Simon Barrow

Mundane politics, moral time bombs

By Simon Barrow
December 13, 2007

At this time of year those of us who are Christians come to focus on the meaning of a particular birth, and in so doing find ourselves drawn further into the deep mystery, pain and possibility of living and dying on this beautiful but naked planet.

Yet most of the time our concerns are naturally more mundane, and the instrumentality of our living is more bound up with maintaining systems than nurturing vision. Actually, the word ‘mundane’ comes from the Latin mundus, meaning ‘whole world’, and politics comes from the Greek polis denoting not just a city-state, but also a body of people acting in concert.

The problem is, we are often functionally a society of relative strangers pulling in different directions according to interests which are seen as frequently conflicting. This is reflected and shaped by the way we structure and practice governance, even in a democracy, and it shows itself especially starkly over issues of life and death where there seems a massive gulf in understanding and perception: bio-ethical ones, for instance.

So can the instrumentality and mediating capacity of mundane politics do justice to the mystery, pain and possibility of life on the edge? If so, how? These questions cannot be answered in the abstract, but require specific descriptive unpacking.

In the UK, the work of a parliamentarian falls functionally into four areas: interventions on concerns from constituents and other groups; set piece debates and bills; the technical, investigative and advisory functions of committees, and liaison with those scrutinising Westminster externally through media or policy organisations.

These functions overlap, obviously. They also complement and balance each other – so that the passion and partisanship of open debate exists in useful tension to the more painstaking and cooperative nature of much committee work, for example.

Then, as we have observed, there are those moral time bombs that synergise and confound any clear delineation of procedures. As in the church, with its enthusiasms and anxieties, this often means matters relating to sex and death.

Private Members' Bills, which normally have no chance of success if the government opposes them, have been decisive in ‘matters of conscience’, like the decriminalisation of homosexuality and abortion in 1967. They reflect the difficulty of getting agreement on handling issues that divide and coalesce across received lines of organisation.

That’s worth bearing in mind when we consider recent procedural controversies over what started out as a straightforward announcement in June 2007 about a new enquiry (No. 45 of Session 2006-07) by the Select Committee on Science and Technology. Its remit was scientific developments relating to the 1967 Abortion Act concerning “medical interventions and examination techniques that may inform definitions of foetal viability”, “research relevant to the impact of suggested law reforms to first trimester abortions”, and “evidence of long-term or acute adverse health outcomes.”

Reel forward five months to the final report, which found no decisive scientific evidence in favour of lowering the 24-week limit for terminations and recommended that the requirement for two doctors to sign consent forms should be changed to one, partly, it said, to reduce the number of later terminations.

Two members dissented strongly on this, and a huge row broke out. At the heart of the fracas was the limitation of the remit to establishing data, cause and effect, such that “the Committee will not be looking at the ethical or moral issues associated with abortion time limits.”

For some, this is a necessary division of labour. Assessing the science is already a massive task, hedged by accusations that some expert witnesses were over determined by either pro-choice or anti-abortion affiliations. “Imagine what would have happened”, a civil servant suggested to me, “if the Committee had accepted submissions on the moral status of the foetus or the relative interests of mother and unborn life. They would have been accused of exceeding their competence and prejudicing the science.”

You can see her point. The opposing charge was that in bypassing these matters the Committee was defining science as value-free. Chair Phil Willis MP denied this, describing the wider debate as the appropriate place where the different perspectives can face each other. So, science considered, Willis, characterised as ‘pro-choice’, went on to say that “the real challenge for government is not to argue around 24 or 23 weeks, but [to ask] how, in fact, we get down this monstrous total [of 206,781 abortions in 2006].”

All we can expect of parliamentary procedures in such circumstances, Westminster managers contend, is that they are fair, provide coherent points of investigation and decision, and in the total procedure enable the different components (scientific, moral, pastoral and political) to rub shoulders as people try to hammer out a way forward. They simply can’t bear the full weight of expectation at each stage of a debate shaped by two contending absolutes that find it difficult to recognise each other at all.

It’s not hard for each ‘side’ to pick holes in the process and throw mighty insults, of course. Dr Evan Harris MP accused the minority abortion report producers of “paranoid fantasy” and “pseudo-scientific claptrap”. A Catholic Communications Network news summary referred to him as “Dr Death” (courtesy of the Daily Mail) and “a zealot”.

Meanwhile, Alison Jackson for the Methodist Church observed: “For many people, abortion is not a black and white issue, and there are many Christians who do not sit comfortably on either side of the argument. What [they] want is greater moderation and understanding of the issues.”

If parliamentary procedure veers toward the complex central ground, it is only reflecting difficult reality. It can’t and won’t resolve visceral disputes. It won’t avoid them, either. Only a shared sense of common moral community can reshape a conversation that has become a war of intractables. That is something bigger than a mediating institution can aspire to be.

This challenge of moral community is something that has been faced, in different ways, by moral philosophers and theologians (as well as those ascribing to both descriptions!) In The Politics of Virtue: Is Abortion Debatable? (Duke University Press, NC, USA), Elizabeth Mensch and Alan Freeman argue that political gridlock on the subject reflects a wider failure of conversation, and the human basis for conversation. The result is that campaigners on both ‘sides’ of the argument preach to the choir while the majority of people find no firm ground in their desire to frame the issue around mutually reinforcing exclusions and by-passed ambiguities.

On a similar basis, theological controversialist Stanley Hauerwas, quoting approvingly from a painfully honest sermon by chaplain and Presbyterian minister Terry Hamilton, claims that “the Christian response to abortion must reframe the issue to focus on responsibility ... The pro-choice/pro-life debate presently pits the right of the mother to choose against the right of the foetus to live. The Christian response, on the other hand, centres on the responsibility of the whole Christian community to care for 'the least of these.'" This in turn presupposes the development of a ‘community of character’ that acknowledges this kind of joyful obligation, such that different interests do not have to cancel each other out or obliterate ‘the other’.

Hauerwas goes on: “We, as church, [need to be] ready to be challenged by the other. This has to do with the fact that in the church, every adult, whether single or married, is called to be parent. All Christian adults have a parental responsibility because of baptism. Biology does not make parents in the church. Baptism does. Baptism makes all adult Christians parents and gives them the obligation to help introduce these children to the Gospel. Listen to the baptismal vows; in them the whole church promises to be parent. In this regard the church reinvents the family.”

Now this begs a huge number of questions. What kind of alternative family, what kind of parenting and what pattern of sustainable responsibility – involving whom – can be generated on this basis? The practice and politics of ekklesia, a new peoplehood, goes far beyond what can reasonably be expected of either parliamentary accommodation or rights-based confrontation. And it cannot claim simply to be able to avoid the dilemmas enshrined in those ways of operating either. But what it does do is restore the mystery, pain and possibility at the heart of life-and-death issues, instead of reducing them to the mundanity of procedure.


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. His regular blog can be found at: The central section of this article has appeared in Third Way magazine.

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