Coalition Politics

The British government remains unwilling to engage the Church’s pro-life concerns.

In the days following Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United Kingdom in September of last year, British Catholics convinced themselves that, for the first time in a generation, a profound change for the better had taken place. The papal visit had been a roaring success. Even the Church’s fiercest critics had to acknowledge the mass outpouring of affection towards the Pope and the excitement about his message.

No less a person than the new prime minister, David Cameron, seemed positively exhilarated. “You have really challenged the whole country to sit up and think,” he said in his goodbye speech to Pope Benedict. “I believe we can all share in your message of working for the common good and that we all have a social obligation to each other, to our families and our communities.” Even the atheist Nick Clegg, Cameron’s coalition partner, deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, said he had been “very excited” to meet the Pontiff.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, the spiritual leader of Catholics in England and Wales, summed up the optimistic mood. In a speech about Pope Benedict’s time in Britain, he went so far as to suggest that the Catholic Church in Britain had entered a new era in its relations with the state. “The prime minister’s farewell address to the Pope was extraordinary,” he said. “It mapped out a new way of accepting the contribution that religion can make.… We will need to work out with government how we can build this into all our thinking. How we can turn the rhetoric of common good into a habit of common practice.”

It was felt that, after years of New Labor governance, Britain at last had a government that was willing—and, thanks to Pope Benedict, motivated— to engage sincerely with the Catholic Church. And there were other reasons for Catholics to be cheerful about the Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition, which came to power last May. Cameron’s manifesto pledge to build a “Big Society” was undoubtedly informed by Christian values. The Big Society agenda—which, according to Cameron, means “social responsibility, not state control”—has struck a chord with the faithful. Its emphasis on the dignity of the poor and subsidiarity in government has obvious ties to Catholic social teaching on justice.

Archbishop Nichols, in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, approved of the coalition’s plans to enable volunteers to do more social work. “One of the things that we see in Lourdes is the great value of tapping into people’s goodwill,” he said. “If we can generate that sense of volunteering and the sense of fulfillment that comes from it in our society, then we would be better for it. The Big Society is a step in that direction.”


But the initial optimism that, in Cameron’s Britain, the Church’s voice might be better heard already seems misplaced. In the case of abortion—an issue Pope Benedict has called one of the most “insidious and dangerous” threats to the world—the coalition appears to be unconcerned by, or worse, hostile to, the Church’s position.

Toward the end of last year, it emerged that the Department for International Development (DFID) was seeking to “hardwire” abortion and contraception services into its programs for helping poor countries. Andrew Mitchell, the Conservatives’ Secretary of State for International Development, said he wanted “an unprecedented focus on family planning” in developing nations and more “safe” abortions. DFID promptly gave Marie Stopes International, the worldwide abortion provider, an initial $4.7 million donation, with the promise of plenty more to come.

In his determination to fund abortions in the developing world out of the taxpayer’s purse, Mitchell appeared to have put the government on a collision course with the Catholic Church, especially since the Pope had suggested that the Holy See could work closely in future with the British government in providing international aid. In a joint statement, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales described DFID’s announcement as “deeply regrettable,” and urged the department to think again.

According to Paul Tully, general secretary of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, DFID’s policy turn is causing “general dismay” among pro-life groups. “The jury is still very much out as far as the coalition and the issue of life are concerned,” he says. “But there’s no doubt that DFID’s announcement is a very worrying sign. It suggests that the attitude towards abortion will be just as bad, and maybe even worse, than under the last government.”

“For now, an informal truce between the Catholic Church and the coalition government seems to be in place,” adds Luke Coppen, editor of the Londonbased Catholic Herald. “Neither side is seeking a wearing, all-out struggle over legislation. But we will only know if there really is a new, constructive Church-state relationship when it is put to the test. DFID and Mitchell’s promise to ‘hardwire’ abortion into overseas aid suggests that such a test will come sooner rather than later.”

In the event of a clash with the Church over aid and abortion, it seems impossible that the government would renege on its commitment to “reproductive rights” in favor of an accommodation with Catholic teaching over the sanctity of life. David Cameron is proud of his record on overseas development— an area of massive government spending that his administration has steadfastly protected in spite of its austerity agenda. In modern Britain, it is more valuable, politically, to show concern for the struggling pregnant women of Africa than it is to care about the fate of their unborn children.


Nobody seriously expected, of course, that an incoming Tory administration would challenge the nation’s liberal consensus on abortion. The British pro-life movement is not comparable in size and ambition to its counterpart in America, nor is the mainstream political right as connected to the antiabortion cause. The only party that adopts a consistent anti-abortion line is the British National Party, the extreme anti-immigration group which is generally considered beyond the pale. The pro-life argument is regarded as a hobbyhorse for religious zealots and rightwing Americans.

Polling suggests that the majority of Britons think that, at 24 weeks, the legal cut-off point for abortions in the UK is too late, but it is also widely agreed that abortion ought to be made more accessible for women in earlier stages of pregnancy. This view is refl ected within the political establishment, not least by Cameron, a practicing Anglican, and the Conservative Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, who share the opinion that “early, medical abortions are preferable to late, surgical ones.”

Cameron’s reluctance to tackle abortion makes political sense. As party leader, his obsession has been to “detoxify” Conservatives in the eyes of the media; to turn the “nasty party” of the Right into a nice one of the center. If Cameron were to espouse anti-abortion views, he instantly would be castigated as a reactionary who doesn’t care about women.

There are outspoken pro-life Tories on Cameron’s parliamentary frontbench, however. Dr. Liam Fox, the defense secretary, has voted repeatedly against abortion; in 2001, he shocked secularists by asking party members “to pray that there would be a huge restriction if not abolition of our proabortion laws.” William Hague, the former Conservative leader, now foreign secretary, is also on record as being opposed to abortion except in cases of rape. And Iain Duncan Smith, another former leader, now Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, is a practicing Catholic who defends the Church’s teaching on the dignity of life. It is notable, however, that none of these men is now in a position from which they might be able to infl uence government policies on abortion.

Anne Milton, the Conservative Public Health Minister, excited some prolifers in November when she said that “for me and for the government, reducing the abortion rate is an absolute priority”—though she spoke of “sexual choice” rather than using any words that might have aroused the hostility of the pro abortion lobby.

Among the new-generation Tory activists, however, a small but highly influential group of evangelicals plays an important part in formulating Conservative policies. These believers do not shrink from adopting Christian stances on life issues. In fact, recent research suggests that Tory candidates in the last election were markedly more prolife and anti-euthanasia than their predecessors.

“We get the feeling that, while it is impossible to talk about the abortion issue in simplistic terms of left and right and Conservative or Labor, the Tories in government are a tiny bit less violently in favor of abortion than the New Labor,” says Josephine Quintavalle of the Pro-life Alliance.

But any mild pro-life tendencies among the Conservatives have been nullified by the fact that they did not win the election outright. Forced instead into an uncomfortable coalition with the Liberal Democrats, arguably the most “progressive” (and “proabortion”) of all three main political parties, the Conservatives are bound to be less willing to tackle a divisive issue such as abortion. “The coalition is an extremely fragile thing,” explains Quintavalle. “I think it almost impossible that the Tories would risk offending their Lib Dem allies by taking on the pro-abortion lobby when they have so many other battles to fight. When it comes to the crunch, the question is: do you want to play pro-life politics or party politics? And in the end, most politicians, with a few notable exceptions, would rather play party politics.”

The same problem applies with euthanasia. Westminster insiders say that, with a proper majority, the Conservatives might have formed a parliamentary bloc against the passage of an otherwise well-supported “dignity in dying” bill. But under the coalition with the Liberal Democrats, pro-euthanasia legislation seems far more likely to succeed. David Cameron’s party, still grappling with a financial crisis and the fall-out from its muchhated economic cuts, can hardly be expected to lose friends and alienate voters over such trivial human matters as life and death.


Although the government did not want a fight over abortion, in February it found itself in one anyway. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), the UK’s largest private provider of abortions, sought to change British law so that women can complete medical abortions at home rather than in hospital. This is preferable, BPAS claims, because it helps women feel comfortable during an emotionally difficult procedure. Others say the opposite is true; that the so called DIY abortion—in which women take one abortifacient pill at a medical center and a second one at home—is more likely to leave women feeling hopeless and depressed. As Nadine Dorries, a pro-life Tory member of parliament puts it, “[BPAS] is assuming that everybody who takes a second pill travels home to a clean, comfortable environment where there will be a telephone and support, maybe a kind person to help someone through that procedure, [but] that doesn’t apply to every case. Many of these girls will be very young, very frightened and very alone.”

Critics suggest that the BPAS’ motives are not quite so simple and altruistic as the organization would have the public believe. “Make no mistake about it,” says Josephine Quintavalle, “what we are seeing here is a concerted effort by the abortion lobby to push towards, effectively, a complete deregulation of abortion in the first trimester. This case is part of a wider trivialization of abortions in the mind of the British public, which of course will eventually lead to many more abortions.” That’s not bad news for BPAS, because for it more abortions mean more money.

On February 14, Justice Michael Supperstone of the High Court of Justice rejected BPAS’ attempt to change the law, marking a victory for British pro-life advocates. BPAS has vowed to continue campaigning for a change in the law.

Though success in the BPAS case is encouraging to pro-life advocates, the fact remains that Britain still has Europe’s laxest abortions laws. In the unlikely event of the abortion debate catching fire in the UK, there is still nowhere near enough political will to bring about meaningful reform. The best the British pro-life cause can hope for is that, in reply to a dramatic liberalization of early abortions, David Cameron might allow a “free vote” for a reduction in the time limit for legal abortions—albeit even then only for “viable,” entirely healthy fetuses. But for the opponents of abortion, that represents a resounding defeat, not victory.

Where does that leave the Catholic Church in coalition Britain? Catholics might console themselves that, under the Big Society, there appears to be a sincere concern for authentic social justice. But when it comes to an understanding over the sanctity of life, it seems that the British state and the Roman Church are as far apart as ever.


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