An article last week by Max Pemberton, health correspondent of the Telegraph, in response to the remark by the new Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, reflects the general view. Hunt had remarked that he would like the legal limit for abortion to be halved: from the current 24 weeks to 12 weeks. It provoked the usual howls of outrage from die-hard feminists and raised the question, yet again, among pro-lifers about the best way forward: whether to lobby to lower the legal limit and (possibly) save some babies’ lives or to continue to promote an uncompromising pro-life message around the country rather than in Parliament.
Pemberton, who describes himself as a libertarian, takes the pragmatic position: when babies can live viably outside the womb we shouldn’t be killing them. Thus he thinks the legal limit for aborting them should be lowered to 22 weeks – or 20 weeks at the outside. Doctors, he says, are uncomfortable with struggling to save tiny premature babies at one end of a hospital and aborting babies of the same prematurity at the other.
He is completely against Jeremy Hunt’s own view – for the reason that it doesn’t make medical sense; and if it doesn’t make medical sense it must be sneaking a watered-down pro-life position through the back door as it were. Despite being a doctor and accepting that “each week of gestation represents a host of anatomical and physiological changes”, he is adamantly in favour of a mother’s right to choose to let her baby live or die.
Pemberton is an intelligent man. I have often found his articles thought-provoking. He is also brave, for instance taking on the fury of sufferers from ME by suggesting that mental and psychological issues are sometimes involved in this illness. But he is not brave enough to take on the liberal establishment over the question of an unborn child’s right to life. Hell hath no fury like a feminist challenged about her rights – as Jeremy Hunt will by now have discovered – and Pemberton is not going to risk his reputation and peace of mind by actually thinking outside the popular consensus on this subject. So he writes: “There’s a feeling that the right for pregnant women to determine what happens to their bodies has been hard-fought for, and any concession to reducing the limit risks a slow, insidious erosion of women’s reproductive rights…”
After explaining why 22 weeks would be a reasonable cut-off point, he is quick to emphasise that “it is important to remember, though, that we are discussing the very extreme, rare cases… This should not in any way impact on the vast majority of abortions that take place before 20 weeks, and we should not allow the debate to vilify women who have abortions.” Why bring in the word “vilify”? For the record, I don’t know any pro-lifer who would ever “vilify” women who have abortions; they genuinely want to help them seek the better option for themselves and their baby, an option that, unlike choosing abortion, they won’t live to regret.
I have just been reading The Tumbler of God: Chesterton as a Mystic by Fr Robert Wild. Fr Wild quotes the last two verses of a poem by Chesterton I had not known. Called “The Babe Unborn” it imagines the uncreated creature crying out for existence and promising every virtue if he might only have the experience of life:
“I think that if they gave me/within the world to stand/ I would be good all through the day/I spent in fairyland/They should not hear a word from me/of selfishness or scorn/If only I could find the door/If only I were born.”
Chesterton raises the debate to a different level altogether, a mystical insight into life seen as an inestimable gift, a priceless treasure, something that is much deeper than a “right”, though that is the language we use in rational debate. If only Pemberton and his fellows, who dread the wrath of modern western womankind, could for a moment imagine, as GKC does, the mysterious possibilities of life from a pre-born perspective, it might release them from the constricting parameters of the ominous phrase “reproductive rights”.