The Coffin in the Room

This coffin is much smaller than an elephant, but today it serves the same purpose.

Here’s the deal folks. The moment we accept that a child that dies in the womb deserves a full funeral, that it is not simply a blob, not just a mass of cells, not not human, at that point we cannot then justify the murder of a child of the same age. Dear readers, either you have to grieve with me, two years on, the death of my son OR you have to tell me to my face that he was not human and not deserving of my grief.

The moment you have told me that he was human you have blown out of the water any argument you might have that a child of that age can be aborted and that the person who practices the abortion and the person who permits the abortion to take place are not guilty of murder. Of course, equally you might argue that I (and countless other bereaved parents) are getting emotional about nothing, that we really shouldn’t be upset about the removal of a bit of parasitic flesh from inside a woman, parasitic flesh that looks just like its daddy and moves and responds to external stimuli like any independent human being does. That is your prerogative.

The two amendments being proposed today on abortion (the Dorries/Field amendment and the Mensch amendment) do not change the date at which abortions can be performed. They do not change the simple task of having two doctors sign the paperwork required for an abortion to be legally transacted. All they do is ask for the possibility of a small period of space between a woman asking for an abortion and it being carried out, a small period of space for the mother to be able to, if she so desires, to consider questions like those above in an independent and safe environment and to be absolutely sure that she wants to have an abortion regardless. If that means that a few more babies make it full term, in a world full of tiny coffins and prospective parents lining up to adopt how can what is common practice across most of Europe be a bad thing?

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21 Comments on “The Coffin in the Room

  1. Peter: this is obviously a highly sensitive topic, and I'm deeply sorry for the loss you and your wife suffered. For that reason I don't want to get into a full argument over what you've said here, but a few thoughts in response:

    1. First, I think you are absolutely right to draw attention to the language we use and the way we respond to miscarriage or stillbirth as evidence that – contra some pro-choice "ultras" I've read over the past week – we recognise the unborn child as having a positive ethical status. See also how we react to pregnant women who continue smoking.

    2. However, I think the dichotomy between "fully human" and "blob of cells" is a false one. I think (and I think there are biblical and theological grounds for looking at it in this way) that pregnancy is a process of "becoming human" – that the foetus is "becoming human", that this is a gradual process rather than black-and-white. What is lost in miscarriage or abortion is the loss of the potential for a human life: a ghastly, unspeakable tragedy – which is why I would pretty much always prefer a woman considering an abortion not to go ahead with it; to "choose life!", as it were – but not exactly the same as the death of a child after (or near) birth.

    3. As I understand it, it is not the general practice of the Church of England to conduct funerals in the case of miscarriages (as distinct from stillbirth – see the link in the previous paragraph) – just as it has never been the practice of English law to treat a miscarriage as the death of child (e.g. by having an inquest, or by requiring a death certificate or compliance with funeral laws, or treating the unborn child as a "life in being").

    4. As regards the Dorries/Field amendment, I believe the claims made as to the number of abortions it will prevent are wholly unfounded. If you oppose legal abortion, then oppose legal abortion. Don't waste time on dishonest fudges that leave abortion as legal as ever but just throw a few obstacles in women's paths.

    As I said, I'm posting this with some misgivings, as I recognise the terrible tragedy of what you and your wife suffered. To be honest, I think you would do well to reconsider whether it was a good idea to write and publish this post (especially at this time), because by doing so you've either (a) put the argument in your post beyond sensitive debate, which is unfair on those who disagree with you, or (b) exposed a tragic family event to the maelstrom of public debate.

    • Peter – You are all in my thoughts and prayers, now, as indeed you were at the time.

      @John H – if as you suggest "that pregnancy is a process of “becoming human” – that the foetus is “becoming human”, that this is a gradual process rather than black-and-white", at what point in the pregnancy does the foetus become Human then? The 1st week? The 40th day? The 20th week? That argument is nonsensical, unless something "magical" happens at a particular moment; the only magical event I am aware of is the joining of sperm and egg, and thus the Christian view that life starts at conception.

      • Andrew

        The tactics of pro-lifers have included emotive pictures of aborted fetuses, showing that they ARE babies (that feel pain, have brainwaves, hearbeats etc etc) and therefore 'human'. In contrast, it's pretty nonsensical, at least by that logic, to claim that a mere zygote (lacking said heartbeat etc) *is* a "human being".

    • On the subject of your second point, it seems to me that one of the crucial points that should not be forgotten here is that we are co-creators of each other's personhood. To be a person is to be as one with a face. Having a face is not something that we merely secure for ourselves, but is also heavily dependent on the way that others regard us. The fact that we have a 'face' is in large measure a result of how we have been treated by others. Practically all that we are as intelligent human beings springs from the fact that we have been given a face and been treated as those with one. It is God's loving regard for the unborn child that grants it personhood: the fact that the unborn child occupies a place in the eyes of God is that which grants it a face, not some inherent capacity. In the same way, the personhood of the unborn child is also secured by the place that it has in the eyes of its parents. In many respects a face is less an inherent characteristic, and more something that is conferred to us by others, in their fulfilment of their moral responsibility (a responsibility that precedes our status as persons with full rights).

      One's face is one's place in relationship, and as such involves the work of numerous parties. The loved unborn child's personhood never comes into question, because from the very outset it is treated as one who has a face and a place is conferred to it within the context of loving bonds. The face of the unborn child does not depend upon some particular characteristic of the fetus. Rather its face is situated in the loving, committed, and hopeful hospitality of God, its parents, and the wider community.

      In thinking about abortion, far too much attention is given to the characteristics of the fetus, abstracted from the relationships in which personhood subsists. I believe that we should reorient the discussion to focus more upon our moral responsibility to grant a face to the unborn and by extension to others in general, whatever position we hold about the characteristics of the fetus at this moment in time. We need to raise far more serious moral questions about the failure to do this, questions that don't hinge upon the abstract status of the fetus.

      Finally, on your fourth point, I don't think that this need be a 'dishonest fudge'. I strongly oppose legal abortion. However, I do not believe that criminalizing abortion overnight is a real possibility. It would be neither feasible or workable in the current environment. The realm of politics is one of compromise, and so I would like to see steps made in the right direction. Even if abortion is never criminalized and the cultural factors that prompt the desire for it dealt with, this would be progress.

      Abortion is a serious moral choice, even for most pro-choice activists, and should be treated as such. Without removing this 'choice', I think that we can still do much to improve the way in which we equip women to make it. 'Obstacles' in people's paths are important, as they encourage caution, consideration, and moral reflection. This is an important step in the right direction.

      • Thanks Alastair. A lot to think about there. I think you're right to locate personhood in relationship. Thinking…

        Just to clarify my fourth point: I fully understand the role of gradualism. The reason I described the Dorries amendment as a "dishonest fudge" is because I believe it to be dishonest both in its account of the supposed problem it seeks to address and in the likely results claimed for it by its supporters ("60,000 fewer abortions").

        As I said the other day elsewhere, I truly believe that campaigners for the recriminalisation of abortion will live to regret allowing as erratic and unreliable a figure as Nadine Dorries to become their most visible representative. I think her conduct in the Commons today – apparently even some Tory MPs voting for her amendment considered she'd driven away support with her 58-minute speech – confirms that view.

    • Hi John,

      I wouldn't have posted if I didn't want to get a discussion going, so don't worry about offending me – and you haven't done anyway.

      1) Thanks

      2) There are good points raised below as to how we define humanity. Is not a foetus a potential born baby in the same way that a baby is a potential adult? Where do we draw the line?

      3) On the contrary, given that the doctrine of the hypostatic union is that Christ was always fully human and fully divine, I don't know a single priest who wouldn't conduct a funeral, if requested, for a deceased unborn child. There are some excellent resources available even for miscarriage.

      4) There is much to be said for a gradualist approach. That is how all political campaigns succeed.

      • Peter: I do think a child is a "potential adult", which is why we don't give all the rights and responsibilities of adulthood (e.g. the right to vote) to children. Instead, we draw (necessarily arbitrary) lines at which people are considered to be capable of exercising those rights and assuming those responsibilities. Other rights are acquired, under law, at birth (and English law has never given any legal status to the unborn child).

        Could you link to the resources you had in mind? Also, what do you think of the item I linked from the C of E's website?

        • When talking about the unborn and infants as 'potential adults', is there a danger that we fail to appreciate that infants and the unborn have value precisely as what they currently are, and not merely on account of what they may one day become? The vulnerability and extreme dependence of infants and the unborn is a particular form of human life that should be celebrated in its uniqueness, 'prophetically' reminding us of our dependency and of that state in life in which we must entrust our entire being to others who will secure our future.

          The state of pre-birth is an implied metaphor in many biblical contexts for the pre-eschatological state. God's regarding us in our unformed state, and with an eye to what we will one day be through his loving provision, not assessing our being according to its intrinsic merits, but in accordance with his loving imputation of righteousness, and in light of what he will one day form us to be in Christ is essentially the truth of justification.

          In bringing the unborn, dependent infants, the severely disabled, and other such persons into our lives, God is teaching us about what we are, and inviting us to share in the manifestation of a peculiarly beautiful form of his love.

        • The Oliver O'Donovan mini-essay is now part of the Pastoral Services Book in the Common Worship series. I have no problem with the first of the two points Oliver makes – the decision to hold a funeral lies implicit within it the understanding that the child being grieved is a human.

          The second point is also well made. I am not one of those soppy and sloppy theologians who will perform doctrinal somersaults to try and argue that all children are saved. The answer to that question is that we simply do not know. God saves by his sovereign election in grace and that is as much his decision with Zachary as it is with my two living children or you and me.

          Your first paragraph is, I believe, slightly incorrect. Since the law states very clearly that without due reason a child of more than 24 weeks gestation cannot be aborted, by that very nature the law does treat an unborn child (of a certain age) with some regard. But the greater point is this. Beyond what the law of the land states (a law which can be arbitrarily changed), what is the moral distinction of personhood upon which the law is then framed? If we make decisions as to when adulthood begins, why do we shirk away from a decision as to when humanity begins? Is it because by avoiding such an answer we avoid the consequences of the answer?

          • This PDF has a useful summary of the legal position. I take your point about the legal status at 24 weeks (though 28 weeks also has a particular statutory status as discussed in the text), but only serves to confirm what I'm saying: that English law has taken the approach that there is a gradual development in the status of the foetus, with full legal status only at birth, but significant protection after 28 weeks, and so on.

            My point is just this: if we are going to say that the foetus is "fully human" and has exactly the same ethical status as a born child, and that this ethical status should be recognised in law, then we have to recognise that this is a major legal and cultural innovation, and not a return to some repristinated pre-legalised-abortion state of grace.

            I want to give further thought to Alastair's point about personhood arising from relationship. I think one implication of this is that the relationship "creates its own past" – that relationship and personhood are read back to what would otherwise be an "impersonal" origin. I don't want to press that too far, though, at the moment, as I suspect it could lead to some dangerous (and rather callous) places if left to roam unchecked…

            What I will say, though, is that setting a definite dividing line such as conception causes its own problems. For example, I understand (from a Christian Medical Fellowship booklet I forgot to bring into work, so can't cite exactly) that as many as 50% of fertilised eggs are never actually implanted, and just end up flushed out of the body during the woman's next period. Is that a tragic loss of human life?

            Even after implantation, as many as a quarter of pregnancies end in miscarriage – as you know only too well, of course. If the foetus has the same ethical status as a born baby, why isn't that treated as the greatest medical emergency of our age?

            To be honest, if the foetus has the same ethical status as a born baby, I don't see how a "gradualist" approach to abortion law is remotely justifiable in response to what would then be the greatest moral emergency in human history.

            What I'm saying is I want to place a degree of (cautious) trust in the human intuition embedded in laws and cultural attitudes that pre-date any question of legalising abortion, and that emerge from a Christianised society that had a horror of abortion while at the same time stopping short of giving full legal or ethical status to the unborn child. As I've said above, saying that the unborn child is at all times ethically equivalent to a born child would be as much an innovation as the claims made by extreme pro-choicers denying any humanity or ethical status to the foetus.

  2. My condolences to you and your family, Peter.

    I think anyone, irrespective of their beliefs, who told a grieving father that they "shouldn't" feel such grief would be monstrously tactless and insensitive. So I certainly hope that pro-choicers don't try and convince you that such feelings are "wrong".

    John's points are pertinent, especially #2. Most couples I know (secular or otherwise) announced their pregnancy after the scan and thereafter start thinking of it as a baby, contemplating names. Yet presumably, from a Christian perspective, it was ensouled and *becoming* a person from the point of conception. I can recall you – to your credit – indeed agreeing with the Catholic Church that the morning-after pill is comparable to abortion i.e. the destruction of a life. But I'd argue that many who think that a late term foetus is obviously a Baby would still regard a fertilised egg as a "clump of cells", not a "human", suggesting that clump of cells/fully human dichotomies are innacurate in the manner John describes.

    • @Ryan – granted, some people have the idea that humanity develops in the womb. But if that's the case, at what point should we protect the human life? At what point *might* it be human, and therefore worth protecting? I think that it ought to lead to the same result.

      Clearly, there isn't a will to ban abortion in the UK. I would support it but it's not even close to the table. In the mean time, simple, sensible steps can and should be taken to release the abortion industry's grip on policy surrounding abortion (e.g. upper time limit, right to know, etc.)

      • @Paul,

        The Christian might say that conception is where life begins and when the soul enters (although, serious question, doesn't that make the popularity of birth control amongst evangelicals worrying?) but most people aren't Christians, so pro-life arguments that talk of souls are unlikely to succeed. I agree that it's sensible to err on the side of caution, but I'm not sure that one can say that a zygote or blastocyst IS a human being in the same way that a late term foetus is (or 'is') a baby.

  3. Well, pro-choicers would say that a foetus is demonstrably 'part of' a woman's body in a way that a born infant is not. Evolution (or philosophy etc) would tend to talk of things like sentience, thought etc etc that demonstrably separate humanity from the lower animals. Do YOU regard a zygote as a 'human being' If so, on what basis? You can of course offer a Christian argument, but my point above was about a flaw in a particular kind of pro-life argument. This :
    http://www.priestsforlife.org/images/index.aspx#g

    , for example, is not aytpical in emotively invoking that aborted foetus were 'babies' in the term that most people understand the term. Also, atheists objections to abortion (in my expensive) on the basis of things like brain waves, heart beats etc etc. that argument doesn't work for zygotes. Talk of 'souls' would not convince such people, and I'm sure you'd agree that pro-life movements will not succeed if they only seek to convince Christians.

  4. In medical terms, does anyone know when a miscarriage becomes a stillbirth? The two terms do not feel interchangeable – the first suggests a bunch of cells to me, the second a potential human life.

    I struggle badly with this issue. Personally – liberal label or not – I think abortion is morally wrong; the only exception would be when complications to a pregnancy would mean that mother and baby would both die if the pregnancy was not terminated. However, I would also be strongly opposed to any attempt to make abortion illegal in this country – the thought of the return of the back-street abortionist is horrible. Does this make me hypocritical, or is it a reasonable response to the complex world we find ourselves in?

  5. Afterall, surely the whole concept of human rights reflects the fact that all humans – irrespective of secondary factors like gender,race, sex, sexuality et all – still have an inate demonstrable inate dignity/quiddity?

    If the pro-life movement focuses on the hands and heartbeats of aborted fetuses then it does beg the question of the status of a fertilised egg that lacks those things.

  6. Thank you for this moving comment, Peter. I am also moved by the critique of the position that "we really shouldn’t be upset about the removal of a bit of parasitic flesh from inside a woman". Imagine if a piece of this 'parasitic flesh' were taken to the laboratory along with a sample of tissue from the woman. The startling result would come back: "These samples are radically different genetically – they are not from one person but from two."

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