[Austen Ivereigh in Rome] Because she is well known and highly regarded in some English Catholic circles, a feminist theologian who recently organised a letter to the Polish bishops arguing against their attempts to make all abortion in Poland illegal has caused a storm of protest.
Dr Tina Beattie teaches at Roehampton University, where she is director of the Digby Stuart Research Centre for Religion, Society and Human Flourishing and of Catherine of Siena College. She is also a theological adviser to Cafod, contributes often to The Tablet, and recently took part in a Vatican conference on women.
Her ‘Open Letter to the Polish Bishops’ Conference’, signed by nearly 100 theologians and others from US and Europe (see report here), argues that the current Polish 1993 abortion law should not be changed, as the bishops want.
The law currently allows for legal abortion in cases of rape, a serious threat to the health of the mother, or where the unborn child is disabled or terminally ill, but only in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
A new proposed bill backed by the bishops would make abortion illegal under all circumstances, except for when the death of the unborn child was the unintended result of saving a woman’s life.
Some of the reactions have been vicious and uncharitable. One anonymous blogger describes Beattie as a “religious entryist“ and calls for the bishops to strip her of her roles. Not to do so “will give the impression of an episcopacy in office but not in power“, she writes, menacingly.
In response, Beattie has made clear that as an academic theologian in a publicly-funded secular university she is not licensed to teach on behalf of the Magisterium (so the bishops in any position to purge her, even if they felt it was right to.)
Beattie also makes a case for freedom of discussion, saying it is her job to probe and debate. “In the Church’s dialogue with secular law and culture, the laity must be willing to engage in public debate in order to seek the most viable solution to complex ethical debates which affect non-Catholics as well as Catholics,“ she notes.
Misrepresenting the Church’s position
This is commendable. Yet that dialogue must begin with acknowledging the Church’s position. Beattie may not be a licensed representative of the Catholic faith, but she has an intellectual duty to fairly represent her Church’s settled positions.
Yet nowhere does her letter admit that her argument goes hard against settled Catholic teaching that abortion is always the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being, and along with infanticide are “unspeakable crimes“, as the Second Vatican Council put it in Gaudium et Spes.
“To claim the right to abortion, infanticide and euthanasia, and to recognize that right in law, means to attribute to human freedom a perverse and evil significance: that of an absolute power over others and against others,” St John Paul II made clear in Evangelium Vitae.
While she appeals to Pope Francis’s emphasis on compassion, she nowhere acknowledges the longstanding position of the Church he reiterated in Amoris Laetitia paragraph 83 — that an innocent child in the womb has an “inalienable“ right to life, and that “no alleged right to one’s own body can justify a decision to terminate that life, which is an end in itself and which can never be considered the property of another human being.”
Rather than acknowledging the weight of church teaching in this respect, she appeals to other Vatican II documents on religious freedom and conscience, as if the Church’s anti-abortion stance were a religious precept rather than a universal matter of intrinsic human rights.
Why abortion is a crime
The position of the Catholic bishops across the world over many decades has been to urge that the right to life of the unborn be reflected in law. Abortion is a crime for the same reason as is murder or euthanasia, for the same reason that the law should ban slavery or the sale of fire-arms or exploitative wages — to protect the voiceless vulnerable.
Beattie and the other signatories say they “uphold the sanctity of all human life, including the right to life of women and their unborn children” but reject the idea “that this decision can be imposed upon them through moral coercion, and far less through the force of law”.
Yet nowhere do they say how the “right to life of … unborn children” is to be made effective if not by means of state coercion (police, fines, prisons and so on). If it is a law, it must be enforced — even if it is the abortionist, rather than the woman, who is punished.
Beattie claims use of the force of law in this area “constitutes a violation of women’s freedom of conscience” and “runs counter to the Catholic tradition’s distinction between morality and legality”. But there is no freedom of conscience to disobey a just law, and a law upholding the right to life of the innocent is a manifestly just law.
And while it is true that not every sin should be a crime, it does not follow that no sin should be a crime. Indeed, almost every serious crime in the law of western nations is also a grave sin.
Beattie’s position, then, is that she favours the right to life of the unborn, but not in those cases where a woman in good conscience disagrees; and that, while she believes that the law should protect the unborn, she does not think the law should be applied in certain cases where women decide otherwise after “agonizing”.
Apply this reasoning to people-trafficking, child exploitation, euthanasia, murder or rape and its untenability is obvious. In none of these cases does the law seek to mitigate the rights of the vulnerable by considering the intent or the circumstances of the perpetrator of the wrong. As Pope Francis points out, the right to life in civil law “is not subordinate to any condition, neither qualitative, nor economic, much less ideological.”
It is also a false dichotomy to pit the life and welfare of the mother against that of her baby, however unintended, and however tragic its means of conception. Abortion in cases of rape compounds the tragedy, does not resolve it, while abortion is never necessary to save the life of a woman, as the 2012 Dublin Declaration on Maternal health, signed by over 1,000 medical practitioners, made clear.
As for disabled children, as Caroline Farrow points out, confirmed diagnoses of disability are very rare before 14 weeks and many only detected after 20, so that “swift, early-stage abortion is off the table for women who find that their babies have a physical abnormality”.
Beattie, who objects to being described as pro-abortion because she is “against late abortions”, cannot favour both the right to abort disabled children and the restriction of abortion to earlier than 12 weeks.
And in neither case can she claim with any integrity that she is against legal abortion.
Abortion is not a issue of religious belief
Beattie says she is “personally pro-life” but questions “how far the Church should use the law to defend positions which may not be defensible from the perspective of those who do not share the Christian faith.”
But this is to treat abortion as an issue of religious belief in a pluralist society, as if the Church were asking Parliament to ban meat on Fridays or declare the Feast of the Immaculate Conception a bank holiday.
Whereas (as Francis and his predecessors have endlessly pointed out) abortion is obviously an ethical question of intrinsic human rights.
If Beattie had written that she was “personally” opposed to human trafficking but questioned Cardinal Vincent Nichols’s call for government action on the grounds that the Church should not use the law to impose its view, most people (including, we imagine, Beattie herself) would be a little startled by the reasoning.
In common with the great minds in the western tradition, the Church holds that the law’s first duty — the primary obligation of public authority — is the defence of the right to life before all else, and without qualification.
Which is why, across the world, whenever a government has sought to introduce abortion on — as always at first — the limited grounds of threat to a mother’s life, rape and disability, time after time the bishops have been resolutely opposed. And in the case where abortion has been allowed the bishops have sought to re-criminalise it.
They do so because where abortion is illegal, it is far, far, less common; and because the lives of both mothers and babies are saved.
“Making abortion illegal does not save the lives of unborn children,” claims Beattie, who adds: “It kills women who would rather risk death than carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.” Neither is remotely true. Abortion doesn’t just kill the unborn child, but hugely increases drug use, alcohol abuse, depression, and so on in the mother. (After Chile made all abortion illegal in 1989, maternal mortality rates improved steadily; now they are among the best in the world.)
The real choice
This is all about crossing a threshold. Once the law allows the killing of innocent beings for certain, very narrow reasons, it must sooner or later allow it for other, much less narrow reasons.
The arguments for allowing abortion under very limited circumstances are precisely the same as for allowing abortion under broad circumstances. Legalising abortion out of compassion for the mother’s pain — which is what motivates Professor Beattie — implies, at once, rendering the unborn life a lesser being. First the law strips it of rights, then it is able to be killed.
Once the law declares that the baby of a woman who has been raped, or a disabled baby, is not a life worth defending or saving, it crosses that threshold.
If the law does not declare that life worth living under those circumstances, it cannot logically declare it worth living under other circumstances. A life is recognised as such in law, or it is not.
Even without religion to teach us that every life, however conceived, is a reflection of the divine, legally and philosophically this has always been an either-or question.
The law stands, or not, for the unborn. Beattie and her co-signatories must decide also.
[UPDATE: Since this post was published, Cardinal Nichols has expressed his support for the Polish bishops’ campaign.]