The French National Assembly has approved a bill which would criminalise pro-life websites which it says “exert psychological or moral pressure” on women not to abort. The proposed offence would be punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment and a €30,000 fine. Quite how one would legally define such terms is, no doubt, a question which will keep lawyers in fees for many years to come. We know that here in the UK the authorities will not allow pictures of abortion procedures to appear on screen because of the fear of causing ‘upset’. Thus, killing babies in the womb, which might do more tan ‘upset’ many, and would certainly ‘upset’ the baby is allowed, but let’s not talk too much about it, and let’s not do anything which might cause a mother-to-be to change her mind in case she gets ‘upset’.
This is a difficult issue precisely because it marks the point of intersection between a Christian view of life and a secular one. The society into which Christianity came was one which held human life cheap. There was a lot of it, in the sense that many babies were born, and there was a lot of death, in the sense that mortality rates for babies and infants was high. Unwanted babies were left out on hillsides to die, human beings were bought and sold as commodities, and for all but an elite, life was usually poor, nasty, brutish and short. It might be added that that last condition has been the case for most of human history, but the coming of Christianity changed the attitude to life. If all human life was from God, it was sacred, and even if someone was a slave, they deserved treating as a fellow child of God. Without that Christian impulse it may be doubted whether slavery would have been challenged; certainly in societies untouched by it, slavery persisted, and it may be no accident that as Christianity has receded in the West, we have discovered slavery is on the rise. Fallen mankind has within it the darkest instincts derived from the father of lies, and left to itself will indulge itself in acts so wicked that they defy description; it is also capable of finding specious reasons for its actions. Left to itself, its own comfort and selfishness figure high on mankind’s lists of ‘needs’.
None of this is to minimise the distress of women who find themselves pregnant and who feel unready or unable to take care of a child; it’s easy enough to stand in judgement and sniffily tell them they should have thought of that first; how easy it is for those without sin to cast the first stone – but at least the Pharisees had the sense of shame to walk away without casting any stone. Nor its it to excuse the way in which society, not least agents of the Churches, have treated what used to be called ‘unmarried mothers’. Indeed, that mistreatment, like the way in which the Church dealt with sex abuse cases, has eroded much of its moral authority in our society. It is hard to take lessons on morality from any institution which showed itself more concerned with its own reputation than with the damage done to others by its agents. Thus are the sins of the fathers visited on posterity.
In a society where life is not sacred and where the feelings or preferences or life-styles of people take preference, and where the Church’s point of view is compromised by its own history, finding a language in which to discuss this most emotive of issues has not proved possible. The natural next step is for politicians to close down points of view they do not want to hear. The banned the pro-lifers, I was not pro-life, so did nothing. When they get round to banning your own point of view, there will be no one there to speak for you – and perhaps no point in speaking.