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Abortion in Britain: An Issue That Isn't Fading
LONDON, APRIL 30, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Politicians and church leaders in England are speaking out on the issue of abortion and the possibility of introducing some restrictions on its practice. The declarations were made in the lead-up to the announcement of national elections, to be held next Thursday. Even though the official start of the election campaign has seen attention switching to other issues, the abortion question remains an unresolved problem simmering in the background.

BBC noted March 15 that the issue came up in interviews by political leaders with Cosmopolitan magazine. Conservative Party Opposition Leader Michael Howard declared that the current law is equivalent to abortion on demand and supported a reduction in the legal limit when an abortion may be performed, from 24 to 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Prime Minister Tony Blair, also interviewed by the magazine, said that abortion was a "difficult issue," but made it clear that the Labor Party has no plans to change the law.

The issue became front-page news when the archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, made declarations that were interpreted by the media as being a backing of Michael Howard, and a consequent withdrawal of traditional Catholic support for the Labor Party of Tony Blair. A statement issued by Austen Ivereigh, press secretary to the cardinal, on March 15 clarified the matter, pointing out that the Catholic Church was not endorsing any political party.

Nevertheless, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor acknowledged that he welcomed Howard's statement on abortion, "just as I have welcomed every such call from any politician, whatever their party." The archbishop declared: "There is a shift in public mood over abortion, which the political parties have begun to detect. People believe there are simply too many abortions, that they are too easily available, and that they occur far too late."

6 million and counting

Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor returned to the theme with an opinion article published Easter Sunday, March 27, in the Telegraph newspaper. Reflecting on what the Lord's resurrection means in Britain today, the cardinal commented that "the best way to know if Britain is still in any way a Christian society is to see how it treats its most vulnerable people, the ones with little or no claim on public attention, the ones without beauty or strength or intelligence."

Among the vulnerable, he noted, are the unborn. There are now around 180,000 abortions annually in Britain, he observed, and about 6 million in total since the procedure was legalized in 1967. "Have the millions of abortions carried out since 1967 corroded our consciences, as well as our institutions?" he asked.

Abortion was also a theme in the Easter message of Cardinal Keith Patrick O'Brien, president of the bishops' conference in Scotland. "It is apparent that the moral values of our entire society are called into question by the practice of abortion," he wrote. "Because it is permitted, our laws and medical practice conspire to debase the value of human life and contrary to all logic to allow life at its most defenseless to be attacked and destroyed."

And, in an article published in the Scotsman newspaper on March 18, Cardinal O'Brien drew attention to the problem posed for parents by abortion. "Many women suffer from post-abortion syndrome," he wrote. "They grieve for the child they have lost and their lives and relationships can be badly affected. Fathers, too, are affected; they have no rights in an abortion decision even if they are married to the mother."

Joining in the debate, the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, called on politicians to review the current law. In an article published by the Sunday Times, March 20, he stated: "For a large majority of Christians -- not only Roman Catholics, and including this writer -- it is impossible to regard abortion as anything other than the deliberate termination of a human life."

Rejecting criticism that religious leaders should not intervene in the political arena, the Anglican primate contended: "The idea that raising the issues here is the first step towards a theocratic tyranny or a capitulation to some neanderthal Christian right is alarmist nonsense."

Dooming the defective

Notable concern over late abortions was raised last year. A case that has received much attention is the abortion of a 28-week-old fetus in 2001, due to the fact the unborn child had the defect of a cleft palate.

The police did not bring charges over the abortion, even though the procedure in Britain after 24 weeks is only permitted in cases of a serious handicap. Protesting the lack of action by authorities, Anglican minister Joanna Jepson took legal action seeking prosecution of the doctors. A final decision on the case came down last month, with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) deciding not to take measures against the doctors, BBC reported March 16. The doctors had acted in "good faith," the CPS declared.

Jepson, who was born with a jaw defect herself, protested the decision in an article published March 20 in the Telegraph. "For me," she wrote, "an abortion on any foetus -- let alone one that is seven months old -- for what is a treatable facial condition, can never be morally justified. Yet, as a society, we are now saying that a cleft lip and palate are grounds to end a viable unborn child's life."

Jepson also noted that "The history of the 20th century and the chilling horror of the Nazi eugenics program -- supervised by doctors 'in good faith' -- show only too clearly what can happen when supposed imperfections are deemed to negate the right to life. As a society, we now seem to be saying that the only measure of a life's worth is whether it is wanted or not."

On the rise

Concern was also raised by data showing that 1,023 abortions were performed on girls aged 14 and under, in 2003, the Sunday Times reported Feb. 20. That included 148 abortions performed on 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds. The figures released by the Department of Health showed that overall about 3,500 girls under 16 have abortions each year.

"I find these figures staggering," Julia Millington, political director of the ProLife Party, told the newspaper: "Abortion reached an all-time high in 2003 and the highest increase was among teen-agers. The strategy to reduce teen-age abortion is not working and is having the opposite effect. Abortions and sexually transmitted diseases in teen-agers are rising and it is time the government revised its strategy."

A subsequent report by the Sunday Times on April 17 revealed that in 2003, the latest year from which figures are available, 1,229 abortions were carried out on fetuses aged between 22 and 24 weeks. Only a fifth of these were done due to a risk of the baby being born with a serious disability. The article said recent medical data show that babies born at 23 weeks now have a 17% chance of survival while at 24 weeks this rises to 39%.

A report published April 10 by the newspaper Scotland on Sunday revealed that local Scottish hospitals have carried out abortions on severely abnormal fetuses as late as 34 weeks. One hospital, the article said, conducted an abortion just 6 weeks short of the baby's due date.

Overall, according to the newspaper, official figures show that in Scotland there have been 25 abortions on fetuses over 25 weeks gestation since 1998. Statistics that will likely keep alive the debate over abortion in Britain.