The framing of the abortion debate along the line of a mother's 'right to choose' concedes too much to a secular liberalism that is both widespread and historically anomalous, argues Sean Walsh.

The United Kingdom Supreme Court recently stated its view that the continued ban on abortion access in Northern Ireland is incompatible with European human rights legislation ? specifically the ruling refers to cases where pregnancy is a result of sexual crime or where it involves a potentially fatal abnormality in the foetus. Some applauded this decision (given to us by the same court which so covered itself in glory in the case of Alfie Evans) on the grounds that it addressed an "anomaly" in access to legal abortions between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. An anomaly so obnoxious, apparently,  that its removal takes precedence over respect for the particular historical, religious and cultural situation in that part of the UK. But even those of us who were less impressed by the decision were not exactly shocked by it. EU legislation in this and other areas embeds and codifies a secular and liberal ethical consensus and the function of the EU judicial institutions is to impose that consensus from top down. But why is secular liberalism the consensus when it is only one of many ethical worldviews and when its own assumptions are, for want of a better word, historically anomalous? And why should we submit to its insistence on framing the terms of reference in the abortion discussion?

People who differ over abortion tend to talk past each other. We might even say that the conversation is impossible. For the "pro-lifer" it is irrelevant whether or not a foetus (a unique person of absolute value) is a consequence of incest or rape. For how can a baby inherit the shame surrounding the circumstances of its conception? For the defender of the "pro-choice" orthodoxy (and it is the orthodoxy) this is metaphysical mumbo-jumbo ?  benighted oppression dressed up as an exercise of moral imagination. And so on?.and on.

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But when ethical discussion is apparently intractable, we can take a step back and look at what assumptions are in play. And when we do this  it becomes clear that conducting the debate within the framework of rights is to wrongly favour the pro-choice case. Those of us who believe that the moment of conception involves the creation of a unique person, rather than the generation of a merely biological system, and that it is wrong always to put legal permissions around the murder of innocent people should not concede this linguistic currency. It is not a question of measuring the rights of the mother against the rights of the merely biological entity she is carrying. The language of "rights" is the chosen coinage of post-Enlightenment secular liberalism. And we are well within ours if we choose not to accept it.

The Enlightenment tendency was always to replace a religious worldview with a secular one in which religion and morality were based upon scientific rationalism. It prized the cold light of reason over the superstitions of faith. But in doing so it set things up the wrong way. For the religious worldview faith and reason are complementary. The intelligibility of the universe to us is an act of grace; since the universe is separate from God and since we are created in his image we have both the permission and the capacity to investigate it. That we can use reason and science to arrive at truth is part of a divine covenant. But for the secular liberal things are not so clear cut. For her, rights are based on reason which is sourced not in the claims of religion but in us. But this view tends to be conjoined with an increasingly materialistic view of the human person according to which souls are just minds and minds are no more than brains; and brains in turn are to be understood as merely physical-chemical processes emergent over time from the mechanisms of natural selection. Reason thus becomes contingent and its connection to truth is sacrificed at the altar of evolutionary advantage. CS Lewis makes the point:

"If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees".

It is no coincidence that the sciences of embryology and genetics continue to develop in ways that strengthen the "pro-life" case. It is an urgent and pressing duty of Christian theism to reclaim science as its own. Secular liberalism in its attempt to peel off reason from faith has put its faith in an inadequate account of what reason in fact consists in. The "abortion debate" is impoverished because its current terms of engagement amount to a capitulation to an inadequate ethical worldview in which the concept of "harm" is disconnected from any account of what our essential natures are. Concepts of grace, redemption, purpose, virtue, value and many more have been disowned by philosophers in favour of frivolous "trolley problem" forms of ethical discussion conducted according to a "calculus of competing rights". The hundreds of thousands of children at risk of "termination" deserve better than this. In fact we all do.

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