Sins of Omission

5:14 pm - October 8th 2008

by Unity    

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Over the last year or so, perhaps the defining characteristic of the anti-abortion lobby’s ‘contribution’ to the public debate surrounding the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill has been their willingness to resort, increasingly, to tendentious and disreputable lines of argument.

Why this has happened is relatively easy to understand.

The major problem facing the anti-abortion lobby is that, for all their efforts to poison the public debate in support of their prohibitionist agenda, public support for the principle that women have the right to access safe, legal, abortions services remains rock solid at around 65-70% in any reputable poll. If nothing else, the majority of the British public understand that the alternative to legal abortion is not no abortions but a return to unsafe backstreet abortions will their attendant horrors.

The ‘moral’ argument for prohibition has been lost and lost decisively and its because of that, that anti-abortionists have turned, instead, to a stream of extremely specious and sophistic arguments about the supposed ‘rights’ of the foetus and to the wholesale misrepresentation and bastardisation of medical and scientific knowledge about pregnancy, foetal development and abortion.

Bad arguments abound, from Nadine Dorries’ absurd revival of the long debunked ‘hand of hope’ hoax on the subject of which, as DK relates in writing about his encounter with Dorries at the recent Tory conference, she appears to be entirely deluded, to the stellar contribution of the Guild of Catholic Doctors who, in their submission to the last year’s Science and Technology Committee review of medical advances in the field of abortion included the assertion that had parliament not legalised abortion in 1967, Britain might not have needed quite so many Polish plumbers and Bangladeshi waiters over the last few years…

We in the Guild of Catholic Doctors believe that, apart from an Ethical argument, which is proscribed by your committee on this occasion, the 40 years of Abortion, largely “ on demand” , have had a number of serious ill-effects on our Society:-

1. The effect of the loss of 6 million, largely healthy , young citizens from our society is impossible to calculate, but it has seriously diminished our capability of looking after ourselves, without outside help, and has led, to some extent, to the large amount of immigration we now see.

As barrel-scraping arguments go, I had thought it impossible to top that last one for its casual xenophobia but it seems that I was wrong…

Abortion time limit fight ‘is like battle to abolish slavery’, Christian charity claims

CARE [Christian Action Research and Education] claimed that supporters of abortion rights believe unborn babies are not fully human, just as plantation owners justified their ownership of African slaves by claiming they should not be treated as men.

It said both struggles were about what it means to be human, and the similarity between them shows how little English society has progressed since the 19th century.

CARE is, as you may recall, the evangelical Christian charity whose provision of interns to MPs was questioned, last year, by The Independent, and to update the story a little, two more MPs with interns provided by CARE have since emerged from the oak-panelled woodwork of the Commons, David Drew (Lab) and Tim Farron (LD), and of the ten MPs identified as having interns provided by CARE, seven voted to reduce the upper time limit for abortions – Alistair Burt, Caroline Spelman (both CON), David Drew, Andy Reed (both LAB) to 20 weeks and David Burrowes, Stephen Crabb & Gary Streeted (all CON) to 12 weeks, while for the Lib Dems, David Burrowes and Steve Webb supported the current limit and Tim Farron made himself scarce while the vote was on.

CARE’s Parliamentary Director, Dan Boucher, is listed on the House of Lords Register of Members’ Secretaries and Research Assistants, courtesy of the Bishop of Chester, as does Donald Horrocks, the Head of Public Affairs at the Evangelical Alliance, while Baroness O’Cathain (CON) provides a pass to Henry Humphrey, who’s a mere Deputy Director (Policy and Staffing) at the Christian Institute.

Getting back to CARE’s attempt to paint itself after the fashion of William Wilberforce, aside from the all too obvious smell of burning straw men, if its the abolition of slavery that CARE wants draw parallels with then its time for a quick history lesson.

So, starting with the abolition of slavery and slave ownership vis-a-vis the African slave trade, this was effectively abolished by default in England on 22nd June 1772 as result of the famous ruling handed by Lord Chief Justice William Murray, Lord Mansfield, in the case of R v. Knowles, ex parte Somersett which, according to the most widely circulated account, concluded…

“… The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: it’s so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from a decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.”

Trading in slaves, particularly the triangular trade in slaves between England, West Africa and the Caribbean, was brought to an end by Wilberforce’s Slave Trade Act of 1807, which is often (mistakenly) cited as the Act that brought about the end of slavery in the British Empire, but for that we actually had to wait for the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 although that still contained a number of exemptions relating to the property of the East India Company, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and St Helena. As for those exemptions, the last legislation act of full-blown emancipation took place in India in 1843, while the position in St Helena had been moot since 1832 when the East India Company voluntary divested itself of its slaves, however, it can be argued that a limited form of slavery persisted in the British Empire right through to 1917, when the practice of indentured labour was finally abolished.

However, the use of African slaves was not the only form of slavery prevalent in England during the 18th and 19th centuries, and as CARE seem happy to invoke the history of child labour in their arguments, its worth pointing out that, depending on how, exactly, you define what constitutes a child, it was not until the 1930 that the last vestiges of another limited form of slavery, ‘workhouse slavery’ disappeared forever – but, for the most part, the worse excesses of workhouse slavery in regards to child labour were seen off by a succession of Factory Acts starting from 1819 onwards, with the Cotton Mills and Factory Act*. Of these, the acts of 1833, 1884 and 1878 are perhaps the most significant, although it was not until 1901 that the minimum working age was raised above 10 years of age.

*There was a Factory Act passed in 1802 which prohibited the employment of children under the age of nine and required factory owners to provide elementary schools, but as this contained no powers of supervision or enforcement, it was widely ignored by factory owners.

That’s all very interesting, if of limited relevance to the abortion debate – despite what CARE seem to think – but what’s rather more interesting is that having tried to draw an analogy between the prohibition of abortion and both the abolition of slavery and the use of child labour in Victorian England, what’s noticeable by its absence is any reference to or consideration of a couple of other forms of ‘slavery’ that were prevalent during the Victorian era but which, unlike the African slave trade and child labour, were very specific in their effects on another part of society…


Married women were, right through to the middle of the Victorian period, subject to a very particular form of chattel slavery in so far as the law regarded husband and wife as being ‘one person in law’ and this, as a result, meant that any property held by a unmarried woman became, on marriage, the legal property of her husband as did any money earned by, gifted to or inherited by a married women. Married women had no legal existence as a person in law, they were simply part of the property or estate of their husband.

That did not change until the passing of the first Married Women’s Property Act in 1870 which, for the first time, gave married women a legal identity of their own and which allowed them to hold on to their wages/earnings, inherit property and money (but only up to £200) and to hold rented property in their own name. It also establish dual liability for the upkeep of children where both marriage partners held their own property. However, the Act did nothing to alter the fact that, on marriage, any property owned by a woman still automatically became the property of the husband.

So, while those former slaves who were emancipated by the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act would have been recognised as a person in law immediately on emancipation, provided they were male, women, had to wait a further 37 years to obtain similar legal rights and a further 12 years, until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 to gain the full set of legal rights afforded to those former male slaves by the 1833 Act, but for the ‘wrinkle’ that women were completely denied the franchise while a man who had been emancipated from slavery by the 1833 Act could at least aspire to a vote if he could gain both full British citizenship and sufficient property to exceed the limit imposed by parliament below which the right to vote was withheld.

And, while were on this little excursion into Victoriana, there’s another form of slavery that was pretty much specific to women that our legislature didn’t get around to tackling until some 50 years after the practice of keeping African slaves bit the dust, and that’s sexual slavery or, to be more specific, the practice of selling girls as young as thirteen to men who had something of a predeliction for ‘ploughing virgin territory’.

In the UK, the age of consent had been set at 12 years of age in 1275 but, due to the wording of this Act, it applied only to women as did all subsequent amendments to the Act – and that’s how things remained for six centuries until 1875, when parliament got a bit concerned about the practice of selling young girls to brothels and used an amendment the Offences Against The Person Act to raise the age of consent to…


It was only in 1885, following WT Stead’s ‘Maiden Tribute‘ articles in the Pall Mall Gazette, that the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 raised the age of consent to 16 and made the kidnapping or procurement of girls under the age of 18 for the purposes of prostitution a criminal offence, bringing an end to what was considered at the time to be the ‘white slave trade’. The article that finally propelled parliament into action – the bill that became the 1885 Act had been languishing around in parliament since 1881 – included the story of how Stead, with the help of Josephine Butler and Bramwell Booth (yes, of the Salvation Army Booth’s), purchased a thirteen year old girl named ‘Lily’ (real name Eliza Armstrong) from a brothel keeper named Rebecca Jarrett for the sum of £5.

Although Stead did change some of the detail of the story and omitted the fact that he’d made the purchase, and this eventually resulted in Stead being imprisoned for three month after The Times ‘outed’ him as the purchaser in the story and Armstrong’s mother claimed that she believed that her daughter was to become a domestic servant and had not consented to her becoming a prostitute.

The Stead/Armstrong case is fascinating enough in its own right, but the relevance here, as with the matter of the tow Married Women’s Property Act is that if you want to try and play the abortion debate in terms of questions of civil and human rights then you damn well reflect on the full historical sweep of the development of those rights rather than cherry-pick the issues you think will best support you’re already dubious position.

The omission of such considerations, as they relate to women, is both deeply misogynistic and part of a deliberate strategy to keep the focus of the debate on the foetus and as far away from women and the broader question of reproductive rights as possible, and that’s a strategy that the anti-abortion lobby have adopted because. deep down, even they know that they’ve long since lost the moral and ethical arguments in regards to the principle of providing access to safe, legal, abortion, for which public support is, and remains, rock solid at around 65-75% in any given reputable poll. Drawing spurious parallels to the abolition of the slavery is not only a deeply offensive tactic to adopt, but also a desperate attempt by CARE to cloth its position in a false and wholly synthetic brand of moral recititude in the hope of deflecting attention away from the moral choice that otherwise underpins public support for legal abortion – the clear understanding that the real alternative to legal abortion is not no abortions but a return to unsafe backstreet abortions with all their attendant horrors.

That said, if we are to cast this debate in the language of human and civil rights then, in addition of reflecting on the fact that women were treated in law as something less than fully human for far longer than even those men who were born or taken into slavery prior to successes of the abolitionists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the fundamental question on has to address is whether or not you believe that women are independent, autonomous, sentient human beings who possess the full capacity to make and exercise moral and ethical choices over the own lives.

That’s how I see things and its that, more than anything else, that causes me to be pro-choice – a foetus is not less than human but its not independent, nor autonomous nor even, until around the 26th week of gestation, does it possess the even the merest spark of sentience and it my personal view that not until the capacity for sentience emerges is the question of whether a foetus can be consider to have rights engaged. What value, after, can there be in the concept of ‘foetal emancipation’ when the inevitable consequence of actual ’emancipation’, the physicial separation of the foetus from its gestational host, will inevitably result in its death.

It’s worth noting that although CARE goes to considerable lengths to present itself as a moderate and mainstream Christian organisation, its concern for civil rights and for affording individuals ‘full humanity’ doesn’t extend as far as homosexuality, where the organisation opposed the repeal of section 28, the introduction of civil partnerships and, of course, those elements of the HFE Bill which afford gay couples equal rights in gaining access to IVF services.

So while Africans are fully human and so, in their opinion, are foetuses, if you’re gay then all bets are off and as for women…

…well although CARE are much more cautious in public than, say, the Christian Institute, I think that what they don’t say when they starting talking about rights speaks volumes.

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About the author
'Unity' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He also blogs at Ministry of Truth.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,e) Briefings ,Events ,Feminism ,Nadine Dorries ,Westminster

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Reader comments

1. Mike Killingworth

I think CARE has reasonable grounds to portray itself as a “mainstream” Christian organisation. A useful summary on Jesus and sex here: which suggests – particularly taken together with the strong Christian tradition that tradition itself is divinely inspired and authoritative – that it isn’t possible to be both Christian and liberal – using the L-word in any of the various senses we understand it here.

It is perhaps also worth repeating, in the unlikely event of any Catholic doctor reading LC, that there is a view that safe legal abortion contributes to the reduction of the crime rate, by preventing the birth of young males to more or less chaotic single mothers in more or less chaotic neighbourhoods.

Mike Killingworth writes:

there is a view that safe legal abortion contributes to the reduction of the crime rate, by preventing the birth of young males to more or less chaotic single mothers in more or less chaotic neighbourhoods.

Well, I suppose you could equally well argue that today’s knife-crime or gang-related shootings in South London might contribute to tomorrow’s crime reduction by taking out teenagers who may already be, or who might one day become, felons themselves.

Very silly argument.

As is Unity’s dismissal of the Catholic doctors’ point. The low birth rate here and in other West European society’s is a perfectly reasonable thing to flag up as a problem. Nor is having regrets about recent levels of immigration ‘xenophobic’ – the Government’s bringing in a points sytem to reduce/control it, after all!

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