Oxford Students for Life

Promoting a culture of life in the University and beyond

Pro-Life Heroes and Heroines, No. 10: The Unknown Pro-Lifer

Reading the stories of the other heroes and heroines in this series, one might think that it is all well and good to praise such people but that’s not for everyone: we can’t all be Lila Rose or Mildred Jefferson, and indeed, we don’t all have to be. I agree.

So far, our series has passed over the majority of those who are pro-life heroes and heroines, the bread and butter of the pro-life movement: the unknown pro-lifers. Who are these mystery people? Well, you and me (I hope!). We can each be a pro-life hero or heroine by being pro-life where we are now, whatever that stage of life may be. That may look very different for a gynaecologist or a palliative nurse, for a politician or a teacher, for a student or a parent. But heroes and heroines they can all be. Let me just give you one example of a pro-life heroine that I know. Let’s call her Emma: she’d rather not be named, and that’s typical – she’s someone who, without seeking recognition, quietly reinforces the value of life however she can.


Perhaps the best place to begin with this heroine (to cut to the chase) is the day she took into her family home, without asking for anything, a young international student who had found herself pregnant. Terrified to return to her country where the pressures of family and society would have forced her to have an abortion – something that she decidedly did not want – this young woman found refuge with Emma. Flash forward a year or two and Emma is welcoming another woman into her home: a woman left by her husband just weeks before her due date with no support, her family thousands of miles away. Both women were strangers to her; now friends.

In her professional life as a doctor, Emma works to educate others about life ethics – most recently an evening enlightening other healthcare professionals about the reality of sex-selective abortion and why it must be opposed. In her home life, she has shown the importance of these values to her children so that they know should they, a friend, or anyone they know need support, it can be found at home.

For you, the student reading this, again, you may say ‘I can’t do this: this certainly does not look like it could be something “you and me” could do.’ True. But, without a doubt, there is a way you can help promote a culture that defends and values life. Maybe this will be raising a motion in your JCR or MCR to help student parents. Maybe this will be challenging one of your friends when they claim ‘Euthanasia should just be made legal already’. Maybe it will mean writing your philosophy thesis in defence of life, or perhaps considering joining the OSFL committee next year! Whatever it is, each of us, each unknown pro-lifer, can be a pro-life hero or heroine. We can each make a difference.

(Previously in this series: Alice Paul, Jack Scarisbrick, Gandhi, Hans and Sophie Scholl, Lila Rose, Ovid, Mildred Jefferson, Jerome Lejeune, Concepta Wood and Mary Doogan.)

An easy way to help save unborn girls

If you only write to your MP once before the election, then the best time to do it might be in the next nine days. On Monday 23rd February, an amendment is being proposed to the Serious Crime Bill which would confirm the illegality of sex-selective abortion and prompt the government to combat the practice. There has been widespread public revulsion at the discrimination against unborn girls, and the amendment has a good chance of passing. Lots more useful background at stopgendercide.org, plus a form which makes emailing your MP childishly easy. This close to an election, they’ll be interested in your opinion.

Feminism, the Pro-Life Movement, and Justice

If I could guess the one thing that all women who are actively pro-life have in common, it’s probably that at one time or another, someone has asked us (in so many words); “How can you be a woman and be against abortion? That’s so anti-feminist!” The question can be asked with anything from timid confusion to outraged disbelief, but however it’s asked, it points to a very real issue.


The truth is, it’s not immediately clear how, in 2015, one could identify both as a feminist and as pro-life. The dominant feminist narrative of our age often emphasizes the right to abortion as one of its essential tenets. Many women agree with this, but many women don’t, and have found themselves bizarrely at odds with a movement that is supposed to work for their benefit. But as defenders of feminism have pointed out, being a feminist simply means believing that all people, regardless of gender, are of equal worth and deserve equal protection and rights under the law. And believe it or not, this also happens to be the fundamental principle of the pro-life movement. Those who are pro-life reject human rights violations such as abortion on the grounds of the essential equality in dignity of all human beings, born and pre-born. So while the pro-life position may clash with a few of the specific policy goals of modern feminism, it concords with the true spirit of feminism in a way that those policy goals blatantly do not.

A criticism hurled at many pro-life women is that, in opposing abortion, they are “judging” other women, while a true feminist would support whatever choices women make. This simply isn’t true. There’s a vast gulf between respecting another person and sanctioning any action they may take. Judging an action is not the same as judging a person. Being supportive of other people doesn’t mean approving of destructive choices; on the contrary, being supportive of others means wanting and working towards their good.

pro-life feminism

The major injustice that legal abortion supposedly resolves is sexual inequality between men and women. Men are literally able to walk away from unwanted parenthood in a way that women are not; hence the promotion of abortion as a way of levelling the playing field. The trouble is that abortion may achieve equality on a crude practical level, but it does so by perpetuating injustice on a much deeper one. Neither men nor women should be able to walk away from their children, whether or not those children are planned and wanted. Pro-life feminism takes the positive approach of insisting that both women and men take responsibility for their children, and seeks to build a culture in which women who are abandoned by their partners are supported in choosing justice even when their partner doesn’t.

Feminism is meant to empower women in societies in which men have historically been the wielders of power. The brand of feminism that defends abortion continues the institutional abuse of the weak by the strong, and in doing so, contradicts the fundamental principles of feminism itself. There’s some truth in the argument that one cannot be both pro-life and feminist in the modern world. But this is only true inasmuch as contemporary feminism has erred. In the interest of advancing women’s rights to create a just society – a worthy and incredibly important aim – we’ve forgotten that a just society is impossible if any person’s rights can be violated by another person at will. It’s deeply wrong that men’s interests should be realized at the expense of women’s rights, and it’s even more wrong that adults’ interests should be realized at the expense of children’s lives. Pro-life feminism demands higher standards for society’s treatment of all people. Women deserve better than abortion as a response to gender inequality; as feminists of all stripes have pointed out, no man will ever have to worry about needing to have an abortion. No woman should ever have to, either.


Pro-Life Feminism: last night’s discussion in quotes and photos







Emily Watson

Emily W

“I was spending time in Rwanda for work recently. They seemed to value something that we have forgotten: life, even life far more difficult than our own; and they really value children.”

“As science advances, it is becoming more and more difficult to dismiss the unborn as just a clump of cells.”


Panel laughter







Maryssa Gabriel

Panel Mer

“Abortion is a defective product. It’s mis-sold to women.”

“The message being sent to women is that women aren’t good enough… If you get pregnant at the wrong time, that’s not good enough.”


Isabel Errington

Panel Isabel

Every Child Matters – that’s the title of a very important document about safeguarding children that every teacher is familiar with. And yet tragically the same is not being said for children in the womb.”

“For any woman who feels unable to carry a pregnancy to term, the first question we should ask is ‘Why?’, and then we should start addressing her answers… Women deserve long-term solutions rather than the quick-fix of abortion.”


Panel serious







Aurora Griffin

Panel Aurora

“Of women are to compete with men in the current marketplace, pregnancy is perhaps their greatest obstacle. Our society and corporations are designed for bodies that can’t get pregnant.”

“It is not empowering to be told that one of your greatest strengths is a weakness. It is not empowering to be told that you have to walk away from your gravest responsibilities to achieve your dreams.”


Raheal Gabrasadig


“Women can feel pressurised into having an abortion… A woman confided in me and said, “I didn’t want to do this. I was worried my boyfriend would leave me.” I wonder whether we in the medical profession are doing enough to help women.”

‘Many abortions are for ‘social reasons’: there are social answers to those questions.”

Panel flowers

First Person: I’m pro-life for the same reason I’m a feminist

DelapOur guest blogger is Sarah Delap, a modern languages graduate from Durham currently working as a Fundraising and Communications Officer for the pro-life charity LIFE.

Do women’s rights and abortion have to go hand in hand? Of course not.

Feminism exists to promote the equality of the sexes: to advocate for equal economic, political, social and cultural rights for women. This can include having access to the same work opportunities as men (with the same wage prospects), having our opinions and thoughts respected, to ultimately be seen as individuals whose worth is not connected to our reproductive organs.

I couldn’t agree more with these aims. As a woman I believe that I deserve to have access to the same opportunities as my male counterparts. In essence: I am a feminist.

But where does abortion come into this? As well as being a feminist, I also hold strong pro-life values. Not because I’m religious (I’m not) but because I believe that a human life comes into existence the second that a sperm swims merrily into an egg and changes its make-up forever. Science is on my side here too – it is widely agreed that life begins at fertilisation; the crux of the abortion debate centres around when that life becomes valuable.

As a woman, the same principle could be applied to my value in the eyes of a patriarchal society. When do I become valuable to society? When I satisfy a man’s needs? When I conform to the stereotype of female attractiveness? When I put a home-cooked meal on the table when my husband walks through the door after a long day at the office with his male chums?

How ridiculous. I am a female human being, who should carry the same value and be awarded the same rights as a male. These points have been made for decades, achieving women’s equality has been recognised as necessary, logical and most importantly, required for an equal society to exist. Gender should not determine whether women and men hold the same value economically, politically and culturally.

It can be argued that the unborn are oppressed by born humans in the same way that females are oppressed by males; the value of the first is determined by the opinions of the second. It is only if individuals meet certain requirements that they are deemed valuable, rather than the group itself being granted this status on the simple grounds that they are human and deserve to be treated in the same way as other humans.

There is an irony, therefore, given that the unborn and women are both oppressed, that it is women’s rights and feminist groups who advocate for increased access to abortion, for the unborn to be oppressed ever further. Feminists are battling oppression with more oppression. The patriarchal society in which we live cannot believe its luck – it can continue to control women’s bodies without doing anything. The feminist movement is doing all the hard work for them under the mantra of “choice”; women can choose to further their career and to access further education – they just can’t choose those things and have children anywhere near as easily as men can. If women do choose a career and children, they don’t ‘have it all’ like they were once promised, they simply end up exhausted from ‘doing it all’. Survey after survey shows that working mothers still do the vast majority of childcare and domestic chores compared to working fathers.

Little wonder then, that women’s fertility is looked on as an inconvenience, something which gets in the way of having consequence-free sex. We seem to overlook the fact that sex is a must if you’re to make a baby, and are shocked when it succeeds – whether that was the original intention or not. Regardless of its “wanted-ness”, we’ve already agreed that the pregnancy is now another human life, so how do we weigh up whose life is worth more? Are not the woman and the life growing inside her two sides of the same coin, which need to be cared for and respected equally, in the same way that born men and women should be viewed and respected as equal?

Whilst I’m certainly not claiming to know exactly how this can be achieved, I strongly believe that the current ‘quick-fix’ solution of abortion is far from the most positive approach – for men, women and children. Women are choosing to abort their pregnancies because it is the only way they see to participate in society on an equal footing with men. But what victory for feminism is this, when this ‘equality’ is built upon the oppression of unborn members of our society? Not only are they stinting the progress of achieving true equality, they are deploying the very techniques which we experience first-hand and deplore.

Have the oppressed become the oppressors? As victims of bullying, are women really ok with becoming bullies themselves? I’d like to think that we are better than that and that’s why I am a pro-life feminist.

A reminder that, as part of our 3rd Week focus on pro-life feminism, we’re hosting a panel discussion tomorrow at Exeter. Please come along!

Previously in this series: Robert Stagg, ‘Why I am a pro-life atheist’.

Pro-Life Feminism Week starts here – with a song!

We’re devoting this week to a special focus on pro-life feminism: the centrepiece is Wednesday’s panel discussion. But we’re starting the week with a brand-new song we’re quite excited about, not least because it’s by OSFL Secretary Megan Engel, who’s kindly allowed us to launch it on our YouTube channel. It’s about pro-life feminism, but about a lot of other things, too. Give it a listen:

“So tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
—Mary Oliver

We’ll Give Them Life

I know that you think that I just want to do you wrong
But I am here to say I love you anyway; I’ve written all of us this song

So tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
If we focus on nitrogenation of the soil then we can end the strife
And you don’t you want to let it go?
Generations through all ages to know
you gave them life?

There’s an elemental power coursing through our veins and hearts
beating so incessantly just desperate to be free
I see where all this starts

And I know we’ve been so oppressed before, we’re reeling and we’re sore
But we’ve been lied to, told our bodies are our shackles – cold and iron, we have to gut them; now we’re bleeding on the floor.
And I just want to let it go?
Generations through all ages to know
we gave them life?

We’ve been told there’s nothing wrong with mass destruction
I think instead there’s nothing wrong with our construction
We make life

So tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
If we focus on nitrogenation of the soul then we can end the strife
And you don’t you want to let it go?
Generations through all ages to know
you gave them life?
We’ll give them life.

Pro-Life Heroes and Heroines, No. 9: Concepta Wood and Mary Doogan

(A guest blog from Xavier Bisits, former President of Cambridge Students for Life)

When Concepta Wood and Mary Doogan signed up to their job at an NHS hospital in Glasgow, they expected that their job would match the description:

“The post holder is responsible for providing clinical leadership and operational management for delivery of the midwifery service within labour ward and obstetric theatre.”

No mention of abortion.  They were supporting the midwifery service – a service that is by its very nature life-giving and life-affirming.


Wood and Goodan were outraged when the NHS turned their role into one that made them cooperate with the hospital’s provision of abortion – and decided to take legal action.

Even though the Court of Session in Edinburgh had previously taken their side, last month the Supreme Court ruled against them.

What was the problem? The pair had been employed as labour ward co-ordinators at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow.

The NHS of Greater Glasgow and Clyde gave them notice of new duties that required them to supervise and delegate work to staff assisting in the procurement of abortions.  The argument of the NHS was that their work did not involve the actual work of providing an abortion.

Such an argument, however, as lawyers acting on their behalf explained, makes a mockery of freedom of conscience. The point of freedom of conscience – especially in medical situations – is to spare objectors from cooperating in an act that they believe to be a fundamental violation of the their beliefs.

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court


To the nurses, overseeing a process of abortion is tantamount to direct participation.  History is littered with atrocities that were executed with chilling bureaucratic efficiency; sitting at a desk does not mask involvement.  On the contrary, it is part of the overall process – all of which is necessary. And anyone who believes in the unborn’s right to life could hardly take part in that process with a clear conscience.

Speaking after the decision, they said:

“We are both saddened and extremely disappointed with today’s verdict from the Supreme Court and can only imagine the subsequent detrimental consequences that will result from today’s decision on staff of conscience throughout the UK.

“Despite it having been recognised that the number of abortions on the labour ward at our hospital is in fact a tiny percentage of the workload, which in turn could allow the accommodation of conscientious objection with minimal effort, this judgment, with its constraints and narrow interpretation, has resulted in the provision of a conscience clause which now in practice is meaningless for senior midwives on a labour ward.”

These nurses deserve our support for their efforts.  They put their jobs and professional reputations on the line to secure justice and draw attention to the difficulties that so many medical professionals in the UK face when asked to provide “healthcare” that conflicts with their beliefs.

They may have lost the case but they are a testament to the need to be vigilant about the right to conscientious objection in the UK.

(Previously in this series: Alice Paul, Jack Scarisbrick, Gandhi, Hans and Sophie Scholl, Lila Rose, Ovid, Mildred Jefferson, Jerome Lejeune.)

Pro-Life Heroes and Heroines, No. 8: Jerome Lejeune

A key figure in modern genetic science, Jerome Lejeune is best known for his discovery of the extra chromosome that causes Down syndrome, and best loved for his work in caring for those with the condition.

Lejeune 1Born in France in 1926, Lejeune studied medicine in Paris and became a researcher at the National Centre of Scientific Research in 1952. He published a seminal paper in 1959 with two colleagues, Raymond Turpin and Marthe Gautier, which showed that those with Down syndrome have 47 chromosomes, just two years after it had been proved that the standard amount is 46. For the discovery of ‘trisomy 21’ he won the Kennedy Prize in 1962 and was named the first chair of human genetics at the University of Paris in 1964. He went on to identify the cause of cri-du-chat syndrome, among other chromosomal disorders, and was given the William Allan Memorial Award from the American Society of Human Genetics in 1969, the highest distinction that can be granted to a geneticist.

One of the consequences of Lejeune’s discovery was the screening for Down syndrome that became available in the 1970s, which led to routine abortions on prenatal diagnosis. Lejeune was deeply troubled by this: “Hate the disease, love the patient: that is the practice of medicine,” he said. He spent much of his later life working to discover treatments for such conditions.

People say, “The price of genetic diseases is high. If these individuals could be eliminated early on, the savings would be enormous!” It cannot be denied that the price of these diseases is high—in suffering for the individual and in burdens for society. Not to mention what parents suffer! But we can assign a value to that price: It is precisely what a society must pay to remain fully human.

He was pro-life because he believed that every life, no matter how many chromosomes it relies on, is worth living and deserves protection. His pro-life stance was not just that though – it was dynamic; he’s a pro-life hero because his beliefs had consequences for his personal life and professional career. The Nobel committee had considered rewarding the discovery of the origins of Down syndrome, but when Lejeune spoke out against abortion at a conference of delegates to the United Nations, he had to write to his wife later that day: “Today, I lost my Nobel prize in medicine.” His funding for research was cut, he was marginalised by the academic community and his family were even routinely harassed.

He continued to defend the most vulnerable, though, even travelling to the United States in 1989 to be a witness at a court case which would decide whether frozen embryos were properly ‘property’ or not. You can read his statement about the origins of human life here. Alongside his research and this kind of advocacy of the right to life for all, Lejeune dedicated himself to caring for those with Down syndrome. He was the founder of the first specialised clinic for trisomy 21 patients at Necker Children’s Hospital in Paris. He paid personal attention to each of the 9000 children who passed through his wards – his daughter Clara records that at the time of his death he knew the 5000 current patients by name. He also worked to help them find educational and job opportunities, and was a constant support for many families across the world. Thousands of parents came to him, seeking advice and comfort. Clara recounts that people would call him and – day or night – he would spend hours with them.

Lejeune 2

Lejeune with the USA National Down Syndrome Society founder, Betsy Goodwin, and her daughter Carson

Jerome Lejeune died of lung cancer in 1994. He was a pro-lifer who was not afraid to put his reputation on the line, an expert doctor and scientist who put his life at the service of those he worked with. We’ve cited the statistics on this blog before, but they’re still shocking. Around 90% of foetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted in Britain every year. We should be asking, in the practical spirit of Lejeune, what more we can do about it. Clara talks about a family lunch in her biography: her father came home and told them about a little boy with Down syndrome who had seen something on television about prenatal testing, and who begged him to save him from “those who want to kill us.” She writes: “He was white and he said, “If I don’t protect them, I am nothing.” The ‘price’ of not resorting to eugenics might be high, but Lejeune saw that it is cost of remaining “fully human”.

(Amy Owens)

Previously in this series: Alice Paul, Jack Scarisbrick, Gandhi, Hans and Sophie Scholl, Lila Rose, Ovid, Mildred Jefferson.

The Falconer Bill addresses a real question – but it’s not the only answer

The debate surrounding Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill has brought to the forefront a number of questions currently facing our society. The most important of these is: what are we doing to care for the dying in the last stages of their life? The existence of such a Bill suggests that we can’t be doing enough.

In a recent talk hosted by OSFL, Tanni Grey-Thompson made the point that legalizing assisted suicide would be a drastic step and should not even be considered without first attempting to improve end-of-life care. Rather than seeking to improve care, the Falconer Bill offers the last resort, death. Can we really say that our best option is “to be compassionate by eliminating suffering through elimination of the sufferer“?

Cicely Saunders with a patient

Cicely Saunders with a patient

The UK is the first country to have introduced purpose-built hospices, thanks to the work of Dame Cicely Saunders. These hospices underlined the importance of palliative care in modern medicine and offered holistic care to meet the physical, social, psychological and spiritual needs of its patients. As Saunders herself frequently emphasized, however, there is always more to be done.

Baroness Campbell, who has spinal muscular atrophy, said in her speech to the Lords on the Bill: “My long experience of progressive deterioration has taught me that there is no situation that cannot be improved.” She later went on to say: “We must put our energy into providing the best support, be it medical, social, practical or emotional, to disabled people and terminally ill people. We are nowhere near there yet.” Similarly, Baroness Finlay, a professor of palliative medicine, recognised that palliative care “does not have a magic wand to make everything right”, but insisted in her speech to the Lords that assisting someone to die “calls for good care, dedicated support and time, and not the quick fix of offering the medical equivalent of a loaded gun.”

BBC graph on Britain's ageing population

BBC graph on Britain’s ageing population

Over the next 25 years, the number of people over the age of 65 will increase significantly and will take up a greater percentage of the NHS’s costs. This very vulnerable group is only going to grow and we must do all we can to protect them. We must make sure that they are cared for as well as possible at the end of their lives. So what is it that we can do to improve end of life and palliative care?

For a start, the problem of the ‘postcode lottery’ – where access to good hospices and care homes is dependent on where one lives – needs to be dealt with. We cannot have a situation whereby a person’s access to adequate end of life care is dependent on socio-economic background and address.

A huge amount of funding and research goes into finding the cures for diseases, but far less money has been put into the research to help take care of the physical and emotional pain. The medical community has new ways to understand the symptoms people experience, such as images of the brain to help study pain and depression. We can use these new techniques to see how different treatments help, and to develop new, improved treatments.

With regard to how we treat patients, there is a concern that we might come to value those at the end of life less than the rest of society. Yet it is crucial that we value their human dignity as equal to that of a physically healthy person. This means a consistent ‘ethics of care’, in which all patients are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. This should include spiritual as well as physical support, ensuring that each person is cared for in the way they want to be cared for. We should remember Baroness Campbell’s affirmation that there is no situation that cannot be improved.

This is not to claim that it is a straightforward task, but rather that it is one worth committing ourselves to. The end of life is inevitably a difficult time, and if not addressed, suffering can be great. Nonetheless, this does not mean we should give up trying and settle for the last resort of assisted suicide. We can instead focus on ensuring that our society provides the best possible support for the dying, be it medical, social, practical, or emotional. It can safely be said that we have a long way to go.

(Johnny Church)

First Person: Why I am a pro-life atheist

Rob 1A new series in which contributors discuss what being pro-life means to them. Our first piece is by Robert Stagg, a PhD student in English at the University of Southampton.

A couple of weeks after I agreed to write this blogpost, a friend handed me a book she had published: Poems That Make Grown Men Cry. The book sat at the bottom of a pile for another couple of weeks, and I cast a suspicious glance at it every night before going to bed. Everything about the title seemed wrong. What’s the difference between a man and a “grown” man, or is the adjective only there as a sentimental intensifier? And the title’s “that make” was presumptuous to the point of seeming imperative, insisting upon the book’s efficacy even before I’d opened it. This is all to ignore the most obvious objection to the book: the idea that men shouldn’t or don’t cry (an objection which, unlike the others, is at least addressed by the anthology’s editors).

Realising that these poor relations with an inanimate object could only continue at the expense of my sanity, I decided to pick up the book. I started to read and didn’t stop until I reached a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks (selected by Terrance Hayes) titled ‘The Mother’ (1945).

Abortions will not let you forget.
You remember the children you got that you did not get,
The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair,
The singers and workers that never handled the air.
You will never neglect or beat
Them, or silence or buy with a sweet.
You will never wind up the sucking-thumb
Or scuttle off ghosts that come.
You will never leave them, controlling your luscious sigh,
Return for a snack of them, with gobbling mother-eye.

I have heard in the voices of the wind the voices of my dim killed children.
I have contracted. I have eased
My dim dears at the breasts they could never suck.
I have said, Sweets, if I sinned, if I seized
Your luck
And your lives from your unfinished reach,
If I stole your births and your names,
Your straight baby tears and your games,
Your stilted or lovely loves, your tumults, your marriages, aches, and your deaths,
If I poisoned the beginnings of your breaths,
Believe that even in my deliberateness I was not deliberate.
Though why should I whine,
Whine that the crime was other than mine?–
Since anyhow you are dead.
Or rather, or instead,
You were never made.
But that too, I am afraid,
Is faulty: oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said?
You were born, you had body, you died.
It is just that you never giggled or planned or cried.

Believe me, I loved you all.
Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you

At this point, I (a grown man) cried uncontrollably for at least five minutes.

Why? The poem had, as poems often do, lent force to a question that had been bothering me for a few years: if scientists can’t draw a clear line between a foetus and a human being, is our culture then killing human beings? There is no scientific answer to the question as to when a so-called foetus becomes a so-called human being, and this ought to cause severe and sincere distress among those who otherwise appreciate science. Philosophers have tried stepping into the breach, but with surprisingly undeft footing. First there have been attempts to locate the humanity of an organism in its consciousness, a typically brainy move for a brainy philosopher to make. Yet kindred philosophers are finding consciousness itself puzzling, and scientists are still unable to locate the presence or node or origin of consciousness in the body. More recently, philosophers have attempted to distinguish between ‘human beings’ and ‘people’ or ‘persons’; but, again, these debates tend to circle back upon consciousness.

I cannot think of any other area of science or public policy that is so incautiously policed as that around abortion. Given the radical and fundamental uncertainties about the division – or, rather, the current lack of a division – between foetuses and human beings, it seems wildly dangerous to permit a process like abortion to continue in its present form.

You will notice that I have not yet used the words ‘soul’ or ‘ensoulment’, often and erroneously seen as crucial to the abortion debate. That is because I am not religious, and nor do I share some of the larger philosophical convictions about life which motivate much of the pro-life movement. Instead my argument makes reference to science – without paying it, or its practitioners, obeisance – and to ethics. It appeals to the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, and her heartbreaking perceptions of potentiality (delivered via pun, of all things): “You remember the children you got that you did not get”.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks

Nor have I yielded to the mis- and distrust of women that can animate sections of the abortion debate. Brooks’s poem is delicate and sympathetic on this point, gliding between a detached (but not disinterested) narrative voice and the first-person dramatic monologue of a mother who has had more than one abortion. The poem ends with the insistent iterations of a woman who is unable to evade her own evasiveness: “Believe me, I loved you all. / Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you / All”. This reader, at least, inclines to believe her.

I have argued with fellow atheists and agnostics about abortion in two ways. One: by setting out the critical gaps in scientific knowledge about abortion, and the inability of philosophers to fill or bridge those gaps. Two: by reading Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem. The first provokes the irrational outrage of those whose rationality has been challenged. The second provokes silence and, often, tears. Sometimes I should like to think that those reactions could be reversed; but only sometimes.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 43 other followers