I usually avoid commenting on the history and politics of the USA, since it is not my specialism. But the news is full of the fallout from the decision of the US Supreme Court to overturn the 1973 judgement Roe v. Wade, triggering the immediate and drastic curtailment of the availability of abortion across Republican America. So I offer, by way of oblique comment on the situation, an extract from my 2015 book on Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury, on the Church of England’s involvement in the 1967 Act that liberalised abortion law in the UK.
It shows a different kind of Christian engagement with the messy business of legislating for morality in a nation where the Christian claim about life is not commonly accepted. Ramsey recognised neither of the absolutisms that are pitched against each other in the US context, of ‘pro-life’ versus ‘pro-choice’, recognising both the limits of theological certainty and the irreducible complexity of real situations. Although he did not put it in these terms, it is an advocacy for safe, universal and compassionate abortion provision, while at the same time working for the kind of Christian society in which it was not often required.
Part of the moral law that saw decisive change on Ramsey’s watch was the law on the termination of pregnancy. As with the law on divorce, those churches that engaged sympathetically with the process of reform have later been indicted by conservative commentators with colluding with ostensibly limited reform which in fact opened the door to a more wholesale permission. From the first, the effects of the change in the law were monitored, discussed and disputed; the numbers of legal abortions rose, although the statistics were disputed, since the law was designed to legitimise and thus control those abortions that already occurred illegally and went unrecorded. There were difficult and indeed horrific cases, and sensational reporting in the press. Abortion became a plot line in larger stories that were told of the nation’s moral decay. Some thought there ought to be a national day of prayer on the matter, for ‘true guidance to our leaders and for the awakening of Christian conscience.’ In 1973 Ramsey was petitioned by the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, that the Church of England should do more to stem the inexorable rise in the numbers, and to support doctors who conscientiously objected. There was also criticism of the bishops’ supposed collusion in the passing of the 1967 Act, and their quiescence since. And so, it is necessary to peel away the contested later history of abortion in the UK to examine the reactions of Ramsey and the Church to the tightly constrained terms of debate on the issue in the mid-1960s.
In the early stages of that debate, there had been a consciousness that the present law was both ambiguous in part, and socially harmful where it was clear. The prevailing boundaries of legitimate abortion rested on statute law, significantly modified by a single case, never tested on appeal: the ‘Bourne judgment’ of 1938. The case of Aleck Bourne had left open the possibility that abortion might be permissible where there was significant risk to the health of the mother, and not to her life alone as the statute law required; a provision that was interpreted increasingly liberally as time went on. But access to abortion under this provision was in practical terms limited to those who could pay, and the numbers of terminations obtained illegally each year suggested that there was considerable demand for that which the law could not supply. When abortion was obtained illegally, the consequences for the mother were often dire.
The Church of England had in progress a group examining the issue, composed of experts: physicians, social workers, moral philosophers, and clergy specialising in issues of ethics. It concluded that abortion was ethically acceptable under certain limited circumstances, being when there was a threat to the life or health of the mother, which included both physical and mental health. Crucially, the authors thought that this calculation should include aspects of the situation of the family, if the arrival of a new child into that situation would threaten the mother’s well-being. The decision ought to rest with medical professionals, after due consultation with other experts in social welfare. The report therefore allowed room for the abortion of foetuses with physical deformity, or which had been conceived as a result of rape or incest. However, these were not in themselves to be the ground; they were significant only insofar as they affected the mental health of the mother. The authors acknowledged the fear of the traditional moralist ‘of a steady increase […] so that abortion came to be demanded, and allowed, for minor inconveniences which fell far short of the seriousness which alone would make termination licit.’ However, they were confident that ‘such safeguards as are necessary can be devised.’
It is worth noting that which the report did not propose. While it attributed a moral status to the foetus, as having the potential for life, it asserted that if the interests of foetus and mother were irreconcilable, then those of the mother should win out. In this, it was close to the present law as it was customarily read off from the Bourne case. It was also some distance from the more absolutist position that characterised Roman Catholic thought on the subject, which if pursued to its logical conclusion would, the authors thought, lead in some cases to the death of both mother and foetus, and which avoided such untenable conclusions only by casuistry. The authors were however confident that the solution proposed upheld the general right to life of the foetus, and thus recognised the sanctity of human life, whilst sufficiently recognising the realities.
As it happened, the report was in its final draft in late 1965 when the Labour peer Lewis Silkin brought forward a Bill to amend the law. The events of the following year until David Steel’s Bill became law demonstrated the ambiguities of the positions of both the Church and the Archbishop. As word of Silkin’s Bill spread around Westminster, Ramsey arranged for draft copies of the report to be sent to Silkin, the Lord Chancellor and various others, but stressed that he himself had not yet reached a firm conclusion on the matter. He also stressed that the report did not commit the Church to any particular view; Silkin in reply acknowledged the state of play, and undertook not to use the report in debate. Ramsey shortly afterwards left the country for a visit to Africa, but left the matter in the hands of his most senior member of staff Robert Beloe.
Beloe continued to meet privately with Silkin, the government Chief Whip, the Roman Catholic peer Lord Longford and others, gauging the tenor of opinion, exploring where the Bill might be brought into line with the Church’s report, and imparting useful information. Implicit throughout, but not stated, was Beloe’s role (on Ramsey’s behalf) as critical friend of the proposals: supportive of reform of the law, but not on any terms. Some of the bishops were equally closely involved, both in the Lords but privately: Robert Mortimer, Bishop of Exeter, was in direct correspondence with Silkin in 1965 over detailed revisions to the proposed Bill. However, there were dangers in this approach since, as with the case of divorce reform, press and parliamentarians alike appeared to struggle to distinguish between co-operation with the process and outright support for each and every proposal. Before long it appeared that Silkin had let it be known amongst Labour peers that the Bill had the support of the Church of England as it stood, in an undefined but important way. A year later, Ramsey’s office was alerted that Steel was suggesting the same, and that a public statement was needed.
By this time, a year after the publication of the Church’s report and the production of two Bills, Ramsey’s own view had solidified. Cardinal Heenan had reinforced the Roman Catholic view from the outset, coming out in opposition to the Abortion report at its publication. Ramsey had always thought this absolutist position unworkable, and that Heenan’s position was an evasion: an attempt to opt out of facing difficult issues. It necessitated deciding when life began: was it at conception, at the implantation of the embryo, at the ‘quickening’ (an older understanding), or at birth? Ramsey knew that this could not be known. And even if it could be known with any security, an absolute insistence on the life of the foetus led to the moral absurdity of making no intervention when the lives of both mother and child were at risk.
In a statement to Convocation in early 1967, Ramsey laid out his position, coming out against those who would wish to see abortion available ‘virtually at will.’ In a clear rebuke to the absolutist camp, he drew a distinction between abortion and infanticide, arguing that it was ‘wrong to stir emotion by identifying them’. Nonetheless, the foetus had a unique status in the eyes of God. It was to ‘to be reverenced as the embryo of a life capable of coming to reflect the glory of God’. And once life on earth was over, it mattered that there was an ‘eternal destiny with God in heaven, possible to every child conceived in the mother’s womb’. Ramsey had no sense that anything of the moral status of the foetus was being lost; but there was a messiness at the margins of decision-making that could not be avoided.
It was in the light of this that Ramsey thought that Steel’s Bill went too far in two respects. It allowed for eugenic termination of a foetus with physical deformities on the basis of the interest of the foetus, rather than because it threatened the well-being of the mother. Opposition to this within the Church had been constant, since it involved a determination that it was better not to be born. ‘While we must strive to remove suffering’ Ramsey argued, ‘we do not foreclose the ways in which in the midst of frustrations and handicaps some of the glories of human lives may be seen.’
Steel’s Bill also contained what became known as the ‘social clause’, that widened the relevant factors to include the interests of other children, and the strain on the capacity of the woman as a mother (as distinct from her health). Such situations ‘draw out the sympathy of our hearts.’ However, Ramsey at base felt that despite this, no-one (and certainly not medical professionals) was in a position to judge the matter with any safety, since it was ‘amidst the utmost difficulties that some of the most splendid things in human nature have been seen’. ‘Ought we to legislate’ he asked, ‘as though the grace and power of God in human lives did not exist?’
It was on these points that Ramsey, in concert with other peers, tried to have Steel’s Bill amended, and also signed a letter to The Times opposing the widening of the Bill’s scope. The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act was eventually passed by Parliament in the autumn of 1967, amid talk of constitutional crisis as the Lords sought at the death to block the social clause that had been re-inserted by the Commons, after having already been removed once by the Lords. Ramsey acknowledged Baroness Summerskill’s evocation of the ‘terrible conditions in certain homes, which has certainly evoked the compassion and concern of all of us’ but this was a case not for abortion on social grounds, but for ‘education in, and the practice of, methods of birth control and family planning.’ Ramsey again voted against the amendment, along with several of the bishops but it was to pass into law.
And thus the contested history of the effects of the reform began. To what extent can the Church of England be said to be responsible for a change that was to have consequences that were quite unforeseen, even by its proponents? To put the question differently, could Ramsey and the bishops have chosen to stand apart from the process, keeping themselves and the Church unsullied by what was messy and ambiguous business? Even the most implacable Roman Catholic opponents had recognised the need to reform the law in some limited ways, and the bishops had little option than to engage with the process and to make the best of embodying solutions to complex and disputed moral conundra in workable law.
As well as this positive engagement, Ramsey and the bishops had also attempted to amend the Bill in the places where it needed to be amended. Whilst doing so, he had written to Prime Minister Wilson explaining that whilst there were elements of the Bill which he would oppose, he should not like to see it fail. An imperfect Bill was better than no Bill at all. Reform of the law was necessary, and so Ramsey did all that was possible to influence its formation; it could not be in either the interests of the Church or the nation that he should attempt to bring the whole Bill down. It was for the nation to legislate for itself. To this degree at least, Ramsey and his colleagues made the best of a difficult job; and later events should not be allowed to cloud necessary judgements about earlier ones.