In August 2007, Victorian Premier John Brumby initiated a legislative process which will almost certainly result in the decriminalization of abortion in Victoria, Australia.1 This process allowed community groups and churches to write to the state’s Law Reform Commission, expressing their views and wishes concerning the issue.
One might have thought that this presented a wonderful opportunity for the Anglican church to witness to its historic position, grounded in Scripture, that all human life is sacred. This position was affirmed by the 1930 Lambeth Conference when it recorded “its abhorrence of the sinful practice of abortion”,2 and more recently by the 1989 Australian General Synod, which called on Australian governments “to uphold the rights of the unborn child”. In 2004, former Archbishop Peter Watson described the moral tragedy of abortion and bewailed his church’s failure to address it.3 Yet to the horror of hundreds of Anglicans, the Melbourne Diocese made a Submission to the Law Commission which expressed a position totally at odds with the church’s historic, biblical stance. This Submission, which journalist Barney Zwartz has called “the first official approval of abortion by Australian Anglicans”,4 completely sidestepped the biblical doctrine of humanity made in the image of God, and instead espoused a “gradualist” ethic:
Our consensus view is the gradualist position which argues that while the embryo/foetus is fully human from the time of conception, it accrues moral CHN significance and value as it develops.
While we believe that the destruction even of an early embryo is of moral significance, we believe the moral significance increases with the age and development of the foetus. The significance increases gradually over time, in parallel with its physical development. As a pregnancy advances, more powerful moral reasons are required to allow the destruction of the embryo/foetus. It is more serious to consider destroying a foetus at 28 weeks than at 10 weeks. We would want to see this distinction noted in any legislative provisions, though we would counsel against a legislated absolutist end-point after which an abortion could not proceed.5
The Submission states that the Diocese supports the provision of “affordable abortions… for women who, for whatever reasons, request them” (p. 4), agrees that “public acceptance of the reality of abortion… indicates that a change in the law is timely” (p. 3), and finally recommends that the Crimes Act be amended to decriminalize abortions up to the age of 28 weeks.
Perhaps just as distressing as the Submission itself is the stream of misleading statements proceeding from the Diocese. Firstly, there have been assertions in the Submission such as “Historically, the wider Anglican Communion has said very little on abortion” (p. 2) and “The Anglican Church has predominantly been silent about abortion” (p. 1). This deceptively gives the impression that Anglicans have heretofore been ambivalent or agnostic on abortion, when in fact the church has consistently criticized the practice—a pattern that Melbourne has now broken with its novel position.
Secondly, it is repeatedly said that the Submission represents a “consensus” (p. 1), when the plain fact is that a significant portion of the Diocese finds its conclusions downright repugnant. Moreover, even the committee of eight women which produced the Submission evidently did not reach a “consensus”: the conspicuous absence of one name on the final document speaks volumes.
Thirdly, we are told that the “gradualist” ethic is none other than the position adopted by the Church of England.6 However, documents available on the C of E website, and successive resolutions of its Synod (in 1983, 1993 and 2002) make it clear that the C of E upholds the historic Christian view of the sanctity of human life and is resolutely opposed to abortion as currently practised in England.7 A “gradualist” moral argument such as Melbourne’s is nowhere to be found.
Those Anglicans in Melbourne who feel betrayed by our Diocese have expressed our objection in a letter that has been signed by over 600 people.8 We can only hope and earnestly pray that our Lord, who himself entered into the womb of Mary to bring life to the dead, will urgently bring the Diocese to repentance.
5. Submission to the Victorian Law Reform Commission from the Anglican Diocese ofMelbourne, p. 3: http://www.melbourne.anglican.com.au/main.php?pg=download&id=10497.↩
7. See, for example, http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/christianethics/abortion_1.shtml and http://www.cofe.anglican.org/info/socialpublic/abortion.pdf.↩