On the homeward leg of the school run I usually listen to the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. This week (on Tuesday 13th June 2023), presenter Mishal Husain mentioned Northern Ireland.[i]
Normally I would expect something negative to follow. My wee country/statelet/province/six-county-mash-up (delete as you see fit) is often in the news as a bad example due to dysfunctional politics, post-Brexit shenanigans, or people expressing social attitudes the BBC deems retrograde.
But not this time. Mishal was commending Northern Ireland as an example Britain may want to follow. She said, “Perhaps we should emulate the approach in Northern Ireland”. Admittedly she could not help following up with, “which is not something one would have generally said”, but still we were being suggested as a model by a BBC presenter. I wish I could have been proud of the fact, but I was, in fact ashamed, because the feature of Northern Ireland she was extolling is our law surrounding abortion.
Northern Ireland is out of step with the rest of the UK in having no legal protection for the lives of unborn children. This position was thrust upon us in the most imperialistic and undemocratic fashion in 2019 when the UK Parliament voted for legislation that overturned clauses in the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act that criminalised abortion. Not a single Northern Ireland MP voted for the legislation. There was no public support for decriminalisation either – polls had consistently shown majority support for abortion only in cases of sexual crime or severe abnormality in the baby. Yet English, Scottish and Welsh MPs decided that Northern Ireland’s unborn did not deserve protection in law and that is the situation we now have.
Mishal Husain was not the only speaker on Tuesday’s Today programme who envies our lack of protection for the unborn. Her guest, Dame Diana Johnson, a Labour MP and chair of the Home Affairs Committee in Westminster, agreed that our law on this matter is more progressive than Britain’s. Her call for decriminalisation of abortion in England came in response to reports that a 44y year old mother of three had been sentenced to imprisonment for taking abortion pills in 2020 when she was 32 to 34 weeks pregnant, resulting in her baby’s death.[ii] In a blatant breach of the BBC’s supposed impartiality, no one was interviewed to present an alternative view. Mishal Husain even stated the classic lie that is so commonly spread by pro-abortion people: “In a case like this, this is about a woman and her own body”. No impartial journalism there.
Husain was simply wrong to say this case was about a woman and her own body. There was another body – that of the woman’s daughter – and this woman’s actions caused that body to die. That mother was not convicted for causing harm to her own body, but for taking drugs she obtained in the post with the intention of causing an abortion. Abortion drugs have been available by post, without a consultation, since the COVID pandemic, but in this case it was a criminal offense because the 1967 Abortion Act [iii] only permits abortion of healthy babies being carried by healthy mothers prior to 24 weeks gestation. To cause an abortion after that stage remains illegal under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act.[iv] Evidence presented in court clearly established that this mother’s actions were premeditated and intentional. Prosecutors said that online searches between February and May 2020 for terms like “how to hide a pregnancy bump”, “how to have an abortion without going to the doctor”, and “how to lose a baby at six months” showed “careful planning”. She was not mistaken about the stage of her pregnancy, although she lied to the provider of the pills, BPAS (The British Pregnancy Advisory Service), giving them the impression that she was only around 7 weeks pregnant. She knew what she was doing and her actions killed her child. She broke the law and the Judge imposed the appropriate sentence, noting that he would have considered a suspended sentence had she pleaded guilty at an earlier point.
Despite these facts, Dame Diana Johnson was one of a multitude of voices to seize the opportunity provided by this case to call for decriminalisation of abortion in Britain. She criticised the legislation on which she was convicted on the basis of its age. She said, “When you’ve got legislation that’s over 150 years old and legislation around the Abortion Act which is over 50 years old, society has moved on. Healthcare has moved on”. To reject a law simply because of age is strange given that = parts of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act are used every day in UK courts to try people for assault causing actual or grievous bodily harm. Would Dame Diana want those provisions removed without being replaced too? In what sense does she think society has “moved on”? In what sense is it progressive to kill unborn children?
Central to Dame Diana’s argument is definition of abortion as healthcare. She said, “essentially, this is a healthcare matter and that’s how it should be dealt with, not a criminal matter”. Instead of prosecuting people who cause an abortion under criminal laws, she argued that abortion provision could be regulated under the guidance provided to healthcare providers by their professional bodies. But such regulations would only govern what registered healthcare professionals can do. It would not stop other people causing an abortion or hold them to account for doing so. That is the tragic situation now in Northern Ireland and what Dame Diana wants for Great Britain.
‘Abortion is healthcare’ is a claim frequently by pro-abortion people. As a medic, I must take issue with them. Healthcare is a compound word – made from two smaller words ‘health’ and ‘care’. Oxford Languages defines ‘care’ as “the provision of what is necessary for the health, welfare, maintenance, and protection of someone or something”, and ‘health’ as, “the state of being free from illness or injury”. That is not an ideal definition of health (I write about definitions of health in my book Keeping Care Pastoral), but it is not a bad starting point. Putting those two definitions together, healthcare is providing for people to be free of illness or injury. Abortion ends a woman’s pregnancy by killing her baby. It can only be healthcare if pregnancy is an illness or the baby is said to be injuring the mother. This is plainly absurd.
Abortion is not healthcare. It is killing. I would go further and say plainly that it is murder, although UK law does not treat it as such. But by God’s law abortion is murder. It should be a serious criminal offence in any civilised society.
Though the media coverage of this case was dominated by people like Dame Diana calling for decriminalisation of abortion without once mentioning the child that died, a few voices did speak in defence of the law. Writing in The Telegraph, journalist Allison Pearson led with the headline, “If you choose to abort your baby at 32 weeks, jail is exactly where you belong”.[v] She insisted that, “Terminating a baby between 32 and 34 weeks’ gestation is not, and never will be, ‘healthcare’. Sorry, but a woman’s ‘reproductive rights’ do not include stopping the heart of a baby that can live outside its mother’s body”.
I agree entirely with Pearson that this act should be criminal and that the judge was right to find this mother guilty. I will not go so far as agreeing with her, however, that the women in question should have been jailed. I have mixed views about the appropriateness of prison for many crimes and in this case I share the concerns many have expressed about the impact of imprisonment on her other children. I can see the case for giving her a lesser sentence. But it is right that she was found guilty and right that she should be recognised by the law as a criminal.
Sadly, Pearson’s article contained a strange inconsistency. She clarified that she, “fully support[s] abortion within the legal limit because insisting women should have babies they don’t want, or can’t provide for, is not humane to mother or child”. This argument is weak. Why would a mother not be free to choose an abortion late in pregnancy for these same reasons, or even to have a child killed after birth? Pearson’s justification for a cut off point for abortion relatively early in pregnancy seems to be viability.[vi] Babies that could survive outside their mothers’ wombs should be protected. Those that cannot survive after birth can be aborted.
Pearson’s position is illogical. Viability does not mark a change in the essence of what an unborn child is. It merely indicates that it can survive in new way that it could not before. It can receive its oxygen from air through its lungs and its nutrition from milk through its gastrointestinal system rather than getting both through its mother’s placenta. But beyond these changes, the baby has not changed in essence. It is the same individual on the day when it becomes viable as it was before. The same unique person. And after birth it is just as dependent on the care of its mother or some substitute for survival. It cannot feed itself or regulate its body temperature without being clothed and sheltered.
When you think about it, that is true of all of us human beings. We all need others to survive, at least some of the time. Even the most capable survival expert would not survive through a severe illness without someone to nurse her and she would surely perish when old age without support. If we can kill human beings because they are dependent on others, then a lot more of us are at risk than just the unborn. An unborn baby needs the same things for survival as we all do: nutrition, oxygen and shelter. But unborn children are only one category of those who are vulnerable and dependent on others. What about the ill and disabled, the elderly and confused?
When a mother decides to kill her child, which is so vulnerable and utterly dependent on her, it is the most horrific form of abuse. Morally, it is no different than a man killing his elderly parents or a nurse killing her patients. And the reasons for most abortions are just the same as the motivations that might pervade in those cases. The primary reason is that the vulnerable person is a burden, absorbing finances and time that the carer (and perhaps society) would rather spend in other ways. Of course, this base motive is often dressed up in terms of supposed ‘compassion’, but killing is never compassionate. Caring is compassionate and caring does not include killing.
How, then, should Christians respond to this tragic story?
I call the story tragic primarily because a precious baby was killed. But I also feel compassion for the mother, who is reported to be “plagued by nightmares and flashbacks” of seeing her dead child's face.[vii] It is no surprise that she would feel guilt for what she did. Guilt is a proper response to doing wrong. But it is sad to think that this woman might not find forgiveness in the midst of that guilt. It is available to her from the only one who can forgive sin – the Lord Jesus – if she will repent. I pray that she will find support in her trauma. But I also pray that she will not believe those who are excusing her actions on the basis that she was in emotional turmoil in a desperate situation during the pressures of COVID lockdown. That would not mitigate guilt in a murder case. It should not in this case. I pray that this precious woman will own up to her wrongdoing and confess it to the Lord who loves her and who loved her precious little daughter. Only in Christ can she find restoration and life.
Knowing that abortion is sin and that sin can only be forgiven when confessed to Christ, Christians must be clear in how they speak about this case and any similar ones in future. Sadly, that is not always the case. I was saddened to read this week of a representative of a pro-life group blaming the health system in this case and apparently absolving the mother of guilt as well as calling on Christians to give her grace. It is not the place of Christians to give grace or to absolve people of sin. Although Roman Catholicism teaches that priests can convey grace through sacraments and absolve people of their sins, that is only on the basis of confession. From a biblical and Protestant perspective, the confession that matters is to God himself and he is the only one who can give grace. Christians should be more careful how they speak. They should preach the gospel, not present themselves as people’s judges, either to condemn them or to absolve them.
It is vitally important that Christians speak clearly about abortion as the great evil it is. We must not minimise it or accept language that implies it is healthcare or that fails to mention the child as well as the mother. Abortion is traumatic for many mothers, even if they have chosen to have their baby killed. Those women need compassionate support and they need the gospel of God’s grace. But whatever the impact on the mum, it cannot be compared with the fact that an innocent person has been killed. It is true that many mothers have diminished responsibility for procuring an abortion because of the emotional pressures they experience at the time and because of the web of lies about abortion spun by its supporters. But that does not mean they have no culpability and if we give a woman racked by guilt the impression that she is completely innocent we could be placing another barrier between her and the healing only God can bring to her soul through his forgiveness and embrace.
Christians can speak clearly about the evil of abortion and show compassion to mothers who have chosen abortions. The two are not incompatible. Indeed, it is only by holding them together that we hold out true hope to mothers who have had abortions. The prospect of peace with God and, we can at least hope, a future reunion with their child who is now with God.[viii]
Christians need to know what they believe about abortion and they need to speak clearly about it. I find a helpful test when thinking how to speak about abortion is to ask if you would use the same language if you were speaking about a murder of an adult person. If we truly believe, as we should, that the life of an unborn child matters just as much as that of an adult, we should never speak about abortion as if it is less horrific than murder. It would be better to say nothing than to give the impression that abortion is acceptable. Abortion is the chief human rights abuse of our age and one of the most widespread and widely accepted sins in our society.
As a clear Christian position statement on abortion, I commend to you The Life Affirmation. It is, in my view, thoroughly biblical and carefully worded, and individuals and churches are welcome to endorse it publicly by adding their name to a list on its website and to adopt it as their own position. If you are looking for someone to speak on abortion to a church or other group from a Christian perspective, then contact the Centre for Christianity in Society, which has a number of speakers (including me) trained to present on this topic under the title Knitted Together.
In closing, please speak with clarity and compassion about abortion. And please pray for women considering abortions to think again and for those who provide abortions to realise their sin. Pray too for a change in the law in Northern Ireland to see unborn lives as they deserve and that decriminalisation will not happen in Great Britain. Pray, rather, that abortion might become less common there and will eventually be outlawed as the evil it is. Finally, do whatever you can within your means to provide practical support to women who may consider an abortion and to give to charities working with pregnant women from a truly pro-life position.
[i] BBC Radio 4, Today, 13th June 2023: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m001mt31. The relevant discussion begins at 2:10:10. [ii] Riyah Collins & PA Media, ‘Mother jailed for taking abortion pills after legal limit’, BBC News: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-stoke-staffordshire-65882169 [iii] Abortion Act 1967: https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1967/87/contents [iv] Relevant provisions of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861: https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Vict/24-25/100/crossheading/attempts-to-procure-abortion [v] Allison Pearson, ‘If you choose to abort your baby at 32 weeks, jail is exactly where you belong’, The Telegraph, 13th June 2023: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/columnists/2023/06/13/aborting-baby-32-weeks-illegal/ [vi] I note that she would like a time limit for abortion more aligned with other European countries significantly before viability, although she does not explain why. Later in her article she speaks of the horror of late abortions, so perhaps she also has concerns about pain that could be caused to the child. [vii] These words of the Judge are quoted in an article in the Daily Mail by Mark Duell: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-12188531/Mother-posted-Facebook-hours-jailed-illegally-procuring-abortion.html [viii] I acknowledge that I go beyond anything explicitly taught in Scripture here, but I believe there are sound theological grounds for believing that children before the age of understanding of sin are accepted by God on the basis of Christ’s death. If so, then aborted babies will certainly be in the new creation. This thought is immensely comforting for many mothers traumatised by abortion.