doctors, though any protests, public or private, under that regime involved giant courage) . Some contributors were rightly disturbed by this and urged Mr Russ to do some other reading, and I very much hope he follows their suggestions.
There was a long and learned discussion about the moment at which life begins, which illustrates that, in all matters of faith, you believe that which you choose to believe, and do not find out if you are right this side of the grave. There was also some useful debate about the way in which those who seek to destroy people are careful to dehumanise their victims in advance. I'd like some pro-abortionists to acknowledge this and accept that rational people might view an abortion as the killing of a human person, and abandon their use of terms such as 'foetus' or 'clump of cells'. But it is easy to see why they don't. This is also standard stuff, which leaves both sides glowering at each other but with no lives saved.
I have still not puzzled out what Susan Phanar is talking about. A concern for endangered species, or for the conservation of forests (both good conservative causes hijacked and perverted by green socialists) is quite compatible with a concern for endangered unborn babies. Whereas it strikes me that anyone prepared to sacrifice unborn babies for a higher good might take the same view of elephants or orang-utans. As for the 'feminist' argument for abortion which she appears to take for granted, it has always seemed to be that the people most liberated by easy abortion were and are irresponsible men. Having got a woman pregnant, they can brush off any pressure to marry the woman or support the child, by pointing out that abortion is readily available on demand. These days, they don't even have to pay for it.
Steven Armstrong quoted from the Bible. Well, thank you. I like to think that at least some parts of this great library have the power to unsettle and shake minds that were previously certain, because of a certain echo and thunder in the prose that suggests it comes from very far back, and a very long way away, and from genuine authority. But may I make a request to him and any others who wish to do this? On this weblog, we prefer the 1611 Authorised ( or, as Americans call it, The King James) Version, not just because it is properly majestic, beautiful and memorable, as such a book ought to be, but also because it is in general the most accurate translation of the original scriptures into English. If you haven't come across it, and don't own a copy, it is time you did. When quoting from the Book of Psalms, the Miles Coverdale version (reproduced in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer) is also acceptable.
By the way, this is not to say that there were not a number of eloquent and enjoyable contributions, many of them instructive and thoughtful in their own right. I was glad that we touched on the fact that moral rules are primarily rules we must try to apply to our own selves, and spread by example and persuasion where possible, while acknowledging our own frequent failure to live by them, rather than things we must seek to force on others. Though of course this becomes more difficult when the wrong that is done affects a third party. I was always struck, when I lived in the USA, by a bumper sticker common on cars in liberal Maryland, which cackled "Against abortion? Don't have one". I would grind my teeth and think of having a satirical version made which said "Against murder? Don't commit one".This is of course an absolutely true parallel if you accept my position on when human life begins. But it has no effect on someone who has persuaded himself that it begins at birth.
I just felt that the substantial point was missed. Can we have another try?