My name is Stephen and I believe life begins at conception.
There, I said it. Now you know: I’m one of Those People. Measure me up for the village stocks.
I won’t be adding a coat hanger Twibbon to my social media profile, as others have in response to a motion on abortion from Nationalist MSP John Mason. A debate of profound moral dimensions cannot be reduced to blunt dichotomies: Pro-life or pro-choice, abortion on demand or the back alley.
There are shades of grey and I stumble around in the half-light of an ethical quagmire. I imagine most people do. We have been largely spared the sulphurous culture wars that make a battlefield of US judicial appointments, sex education, and even the entrances to clinics themselves. Moral prescriptiveness is counter-productive. Graphic anti-abortion talks at my Catholic school, delivered with poor judgement and too much of it, drove me to a callousness of the other extreme: “Not the church and not the state — and not before the second date.” I thought this was witty. You do when you’re 17.
After growing up, reading up, and living a bit more, I take comfort in neither absolute but I believe abortion is a tragedy and one we should do everything possible to prevent.
That women should govern their own personal health choices is a sound principle. But we are not merely an aggregation of individuals, anomic units of self-fulfilment unconnected to one another. We are a society bound together by shared values and common interests; the integrity of life and the cherishing of human potential are the foundations upon which all social interactions are based. Our laws and the ethical precepts that underpin them are not a matter solely for those of one biological make-up. That’s why all of us — yes, even men — get to have a say.
Even those who champion the legality of abortion — a little too lustily for my tastes in some cases, such as those behind the grim #ShoutYourAbortion endeavour — cannot deny the one black and white in this debate: We are talking about the snuffing out of incipient human life. It may be done with compelling cause and is seldom a decision taken lightly but the facts cannot be avoided.
Medical advancements allow us a clearer picture of foetal development, making it more difficult to objectify the unborn child as “it”. However softly whispered, however sympathetic the look that accompanies it, “Are you going to keep her?” is a self-evidently macabre question. It is not one I will ever have to answer, and I raise it with deference to those women who do.
There are no easy solutions and no ideal scenarios but I would prefer to see a legal framework that recognises the needs of women and society’s interest in preserving and nurturing life. That should not mean a complete prohibition on abortion, for the health and wellbeing of women must take priority, but there is a compelling case for reducing the current time limit, increasing education on the procedure involved and documented after-effects, and encouraging a culture of life through support services, adoption, and investment in post-natal and early years assistance.
Given my views, I should be eagerly awaiting the devolution of abortion law to Scotland and buoyed by John Mason’s motion. The SNP MSP urges Holyrood to recognise “the fundamental rights of babies to be protected both before and after birth” and calls for “a proper balance” between women’s reproductive rights and the sanctity of life.
In fact, the backbencher’s resolution fills me with dread. The spectre of reactionary Scotland still stalks the margins of the body politic, awaiting its moment to pounce. Sceptics of devolving abortion do not lack confidence in our ability to make our own decisions, as the patriotism police tediously charge; to the contrary, we know Scotland is all too capable in this regard.
Anyone who lived through the “Keep the Clause” campaign will understand this. Barely 15 years ago, Scotland was gripped by a homophobic frenzy that would make even the outer fringes of the US Christian Right blanch. Communities minister Wendy Alexander sought to repeal Section 28 of the Local Government Act (1988), which forbade “the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.
A backlash funded by Sir Brian Souter and managed by his PR man Jack Irvine, “Keep the Clause” brought together the Catholic Church, the Daily Record, the Scottish School Boards Association, and a diverse line-up of political and civic figures. They even organised their own national referendum to demonstrate public opposition to any change in the law.
The mood was ugly as Alexander and LGBT groups were accused of wanting to “promote homosexuality” to children; opponents even claimed repeal could lead to school pupils being coerced by homosexual teachers. One impeccably liberal columnist caught up in the hysteria opined: “We have enough straight teachers preying on their young pupils without the gays joining in.”
As campaigner Garry Otten recalls: “[N]ewspapers recruited professional spokespeople to offer their opinion on how repeal would make children vulnerable to AIDS and sexual abuse. Letters’ pages published views that advocated violence against gays and demonstrated the vilest homophobia… [T]he brutal campaign was initiated, sustained, fuelled and driven by the darker forces of religion in a country struggling to come to terms with a new, more secular millennium.”
This, it bears repeating, was 2000. The repeal eventually passed but only after ministers conceded the encouragement of (heterosexual) marriage in school guidelines. The bruising experience served as a warning to the Scottish Executive to be wary of again rousing the forces of reaction.
True, there have been attempts at Westminster to reduce the time limit for terminations but such efforts meet with a feisty Commons chamber, a robust committee system, a truculent House of Lords, and the scrutiny of journalists, lobbyists and experts. Scotland lacks this framework of checks and balances.
Holyrood has no upper chamber, its committee chairs are picked by party bosses and it shows, journalists are under constant fire from pro-government attack dogs, and many civil society groups are headquartered hundreds of miles south in the capital. As for experts, the post of chief scientific adviser to the Scottish Government has been vacant for almost ten months.
A crackdown on terminations in Scotland would face few of the constitutional roadblocks we associate with advanced democratic societies. The present First Minister might not be minded to support restrictions, and a rival motion from Patrick Harvie may gain more backers, but as we know nothing is impossible in Scottish politics anymore. The potential for another Section 28 moment is very real and even an unsuccessful anti-abortion campaign would blow a chill wind on what has become embedded in women’s consciousness as a fundamental right.
Abortion is a question of ethics, not numbers, but the statistics do not justify the unseemly haste with which John Mason has tabled his motion. The frequency of abortions in Scotland has fallen by almost one-fifth in the last six years, from a peak of 13,908 in 2008 to 11,475 in 2014. The lowest rates of abortion are now recorded amongst the under-16s, to be expected given the plummeting instances of teenage pregnancy — down 35% since 2007. (Abortion opponents who also rail against sex education might want to pause for thought at this juncture.)
Indeed, whereas England and Wales record 16.5 abortions per 1000 women, the rate in Scotland is only 11. If there is an urgent problem requiring devolution of powers it is not immediately obvious.
Grisly though I find abortion, I would deem grislier still any attempt to restrict it north of the border. Not now, not in these circumstances, not with such unnerving ease. Life is precious but it is not the only virtue. Human potential can only truly flourish in liberal and pluralist societies, where the collective’s claims on the individual and vice versa are regulated by sturdy democratic infrastructure.
Scotland’s infrastructure is still under construction. That is why, whatever your position on the morals of the matter, devolving abortion is fraught with risk. It’s not too late to cram this beast back into Pandora’s Box.