by Martin Smith

CS Lewis, using his Chestertonian ability to cast into prose things which we all know already but have never really crystallised into thought, once wrote that:

We are inveterate poets. When a quantity is very great we cease to regard it as a mere quantity. Our imaginations awake.” [1]

But is it simply - or solely - ‘greatness’ that turns a mere quantity into a thing of wonder? After all, none of us would tremble before the number 93,000,000, which is very great indeed, were we to see it on a calculator’s screen, divorced of context. And yet when the same number is suffixed with ‘miles’ and applied to the distance from the Earth to the Sun, then we do most certainly tremble in awe and wonder as our imaginations stir into life. The strange crosswind of mind that enables people to do this – to turn mere quantity into something much more – is a wonderful tool for teachers. [2] Wherever possible we humans strive to think about numbers and sizes in colourful and expansive terms, relating quantities and concepts to each other so that together they form something greater than the sum of their parts. In the classroom, whenever I begin to teach about atoms, I play off my pupils’ natural faculty for this kind of abstract synthesis. I proffer six millilitres of water – a rather prosaic thing in its own right – and then the number 6 x 1023, also a rather meaningless thing in and of itself. But then comes the punch line; the latter is the number of atoms in the former. Then all of a sudden imaginations spring into life and awe and wonder can be seen in the eyes of my charges as they begin to marvel at the ineffable tininess of atoms that this connection implies.

A very great quantity that I have been thinking about recently is 8,700,000. Why so? This number happens to be the current population of London. [3] An interesting thing to ponder, I suppose, but the arresting connection that really stirred my brain into life is that 8.7 million also happens to be the number of abortions carried out in Britain since the passing of the eponymous Act of 1967. More arresting still is that out of the 508 abortions performed in Britain each day, the balance of available evidence suggests that anything up to 493 of these are carried out illegally. In order to see why this may be the case, we need to look at the wider legal context. Abortion per se is in fact illegal under Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Persons Act, 1861, viz:

58. Administering drugs or using instruments to procure abortion.
“Every woman, being with child, who, with intent to procure her own miscarriage, shall unlawfully administer to herself any poison or other noxious thing, or shall unlawfully use any instrument or other means whatsoever with the like intent, and whosoever, with intent to procure the miscarriage of any woman, whether she be or be not with child, shall unlawfully administer to her or cause to be taken by her any poison or other noxious thing, or shall unlawfully use any instrument or other means whatsoever with the like intent, shall be guilty of felony, and being convicted thereof shall be liable . . . to be kept in penal servitude for life . . .”
59. Procuring drugs, &c. to cause abortion.
“Whosoever shall unlawfully supply or procure any poison or other noxious thing, or any instrument or thing whatsoever, knowing that the same is intended to be unlawfully used or employed with intent to procure the miscarriage of any woman, whether she be or be not with child, shall be guilty of a misdemeanour, and being convicted thereof shall be liable . . . to be kept in penal servitude . . .” [4]

This Act has never been repealed; abortion was and remains illegal. What Parliament approved in 1967 was a set of seven exemptions by which an abortion could be carried out without fear of prosecution for those involved. [5] The latest figures from the Department of Health [6] show that 97% of abortions (whence, vide supra, 493/508) are carried out by invoking just one of these seven criteria, so-called ‘Ground C’:

“The pregnancy has not exceeded its twenty-fourth week and that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman (section 1(1)(a)).” [5], [7]

The illegality argument follows from the fact that proper assessments of a pregnant woman’s mental or physical health are not being made and that the tight constraints of the 1967 Act have been replaced by a ‘tick box’ culture in which an abortion can be procured after only perfunctory consideration. How do we know this? We do not of course have access to the paper trail underpinning every one of the 500-odd abortions carried out each day in Britain, however we do have insights from pro-abortion academic researchers. One such expert is Sally Sheldon, Professor of Law at the University of Kent, who wrote in 2012 that:

 “…in the vast majority of cases….. the request for abortion is not grounded primarily in medical factors”. [8]

And yet Ground C – which underwrites 97% of abortions – speaks unambiguously of ‘medical factors’; that is, matters of mental and physical health. So on the one hand we have the Department of Health claiming that the vast majority of abortions are permitted on the grounds that the mother’s health is endangered by continuation of the pregnancy, whilst on the other, one of Britain’s leading abortion researchers claims that the vast majority of abortions are not primarily grounded in medical factors at all. Clearly both of these positions cannot be right, but a route out of this contradiction is provided by Ann Furedi, Chief Executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, Britain’s biggest abortion provider. She has stated that:

We all know, if we are honest, that Ground C is a kind of code for ‘it’s an unwanted pregnancy’”. [9]

Thus, declaring a pregnancy as ‘unwanted’ has become the catchall expression to pass a pregnancy off as one that will lead to a worsened state of mental or physical health for the mother than if the baby be aborted. Rather than two doctors performing proper assessments of each woman’s health and identifying specific mental or physical problems intrinsically linked to the pregnancy, Furedi’s admission clearly alludes to a ‘tick box’ culture in which abortions are procured after the most perfunctory of assessments. This interpretation is borne out by the recent, widely publicised revelations of doctors pre-signing abortion forms, [10] abortions procured following the briefest of conversations with clinic centre telephone operators [11] and the ‘no questions asked’ clinics where abortions could even be procured on the grounds of the baby’s sex. [12] But leaving aside these specific violations of the 1967 Act, can the mere ‘unwantedness’ of a pregnancy pose a mental or physical health problem to a mother, greater than if the baby were aborted, and thus sit within the remit of Ground C? Quite apart from the flawed nature of the question (that is, a question predicated on the false assumption that pregnancies can be classed as either ‘wanted’ or ‘unwanted’ – this is far too simplistic and does not correlate with the actual terms by which women speak about their pregnancy, regardless of whether they are considering an abortion [13]) the government’s own advice says that the answer to this crucial question is ‘no’. This is because a 2011 review into the effect of abortion on women’s health commissioned by the Department of Health concluded that:

The rates of mental health problems for women with an unwanted pregnancy were the same whether they had an abortion or gave birth.” [14]

In other words, there is no evidence to support the notion that the mere ‘unwantedness’ of a pregnancy will be detrimental to a mother’s health, never mind the fact that a wealth of studies have cited abortion as a contributing factor to the subsequent occurrence of depression, breast cancer, substance abuse, self-harm and even suicide. [15] Indeed the damage done by abortion to women – and men – is not as widely known about as it ought to be and has constituted something of a taboo topic for many years. [16]

Where does all of this leave us? Despite substantial evidence suggesting that the vast majority of abortions are not being carried out in accordance with the law, and in stark contrast to the swift and punitive legal action quite rightly taken against doctor malpractice in other areas of the NHS, [17] there has been a lack of rigorous and consistent action by the Department of Health to see that the abortion law be fully enforced. In fact, based on a 2016 Care Quality Commission (CQC) report into Marie Stopes abortion clinics, the laws concerning basic standards of medical practice and hygiene are not even being enforced, let alone the intentions of the 1967 Act. The CQC report revealed a vast swathe of dangerous and illegal practices, including foetuses thrown into bins instead of being cremated, a lack of consent training and no staff at all trained to assist in anaesthesia or to administer medication in cases of haemorrhage. [18] We can surely all agree that the Secretary of State for Health has a responsibility to ensure that all aspects of the law are enforced concerning every dimension of the NHS, irrespective of whether we are in favour of, are opposed to or prefer not to think too much about abortion. To this end, I would urge you to write to Jeremy Hunt MP requesting that he do precisely that.

It took the best part of two millennia for London’s population to grow to 8.7 million but just fifty years – a mere blink of an eye in comparison – for a London-sized hecatomb of babies to be aborted; many, it seems, in violation of the law of the land.
Numbers to stir the mind indeed.


[1] Miracles by C. S. Lewis, chapter 7.
[2] I am grateful to C. S. Lewis for the metaphor of a mental crosswind, cf. chapter 11 of Perelandra.
[3] Give or take a hundred thousand; the most recently determined figure is 8.6 million from 2014 with the population estimated to reach 8.8 million in 2017, see http://population.city/united-kingdom/london/
[7] The average figure for the invoking of Ground C over the past decade is 95%. [5]
[12] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/9099511/Abortion-investigation-doctors-filmed-agreeing-illegal-abortions-no-questions-asked.html
[13] For an overview of this issue and a comprehensive set of references to medical journal articles, see pages 4-6 of Abortion and Women’s Health: An evidence-based review for medical professionals of the impact of abortion on women’s physical and mental health by Dr Greg Pike of the Adelaide Centre for Bioethics and Culture, Australia.
[15] See pages 10-26 ibid. [13].
[16] By way of example, the author was present at a lecture given to students at Oxford University by BBC journalist Robert Aitken, in which he reported how his attempts to air stories on Radio 4’s Today programme concerning various problems associated with abortion were repeatedly blocked by editors on spurious grounds outside of any editorial or commissioning guidelines.
[18] http://www.cqc.org.uk/sites/default/files/new_reports/AAAF9029.pdf, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-37135380