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.


  1. Thanks Lazarus. My post wasn't arguing for reduction of time limits as a goal but rather more that pro-lifers should not be afraid to re-open the debate.

    Where small steps can be taken, for example the elimination of gendercide we shouldn't be afraid to grasp them.

  2. There are lots of practical issues here that, frankly, I'm not sure what to do about. I'm not sure how likely (eg) reductions in time limits are or banning sex selection. Certainly, if others raise these issues, I think Catholics should, other things being equal, support such restrictions. As to whether Catholics should actively campaign for such reductions as an intermediate goal, again, I'm simply not sure. So I guess that means I'm sympathetic to your view that these sorts of issues need to be discussed.

    My two points here are: a) (repeating what I've said earlier) I believe that, in principle, it is morally licit to pursue a reduction in the number of deaths through abortion. (Whether it is wise in our particular circumstances is a different matter.)

    b) There are people who do not accept the authority of the Church's teaching who yet can see the wrongness of some types of abortion. We should neither ignore these as potential allies nor dismiss them as insincere or obviously inconsistent. They are wrong, but that wrongness may not be the fault of an easily remediable flaw in their exercise of natural reason.

  3. Thank you for an interesting post. These are not easy questions to resolve for oneself. It seems to me that there are two approaches. First, principle. Relating the permissibility of abortions to age of the child inevitably means that one must permit (even if not approve) killing children who are younger than whatever limit is chosen. Even if it could be proved to reduce abortion numbers (a very big "if") no Catholic in good conscience could agree to abandon A in the hope of saving B - the ends do not justify the means. I advise reading Colin Harte's book Changing Unjust Laws Justly.

    Secondly, practical. In practice our opponents will not give one iota of ground. They will not give way in anything at all. In 1990 we are told that "time limits" had been reduced to 24 weeks whereas in fact the 1990 changes lead to abortion up to the time of birth (which had never existed before in UK) and even the 24 week limit then introduced was an increase.

    The vast majority of abortions in the UK are done before 12 weeks so there would have to be a massive reduction even in the 24 week limit to make any measurable difference. In practice, women would be pressured to make decisions earlier and the likelihood is that excuses would be found to do abortions after the new limit in any event - with the policy of non-prosecution of any abortionist which the prosecuting authorities seem to apply, nothing wold happen to stop this. Why would one compromise one's principles and risk one's immortal soul for this?

  4. On b), the practical issues are the ones where I think the strongest arguments against incrementalism lie. I'd expect different people (and groups) to come to different assessments here.

    On a), I think Harte is wrong and Finnis et al. are right. One is not permitting killing younger children: one is simply unable to stop it. No Catholic in good conscience can refuse to rescue a number of children simply on the grounds that one cannot rescue all: to do so is precisely to overlook the preciousness of each individual life. This is not a question of deontology vs consequentialism as some commentators appear to think. No one (well, not Finnis, not me) is suggesting a formal cooperation with evil -ie the committing of an unjust act to achieve good ends. The argument is that voting for a limited restriction on abortion is not in principle an unjust act. In that case, the choice is between two licit actions: one which rescues children and one which doesn't.

    The argument in principle is pace Harte relatively clear. What is not always clear is the factual background and what in fact may be possible. Not every form of incrementalism is licit. Not every incremental restriction on abortion is morally right. But, in principle, support for a restriction of abortion absent the possibility of a full ban is moral. Indeed, ignoring it is to fail in the duty of promoting the good which is the first precept of the natural law.

    I'd recommend Finnis' papers in Helen Watt's 'Cooperation, Complexity and Conscience' as a necessary corrective to Harte.

    1. And just to add to that!

      There's a tendency in some commentary to contrast the position of moral safety (not being an incrementalist is clearly a morally licit position so why take the risk by being one?) with moral danger (being an incrementalist is certainly wrong at times and possibly always wrong). But failure to preserve life when it can be preserved is also failing in a moral duty. Neither position is safe. We have to exercise the virtue of prudentia (practical wisdom) and come to the best assessment possible. God will forgive us for being mistaken. But not for having sidestepped that moral and intellectual struggle.

    2. Thank you for your thoughtful and interesting responses. I suspect that we may never agree but I think we agree that doing nothing is not an option. We have to use our reason to do the best we can and hope to find out one day whether we have done right. I do not believe, for the practical reasons, that 'incrementalism' will save lives; on the contrary it causes deaths. Incrementalism does involve its proponents giving permission for abortions to be carried out. We Catholic pro-lifers cannot do that. Abortion is wrong - it is wrong.

      David Alton's Abortion Amendment Bill, the only serious attempt at incremental amendment which was aimed at introducing a time limit of 18 weeks, began with the words "A woman's pregnancy may be terminated...". At the time I supported the Bill but I would not do so today. The outcome of that Bill and of the subsequent refusal of pro-lifers at the time to let the matter go, was the increase in time limits to 24 weeks and up to birth. That is hard to justify. What are we to say of the additional deaths that have resulted? Saying it was a well intentioned try does not cut the mustard.

      But we must keep discussing these deep questions and looking for the right way.

  5. Thank you in turn for your response. Looking in at some of the debates which have riven the pro-life movement, I'm grateful for this opportunity to disagree whilst recognizing that we both share a commitment to the full Catholic teaching on the wrongness of abortion.

    We may well in fact agree. I'm not sure what sort of limited reduction in abortion is being proposed, might be politically possible, and what the reaction of the pro-abortion lobby would be in terms of suggesting their own amendments. All these questions would have to be clearer before any sort of incrementalism could practically be entertained.

    Whatever else we might disagree on, I am certain that both of us would share a commitment to sensitizing public opinion to the genuine horror of the mass abortion industry. Perhaps this is, in the end, the most important goal of the pro-life movement.