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.