Legalising Abortion?

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
13th March 2009

Tagged: abortion government law

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Should abortion be legalised? The NSW Government is being pressed to do so. Is this something that Christians should oppose?

Abortion is a very emotional, painful and difficult subject to discuss. Few issues polarise the community so thoroughly.

Roman Catholics have a total ban on all abortions. Protestants generally oppose abortion but accept that there are extreme circumstances where it is tragic but necessary. Most people are opposed to it as a method of birth control. But abortion is often considered a better alternative than bringing an “unwanted” child into the world. There are also others who see abortion as nothing more than a surgical procedure.

In 2008 on The Chat Room, Kel Richards and I discussed some of the complexities of the matter. (You can view that discussion here) I do not want to rehearse the basic arguments about abortion here, but raise the question of legalising it.

Should the government, the courts, the law be involved in this issue? Should it be left purely to the patient and doctor to decide, without any reference to law? Should the government decriminalise abortion?

Not all matters of morality are criminal matters. There is no law against adultery even though adultery is manifestly anti-social and immoral. Adultery hurts and harms individuals, innocent third parties as well as society as a whole. But it is not considered to be criminal even though it is immoral on utilitarian, intuitive and Biblical grounds.

So why is abortion considered a crime? Can we not leave it as a matter of personal choice?

There are many arguments on this matter but here are two considerations.

Firstly, abortion is a life and death issue with victims unable to protect themselves. This is not a matter of best policy for good outcomes like the choice between investing in roads or railways. This is a matter of high moral order—for in an abortion a foetal human life is killed. Not all killing is wrong, but any killing requires justification.

The morally loaded language of phrases like “killing a baby” or “removing a scrap of tissue” do not help in rational discourse on this topic. The foetal human life is not yet a baby and is considerably more than a scrap of tissue.

Similarly the language of “the woman's right to control her own body” does not deal adequately with the reality of the differences between the mother and the foetus. There is another life to consider as well as the mother's. It is another life for whom the mother has responsibility. The question is whether her responsibility extends to making the decision of life and death, or whether her self-interest undermines the legitimacy of this decision. Should the state have some say in protecting this life from her?

Furthermore there is little purpose in demonising people by claiming that they are imposing their morality on others. The whole legal system is an imposition of morality on others. The simple choice is between: the anarchic jungle of society without law, or the imposition of some moral system upon individuals. Our society has a combination of Christian heritage, rational discussion, political democracy and judicial wisdom by which it makes its choices. On a range of issues it has chosen to limit individual freedoms and on others it has allowed the citizens to make their own choices. It is not unreasonable to make life and death issues involving a defenceless victim a matter of moral discussion, political decision and judicial wisdom.

Secondly there are the effects of decriminalising an activity. So far no details of the plan to legalise abortion have been released. So it is hard to be certain about the consequences. But over the last fifty years several other matters have been decriminalised. So we have some knowledge of what happens when we decriminalise issues of morality.

Since the 1960's we have seen censorship and gambling laws relaxed. Prostitution and homosexuality have also been decriminalised. The details of the legislation are different in all these issues but the results have been similar.

This is not just the slippery slope argument. For, to decriminalise is to legitimise. And that is not a tautology because life is more complex than saying things are either criminal or legitimate. Legitimising something goes well beyond the issue of refraining from prosecuting and imprisoning offenders. If an activity is legitimate it can be advertised, promoted, commercialised and taught positively in schools.

In decriminalising prostitution, pages of advertisements for brothels appeared in the local papers. In legalising off-course betting and the casino, promotion of gambling became a normal part of society. In decriminalising homosexuality, school children were introduced to it as a normal life-style choice. By removing all censorship laws we promoted the pornography industry with its appalling abuse of women, its entrapment of viewers into an unhelpful addiction and its degeneration of public media.

Those who see no moral problem with these matters may ask what my problem is. But many who voted at the time for “decriminalisation” had no idea what “legitimising” meant.

Even the laws that are not and cannot be prosecuted still serve a valuable purpose. They establish community standards: both educating and constraining behaviour. They maintain the onus of proof on those who wish to abort rather than on those who do not want to. The present law protects those parents who are commonly pressured by medical staff to have an abortion and those of the medical fraternity who do not want to take part in performing abortions. They limit what can be advertised and promoted within the community. They give clear guidance to what is, and is not to be taught in schools. They prevent people profiteering from human suffering.

Nobody is suggesting that we go looking to prosecute those who are making the dreadful decision about abortion—but the present law stands as a testimony that abortion is not a normal surgical procedure involving only the mother's body. In abortion we are killing a foetal human life.