Rowan Williams: Britain's abortion debate lacks a moral dimension

The history of the 1967 Act’s implementation is an object lesson in how slippage can occur between thinking compassionately about exceptional cases and losing the sense of a normative position. I don’t think we’re yet at the point where such a sense has been entirely lost. Even if some of the language about foetal rights is uncertain and confused, it illustrates the half-articulate conviction that the unborn child does merit protection. And the furore around Channel 4’s recent broadcast about abortion, with its vivid images of the unborn, shows that there remains an instinctive recognition of humanity in the foetus even at very early stages.

But the slippage is there. This is not an argument for unalterable prohibitions in law against abortion in every circumstance – or against divorce or civil partnerships; there is room for disagreement over appropriate legal provision in all these areas. But it is an argument for keeping our eyes open for the unintended consequences, the erosion of something once taken for granted that occurs when we do not keep in focus the fundamental convictions about humanity that inform not only our responses to crisis, but our routine relationships with one another.

Precisely because we don’t bring these convictions to light all that often, they can shift or weaken without our noticing. It’s not a good habit for societies to get into; this debate, and the history of what has happened in the wake of the 1967 Act, should remind us of some of the potential costs of such a habit in other areas.

Read it all.


Posted in * Anglican - Episcopal, Archbishop of Canterbury, Ethics / Moral Theology, Theology

4 comments on “Rowan Williams: Britain's abortion debate lacks a moral dimension

  1. Jill C. says:

    The comments (mostly by Brits) after the article are particularly disheartening. The pro-life movement still has a long way to go in educating the public, evidently. Not only do some individuals persist in thinking of the unborn child as just a blob of tissue — on its way to becoming a human life, but they believe that elderly people, especially those with Alzheimer’s Disease are gradually becoming less of a human life. Unbelievable!

    1967 was a long time ago as far as scientific discovery and medical treatment are concerned. Oh that they would take another look at what is so obvious in an ultrasound!

    (By the way I have lots of “little feet” — gold and silver — left over from this weekend’s convention. Only 16 people in the Diocese of Dallas signed the Anglicans for Life petition that was in the exhibit area at Southfork Ranch Friday and Saturday. If you’d like to take a look at it and sign it, you can do so by visiting )

  2. Passing By says:

    This is a good column, and tends to illustrate a lot of my own thoughts.

    I don’t necessarily believe abortion should be illegal, but I surely don’t believe in abortion, except possibly in cases of rape or incest, especially incest–but, even then, children can be put up for adoption instead of aborted.

    Dr. Williams eloquently outlines what I would succinctly define as a bad hallmark of human nature–“Give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile”.

    It can be a horrible habit to get into, usually resulting in more trouble than was planned, or it was originally worth.

    I have never assisted abortions(and would not) but I have worked as a health professional in family practice clinics–in doing so, one takes a lot of health histories, and it is profoundly disturbing how many women seem to view abortion as simply another form of birth control.

    “Pro-choice”? Well, women usually have two choices long before “choosing” to make the babies pay for the parents’ stupidity or laziness–a woman can “choose” whether or not to have sex with a man, or she can “choose” whether or not to use birth control. Birth control methods these days are extremely effective, when used judiciously and as directed.

    Dr. Williams’s points are best illustrated by the appalling case study I recently read, where a British woman aborted a 22-week-old fetus simply because the baby had a cleft lip/cleft palate, which, by the way, are surgically correctable problems.

    Is it not true that the Old Testament road to idolatry(sexual or otherwise) leads to the scourges of infanticide and human sacrifice?

    What, are we all just devolving to uneducated, pagan beginnings?

    God help us…

  3. MargaretG says:

    [blockquote] how slippage can occur between thinking compassionately about exceptional cases and losing the sense of a normative position. [/blockquote]

    I couldn’t agree more. And I am glad he drew parallels with the debates about divorce — how a few really sad cases were made the reason why marriage should no longer be seen as lifelong as its norm. Now we have reached the point where some church leaders model divorce being “celebrated” with the return of the rings at a quasi-religious ceremony. Both of these are classic cases where the middle were moved to support change because of their compassionate listening to heart-ache but did not realise the consequences of their actions. It is also the case where those who did realise the consequences and stood out against change (including but not only the Catholic church) were seen as heartless and cruel. I wonder if all the children who now suffer from divorce — let alone to those who are killed by being aborted — would agree.

  4. Jeffersonian says:

    ++Rowan’s animadversion is subtle and apt, hopefully designed to persuade those at the margins to oppose this brutal and atavistic practice. But I worry that he has ceded the principle while quibbling at the margins.