Message from the President

Women’s Rights, Scientific Data and Compassion Win the Day in UK House of Commons Debate

Jon O'Brien, President Catholics for a Free Choice
Jon O’Brien, President, Catholics for Choice.
Photo Credit: Eric Haase.  This picture is copyrighted and cannot be reproduced without the express permission of Catholics for Choice.

Catholics for Choice was present in the House of Commons late last month in more ways than one. In a debate where the strength of the prochoice movement shone through, we saw, once again, just how weak the UK’s antichoice movement is. British lawmakers rightfully voted against lowering the upper time limit for abortion during its consideration of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. In retaining the upper time limit of 24 weeks set in 1990, they rebuffed repeated attempts to reduce the time limit down as far as 12 weeks gestation.

CFC board member and noted theologian Sheila Briggs and I joined the UK prochoice movement in educating MPs about where people of faith, particularly Catholics, stood on the critical issue of restricting a women’s right to choose. Catholics for Choice wrote letters, held briefings for members of parliament (MPs) and engaged the media. Some members of the Catholic hierarchy had been particularly vocal in the weeks leading up to the vote. In the end, the prochoice movement in the UK and Catholics for Choice saw antichoice activists routed on all seven votes they faced (four on time limits and three on other issues)—unable to muster a single majority.

In CFC’s letter to members of parliament, we urged respect for women’s rights and scientific data. We noted our concerns about the “potentially deleterious impact on women’s health that would result from a reduction in the time limit” and that there was “a significant lack of scientific data to indicate such a reduction is necessary or would be beneficial.” We registered the sincere trouble we had with the sustained efforts of some Catholic bishops to influence this vote and their claim that only they represent the Catholic church. Additionally, we repeatedly cautioned that the bishops do not speak on behalf of all Catholics nor do they truly represent the totality of Catholic teaching. During the Commons debate, Catholics for Choice’s work was referred by name.

Before the vote, we called on Catholic MPs to remember that Catholic teaching about the primacy of conscience holds that the individual must follow his or her conscience—even if it is in conflict with church teaching. In addition, we noted that Catholic teaching on conscience requires at least tolerance, if not respect, for another person’s decision. Catholic parliamentarians were, therefore, free to follow their own consciences, and to support policies that allow all people to make informed, conscientious decisions about their lives and their families.

In seeking to avert attention from its abject defeat, the antichoice movement entered a Panglossian world—ignoring the reality staring them in the face. Dr. Peter Saunders, the general secretary of the (tiny) Christian Medical Fellowship, presenting himself as a soothsayer and expert on future political campaigns, stated, “I have no doubt that abortion will be a major issue at the next election.”Well, he may have no doubt, but abortion hasn’t been an election issue in the UK, well, ever, and that is hardly likely to change now after such a disastrous defeat. In fact, antichoice groups are in such disarray that their current aim is only “to halve the number of abortions in the UK.” This is certainly a long way from the lofty goals espoused by antichoice activists elsewhere, who seek to ban all abortions without exception.

It is nearly 20 years since parliament last discussed the issue, and any future Conservative government knows that supporting restrictions on abortion is a complete vote-loser. Polls by Catholics for Choice and others have shown that UK voters, religious or otherwise, prefer to see abortion legal. One recent poll found 83 percent in support of women having access to an abortion if they wish. So, where’s the opposition? Clearly the Conservatives, even if they do win the next election, will again not have even one good leg to stand on if they go after access to abortion.

We feel that science, logic and compassion triumphed over a misinformation campaign. Plain and simple, these elected officials weighed up the facts, sought expert advice and, despite the reckless rhetoric of some in the Catholic hierarchy, stood with women and stood up for women’s choices.

That feels very good indeed.

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Some Mentions of Catholics for Choice in the House of Commons debates

20 May 2008: Cols 249-53

Judy Mallaber MP (Amber Valley) (Lab): Like others, I regret that this debate has been tagged on to the important and complex debates on updating the regulatory framework for scientific research. In those debates over the past two days, I have sought to follow the science, and I wish to do so tonight, too. As we have heard and would expect, however, the issues have a highly emotional impact and reflect different ethical and religious views.

Many of those who have tabled amendments to cu t the time limit hold strong views that the fetus is a person and any abortion is wrong. However, even within the Catholic Church, there are different opinions, as has been mentioned. The theological debate can be traced back over the centuries to St. Thomas Aquinas, and Catholics for Choice have sent hon. Members the results of the latest poll of UK faith groups, showing that the majority of UK Catholics and Protestants support a woman’s right to have an abortion when she has an unwanted pregnancy. As Catholics for Choice has said, Church teaching is neither definitive nor final on this subject.

The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) pointed out that this is not just about religion. Many hon. Members have strongly held views based on a range of arguments for cutting the limit. All too often, however, the woman is left out of this discussion, and she becomes invisible. Women have different moral views on whether abortion is acceptable and in which circumstances. I respect those views, and I also know that I am highly unlikely to change the views of those who do not agree with me, so I have to respect those views.

12 May 2008: Column 1096

Judy Mallaber MP (Amber Valley) (Lab): Has the right hon. and learned Gentleman read—as I have, with interest—the representations from Catholics for Choice? Like him, I take a secular position, but the representation states:

“There is no unanimity within the Catholic church or among faith groups as to when a fetus becomes a person,” and that that has been the subject of debate among theologians for centuries.

Read the November 2016 message from Jon O'Brien:
Pope Francis’ Announcement on Abortion Is About Bridging the Deep Chasm Between the Church Hierarchy and the Reality of Everyday Catholics