26.04.1996

Can there be a lesser of two evils?

Can there be a lesser of two evils?
 
Recent figures on abortion have brought crucial questions freshly to the fore. Here two Catholic commentators give diverging arguments
 
Lynette Burrows argues that taking a soft line on contraception and sin crucially alters our moral landscape
 
What are we to make of the fact that there were 900 extra abor­tions caused, indirectly, by last year's scare over the safety of the Pill? Nine hundred women who had stopped taking the Pill because a report said it was dangerous, then became pregnant and decided to have an abortion. This has been enough to prompt some commentators to assume that if there was more contraception, there would be less abortion.
 
However, the evidence before our eyes does not bear this out. Contraception and abortion go together like "crime and punishment" in the popular mind, and it is observable that no society which has accepted contra­ception has been able to withstand the descent into abor­tion also; whatever its protestations at the outset. In the space of a generation, the two have become so linked as to be one phenomenon.
 
The Church, and the Pope in particular, has tried to explain why this is so, but it is subtle matter and we are not a very subtle age. Simply put, the Church's case rests on the difference between accepting that artifi­cial contraception is a sin and therefore will not be conducive to holiness; and embracing contraception because you do not accept that it is a sin. The latter case is when you become, as the Pope said, "contraceptive-minded" and your moral landscape alters in a way that allows all manner of other, more obviously sinful things to gain acceptance.
 
It is quite easy to see the force of the argument that it is better to have contracep­tion than abortion. It has to be, doesn't it? After all, most contraception does not destroy a conceived being, it merely prevents conception. It prevents the two elements, the egg and the sperm, getting together. On their own, both eggs and sperm are wasted in morally blame­less ways in the course of a normal life; the eggs being cast off every month and sperm being lost in noctur­nal emissions that may be entirely involuntary. It is not much of a step from accept­ing this "natural wastage" argument, to saying that, therefore, mechanical meth­ods which aim, as natural family planning does, to ensure these two elements do not combine and implant, are also acceptable.
 
No doubt a case for this could be made. On the other hand, if what God wanted for us was always obvious to our own reason and senses, Jesus would not have needed to found a Church and appoint an authority whose purpose was to guide us throughout the ages.
 
The Pope said, a long time before it was obvi­ous to most people, and to almost universal derision from the secular world, that a contraceptive mentality would lead to an abortion one as night follows day. He was howled down by perfectly sincere people who did not have the advantage of the Holy Spirit at their elbow.
 
One can indeed see how far the moral landscape has been altered in this respect by the fact that the vast majority of people who orig­inally accepted contraception, including the entire hierar­chy of the Protestant Church, would have been affronted by
the suggestion that, because of it, there would eventually be widespread acceptance of abortion. It would have been as odious to them then as a suggestion, after the war, that we could ever do what the Nazis did.
 
We are beginning to discover differently now, but these things happen by degrees and the first degree is the feeling of power that comes with controlling the gift of life itself. The bottom line is the dawning feeling that we are in charge of the life force for which we are merely the medium. This is a heady feeling of power which rapidly evolves into a feeling that we have a right to control such life and then, like all power, this corrupts us into thinking that everything that gets in the way of our desires, is illegitimate. Hence the well- beaten track from the contra­ceptive counter to the abortion clinic.
 
The difference between someone who uses contraception but regards it as a sin, and some­one who asserts it as a right, is that sinners do not have confidence in their sin. They know that it is a moral break­down at their own highest level so they do not seek to build on it. They probably know better than most, how it colludes in their weakness.
 
This subject is always described by the media as a "minefield" for Catholics, because it involves very subtle points. On the other hand, most problems are infinitely subtle, otherwise they could hardly be called problems at all. It is largely media selec­tivity which determines the extent to which the inherent difficulties in many subjects are ignored simply because they want to substitute propa­ganda for argument.
 
For example, it is difficult to see why only women are allowed to use the "Might is Right" argument with regard to their unborn children; but men are not allowed to use the same argument with regard to women. Or again, it is by no means obvious why some politicians find it perfectly consistent to argue that smoking should be actively discouraged because it causes one to die coughing at the age of 75; but does not apply the same strictures to homosexual behaviour which lowers the average life expectancy to 42, according to the Family Research Insti­tution in the US. It is a liberal bias which allows some posi­tions to remain unassailed whilst the Pope has to fight media opinion every step of the way.
 
We should be flattered, I suppose. As Chesterton remarked, one of the most obvious things which moves with the tide is a dead dog. There is just no fun to be had from attacking something that is either dead or dying. And the fact that Catholic philos­ophy is still alive and kicking is amply demonstrated by the number of people still shying bricks at it.
 
 
 
Peter Stanford argues that a compromise that would save lives may be a partial conclusion, but is not an unholy one
 
No woman wants to have an abortion. In the hopelessly polarised pro-life-against-pro-choice debate, there is at least a yard of common ground on that. Everyone from the Pope to the director of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service is united in aiming at a reduc­tion in the number of abor­tions. It is increasingly widely recognised as a brutal, destructive clinical procedure, fatal to the unborn child and often psychologically and occasionally physically damaging to the mother.
 
Gone are the days when the pro-abortionist pioneer Stella Browne could write in 1915 that "abortion must be the key to a new world for women". Even the most eloquent advocates of the pro-choice argument would acknowledge today that it is a decision that is very often regretted and agonised over, and never one that is taken lightly or celebrated.
 
That is about as far as consensus stretches. The means to reduce the number of abortions continue to polarise the sides in this great international moral war.
In its 1992 election mani­festo, Labour proposed that the figure should be cut by government action to improve family planning services and contraceptive education. The logic was clear. Why do women have abortions? Because they become pregnant without wanting to be. If they can be encouraged to take steps to avoid conceiving, then there will be less need for abortion and the destruc­tion of life.
 
Critics point out the flaws in such logic - that women conceive intentionally and then change their mind, or have it changed for them by their partners, or resort to abortion when they discover they are having a handicapped child. But such cases cannot take away from the overall secular good sense of the Labour proposal. It would reduce the death toll.
 
Such a goal did not win the support of the Catholic Bish­ops or the pro-life lobby. For a start, the policy took no account of Catholic teaching; John Paul II has long been fond of talking of the "contra­ceptive mentality". He lumps contraception and abortion as great evils. Rather than reducing the number of abor­tions, the Pope holds that contraception increases them by encouraging women to see termination simply as a fail­safe if their pill or cap or condom lets them down.
 
He might have judged the wisdom of this thinking many years ago in his native Poland. There, contraceptives have long been scarce and women have felt forced to resort to abortion as the only practi­cal way of limiting their fami­lies. There is a bitter irony that Europe's most Catholic nation also boasted its highest abortion rate.
Further food for thought was provided by the recent revelation that the number of abortions in Britain rose by nearly 10 per cent following last year's scare over the safety of certain contraceptive pills. The figures show unequivo­cally that when there is contraception available that women trust, the number of abortions is lower. This statis­tical conclusion was backed up by individual testimonies which accompanied the release of the figures.
 
It is as mistaken to talk of contraception and abor­tion in one breath as it is to link sex and violence in that other great polarised debate over media standards. Just as sex and violence are different - the one in most circumstances a loving, tender, pleasurable experi­ence, the second a brutal violation - so too are abor­tion and contraception. Contraception prevents life being created. It stops the sperm and egg coming together to make an unborn child, but it is not destruc­tive. Abortion destroys that life once it has been created. The two are not comparable.
 
In an ideal world there would be no abortion and no artificial contraception. Women would have the time, the space, the learning and the support of their partners in using natural methods to reconcile a fulfilling sex life with matching the size of their family to their economic and physical stamina.
 
But we do not live an ideal world, far from it. And in facing up to realities - includ­ing the countless thousands and possibly millions of lives that have been destroyed by abortion - perhaps there is a case, at an individual level at least, for moral relativism. Anyone who has stood, as I did last week, and looked on a scan at their unborn child kicking and turning, under­stands that the simple equa­tions of the "contraceptive mentality" do not tell the whole story. Using a condom cannot be equated with killing that wonderful little person.
 
Much has been written of the damage that the teaching of Humanae Vitae has done to the Catholic Church. What is perhaps less often acknowl­edged is that in the fight to reduce the number of abor­tions world-wide, the Catholic Church is margin­alised because of the link it makes to the ban on contra­ception. Campaigns in Britain, throughout Europe and in the States - all of them featuring Catholics promi­nently in their ranks - aimed at reducing access to legalised abortion have failed or been fatally compromised because it has been too easy to present the pro-life lobby as zealots who simply want to force women to go through count­less pregnancies.
 
Maybe it is too much to hope that the institutional Church can compromise its principles. Perhaps it should not, lest its moral authority be further diminished. But there is a case for concerned Catholics- already unused to giving Humanae Vitae's demands a wide berth - to take a more pragmatic line in the fight to reduce abortions. Labour's 1992 initiative pointed to one way forward.
 
The other option is fright­ening to contemplate - an ever escalating number of abortions on the one hand and on the other the crazed campaigns of direct-action pro-life campaigners who consider the murder of unborn children as grounds for murdering the doctors who carry out terminations.
 
Compromise may be an uncomfortable and partial solution, far short of a conclu­sion, but it is not, I believe, an unholy option.