Lord Alton of Liverpool: Edmund Burke on abortion

Lord Alton of Liverpool considers what the great statesman would make of recent developments. . .

David Alton is an Independent Crossbench Peer who served in the House of Commons for 18 years and where he was a Spokesman on Northern Ireland.

David Alton is an Independent Crossbench Peer who served in the House of Commons for 18 years and where he was a Spokesman on Northern Ireland.


In 1774, in his Speech to the Electors at Bristol at the Conclusion of the Poll Edmund Burke reminded his constituents that elected Members are representatives not delegates and that

“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Elsewhere, he cautioned against populism, believing that the duty of the political leader is to provide wise guidance and advice – even when it is in conflict with the prevailing mood:

“When the leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity, their talents, in the construction of the state, will be of no service. They will become flatterers instead of legislators; the instruments, not the guides, of the people.”

I have been wondering what that great Anglo-Irish Statesman, born in Dublin and representing the English city of Bristol, would therefore make of recent events on the island of Ireland and of the jeering crowds at Dublin Castle lampooning those who hold that the paramount human right is the right to life itself – and cheering the notion that the taking of life in the womb is simply a life style choice.

On the 25 May, the people of the Republic of Ireland voted by 1,429,981 (66.4%) to 723,632 (33.6%) in favour of liberalising laws on abortion. They did so after their political leaders jumped on a bandwagon rather than offering wise counsel or a defence of the ones without a political voice: the unborn child.

Unsurprisingly, immediately after the referendum, attention then quickly turned to the laws in Northern Ireland, with the leadership of Sinn Féin holding a celebratory sign following the South’s referendum saying ‘The North is Next’.

The Irish Government is now planning to change its laws to legalise abortion on request up to the first twelve weeks of pregnancy. In the period from 12 to 24 weeks it is proposed that abortion should be legal in the circumstances of the mother’s life being at risk or her physical/mental health being at risk of serious harm. The Government proposals allow for abortion to term in cases involving unborn babies diagnosed with a life-limiting condition deemed fatal. The new legislative regime being proposed will bring the Republic of Ireland much closer to the situation which pertains in Great Britain under the 1967 Abortion Act. In Great Britain, there is widespread access to abortion up to 24 weeks gestation and up to term in cases of disability. In 2017, there were just under 190,000 abortions conducted for residents based in England and Wales. Since 1967, almost 9 million abortions have been taken place under the Act: one life ended every three minutes; twenty every hour; 600 every day.

The Pressure on Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland did not adopt the 1967 Abortion Act. The current law on abortion in Northern Ireland will significantly diverge from the new regime proposed in the Republic of Ireland.  Abortion is only legal where it is necessary to preserve the life of the mother, or if there is a risk of long-term or permanent serious adverse effects to her physical/mental health if a pregnancy is carried to term.

Northern Ireland’s law on abortion has been shown to literally be life-saving. Research conducted by campaign group ‘Both Lives Matter’ in 2017 found that 100,000 individuals are alive today who would not be if Northern Ireland had decided to introduce the 1967 Abortion Act. This figure was challenged by pro-choice activists based in Northern Ireland which led to an investigation conducted by the Advertising Standards Authority. Following a five month investigation, involving a close examination conducted by an independent health statistician, the ASA upheld the claim. They said the following:

“On balance, we concluded that the evidence indicated that there was a reasonable probability that around 100,000 people were alive in Northern Ireland today who would have otherwise been aborted had it been legal to do so.”

Northern Ireland’s life affirming law and policy has been under the media spotlight since the 2017 General Election and the subsequent confidence and supply arrangement between the Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Many outlets have adopted a stance bordering on hysteria in discovering what the DUP believe about abortion and even Government Ministers have caricatured them as antediluvians championing “Victorian laws”.

In June 2017, the Labour MP, Stella Creasy was successful in the House of Commons in amending the Queen’s Speech to allow for Northern Irish women to have free abortions on NHS England if they travelled for an abortion, with the Welsh Government and Scottish Government following suit in July and November 2017 respectively.

This disregard for the principles of devolution continued last week, with an ‘emergency debate’ in the House of Commons, led by Stella Creasy, calling for the complete decriminalisation of abortion across the United Kingdom which, if implemented, would leave Northern Ireland in legislative chaos. Of course, this was despite the DUP speaking up for pro-life principles – a party which is actually elected by those who live in Northern Ireland.

It may surprise you to know that the Northern Ireland Assembly voted on the issue of abortion as recently as February 2016. A close look at the voting record paints an interesting picture:

The Assembly voted by 59-40 not to legalise abortion in the circumstances of a foetus having a life-limiting condition. Those who voted against included all DUP MLAs, the majority of Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) MLAs, the majority of Social Democratic and Labour Party MLAs, the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) and United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) MLAs and the independent unionist Claire Sugden.

The Assembly voted by 64-32 not to legalise abortion in the circumstances of conception as a result of rape or incest. Those who voted against included all DUP MLAs, the majority of UUP MLAs, the majority of SDLP MLAs, the majority of Alliance MLAs, the TUV MLA Jim Allister and independent unionist Claire Sugden.

The UK Supreme Court judged last week that it could not make a declaration of incompatibility between Northern Ireland’s abortion law and the European Convention on Human Rights due to issues of legal standing of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. However, the majority of the court in a divided judgment held that Northern Ireland’s abortion law is incompatible with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights because it doesn’t allow legal abortion in the cases of a foetus having a life-limiting condition, or conception due to rape or incest. It is important to be clear that this decision does not have a binding effect and that a different panel of the Court may come to a different conclusion presented with a different set of facts.

Moral Consequences

The extent of abortions taking place in Great Britain because of a foetus having a disability, or because a foetus is simply unwanted, is nothing to celebrate: 90% of all babies with Down’s syndrome are now routinely aborted and the law allows this up to birth – a stain on our society and an offence against natural law, equity and justice.

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What we also have here is a dangerous lurch toward American-style Judge-made law.

The country’s senior judge, Lady Hale, the Supreme Court President insisted that abortion is a matter ‘the courts are as well qualified to judge as is the legislature’. She went further, asserting that ‘the courts may be thought better qualified’ to rule on abortion.

For her justification for this extraordinary extension of the rights of Courts to usurp the role of legislators she said courts are ‘able to weigh the evidence, the legal materials, and the arguments in a dispassionate manner, without the external pressures to which legislators may be subject’.

And given the attempts of the Courts to also force Parliament to legislate for assisted suicide we can see to what this unacceptable redefinition of sovereignty is leading.

Burke knew that beyond Parliament and the Courts stands a different Judge and a different judgement. He once wrote “There is but one law for all, namely that law which governs all law, the law of our Creator, the law of humanity, justice, equity – the law of nature and of nations.” Nations forget this at their peril.

Furthermore, regardless of whether you believe with Burke that life is the Creator’s gift and that we are answerable to Him for our actions, you might at least agree with Burke that politicians that simply pander to public opinion and embrace political correctness rather than political courage cease to be wise representatives and become delegates with opinion poll obsessions.

And what would Burke have made of the scale of interference in the affairs of Northern Ireland (albeit without a functioning NI Assembly)? Is this not the whole point of the devolution of powers lawfully enacted?

The Future After Ireland

The tragic travesty of the recent Referendum in the Republic of Ireland, in which 42.8% of the Irish electorate (66.4% of the 64.5% who took part) voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution, has had deeply regressive consequences on right-to-life protections across these Islands.

Not only has one of the few countries in the world that possessed explicit legal safeguards for unborn children ended those protections, but it did so in a plebiscite in which this move attracted a significant proportion of the population. This was obviously a profound defeat for the right-to-life movement in Ireland itself, but the negative symbolism of this has implications for the cause against abortion worldwide. None more so than for those in the north of Ireland and the British Isles.

We saw immediately after the Referendum how the decision emboldened attempts by the abortion lobby in the UK to pressure the Government into imposing permissive laws on Northern Ireland in the absence of a functioning Stormont Assembly. Thankfully, these unconstitutional intentions have thus far been rejected by the May Ministry, but we must maintain our efforts to oppose the continued lobbying of English MPs like Stella Creasy and her allies in the Labour party.

Aiding the campaign to introduce British-style abortion into Northern Ireland was the decision by the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom (SCOTUK) to signal that they would find that Ulster laws on abortion contravene Articles 3 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, even as they rejected the Northern Irish Human Rights Commission’s standing to bring such a case forward. Due to this, Sarah Ewart, an Ulsterwoman who chose to go to England to abort her child with anencephaly, will take a new case through the Court system again to finally achieve the result for which she and the abortion lobby were hoping.

Parallel to these efforts to undermine right-to-life protections in Northern Ireland, the abortion lobby is planning to abuse the Government’s upcoming Domestic Violence Bill to attach an amendment that would ‘decriminalise’ abortion. This is being sold to Parliamentarians as simply removing some criminal penalties for women who have abortions passed in the Victorian era, but this is not the full effect of such a change.

Regulation of abortion under the Abortion Act 1967 is predicated on abortion being illegal throughout pregnancy under both sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against The Person Act 1861, and also after 28 weeks under the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929. The 1967 Act forms ‘exemptions from prosecution’ under the 1861 and 1929 provisions, for doctors who perform abortions under the grounds laid out in the 1967 Act itself. If then, Parliament were to remove the 1861 provisions, this would have the practical effect of voiding the Abortion Act regulations up to 28 weeks.

This would mean raising the upper limit by 4 weeks (from 24 as currently, to 28 weeks), as well as introducing abortion on demand, for any reason, up to that point in pregnancy. That would mean no ban on sex-selective abortion till 28 weeks. Doctors’ rights to conscientious objection would be removed till the third trimester.

At this point, the temptation might be to become despondent and despairing at the momentum of the abortion lobby after the Irish result, and the dire implications of what they are attempting. We should not give in to this. Whilst the cause for human equality, dignity, and rights has been dealt a serious blow, the underlying reality remains that most people in Great Britain do not want a system of permissive abortion. In fact, they want to see a more restrictive system of safeguard than currently exists. This is especially true of women.

In May last year, ComRes released a Poll that showed that 60% of respondents (including 70% of women) wanted to see a reduction in the upper limit for abortions. Indeed, 59% of women overall wanted to see the upper limit as low as 16 weeks. By contrast, only 1% of both the general population and women alone wanted to see an increase, as would be affected by ‘decriminalisation’.

Other results from this polling were telling. 89% of people (including 91% of women) wanted an explicit ban on sex-selective abortion, with only 5% (4% of women) against. 65% of people (64% of women) wanted to see parental consent before a teenage girl undergoes an abortion – two thirds of the population – and 70% of parents with children who are 18 or under, with only less than a fifth of people (21%) opposing the idea.

What these figures illustrate is the myth of the ‘pro-choice majority’ asserted by abortion advocates. The truth is that the majority of people are neither consistently ‘pro-life’ or ‘pro-choice’, but instead are in a ‘muddled middle’. The leaning of public opinion, however, is clearly in the direction of greater, not lesser or fewer, protections for unborn children in law.

The right-to-life movement must be forward-thinking and confident in our attitudes, whilst being prudent and imaginative in the way we campaign. We cannot retreat into a hopeless bunker, abdicating our duty to the most vulnerable. Rather, we must take the sympathies of our fellow Britons and turn them into practical change that will humanise and civilise our medical and political culture.

Ireland was an important battle to lose, but the cultural impetus of that country made the result all but inevitable. Coming to terms with that loss means being prepared to fight all the harder for the day when authentic compassion and dignity will ultimately triumph.

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