Then, in October of the same year, The Abortion Act was passed. This allowed for deliberately induced abortion for physical and mental reasons (very loosely defined ones in the opinion of the Bill’s opponents), provided two doctors (even ones paid by an abortion clinic), agreed. At the time David Steel, who had introduced the Bill, promised the sceptical that it would not mean abortion on demand. For much of the time since its defenders have resisted attempts to alter it precisely because it does effectively mean abortion on demand. Few watching soap operas, where ‘It’s her choice’ has become a mantra, would know that in law deliberate abortion is homicide except in defined circumstances.
Many seem to assume that those who applauded the first of these 1967 Acts would also approve of the second. There is now a set of boxes that have to be ticked on such matters, and apparently these two issues should belong in the same column. There were, however, some who broke ranks on this, not least Leo Abse himself who, along with some others on the Left, was what we would now call pro-life. Actually, I preferred it when we said pro- and anti-abortion which, while not perfect, seem more specific to the issue. ‘Pro-choice’ seems absurd when the victim has no choice in the matter (would someone who wanted rape or slavery decriminalised get away with calling themselves ‘pro-choice?’ All our choices are constrained by the rights of others). ‘Pro-life’ is very vague, including as it does some who favour the death penalty and others who can be gung-ho when it comes to war, while others believe that it would be too unfair on the mother not to allow abortion in some cases, especially where her life or health is threatened, and seek some kind of balance between the rights of the mother and the child.
But to get back to Leo Abse, why did the darling of the ‘liberal’ elite of his day blot his copy book so badly? It was not as if he kept his opposition relatively quiet. After 1967 he continued to write about the rights of the unborn child, he fearlessly spoke at universities and he led two massive anti-abortion demonstrations in London in the 1970s. As a Jew by birth and an agnostic by reason, he was at least immune from the simplistic but ubiquitous charge that he was only saying that because the Church told him to (campaigners for abortion often like to believe that all anti-abortionists are religious nuts, probably because it allows their views to be dismissed without too much thought). Still despised by one section of society for the part he played in the abolition of the death penalty and the legalisation of homosexuality, he had now made enemies of many of his erstwhile allies.
Abse simply saw himself as being a genuine socialist. Abolishing the death penalty, relieving the persecution of homosexuals and protecting children (before and after birth) were all part of the same thing, a consistent belief in the rights of all from conception onwards. It had to be from conception, as that’s when a new unique life, the product of two human beings, starts living and growing, and the only way to stop it living and growing (unless it dies a natural death) is to kill it. To Abse it has the same right to life as the rest of us, and to deny its rights is to deny our own rights. It is also an obligation to defend those who cannnot defend themselves, and to do so requires no apology. This is the secular pro-life position and it is not dependent on any religious belief. It has been reinforced in the last fifty years by DNA, which shows that the child is much more than simply a part of the mother’s body.
Leo Abse seemed to be at home with the knowledge that he stood almost alone in many ways, though he was probably hopeful that his belief in truly consistent human rights would be vindicated in the future. In his heyday he was a colourful figure, literally so on every Budget day when people looked forward to seeing what outrageous outfit he would be wearing for the occasion, in fact his arrival in the Commons often received more news coverage than that of the Chancellor. His occasional flamboyance, coupled with some of his causes, inevitably led to speculation about his sexuality but he appears to have been happily married to his first wife for forty years. Five years after her death he married again. After his retirement from the Commons in 1987, Margaret Thatcher is said to have vetoed his nomination for a peerage. It is not certain why, as she could live with the elevation of others from the opposition benches. What is not commonly known is that Thatcher’s voting record shows that she was on the opposite side from Abse on abortion (some on the Left would probably be reluctant to admit that she was their bedfellow on this). Whatever the reason, he got his revenge in a psycho-analytical biography of her.
He would probably be saddened that some gay groups (or at least their leaders) back an abortion-leaning stance, though whether that’s by conviction or the result of the prevailing faux leftism is another matter. It is ironic because we can be pretty sure that, if there had been a way to detect gayness in the womb, many gays alive today might have ceased to exist in the early months of their lives.
Leo Abse died in August 2008. Obituaries in The Guardian and some other newspapers gave good coverage of his part in abolishing the death penalty and homosexual law reform but barely mentioned his anti-abortion activities, despite the time and effort he put into them in the last twenty years of his political career.