23 SEPTEMBER 1995, Page 8


Show your Gold Card to prove that you are a full member of the species Homo sapiens


Last week the Daily Mail ran a pair of articles on the same day jointly entitled `Should Melanie destroy her twins?"Yes', said the piece by Polly Toynbee, No', said that by Dominic Lawson, editor of this paper. Melanie and her husband, Brian Astbury, had conceived Siamese twins who share a liver. As it turned out, the twins were born a fortnight prematurely, in the course of the Daily Mail's print run. Once their birth was known, the Mail pulled the articles from its late editions, feeling that events had overtaken them.

This quick change is a sharp reminder of the state of the law. In the case of potential handicap, abortion is permitted right up to the end of pregnancy. So those two articles, which would have seemed to most readers merely to be contributions to a debate, could, in theory, have been much more than that. Mr and Mrs Astbury could have read Polly Toynbee, found themselves agreeing with her that their love for their twins was `a phantasm born of emotive imagining' and hurried off to the abortion- ist. Not very likely, perhaps, but still it makes you think.

One of Polly Toynbee's complaints in her article was that not enough people had tried hard enough to get those twins killed. She spoke to their obstetrician, who seemed a bit sheepish about not having advised an abortion (`Certainly I reminded them they had the option to terminate at any time'), and to the midwife, who said she was `very cautious about giving advice either way', but this clearly was not good enough for Miss Toynbee. The Astburys should have had `extensive independent counselling' until they came to perceive the `sentimentality' of their position.

At least the present law only permits Miss Toynbee's errands of mercy until birth. As I understand it, if the Daily Mail had printed an article by her the following day urging the Astburys to do away with their new-borns, she would have been guilty of incitement to murder.

Not that Miss Toynbee would have writ- ten such an article. She is quite clear that there is a difference between a `potential person' and an `actual person', so killing the Siamese twins was right on Thursday but wrong by Friday.

But this moral gulf between being born and not being born, which Polly Toynbee sees so clearly that she feels no need to explain, is challenged by others. According to Professor Peter Singer, writing in The Spectator last week, it does not exist. Unlike most of his fellow pro-abortionists, he admits that the foetus is a `living human being, but goes on to argue that `that alone is not sufficient to show that it is wrong to end its life'. In the absence of God he feels, `mere membership of the species Homo sapiens need not be crucial to whether a life is taken or spared': . `What is important is the capacities or characteristics that a being has.' `.. . it would be possible,' he goes on, `to accept that just as the human being develops gradually in a physical sense, so too does its moral significance gradually increase.'

The Singer solution, then, is to have `a ceremony a month after birth, at which the infant is admitted to the community. Before that time it will not be recognised as having the same right to life as older peo- ple.' Professor Singer admits that the cho- sen period of a month is rather arbitrary others may agree with King Herod that two years makes a better, as it were, cut-off point — but the ceremony would indicate `a recognition that this was a child who was loved and wanted by its parents or by oth- ers who would care for it'. Presumably if they decided it was really a rather nasty lit- tle creature, the `recognition' would not take place and the unrecognised infant would be taken to a place of execution.

Talking about all this, the editor said to me that at least Professor Singer was an honest abortionist. That is true. But I must say I prefer the dishonesty or, at least, illog- icality, of Polly Toynbee. She seems dimly aware of the way in which her argument is hurtling and so slams down the brake at the sign marked `birth' and goes into a skid. Professor Singer, who appears to be clever- er but exhibits few other evidences of `membership of the species Homo sapiens', just drives blithely on, apparently feeling that any pedestrians whom the vehicle of his logic runs over and kills have only them- selves to blame.

For if Professor Singer is right that the moral significance of a person gradually increases just as a person `develops gradu- ally in a physical sense', then there is no end to the precariousness of our right to life. Does physical decay decrease moral significance as physical development increases it? Will the old and the halt and the lame and the blind and Stephen Hawk- ing and Christopher Reeve, Superbrain and Superman, all have to watch out in case society, acting like a great power towards a weak country, decides to withdraw its `recognition' of them? Will society come to feel that even Professor Singer has devel- oped as much as he is ever going to, and should now cease to be 'recognised'?

It is interesting that both Professor Singer and Polly Toynbee take up the Christian arguments against abortion only to discard them in a similar way. Polly Toynbee allows consistency to the Catholic view, but says that 'that depends on belief in the immortal soul, which need not con- cern those not of the faith'. Professor Singer says that 'the moral order that the Pope defends is an empty shell, founded on a set of beliefs that most people have laid aside'. But these Christian tenets are not merely obscure customs — the equivalent of the wide black hats worn by Orthodox Jewish men — they are moral teachings which present an idea of the dignity of man. It is true, and important, that they depend on a metaphysic, but don't people like Toynbee and Singer believe that the concept- of human dignity can survive the death of God? Don't they have to say a bit more about who man is before they can assert so confidently whether he should live or die?

Without explicitly or perhaps even delib- erately doing so both are implying a con- ception of man which equates might with right. Their justification for abortion is that the foetus which would otherwise have been born, and sometimes its parents, are lacking some strength which everyone in the world should have and society has a right to expect: it is too stupid, or sickly, or its parents are too poor or too young or too `misguided' (like the Astburys). The `species Homo sapiens' is not an exclusive enough club for the Toynbees and Singers. Beyond 'mere membership' you need a sort of Gold American Express card which shows you have attained the required physi- cal development, moral maturity, high net worth, political correctness or whatever other criterion the arbiters may choose.

This conception is not only non-Christian in its rejection of the immortal soul, it is vio- lently anti-Christian, because it attacks the weakest, those whom Matthew's Gospel calls `the least of these'. The idea of saving the weakest is fundamental to the moral order of society, precisely because of the natural human propensity to do the opposite.