THE INTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY FOUNDED IN 1840
WHY THE HIGH COURT IS WRONG
An unborn child with Down’s syndrome, even though very likely to survive normal delivery at the end of the pregnancy, may lawfully be killed in the womb up to the time of birth. It came as a nasty shock to many people, by no means only anti-abortion campaigners, to hear that this is the law of England and Wales as upheld in a recent High Court case. Without Down’s syndrome or some other handicap affecting the child, such an act of intentional killing would be a serious criminal offence. This is clearly tantamount to discrimination against people with Down’s syndrome. But not, the High Court held, unlawful discrimination.
The court refused to declare the relevant law, the Abortion Act of 1967 as amended by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990, as being contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act. In law, foetuses do not have human rights. They do have certain safeguards, however, as set out in the 1967 Act. Since the law was amended in 1990, Britain’s fairly liberal abortion law draws a line at 24 weeks into the pregnancy, after which medical opinion is that the foetus becomes “viable”, that is to say theoretically capable of surviving albeit with medical support.
The example of the US is warning not to let an issue as delicate as abortion be decided by judges. It is the proper domain of parliament. When the law was amended in 1990 the discovery of a severe congenital abnormality in a foetus was deemed sufficient to exclude it from the protections given by the time limit, so such an abortion could in theory happen up to the onset of labour or even during it. Killing a newborn baby, whether handicapped or not, remained murder. The extraordinary contrast between the two cases cries out to be rectified, and the High Court ruling only increases the urgency for action in parliament.
A child born with Down’s syndrome has the same right to life as one born without genetic abnormality. The consequence of ignoring that principle was described by the mother of such a child who was offered an abortion at 36 weeks, one of the two women who brought the court case. The court heard “the pressure she was put under, the lack of support offered to her, the guilt she was made to feel for not having undergone screening, the impression conveyed that by going ahead with the pregnancy she would be going against medical advice, the negativity about Down’s syndrome and the fear engendered about having a child with Down’s syndrome all conveyed the message to her that a life with Down’s syndrome was of no value”.
This is the dreadful position into which parliament has put parents of children with Down’s and other disabilities. The fact that the issue opens up the whole argument about abortion is no reason for running away from it. There is no moral difference between putting a foetus with Down’s syndrome to death one minute before it is born and putting it to death one minute after, as this mother instinctively realised. This is but one step away from the horrors of Aktion T4 – the Nazi euthanasia programme for those deemed unworthy of life.
MERKEL IS A HARD
ACT TO FOLLOW
Is Germany about to go green? The German general election has finally loosened the grip on power of the Christian Democrats: the dominant political force almost since the end of the Second World War. But with the end of the chancellorship of Angela Merkel looming – she remains in post only as caretaker – they looked stale and out of ideas. They lost many seats in the Bundestag as their share of the vote collapsed, and it seems highly unlikely they could participate in the formation of another coalition.
That leaves the centre-left Social Democrats (SDP) free to share power with two other smaller parties, the Greens and the Free Democrats, who at first sight seem ideologically opposed to one another. But the Greens are less anti-capitalist than they were, and have their own critics on the Left because of it, and while the Free Democrats have made themselves the party of business interests and free markets, they recognise that climate change is a reality they have to face. So the SDP has a great opportunity as a reconciler of differences. The post-war “social market” model that served the Germans so well – and helped shape the EU – was designed to alleviate the worst excesses of unbridled capitalism by supplying a social dimension, which meant worker participation in company management and a form of welfare safety net. Now German capitalism has to take another step, to incorporate into its basic aims and objectives protection of the environment and measures to combat the effects of climate change: the social market has to become a green social market. And the
SDP’s challenge is to bring about this alchemy by contriving a programme of government that both the Free Democrats and the Green Party will sign up to.
This would have been impossible five years ago. Now it is not impossible, though it will not be straightforward. The climate has since sent its own signals that it is in crisis. Germany has not been excused torrential rainstorms leading to large-scale flooding, with loss of life and property; nightly TV newscasts depict not just similar flooding elsewhere but catastrophic forest fires. Germany’s own forests are in danger, with four times more fires then a decade ago. As the junior partner in Merkel’s coalition government, the SDP is tinged with the same sense of staleness that led to the electoral collapse of the Christian Democrats. If it can meet these new challenges, it has a chance to shine.
It is right to salute Germany’s “Mutti” as she passes from the stage. Angela Merkel may have discovered the limitations of centre-right politics as a force for change in the world; and she was insensitive to the resentment of other Europeans when she acted on the principle that what was good for Germans must automatically be good for them. But she continued and consolidated Germany’s stable democratic government under the rule of law; she resisted populist clamour from the far Right and the far Left; and in her extraordinarily generous welcome to a million refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East, she showed great Christian courage and compassion. Postwar Europe has produced few giants among its politicians; she is certainly among them.
2 | THE TABLET | 2 OCTOBER 2021