The British bishops’ statement on bortion is a quantum leap from condemnation and disapproval

[Pro-choice BritChurch style? From the British equivalent of the National un-Catholic Reporter; i.e. The Tablet, which Fr. Z calls “The Pill” and in this case could now be called “The Morning-after Pill”]

10 January 2018 | by Clifford Longley

Have many women been talked out of having an abortion by the teaching of the Catholic Church? To the extent that that teaching is seen as coldly unsympathetic and judgemental, probably not. But what if the Church had a more merciful tone, standing alongside such a woman instead of against her, sharing her predicament?

That is the approach we associate with Pope Francis. It is also the approach taken in a remarkable joint statement by the Catholic bishops of England, Wales and Scotland issued on the 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act last autumn. It is available at

The statement is a quantum leap from condemnation and stern disapproval. Though it does not use these words, its basic ideas are “accompaniment” and “discernment” rather than “judgement” and “condemnation”; and it has particular regard for women whose choices are severely restricted by poverty – another Francis touch.

The abortion debate, in the United States in particular, has become misleadingly simplified into a stark opposition between “pro-choice” (the secular liberals) on the one hand and “pro-life” (the conservative Catholics and Evangelicals) on the other. In some ways this British Catholic statement comes surprisingly close to being pro-choice – though it does so by redefining what “choice” means.

“Today,” the bishops write, “the language of ‘choice’ dominates discourse about marriage, gender, family and abortion. This needs further exploration. Choice has come to mean doing whatever I feel to be right for me – a very subjective view of the good – rather than taking into account a wider set of fundamental values. This is a very inadequate understanding of free choice, which requires an education in important truths about what is truly good and the possibility of other options. In this case, these must include the good of the unborn child, care and support for pregnant mothers, and the responsibility of the father.”

It is notable, however, that “the good of the unborn child” is included in a list of other things to be considered, implying that it is not always the overriding priority. Supposing there is no support available for a pregnant mother or nothing appropriate in a particular case. Supposing the father has walked away after a one-night stand. What might considering “the good of the unborn child” mean in circumstances where the woman sincerely believes bringing a child into the world would not be good for it?

The bishops acknowledge that “few consider that abortion is the desirable or best solution to a pregnancy,” and “there is widespread unease among many people who recognise that a woman’s decision to have an abortion carries with it tragic consequences.” In the light of that, the dismissal of choice as just “doing whatever I feel to be right for me” is problematical. These are heartbreaking decisions; allegations of mere selfishness should not be made lightly.

The bishops could have explored why there is still this disparity between the Catholic view and the general view, even though both see abortion as an evil, albeit, in the general view, it is seen as the lesser of two evils. It may be because Catholics have an idea of intrinsic evil – something absolutely wrong in all cases – which the general public lacks; it may also be because, in the case of abortion in the first few weeks of pregnancy, the general view is that a fertilised embryo is not a full human being, only a potential one. The bishops should have put the case for the Catholic view on these points.

And while the bishops’ statement robustly upholds the right of medical staff not to have to cooperate with abortion procedures, it seems to limit the exercise of conscience generally to those who are “properly informed”. But an erroneously informed conscience is still a conscience, still entitled to respect. What do we say to a doctor whose conscience tells him a woman pregnant after rape should be permitted to have an abortion? What about a woman who falls pregnant by accident and whose whole life faces upheaval, including the risk of homelessness and destitution for herself and her child, if carried to term? Is her conscience not inviolable too?

The statement calls for further debate. That also reflects the influence of Pope Francis. This is a refreshing approach, and it deserves to be more widely studied.

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