Defend Life in All its Conditions

Changing Unjust Laws Justly: Pro-Life Solidarity with ‘The Last and the Least’

by Colin Harte

CUA Press, 2006

361 pages, $69.95

To order: (800) 537-5487

The odds are moving in favor of a Supreme Court majority emerging that could overturn Roe v. Wade. This, says British pro-life and disabled-rights activist Colin Harte, would open the door to state laws protecting the unborn — and the shape such legislation should take is already being discussed and expedient compromises being suggested. Harte makes a compelling case that such compromises would be morally faulty.

These would exempt from an abortion ban unborn children conceived by rape or incest, those with disabilities or those that are in earlier development. It is a normal human reaction to want to make such concessions, to modify a hard teaching out of compassion for, say, a raped pregnant women or the prospective parent or parents of a severely handicapped child. I have supported such compromises myself, lacking as I did the thorough grounding in ethics a book like this provides. Harte’s resistance to compromise is based on his experience advocating for the disabled, a group much accustomed to seeing their own rights discounted because of presumed deficiencies in the quality of their lives.

Compromise laws, argue legislative proponents, would at least ban some abortions and save some lives; such choices are justified in an emergency. Initially convinced by them during British legislative debates in the late 1980s, Harte became gradually dissuaded by arguments such as those of another activist Alison Davis, who had “been born with the sort of serious disability for which abortion is commonly regarded as the appropriate ‘solution.’” Davis pointed out that in the classic emergency of the sinking ship, the equally classic rule of thumb is “Women and children first.” That is, those least able to survive exposure are given preference to the boats — the reverse of what compromise abortion laws propose.

Putting the weakest first, writes Harte, values “human beings for who they are not for what they can do. The value of those who are ‘weaker’ is no less than that of those who are ‘stronger.’” In contrast, an abortion law that sacrificed the handicapped or the younger and so-called less “viable” unborn, would pander to “the world’s standards — which are inclined to esteem those who are higher in status, richer, more powerful or more talented.”

Harte’s book might be a bit of a hard slog for the average citizen. It explores thorny ethical questions with the moral microscope of the scholarly ethicist. But that’s not to say it’s inaccessible. The book is profoundly un-political; it does not even consider practical arguments against compromise (such as how a half measure invites lobbying for a full one).

And the book is better for it. The issue is left more clearly cut and Harte’s side of it more distinct: Catholic lawmakers and voters should support only legislation that treats all the unborn equally with the born — consequences (including potentially more abortions) come what may.

“The shepherds of the Church,” he concludes, “are shepherds after the heart of the Good Shepherd who would not abandon the one sheep for the sake of the ninety-nine.”

You don’t have to agree with his application of that particular bit of Scripture, or even his conclusions, to be challenged by his uncompromising call to be unequivocally pro-life.

Steve Weatherbe writes from

Victoria, British Columbia.