Abortion case shows the moral dilemma at heart of the law - Dr Alan Billings

Not all moral dilemmas are resolvable. Or rather, we are sometimes forced to make a choice between two incompatible courses of action, neither of which we find completely satisfactory. Take the case of Carla Foster.

I was recently asked by several people in South Yorkshire to make a statement in support of Ms Foster – a resident of Staffordshire – who had been sentenced to two years and four months in prison for aborting her unborn child after the legal time limit of 24 weeks. She was between 32 and 34 weeks – eight months pregnant.

This was during the Covid period when, it was said, she had misled the British Pregnancy Advisory Service about the length of her pregnancy and they had posted an abortifacient to her. Ms Foster already has three children and she wanted to limit the size of her family. So she took the drug.

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Those who contacted me were of the opinion that a grave injustice had been done to Ms Fowler. There were two principal arguments.

Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings. Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings.
Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings.

The first was that it was hard to see what purpose would be served by sending her to prison when there were three children who needed their mother; the judge need not have given her a custodial sentence. I don’t know what discretion the judge had, or what he took into account in passing sentence. I simply note that there were those who did not see this as justice whatever their views on abortion.

The second argument was the familiar one that as long as the baby was in the woman’s body, this was her body and no one had a right to tell her what she could and couldn’t do with it. One person said it was evidence that we were still ‘a patriarchal society’ in which men made the rules and women were (unfairly) expected to obey them.

There was a good deal of public sympathy for Carla Foster for the first of the above arguments: what good did prosecuting her and sending her to prison do? But the public mood is not in favour of extending the time limit and is, if anything, inclined to be more restrictive now than even a few years ago. In any case, there is a law – the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861– and Ms Foster had broken it and pleaded guilty. Don’t we all have a duty to uphold the law? Hence the moral dilemma. The police, of course, have to enforce the law. But what can we say about the general legal and moral arguments?

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The moral issues surrounding abortion have divided public opinion in this country all my life, though in that time we have gone from a total ban to the qualified acceptance that we now have – what some would call a fudge.

The tragedy for Carla Foster was that she waited so long to make up her mind and fell foul of the law – unlike the 230,000 women whose abortions last year were legal.

The danger of allowing abortion at any point in a pregnancy, however late, is that it could lead some to ask the obvious question – and some, like the ethicist Professor Peter Singer, have asked it – why do we draw an arbitrary line at birth? If a mother decides that she cannot cope with a very impaired child, for example, why not permit infanticide?

There may be some logic in this, but do we seriously want to go down that road?

A shortened version of the Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire’s latest blog post.