|Mission Report: UK 40 Years in the Desert of Death: November 2007|
John Mallon, November 2007
On October 27, 2007, we commemorated the 40th anniversary of the United Kingdom's Abortion Act of 1967, which went into effect April 27, 1968, in England, Scotland, and Wales, but not Northern Ireland. Forty is a significant and symbolic number in Biblical tradition for many reasons, but to name one, forty years traditionally denotes the length of a generation. For our purposes, a generation lost.
Strictly speaking, the 1967 UK law didn't legalize abortion as Roe v. Wade did in the USA, rather it allows it under certain conditions. The major differences between the Abortion Act of 1967 and Roe v. Wade in the US is that the British ruling required the approval of two physicians for an abortion and limited it to before the 28th week. Although the two-physician requirement remains in place, in reality, it does little to restrict abortion. As in the United States, "medical requirements" are stretched to be practically meaningless. Still, pro-abortion forces continue to push for "social abortion" (in contrast to "medical" abortion) in principle, complaining that the British law is not centered on "women's rights" but requires medical approval, unlike Roe v. Wade, which allows abortion on demand for any or no reason right up to birth.
Restrictions of the 1967 law require that a registered practitioner in a National Health Service hospital or other government-approved location must perform the abortion. The law also specifies:
These restrictions were later amended by the Human Fertilization and Embryology Act of 1990, which lowered the time limit to 24 weeks under statutory grounds "c" and "d" and removed time limits for statutory grounds "a" and "b."
The history of abortion in the UK provides many interesting twists and turns. Before 1803, British Common Law allowed abortion before "quickening" (the time it was then widely thought the soul entered the body-approximately 20-24 weeks). Abortions after "quickening" were considered an offense, but there were no fixed penalties, and the woman was not always held responsible. However, in 1803 the Lord Ellenborough Act made abortion at any time in the pregnancy a felony under English statute, punishable by death.
The Offenses Against the Person Act of 1861 softened this, making abortion punishable by imprisonment of three years to life, even when done for medical reasons. In 1929 the the Infant Life Preservation Act was introduced, which amended the 1861 law, saying abortion was no longer a felony, so long as it was in good faith for the sole purpose of preserving the mother's life. The new law made it illegal to kill a baby "capable of being born live." It also said the child should be presumed viable at 28 weeks but gave doctors the power to decide the legality when the mother's health was in danger.
The article "A Global History of Abortion" on the Life.org.nz website in New Zealand reports that "In 1920 the Soviet Union legalized abortion on demand, and the World League for Sexual Reform began in Berlin. The influential 1929 London Congress of the World League for Sexual Reform promoted the Soviet abortion law as an ideal for its pioneering secular ideology," and that "by 1932, supporters in the medical profession were lobbying the British Medical Association, and in 1936 the Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA) was established."
Then, in 1938, Dr. Alec Bourne challenged the law with a test case. He gave an abortion to a 14-year-old girl who had been raped by four soldiers and turned himself in to the authorities. He gained great publicity and public sympathy and was acquitted. Life.org.nz reports, "Justice McNaughten told the jury that if Bourne believed that continuation of the pregnancy ‘would make the woman a physical or a mental wreck,' then he operated for the purpose only of preserving the life of the woman."
The article continues, "As a result of the Bourne case, more and more abortions began to be practised in Britain in cases where the woman's physical or mental health was thought to be in danger, a loophole in the law that was interpreted increasingly loosely. This ambiguous legal precedent was adopted by other Commonwealth nations."
The ALRA continued its work, lobbying for more liberalized laws from 1936 through the 1950s, and the advent of the contraceptive pill in the 1960s accelerated matters. Life.org.nz also mentions another factor, which they suggest played a role in the 1967 law: "In the early 1960s, the thalidomide tragedy (when doctors prescribed a drug to 1,000 pregnant women that caused missing or malformed limbs) caused public alarm. Many of the women were refused abortions."
In 1966, the Abortion Law Reform Association led the campaign in support of Liberal Member of Parliament David Steel's (now Lord Steel) private member's bill to legalize abortion.
By this time, the loose interpretation of laws, numerous loopholes, and the upward spiraling rate of abortions alarmed Alec Bourne over what his 1938 test case had wrought, causing him to become one of the founding members of one of the UK's leading pro-life organizations, The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, popularly known as SPUC.
In the fall of 2003, ALRA joined with the radical pro-abortion group National Abortion Campaign to form Abortion Rights.
RESULTS OF THE LAW AND NEW CHALLENGES
There are few champions of the unborn as bold and articulate as Lord David Alton of Liverpool, who has fought tirelessly for the unborn in the UK throughout his career as a Member of Parliament and as a member of the House of Lords. In an article entitled "Forty Years: It's Enough," appearing July 8, 2007, in The Universe, a British Catholic newspaper, he sums up the present situation in the UK:
"In October we will commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the Abortion Act: forty years since David Steel introduced the Abortion Bill, 20 years since my attempt in Parliament to challenge it. And in October 2007, a new Government Bill (the Human Tissue and Embryos Bill) will signal the most profound and far reaching debate on pro-life issues in many years.
"That such a national debate is long overdue is borne out by the grim statistics.
"Nearly 7 million abortions have taken place since 1967; one every three or four minutes; around 600 every day; about 190,000 annually. Abortion is permitted up to and even during birth on a disabled baby.
"The 1967 law paved the way for the destruction and cloning of more than a million human embryos.
"At the other end of the spectrum, it has led to repeated attempts to legalise euthanasia and assisted suicide of sick and disabled people."
In an article entitled "Biggest Battle in a Generation," in the same newspaper on June 9, 2007, Lord Alton describes the next legal battle the UK will face:
"In the autumn, both Houses of Parliament will be invited to consider the Human Tissues and Embryos Bill. This Bill will signal the biggest battle on pro-life issues since 1990, and arguably since 1967.
"The Bill is likely to include provisions that deal with all aspects of embryology, including animal-human hybrid embryos; surrogacy; designer babies; therapeutic and reproductive cloning; embryonic and adults stem cells; the removal of biological fathers (through anonymous sperm donation); organ donation; tissue retention; and the re-opening of the abortion debate.
"The Bill has emerged following a review of the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, which the Government announced in 2004. The Bill establishes a new regulatory body, the Regulatory Authority for Tissue and Embryos (RATE), which takes the place of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) and the Human Tissue Authority (HTA)."
Ten years ago, regarding the 1967 law, Lord Alton wrote, "The climate which allowed the 1967 Bill to be so successful had been created over a sustained period of time. This story has been repeated again and again in many other legislatures who have imitated the British legislation-and the techniques are being used again as they seek to legalise euthanasia."
The UK's sojourn of 40 years in the Desert of Death is a familiar story. The history of legal abortion in the UK, like every other country, has its share of lies, treachery, and deceit, with an undeniable slippery slope towards other atrocities against life.