Abortion, conscience and elections

There is public debate about abortion again in the UK. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, says in today’s Sunday Times that he hopes that questioning candidates could prompt a wider debate. First, on the merits of the issue itself, as I argued here in 2003, there is no case for adjusting the time limit on abortion as scientific progress makes it increasingly likely that foetuses can survive outside the womb. The viability or otherwise of the fetus has no bearing on its moral status. I’m in favour of a woman’s right to choose, and people who are concerned about avoiding late abortions should support those of us who believe that women should have much easier access to abortions in the early stages of pregnancy. But what about the idea that abortion is a "matter of conscience", should be the subject of a "free vote" and "should not be an election issue"? This argument appears to evolved a little in the last few months. All three of the main political parties in the UK choose not to have a party policy on abortion, allowing MPs a "free vote" on the issue if and when it is debated in the House of Commons. This approach was adopted on the basis that it would be wrong to ask an MP to vote in a particular way on abortion, because that might create a conflict with their conscience. More recently, this view has taken a stronger form. Some people (including the Prime Minister) are arguing that, because it is a matter of conscience, it is should not be a topic of political debate in the run-up to an election. I’m not at all persuaded by this. First, I don’t agree that that some issues are too important for democracy to handle. Abortion is an important moral issue: and that is precisely why it is important that MPs represent the views of their constituents about it. (I am reminded of the title of a book by Ken Livingston: "If democracy changed anything, they would abolish it."). There is an implicit, but nonetheless unpleasant, elitism in this idea: we should leave the really tough moral issues to MPs and trust them to take the right decison on our behalf. Second, there are many important moral issues to which we do not apply this test. Three million children die each year of vaccine-preventable diseases across the world; by refusing to provide the relatively small sums of money needed to buy and deliver vaccines, we are allowing them to die. How is that not a "moral issue"? Twenty thousand people die each day unnecessarily as a result of extreme poverty. Why do we not have a "free vote" on the international development budget? Some people have expressed concern that we might "become like America" if we allow social issues such as abortion, death penalty, euthanasia, gay marriage and stem cell research to become factors in our political life. The Economist put it like this:

To Europeans, religion is the strangest and most disturbing feature of American exceptionalism. They worry that fundamentalists are hijacking the country. They find it extraordinary that three times as many Americans believe in the virgin birth as in evolution. They fear that America will go on a “crusade” (a term briefly used by Mr Bush himself) in the Muslim world or cut aid to poor countries lest it be used for birth control. The persistence of religion as a public force is all the more puzzling because it seems to run counter to historical trends. Like the philosophers of the Enlightenment, many Europeans argue that modernisation is the enemy of religion. As countries get richer, organised religion will decline. Secular Europe seems to fit that pattern. America does not.

I subscribe to the European view as described by The Economist: I do not believe that fundamentalist religious beliefs should be allowed to restrict our freedoms (nor, incidentally, do most Americans). But the way to ensure that, as a society, we embrace our freedoms and rights, and protect ourselves from from religious bigotry, is to put these issues front and centre in our political discussions and win the argument. For us to say that our best protection against religious fundamentalists is to insulate key issues from the democratic process is to claim that we cannout rely on democracy to protect our freedoms; and that we should instead entrust these issues to an elite who, on these issues, should not be democratically accountable. (This would presumably be the same elite which has just removed our ancient right, granted under the Magna Carta, not to be detained without trial.) I would not want to vote for an MP who wanted to limit a woman’s right to choose an abortion, who did not support equal rights for gay people, who was opposed to stem cell research, or who supported the death penalty, just as I would not want to vote for an MP who was in favour of the war on Iraq, or opposed to spending more on international development assistance. These are all moral issues that ought to be at the heart of politics, including party politics and electoral politics.

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