Everyone who follows pro-life news in the media will have felt deep disappointment following last week’s verdict of the Supreme Court: that two senior midwives in Glasgow, Mary Doogan and Connie Wood, who have been fighting during the past seven years for the right in conscience to refuse to supervise or delegate abortions in the labour ward of an NHS hospital, are not protected by the Abortion Act of 1967. The judges ruled that only those medical personnel directly participating in the actual abortion had the right to invoke the conscience clause of that Act.
I can understand the judges’ argument. If the conscience clause in the Abortion Act were extended to protect everyone who played some part in an abortion, however indirect, such as ambulance drivers, cleaners and so on – it would become impossible to ensure the smooth running of a hospital. But what the judges didn’t see is that if you have a strong conscience about the wrongness of abortion, to be indirectly involved in it is to violate your conscience almost as much as if you were directly ending a life. Any seriously pro-life person would feel implicated, indeed tainted, if they discovered they were part of a chain of actions that ultimately led to the deliberate killing of a pre-born baby.
I knew a hospital porter who was once asked to clean the floor of a hospital theatre in preparation for an abortion. He simply couldn’t do it. Some would see this as an over-scrupulous conscience but it made sense to me. In some distress he went to his supervisor who kindly relieved him of that job. I was also told of a student nurse who discovered at the last minute that she had been co-opted into being part of an abortion team and who simply pulled off her surgical gloves and left the room. Some would call this irresponsible. I would say they don’t understand what it would feel like to be asked to violate your fundamental sense of right and wrong.
It is ironic and very sad that such an ominous judgement should be handed down in the same month as the anniversary of the death of a great pro-life champion, Alison Davis, who died on December 3 2013. Alison, whose life and achievements were remembered in a talk given by her long-time carer, Colin Harte, at the SPUC conference in September, was an improbable champion of life. Born with spina bifida and for many years a keen feminist and supporter of “a woman’s right to choose”, as well as being an atheist, her attitude gradually changed when she learned that disabled babies like her were sometimes starved and drugged to death after birth.
Protesting about this brought her into contact with SPUC in 1981 and for many years she helped organise their Handicap Division (later to become No Less Human.) As a disabled person herself, Alison always rejected any political strategy that meant “bargaining” over the relative worth of a baby’s life; she could not accept that “healthy” babies’ lives might be saved by lowering the legal age limit for abortions, but at the expense of those whose lives were judged “incompatible with sustained survival”. For her, especially after she became a Catholic in 1991, each human life had infinite value.
As Colin Harte said in his speech, Alison was steadfast in her belief “that human beings have a value that is intrinsic, incomparable, sacred, priceless – infinite.” Thus she was adamantly opposed to the David Alton Bill of 1988 that had accepted the strategy of “chipping away” at the Abortion Act to gain what is known as incremental protection of the unborn. Colin told me he believes that one day Alison will be acclaimed as a great saint of the pro-life movement; the spiritual and physical suffering she endured in her life, and which she came to see as “the greatest privilege possible in the world” were eventually to lead to her witness of a holy death; she chose to forgo painkillers at the end so as to be able “to pray, to suffer and to love” for others as long as she was alive.
Perhaps, as a result of this undermining of the right of conscience in the recent Supreme Court judgement, we should now start to pray to Alison Davis on behalf of the unborn – especially those diagnosed with a disability.