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'This House Regrets the 1967 Abortion Act'

21/03/2014 12:34 GMT | Updated 20/05/2014 10:59 BST

This was the title of a debate hosted by Oxford Students for Life on Monday 10th March.

Caroline Farrow - a journalist, pro-life campaigner and UK Catholic Voice - spoke on behalf of the proposition, whilst Kate Smurthwaite - a comedian, political activist and Vice Chair of Abortion Rights UK - represented the opposition. With two such influential names in the field, the evening was inevitably set to be highly-charged and controversial.

Caroline opened by outlining statistics on the rate of, and grounds for, abortion over the last 46 years. She noted that the US is 50th worldwide for maternal mortality, yet has one of the highest rates of abortion - implying that current abortion rates do not correlate with the grounds of maternal mortality originally intended by the act.

Conversely, Kate began her opening speech by inviting all the men who identified as pro-life to leave, along with anyone who had never donated a kidney. Those who hadn't donated a kidney were 'hypocrites' in their claims that life deserved fighting for at all costs whilst the men, she said, could not possibly empathise with the suffering of a woman whose body is taken over by a crisis pregnancy, adding that as a result their views were 'irrelevant'. A friend later pointed out to me that the majority of the 1967 government who passed the bill were male, thus casting an interesting slant on Kate's assertion that men's views on the topic deserve no consideration.

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Caroline Farrow (left), Nathan Pinkoski (independent moderator) and Kate Smurthwaite (right).

Both parties fully acknowledged the scientific realities of abortion, with Caroline pointing out that even Ann Furedi - Chief Executive of BPAS (British Pregnancy Advice Service) - accepts that the unborn is both human and living, and feminist Naomi Woolf urging fellow pro-choice activists to acknowledge that abortion entails a 'real death'. However, Kate argued that the exact definition of life is spurious, and open to subjective interpretation. She proposed that abortion should be available right up to birth, as until that point the foetus remains a part of the mother - and therefore the decision to end the pregnancy is a matter of bodily autonomy.

Caroline promoted the view that life begins at conception. Though this view may be stereotyped as solely religious, Caroline was very clear in drawing attention to the growing secular pro-life movement - evidence that the pro-life perspective is not, as Kate indicated, purely religious dogma. Moreover, Caroline challenged Kate's statement that 'if a woman has made up her mind that she wants to end her pregnancy, she will' by pointing out that legalising all abortions on the grounds that they will 'happen anyway' does not 'prevent them from being murder'.

Whilst Caroline supported life in any form and at any stage - with the expressed exception of pregnancies which result in a clear choice between the life of the child and life of the mother, in which case it is 'not the mother's duty to become a martyr' - Kate's solution to the discrepancy in laws for disabled children (who can legally be aborted up until birth) and the controversies surrounding the time limit for abortion (currently set at 24 weeks) was 'to completely decriminalise abortion'.

The debate took an interesting turn when both speakers admitted to having had abortions themselves. Their individual takes on their former circumstances essentially summed up their positions on the abortion act in general. Caroline expressed regret and heartache following coercion by her partner, GP and midwives, whereas Kate asserted that she had merely exercised her rights as a woman to have autonomy over her body. Acknowledging the post-abortion guilt and trauma experienced by many women, which Caroline emphasised, Kate insisted that said guilt arose only as a direct result of aggressive pro-life campaigns.

Personally, what stood out to me the most was Caroline's response to the question of whether not having an abortion would counteract other sins when it came to accessing Heaven. She simply quoted Scripture: "Judge not lest ye be judged' (Matthew 7:1). This reinforced for me that the debate over abortion is not directly about the people involved, but about the act. The pro-life movement does not, or at the very least should not, condemn any individual - as Caroline so aptly explained, no human being has the right to judge another human being.

In line with this view, one thing that both speakers were in agreement on was the desperate need for additional support for women who have had an abortion and been left to deal with the psychological aftermath alone. It's not a case of judging women who have no other option, according to Caroline, it's about providing that other option.

Kate's argument was extremely passionate, and at times it was easy to get caught up in her enthusiasm for her cause. However, it was important for listeners to try not to be led by emotion, but instead to look at the hard facts presented by both sides. Whilst Caroline's argument contained numerous examples of statistical evidence, Kate's seemed at times to consist of very strong claims which weren't as strongly backed-up by evidence. Though it is clear that in such a controversial field persuasively presenting either perspective requires determination and a degree of fearlessness, sometimes the still, small voice of calm and reason holds more weight than the forceful stance.

Kate maintained that the act has saved countless lives, and that instead of tackling the cessation of crisis pregnancies we should address the root of them - 'not by forcing pregnancy' which 'may not cost lives but costs wellbeing'. Caroline, on the other hand, concluded that the abortion act of 1967 was passed for the purpose of compassion - grounds which have since been manipulated to suit cultural demand, thus costing the lives of 6.4 million unborn children unnecessarily. Notably, David Steel - who initially proposed the act - has in recent years expressed regret at the extent to which his original intentions have been (avoidance of illegal 'backstreet' abortions) have been overlooked.

For a more comprehensive outline of both speakers' arguments on the evening, read Oxford Students For Life's blog.