Monday, 12 May 2014
Tina Beattie, abortion and incrementalism
Professor Beattie got taken to task a little last week on her attitude to abortion as result of a blog on The Tablet site:
Few issues are as resistant to informed and reasoned debate as abortion, and any attempt to open up such a debate risks being hijacked by bitter polemicists on both sides. Yet wherever one stands on the legality and morality of abortion these are vital ethical issues. When there is such clear contradiction and denial as there is with regard to the uses and abuses of drugs like potassium chloride, it is in the public interest that such debate should be had, and that voices of reason should seek to be heard over the din of angry rhetoric. The question that will not go away is why the British public would be outraged at the use of a drug for the purposes of capital punishment, when one of our most prestigious medical organisations recommends its use for the purposes of killing a potentially viable baby.
[Mark Lambert provides a full commentary from an orthodox Catholic point of view here.]
I don't want to attack Professor Beattie here. I do think she systematically underrates the importance of Magisterial authority in the Church and, due to her perceived status as a Catholic authority, seriously misleads people on Catholic teaching. But I can think of far less engaging Catholic male theologians who don't get the same flak and, as I've said before, there is a genuine issue here about how the freedom required by academic thought remains consistent with the need for Magisterial authority.
So, putting aside her status as a Catholic thinker -and thus putting aside her use of revelation in the teaching of the Church- what do her views on abortion using natural reason without revelation show? (I was also prompted here by Caroline Farrow's post advocating the revisiting of abortion time limits as a goal for the pro-life movement with which I largely agree.)
First, I don't think -pace some commentators- that her views on abortion are either hypocritical or inconsistent. She clearly believes that personhood is the result of a 'gradual process' rather than an all or nothing event. As such, late abortions are worse than early abortions -and it is with respect to late abortions (in the blog, over 21 weeks and six days) that she is commenting.
Secondly, the precise question regarding the drug is one that is stimulating rather than conclusive: it is the sort of observation that might make someone sit up with a start and rethink their position, rather than conclusively demonstrate its wrongness. (For example, a pro-abortionist might simply acknowledge that you are using drugs to kill biologically similar things -hence the same drugs- but that one (execution) is a person and one isn't (the 'foetus').) That's not to dismiss her point: important changes of moral position can be caused by such shocks to one's perspective. But it's certainly not a conclusive argument, indeed, it's not much of an argument at all. (But nor is it supposed to be.)
Beattie's position -that the wrongness of abortion is not absolute and that the moral value of the 'foetus' is something that develops over the period of pregnancy- is one that is held by other non-Catholic thinkers. Rosalind Hursthouse, for example, argues a similar position from the point of view of virtue ethics:
To say that the cutting-off of a human life is always a matter of some seriousness, at any stage, is not to deny the relevance of gradual foetal development. Notwithstanding the well-known point that clear boundary lines cannot be drawn, our emotions and attitudes regarding the foetus do change as it develops, and again when it is born, and indeed further as the baby grows.
Now to note that such a position is held by thinkers who do not rely on the teaching authority of the Church is not to claim that a) their arguments even from the point of view of natural reason are correct; still less b) that the Church's view of the absolute wrongness of abortion from conception is irrational. On a), there is clearly more to say: for example, neither Hursthouse nor Beattie take much notice of the existence of a recognizable biological human individual from conception. It is entirely possible, even putting aside revelation, that their arguments could be shown to be inadequate. On b), once the authoritative declaration of the Church on the wrongness of abortion is accepted, its rationality can be defended with just as much plausibility: it can be seen to be rational, even if its initial acceptance is on faith.
So none of this should be taken as an attack on the Catholic teaching on abortion:
Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person - among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.
But it does suggest that, in the foreseeable future, the absolute wrongness of all abortions may not be apparent to those operating only on natural reason unaided by revelation, even if they can see its wrongness in the case of later abortions. As I have argued before, my own understanding is that incrementalism is in principle a licit approach to legislation. If that is correct, a practical consideration is that, if Catholics in the UK are going to affect abortion legislation, they will need to ensure the co-operation of those who are not guided by revealed teaching, but solely by natural reason (perhaps, in the case of Protestants, reinforced by the imperfect guidance of scripture). As the examples of Beattie and Hurtshouse suggest, to refuse to accept a (say) a reduction in the time limits of abortion as an immediate aim, may thus be to abandon any foreseeable prospect of Catholic efforts contributing to a reduction of abortions in the UK.
The absolute wrongness of abortion is a matter of natural law. But there is absolutely no guarantee that the fullness of that natural law prohibition is accessible by natural reason alone, unaided by the revelation that is present in Magisterial teaching. Indeed, both Beattie and Hursthouse's arguments suggest that it is not so accessible, or, at the least, not easily so accessible.