A Closer Look at Britain and the Culture of Death

The Houses of Parliament in Westminster. More abortions currently take place in Britain than in any other country in Europe.
The Houses of Parliament in Westminster. More abortions currently take place in Britain than in any other country in Europe. (photo: Register Files)

Ahead of the Pope’s upcoming visit to Great Britain, there’s been a vigorous debate in some sections of the British press over whether the UK is the centre of the ‘culture of death.’

The discussion was sparked by a timely interview in Zenit with the director of pastoral affairs for the Westminster archdiocese, Edmund Adamus, and in particular this comment he made near the beginning:

“Whether we like it or not as British citizens and residents of this country—and whether we are even prepared as Catholics to accept this reality and all it implies—the fact is that historically, and continuing right now, Britain, and in particular London, has been and is the geopolitical epicentre of the culture of death. Our laws and lawmakers for over 50 years or more have been the most permissively anti-life and progressively anti-family and marriage.”

That policies directly opposed to a culture of life have taken root in the UK is well known among a good number of British Catholics and pro-life campaigners. But in the face of protestations among some columnists who beg to differ, I wanted to see how much this label could be backed up with solid facts.

Below is some evidence I dug up on my home country’s record on life issues over the past 50 years. It’s by no means exhaustive but the findings are undeniable, highly disturbing and back up Adamus’ assertion:

On Abortion:

• The UK has the highest number of abortions than any country in Europe with an average of 600 unborn children killed every day.
• 210,529 babies were killed in the womb in 2008* (the UK Department of Health puts the figure lower at 195,296). This compares to 114,484 in Germany (which has a higher population than Britain), 115,812 in Spain (a slightly lower population), and 121,806 in Italy (roughly the same population). The proportion of induced abortions as a percentage of pregnancies was higher than the U.S. (22.3% compared to 16.6%) in 2006 (the latest available figures).
• In 1958, 1,570 abortions (a rough estimate) were carried out in Britain; in 1968, a year after the Abortion Act, the figure was 23,991. The following year, it had over doubled to 53,643. By 1973, the figure had shot up to 120,160.*
• In the UK, unborn babies with disabilities can still be aborted right up to birth, according to the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC).
• 9 out of 10 unborn babies diagnosed with spina bifida are aborted. A similar proportion of Down’s Syndrome babies are aborted.
• In May 2008, in the first vote on abortion for 18 years, MPs voted against reducing the time limit for abortions from 24 to 20 weeks, even though a lowering of the limit had been predicted. Then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the current deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg voted to keep the limit; David Cameron, the current Prime Minister, voted to lower it to 22 weeks.
• A few weeks ago, Britain’s new Coalition government announced a new maternal health initiative with an “unprecedented focus on family planning” for the developing world. The plan includes the promotion of abortion and sexual “rights” for children.

On Embryology:

• Britain allows embryonic stem cell research and is the only country in the world to have legislated in favour of hybrid human/animal embryo research, passed in 2008 under the Human Fertilization and Embryology Act. Gordon Brown initially wanted to use a three line whip (i.e. force all his Labour MPs to vote on the legislation) to pass the Bill which was also supported by David Cameron. The Act also allows for the first time single women and lesbians to have treatment in fertility clinics.
• The legislation went ahead despite notable scientists saying they didn’t know what the benefits of such experiments would be.
• Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Edinburgh and St. Andrews described the legislation as a “monstrous attack on human rights, human dignity and human life”, adding that it would allow experiments of “Frankenstein proportion”.

On the Family:

• Civil partnerships legislation in 2004 gave same-sex couples rights and responsibilities comparable to civil marriage. Although same-sex marriage is banned in the UK, civil partnership ceremonies are widely seen among the population at large as marriages.
• The Catholic Church said at the time that the legislation undermines the importance and unique status of marriage which supports individuals, society and children.

On Euthanasia:

• ‘Passive’ euthanasia is allowed, that is when treatment a patient has not consented to (i.e. food and water) is withdrawn, though ‘active’ euthanasia (when treatment is administered with the intention of ending the patient’s life) is banned.
• Some parliamentarians regularly try to push through laws to permit active euthanasia.

On Education:

• Increasing pressure is being put on schools and charities to give information about abortion, introduce explicit sex education, to accept homosexual activity as normal, while ignoring the value of marriage.

No doubt there are more examples one could add to the list, not least the country’s early embrace of, and enthusiasm for, a contraceptive mentality.

Yet it should be added there are some highly praiseworthy aspects of Britain society which support a culture of life: British people tend to be very generous in charitable giving both at home and abroad (after the recent floods in Pakistan they gave significantly more than the government), and most people have sincere, if at times misguided, concerns for social justice. In rural areas, a sense of community is largely alive and well, and most people are generally kind and well intentioned.

But when it comes to core life issues, ones that concern the most weak and vulnerable, Britain has an enormous blind spot. Why this is so was neatly summed up by Robert Moynihan, publisher of Inside the Vatican, in a recent email bulletin. “Great Britain is the home of utilitarianism, of a pragmatic, problem-solving, technological view of human affairs,” he wrote. Justice and generosity, he added, “are “secondary” to “the main business” of life, which, in the utilitarian view, is business.”

Such attitudes tend to sideline talk of ethics and morality which usually only become part of the conversation when the well-being of animals is involved. (On a trip to England a couple of weeks ago, I witnessed an enormous outcry in the media after a woman was caught on CCTV putting a cat in a garbage bin.)

All being well, the Holy Father’s visit will highlight what matters most and effectively lead Britain towards understanding and embracing the Truth. As Moynihan writes:

“Benedict wants to be in England because a new paganism has triumphed in Western society, articulately in England. In many ways he is motivated by what he said in God and the World: “Whenever a person or society refuses to take God’s business seriously, some way or the other, the fate of Gomorrah overtakes them again… Whenever any society turns away from fellowship with the living God, it cuts the root of its social cohesion. We see such retribution at work even today.” He is in England to point out the “narrow way” that leads away from the dead end and desolation of “Gomorrah” — the “narrow way” taken by More, Fisher, Newman, and countless thousands of others.”

* Figures from the Johnston Archive, an online database on abortion statistics drawing on figures given by the UN, the Guttmacher Institute and the Council of Europe.