Friday, 15 June 2018

Killing people is wrong



Once again Northern Ireland in general and the DUP in particular are taking a bit of a bashing because the Republic of Ireland voted to change its constitution the other week. I doubt there would be any criticism of the DUP if Slovenia had chosen to make such a change. I doubt indeed that anyone would have noticed. But very strange logic applies in Ireland.


The first mourning by William-Adolphe Bouguereau 

Long term Northern Ireland’s future in the UK depends on two things. It depends on the UK staying intact, which means we must defeat Scottish nationalism decisively and it depends on Northern Irish Catholics voting for unionism. For this reason I tend to the view that it would be better for Northern Irish politics not to follow religious lines. It should be as natural for a Catholic to vote for the DUP as it is for a Catholic in London to vote for Labour the Lib Dems or the Conservatives. The DUP are the main Pro UK party in Northern Ireland. The key to maintaining a Pro UK majority in Northern Ireland is for large numbers of Catholics to be happy to be both British and Northern Irish and for them to vote for Pro UK parties like the DUP.

There is nothing inherently about being Catholic that means a person has to support a united Ireland, Scottish independence or not being British. There are nearly six million Catholics in the UK. The vast majority want to continue living in the UK and happily describe themselves as British. The debate about Northern Ireland should therefore have nothing to do with religion or demographics. It should be the same debate as everywhere else in the UK. Do you want to keep your country intact? Do you value being British?

Because I favour taking religion out of politics I likewise think it is mistaken to view the debate about abortion through the lens of religion. What has changed since Ireland voted in 1983 “to recognise the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn?” There has been a huge scandal involving child abuse in the Catholic Church in Ireland. Consequently many Irish people have ceased to have much faith in the Church and are less willing for the Church to tell them what to do. But to respond to child abuse by voting to kill them instead is a decidedly odd response.


 The problem with basing the debate about abortion on religion is that it then depends on faith. Christianity cannot be proved and whatever truth it contains cannot be demonstrated by science or reason. This is not a flaw. It’s a feature. If I could prove a religious claim it would not be possible to have faith in it, because instead I would have knowledge. This means that if someone uses religious reasons in a debate, these reasons will not be compelling to non-believers or those who have a different faith. Therefore as faith declined in Ireland so too the rights of the unborn declined. The reason for this is that those rights were grounded in faith.  But it is always a mistake to build a house upon foundations that may in time become eroded. At that point the house is liable to collapse.

The traditional Christian argument against abortion might go something like this:

Killing people is wrong,
Babies in the womb are people,
Therefore killing babies in the womb is wrong.

You really have two choices here. Either you can deny that killing people is wrong or you can deny that babies in the womb are people. The first option is unpalatable for obvious reasons. If killing some people is not wrong, where are we going to draw the line? Does anyone in our society have the right to choose who they kill? I would prefer not to live in such a society. So clearly we have to accept that killing people is wrong.

The problem with the babies in the womb are not people argument is that it looks awfully like the slaves are not people argument that meant that in the United States they could declare that all people are created equal except slaves. Why should we discriminate against these people who happen to be situated in a womb? Moreover if the unborn are not people what on earth are they and how do they eventually become people? 

I have a colleague who recently became pregnant. After the necessary scan she came to work and told everyone she was having a baby. She then passed round pictures pointing out the various features of the baby. Everyone gushed about it. She didn’t say she was having a foetus. She didn’t use language that would minimise the humanity of her baby. It was as much a baby there and then as it would be when it was born. But she could with ease have simply decided to kill it. Oddly however it would be grotesquely wrong if I decided to kill her baby in the womb. It would be something very like murder if I somehow deliberately caused her to miscarry. But the baby in each case would be the same. It’s a very strange moral situation when under one circumstance the exactly same sort of being is a human being to whom we have a duty, while in another circumstance it is nothing and can be discarded.

But what about the rights of a woman to do what she wants with her body? Indeed these rights must be taken into account. But which human right gives me the right to kill another human being? Self-defence perhaps gives me that right. But babies in the womb are only rarely a threat to a woman’s safety. The law can easily protect the lives of women and can be worded to avoid those unusual cases where a pregnant woman’s life is threatened by her pregnancy.

But doesn’t a woman have the right to do what she pleases with her own body? Even if she does it is worth reflecting on whether there is someone else’s body inside her when she is pregnant and whether that someone else might reasonably limit her right to do as she pleases. After all I don’t have the right to do exactly what I please with my body when I’m driving. I can’t for instance use my arm to turn the steering wheel of my car so that it crashes into someone else. If I do, I am liable to prosecution. Likewise if I neglect an infant who is dependent on me so that they die I will be prosecuted. I will probably even be prosecuted if I fail to look after a dog. In that case why do I not have an obligation to look after a human being who temporarily is located in my womb?

In the end if babies in the womb are people, we can reasonably expect women to respect the rights of those people just like any other people on the planet. This may involve some inconvenience for a few months. But do we really want to go down the route that I can kill people when they are inconvenient. Old people are frequently inconvenient. The location of a human being, inside a womb or outside a womb, does not change its moral status.

This has the following consequence. It cannot be grounds for killing a human being that he is the result of rape or incest. If I were teaching in a school and discovered that one of the children in the class was conceived as a result of rape or incest would I be morally justified in killing it? Obviously not. But why should I be justified in killing it because it is situated in a womb rather than a classroom?

The pro-abortion argument then is left with having to deny that babies in the womb are people.

The babies in the womb are not people argument is faced with the difficulty that we all accept that babies outside the womb are people. Killing babies which have been born is liable to lead to a murder charge. But then if we wish to maintain that babies in the womb are not people, we are forced to say at what point they become people.

Many Christians think that the moment of conception is the point at which life begins. For this reason they think that all abortion is wrong.  But why should the moment of conception be theologically significant. I think this is to mix up science (the moment of conception is only known about because of science) with theology.

Traditionally the Church knew no more about the mechanics of conception than did anyone else. A few hundred years ago no-one knew that a sperm entered into an egg. They didn’t have microscopes that were powerful enough. When did the Church think life began? It thought that it began with quickening or the moment when the woman first feels the baby in the womb. The Church traditionally treated this moment as the moment when the baby gains a soul.

And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost.

 Elisabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, is filled with the Holy Spirit at the point when she first feels her baby moving. The baby gains a soul at this point not before.

For this reason it is not necessary to believe that all abortion is wrong from the moment of conception. It is perfectly possible to say we have an actual person when it gains a “soul” but prior to that we only have a potential person. But two people who first meet and think about marrying have in them any number of potential persons. Their failure to marry and have sex may prevent one of these potential persons from becoming an actual person. But there is clearly nothing wrong in this. If there were, a man could demand sex on the grounds that it makes a potential person actual.

From this we need not be quite as strict as some opponents of abortion. There is a window of opportunity where it is possible to abort babies without doing anything seriously wrong. Quickening occurs between 15-20 weeks after conception. What matters however is when the baby begins to think and feel and when it is conscious of itself. This does not require that you actually believe in souls.

Rape victims and victims of incest ought to be able to have an early abortion. Other women too who elect to have an abortion as soon as they discover that they are pregnant need not feel that they are doing anything particularly wrong. A cluster of cells that is neither conscious nor self-conscious may or may not become a human being, but it is not a human being yet. A potential thing is not the thing it might become. An acorn is not an oak and therefore while chopping down an oak may be wrong throwing an acorn on the fire is morally unproblematic.

The argument about abortion must be grounded not in theology but in what we think a human being is. It is not primarily about women’s rights, because those rights cannot extend to killing other human beings.  But it is not necessary to argue that actual human beings begin to live from the moment of conception. The potential is not the actual.

In limiting abortion to the first few weeks of pregnancy Ireland may have found a stronger foundation for protecting the rights of the unborn than it had previously. Rather than criticise Northern Ireland for not immediately imitating the Republic, why not instead criticise the UK for not immediately following Ireland’s lead by lowering the current abortion limit from 24 weeks to 12. If the UK were to do this, then people in Northern Ireland might in time decide that they would like to follow suit. That would be up to them.

We ought to be living in a free society which is tolerant of the views of everybody whether religious or not. Religious views ought not to determine at what point abortion is legal or illegal. We do not, thank God, live in a theocracy. But I am free to think that early abortion is morally and theologically unproblematic while also maintaining that late abortion is a form of legalised murder. You do not have the right to choose to murder. Killing people is wrong.   







7 comments:

  1. It is a curious paradox of the double claim of sovereignty over the territory in question that neither British or Irish parties of government (which, unlike the DUP, do not hold Roman Catholicism to be a tissue of superstitions) have, historically, contested elections there. There is therefore no opportunity for a Roman Catholic to vote for a unionist party and retain their self-respect.

    Another consequence is that laws on such weighty subjects as abortion, passed at Westminster, are made by legislators not answerable to the electors of the above territory. Those voters are, in effect, disenfranchised.

    It us therefore particularly ironic that the DUP is defending a principle of Catholic doctrine as part of the law of the land.

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    1. Yet Tories will argue that English MP's voting on Scottish matters while not being responsible to the Scottish electorate is OK(vice versa is now banned)...

      While its a reasonable stance on both sides of that argument depending whether you are UK or Scottish minded you cannot reasonably take both stances.

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  2. Christianity can be proved but the evidence isn't liked or accepted by a large section of Western society, therefore from a tactical standpoint it is sometimes best arguing a Christian political position on other bases. You can't take religion out if politics completely as you can't take religion out of Man completely. Even atheism is a theological position which affects the worldview, ethics and politics of a man.

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    1. There is lots of evidence for Christianity. More than many people realis, but it can't be proved by reason or by experience. If it could there would be no need for faith. We would be in the position of Thomas seeing the holes. We are not. So there must be at least the doubt that he felt before seeing the holes.
      The key to political argument is that it can appeal to a wide variety of people. This is why I think its best that the argument over killing people does not depend on views that only Christians might hold. Human nature is spiritual. We discover this every moment. But many people today either don't recognise this or else deny it. So let our arguments not depend on it. We can win with logic alone.

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    2. This is perfectly reasonable. If one wishes to persuade somebody of the truth of a proposition that they currently reject, first of all it will be necessary to establish the widest possible area of agreement.

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    3. What parts of Christianity can be proved exactly ?

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  3. It would indeed be better for politics there not to be based on confessional differences. Unfortunately, the mainstream British parties for decades made any non-confessional politics impossible for the voters there.

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