The Politics of Abortion

The Denver Quarterly 6.4 (Winter 1972): 18-28.

At an international symposium in Washington in October, 1971, a panel of scientists and theologians called on Dr. Robert Edwards of Cambridge, England, to cease his experiments in the production of test-tube babies. “You can only go ahead,” said James Watson, the Harvard molecular biologist who was awarded a Nobel prize for discovering the double helix structure of DNA, “if you accept the necessity of infanticide.” To which Dr. Edwards replied that any such objection was “ultra-conservative” and unacceptable, and that the work would continue.

In matters of theory, head-on collision of opinion between two experts is a fairly common event and may be presumed to be ultimately resolvable by argument and research. But here the conflicting opinions concern not theory but what ought to be done or left undone. And there are increasing signs that the conflict which the exchange exemplifies, so far from being limited to the laboratory, betokens a deep cleft that runs through the whole of society. It may be worth while pausing to consider both the width and the depth of that gulf and then going on to look at some of its implications for the future.

And first as to its width: this, it seems to me, is best measured by taking some practical issue on which not only expert opinion but public opinion in general has recently been finding expression. One such issue would be the justification of abortion and the desirability or otherwise of its control by legislation. In England the passing of the Abortion Act in 1967 was both preceded and followed by a great deal of controversy in the press, on the air and otherwise; and partly as the result of that controversy a Committee of Inquiry has recently (February, 1971) been appointed to examine the working of the Act to date and consider what changes, if any, may be desirable in the law of abortion. Incidentally the Committee is being presided over by Mrs. Justice Lane, the first woman to sit on the British Bench. During the same period the introduction of legislation on the subject in New York State had led to widespread controversy in the United States.

For my present purpose there is no need to go into a lot of detail. It suffices to say that the English 1967 Act, in what is often referred to as the “social clause,” permits operations for abortion where two qualified doctors “are of the opinion, formed in good faith” that a continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk of injury to a woman’s physical or mental health or that of her other children, and that in forming their opinion the doctors may take account of her “actual or reasonably foreseeable environment.” They may also consider the risk that the child, if born, would be so abnormal as to be “seriously handicapped.” Whereas, before the Act was passed, the only ground on which abortion was permissible was that a continuance of the pregnancy would endanger the mother’s life.

One of the objections raised by a number of doctors and gynaecologists against working the Act as it stands is that they are expected to judge and act, not on medical but on sociological grounds. Others, so far from objecting, have not hesitated to say that those grounds are so wide and so vague that what the Act in fact permits is “abortion on demand,” and further that that is how they themselves are interpreting it in their professional practice. In these circumstances it has become obvious that an inquiry is called for, and there are other reasons as well. What I am concerned with here however is not the details but the psychological texture of almost any argument on the subject of abortion, whether it is ostensibly concerned with administrative regulations only or explicitly with public policy in general.

Anyone who took the trouble to follow the debates on the Bill in both Houses of Parliament, the proceedings in the Committee of the Commons to which details were referred, correspondence in the Press and occasional discussions of the subject on the air must have noticed one outstanding characteristic. The minds of the disputants never really met. One of them was instinctively in favor of “easy” abortion. The other was not. I shall shortly have something to say about what is meant by “instinctively” in this context; but at the moment the point is that what invariably transpires is not so much a difference of opinion as a total failure of communication. In a literate democracy public opinion (on which legislation must be based) is expected to crystallize to some extent as the eventual outcome of public discussion. Yet this is impossible in a community divided into two sections between which communication has broken down.

Communication has broken down when even common words are used by different speakers with contradictory, or widely different, meanings. For the sense we attach to common words appear self-evident to us. It is not what is “opined” but what is taken for granted; and to that extent our use of them may be loosely called “instinctive.” But such is the nature of language that it is an instinct of a very special sort; inasmuch as it is one with a history behind it, and a history that can be traced and examined. I think it will be found that the meanings we attach to common words very often consist, in fact, of buried presuppositions, presuppositions which are so inveterate as to have become subconscious. In the present context, a few examples of such words would be “life,” “human,” “right,” “freedom.” These common terms, and others whose meanings were no less “loaded” (but differently loaded according to the speaker) were in frequent use throughout the controversy we are considering. It must be further noted that, in the whole edifice of meaning, they form the bases of numerous pyramids whose apex is the meaning not less “instinctively” attached to some less general term, whether admittedly vague and undefinable, as for instance “health,” or ostensibly exact and definable, as for instance “foetus.” For some people an embryo is an actual or potential human being and they do not easily forget when they read of one that cried for half an hour before it was consigned to the bucket. For others (the easy-abortionists) it is not a human being in any sense; it is a “foetus,” and that is all there is to it.

Not only so, but evidently so. The meanings of deictic terms are axiomatically self-evident. You point to a cube and you say “that is what I mean by cube.” But the meanings of these other terms are not self-evident in that way; they are not, though they are frequently assumed to be, axiomatic. If they have come to mean one thing to one mind and another to another, the first step in restoring the lost possibility of communication must be to examine those conflicting meanings. And if I am right in my view that the meanings we attach to common words, other than deictic ones, consist of buried presuppositions, then that step must involve exhuming the presuppositions. Where the issue is a moral one, this is by no means easy to do; for one reason, because the word “moral” tends itself to be one of the ambivalent common terms we are speaking of. And that in its turn is a good reason why there is probably a better chance of success if we get to work on the exhumation, not in the context of general ethical theory, but in that of some particular and practical issue; if the immediate motive with which we ply the spade and mattock is, not to answer the question: What is the nature of the Good?, but to answer some such question as: What kind of law could be made with general consent on the subject of abortion?

In this endeavor the first task must be to formulate the conflicting presuppositions (the “taken for granted” element in the relevant common terms), as they would be formulated if they were deliberately avowed instead of being unconscious, or forgotten, as the case may be. This I have attempted to do as between the easy-abortionists and their opponents. There may well be other and better formulations; but perhaps the following, which we will call Presuppositions A and Presuppositions B, will serve as a start:
A. That the material has its source in the immaterial; alternatively that the psychic or spiritual element in the world and in mankind, however it may have originated, is now, and has been for some thousands of years, not less actual than the physical.
B. That this is not the case, and that nearly all propositions not based on physical events or the expectation of them ought to be discounted as subjective or emotional.
It is of course because A and B are not merely different from, but contradictory of, each other that the breakdown of communication has occurred.

It may be objected that our predicament in this respect is not as novel as I am suggesting; that, at the time of the Reformation for instance, there was a not dissimilar failure to communicate between two halves of a divided population. You soon discovered that your opponent was using words with a different meaning from your own; that argument was impossible; and that the only thing to do was to burn him as a heretic. Yes, but even so the contradiction was nowhere near as total as it is today. There was no disagreement between Catholics and Protestants about the essential nature of mankind, and of the universe, and very likely about their whole history from the beginning of time. Now it is different. Whatever may be the hidden causes of the acute divergence between individual spirits, contiguous in space and apparently exposed to the same influences, the fact remains that the built-in difference between those to which A becomes self-evident and those to which B does is really more like a difference of species than a difference of opinion or conviction. The subconscious presuppositions are so deeply buried that they may well contradict any views or theories consciously held. It is not the same thing, for instance, as the difference between scientists and humanists or between theism and atheism. Philosophically a doctor may be a materialist or an atheist, but if he feels deeply bound by the spirit of the Hippocratic Oath, he is on the A side of the line, not the B. It looks as if Watson belongs there and Edwards does not.

I am suggesting therefore that what we have to think of, and what future legislation must somehow learn to deal with, is not so much a public opinion that is sharply divided in two as it is two different publics: an A public and a B public. Or that, if this is not already the case, it is rapidly becoming so; and it seems that in the near future it will be so. Anyone who has felt the pulse, so to speak, of the intellectual climate in the English-speaking world, and of the changes that have been occurring in it over the last forty or fifty years, is likely to be impressed by the circumstance that, even at the philosophical level – even, that is, when a bona fide attempt is made to bridge the communication gap by recognizing the presuppositions, formulating them, debating them – it generally turns out to be impossible. It is not a question of affirmation or denial, but of blank failure to apprehend. A good positivist is just certain that actuality depends on existence in space. He feels it in his bones. The only reply Professor Skinner can make to anyone who questions his premises is he has “missed the point.” Conversely a philosophically minded member of Public A simply cannot comprehend how any honest thinker can fail to see that the theoretical materialism, on which all-out behaviorism is invisibly based, is self-refuting. All this is merely the nuclear headquarters of the cleft with which I began – the cleft which, at the political and sociological level, reduces would-be argument on any issue like abortion to an exchange of loaded nouns and adjectives: “reactionary,” “emotive,” “ultra-conservative,” “sentimental,” “hypocrisy” from this direction; “leftism,” “inhumanity,” “barbarism,” “murder” from that.

It is assumed that the function of law in a democracy is to embody public opinion in rules of behaviour. Problems only arise when that opinion is sharply divided. In the case of religious differences history has shown that they can eventually be solved by allowing every man to attend his own church and preventing others from preventing him. This we have slowly and painfully learnt. What we have not yet begun to learn is how to solve the problem of governing two distinct but symbiotic publics with one set of laws; two publics to one of which (for instance) it is self-evident that a woman’s body, together with its contents actual and potential, is her own property to dispose of as she pleases, while to the other it is equally self-evident that the category of ownership does not apply and that no human being has the right to determine, for his own benefit or as a matter of calculated policy, whether another shall be allowed to live or not.

Public B is substantial in number and its demands must be met, if democracy is to continue. That is why the Act, though strenuously opposed, was passed: but they cannot be met by legislative enactments which pretend to embody ethical and consequent professional standards only admitted by Public A. That is why nearly everyone is dissatisfied with the way it is working. This is something that has already become apparent from the confusion in the medical profession and in hospital administration, which has followed its passing. Women who claim an abortion on “social” grounds find that the admission of their claim is a matter of luck, depending on the professional principles favored by a particular hospital or a particular doctor. Gynecologists and surgeons find themselves in the absurd position of being at once morally bound to preserve life and legally bound to destroy it. Many nurses feel bitterly that the services they are constantly called on to render are the precise opposite of the vocation they chose – perhaps at considerable self-sacrifice – to follow. Those ethical standards, which are only significant for Public A, make a bashful appearance in the Act in the form of a brief “savings for conscience” clause at the end of it. This provides that “no person shall be under any duty, whether by contract or by any statutory or other legal requirement, to participate in any treatment authorized by this Act to which he has a conscientious objection”; but the burden of proving a conscientious objection is placed on the objector. It is clearly quite inadequate; because Public A is perhaps about as numerous as Public B; and because savings for conscience clauses are designed for a tiny minority of mavericks, not for a whole “public.” If they are widely relied on, any legislation that includes them breaks down. Moreover resort to them is often ruled out in practice by the fear of economic consequences. Either instructions are obeyed or the job and the livelihood that goes with it will be lost. There is tolerance in appearance but intolerance in fact.

It may be that a genuine effort to tackle the problem of mutual tolerance between Public A and Public B would be the best step to take towards an eventual restoration of communication between them. Something like that happened after the Reformation. Legislative tolerance between Catholic and Protestant was established first, and it was slowly followed by reduction of the difference between them to something less like a difference of species and more like a difference of opinion. True, the communication gap was not so wide as it is today; true also that its existence was clearly perceived, whereas today it is sub-conscious and has still to be admitted. But if it is frankly admitted, and if the legislature is then prepared to take both publics into account, instead of pretending that there is still only one homogeneous one, it may be that something can be done.

It is not my purpose to advocate particular legislation, and the following must be taken merely as a tentative illustration of the sort of direction in which legislation might conceivably be influenced by recognition of the fact of two publics. A new professional, or at all events licensed, class might be established of abortionists medically trained so far as to be able to perform the operation with skill, but exempt from the paramount obligations of the medical profession. Inevitably, but of course voluntarily, it would be recruited from Public B. Because of the exemption they would not be permitted to practice general medicine. On the other hand they would be entitled, and within reason bound, to provide a service which Public B claims as its right and which, as we have seen, a number of practitioners interpret the English Abortion Act as already enabling: namely abortion on demand.

It would of course be repugnant to Public A (as conversely all restrictions on abortion are repugnant to Public B). Most of them would see the new class not as medical practitioners but at best as skilled and reasonably competent butchers. On the other hand there would be no necessity for themselves to resort to the abortionists; and they might be encouraged to reflect that the influence of confused thinking and tendentious propaganda would be greatly reduced by clothing with the solid flesh of statutory recognition the qualitative difference between an unnecessary abortion and a genuinely therapeutic operation. Some of the loaded words could begin unloading a bit.

Public B on the other hand could only welcome such an innovation, estimating the new practitioner at the lowest as a useful public convenience and at the highest as pioneers of sociological progress and clear-eyed servants of evolution. While any resentment they might feel at the restriction on general practice would be mitigated by the reflection that, when they or their children fell sick, they could be reasonably confident that their own doctor’s regard for life and sense of duty to all patients would not have become insensibly eroded by official disregard for them. For the medical profession itself, freed from any social or moral obligation to abort on nonmedical grounds, would be enabled to retain the Hippocratic Oath as more than an effete and discredited formula and in general to preserve intact the high standards and the essentially humane quality which still characterize the profession as a whole. They would not be protected by the legislative provisions applicable to statutory abortionists, and would themselves be entitled to abort their patients only on strictly medical grounds.

For reasons given earlier I have concentrated attention on this one particular issue of abortion, but of course, if there is anything in what I have said, it is equally relevant to much else that is going on. Much of the noise we hear from the media is implicitly based on a “B” premise that rules of behaviour, including ethical ones, are, with the help of science, deducible by logic from material events, whether past or present, actual or foreseen. Whereas for Public A this is a morbid fallacy, since the limited province of logic lies in the application, as rules, of principles that are themselves self-evident and anterior to it. Where no such principles are apprehended, the only premises on which to base the formation of new rules of behaviour are the rules themselves. The new rules being themselves the standard by which the old are estimated, there can be no comparison, or even awareness, of relative quality. Thus, in the end, the concept of quality disappears; all change is, by definition, progress and all opposition to it is reactionary.

Practical application of this circular, or spiralling, logic is, as a matter of history, delayed by the inertia of traditions surviving from a past when there was virtually no Public B and moral imperatives (the Hippocratic Oath for instance) were universally regarded as immaterial realities. But in the end each step in a particular direction becomes a conclusive argument for the next.

Thus, we witness the same shadowboxing between A and B going on in the brouhaha concerning obscenity. Given its premises, or denial of premises, the logic underlying B Public’s sexual sociology is impregnable. But for Public A, or for the reflective among them, it is just this bulletproof logic that gives to the myth of Circe its sharpest point:

And they, so perfect is their misery,
Not once perceive their foul disfigurement,
But boast themselves more comely than before…

Any transformation of the meaning of terms like “decency” or “right” must have been a change from worse to better. It must have been so in theory, and it is seen to be so in practice because it has happened. There is thus every reason to expect its being presumed before long, by Public B, that if the permission of abortion is better than its prohibition, the permission of euthanasia and of infanticide must also be better than their prohibition, and that the same applies to the artificial fabrication of human bodies and much else of which we have not yet heard. And yet to Public A each one of these advances will look like one more slip down the gently inclined plane that leads from humanity into the abyss of subhumanity. That, in a nutshell, is the problem. Any legislation, which is to be both democratic and effective, will have somehow to cater for both these sharply contrasted attitudes; for the only alternative seems to be ever-increasing violence and civil strife, leading to chaos and ending perhaps in some form of totalitarianism.

Owen Barfield