Rebecca Lowe Coulson was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
In an episode of Sex and the City, Miranda (the red-haired one) asks Carrie the columnist if she’s ever had an abortion. When Carrie says she had one some 15 years previously, Miranda – attempting to weigh up life choices in a coffee break – asks how long it was before she “felt back to normal”. “Any day now”, Carrie replies.
There were almost 200,000 abortions carried out in England and Wales in 2016; that a third of women in the UK have one before they turn 45 is a household statistic. Having always been aware that finding abortion morally abhorrent wouldn’t be sufficient to prevent me having one if I found myself unwantedly pregnant, I’m ever grateful that I’ve never had to make that decision. Nonetheless, I think it’s absolutely right that abortion remains legal in Britain today, and recognise that for many people it is the correct choice. Does that make me inconsistent?
Much has been written about Jacob Rees-Mogg’s Good Morning Britain statement, last week, that he is completely opposed both to abortion and same-sex marriage. On the same day, Dianne Feinstein, the Democrat senator, vented her “concern” that “the dogma liv[ing] loudly within” Amy Coney Barrett, a U.S Court of Appeal nominee, might make her unsuited to serving as a judge. There’s no time to discuss these cases in detail. But questions arising from them extend beyond important yet superficial ones about issues such as the role recusal should play in the courtroom, or the problem of British amnesia regarding the difference between religious and civil marriage.
More fundamentally, reaction to both cases represents general confusion about the place of morality – in this case represented by deeply-held Catholic views – in the public sphere. In response to Rees-Mogg’s comments, Hugo Rifkind summed that confusion up in a tweet: “Actually, I’m quite confused by Mogg on abortion. He says it’s morally indefensible, but also says it’s ok to have a law which allows it”.
Firstly, there are clear pragmatic reasons that could explain such a stance. You might think, for instance, that while abortion seems morally wrong, that – because making it illegal would endanger the lives of many women, and most likely the most vulnerable – the best recourse is to work towards a society in which such a thing is no longer needed, by focusing on improving education and birth control. That’s not inconsistent; it’s realistic.
But it is to miss the point to ask whether such a position (finding something morally wrong, yet not opposing a law allowing it) is inconsistent. Rather, the point is that it’s possible to accept that something you see as wrong could nonetheless be justifiably legal in a good society. You might think, for instance, that adultery is always morally wrong, but feel that the policing of such things should not – for both intrinsic and instrumental reasons – be the state’s business. And you might think abortion morally wrong, but consider it justifiable when pregnancy arises from a rape. This kind of two-stage thinking is different from the relativistic approach that claims something can be right in one place or time and wrong in another, of course. Instead, it holds that wrong things remain wrong, but that they can, sometimes, be justifiably legal.
There’s a bigger political point that needs to be made here, though: something that Brexit-tide shows to have been all too often forgotten. On occasion, you might feel very strongly a certain way about something, yet recognise that the general (or majority) feeling in your country about it is different. Understanding and accepting that is essential not only to supporting democracy, but also to respecting the law of the land. The upholding of this is, in their various ways, the duty of both politicians and judges.
Such an approach is also an essential part of liberalism. I’ve written here before about the blurring of this term, but, on any traditional understanding, certain responses to the Rees-Mogg case have shown it is close to losing all public meaning. In a tolerant, open, and pluralistic liberal society, we can recognise diverse opinions and rail freely against those ones with which we disagree.
Religion can cause a sticking point for even the most liberal liberals, however. Some of us have moral allegiances aside from those promoted by the state in which we live. But they are not always related to religion; morality and religion are intertwined, but nonetheless different. Anyone with strong views grounds those views in something – whether it’s religion, ideology, or just technocratic consequentialist efficiency – yet people seem to be scared of the absolute these days.
This is particularly frustrating when those people also have heavily moralistic views about how right they are: “There’s no such thing as right or wrong, but I’m right – and you’re such a prat for disagreeing with me that I won’t talk to you any more”. My views about abortion are nothing to do with religion. But they are to do with my belief that there are such things as moral absolutes. Believing in moral absolutes does not mean thinking you know what is right, however: rather, that you want to spend time working out what might be so. That includes listening to opposing views, and changing your mind when you think you need to.
Living in a democracy means having the chance to put forward your views, and to fight for what you think is right – even when the consensus is against you. But it also means respecting that consensus until you’ve persuaded it otherwise. And that, fundamentally, is what our politicians and judiciary are there to uphold.