Thursday, 8 April 2010

Is abortion now an election issue?

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While personally I feel there's much for us to envy in the US political process, I've always been thankful that here in Britain abortion doesn't play the prominent role in public debate that it does across the Atlantic. It's always felt like a far more settled issue here, and in my view it's testament to the mature attitude we take towards the abortion debate that it isn't used as a vote-winning issue by politicians, as it is in the US.

This doesn't mean I think debate around the issue should be closed – it comes up from time to time in Parliament, as it did during the passage of the Embryology Act in 2008, and there tend to be MPs on all sides who agree and disagree with the abortion laws. But my perception was that in Britain abortion is not used as an election issue, as a way to win votes from people who feel strongly about it, one way or another.

For that reason, I don't think I'm alone in feeling a little uneasy with the interview David Cameron has given to the Catholic Herald, in which he answers a reader's question on whether there should be a reduction in the abortion time limit (currently 24 weeks into pregnancy) as follows:
“I think that the way medical science and technology have developed in the past few decades does mean that an upper limit of 20 or 22 weeks would be sensible.”
Cameron does say that he thinks abortion is an issue, along with euthanasia, on which MPs should be given a free vote, but I am still uncomfortable with the fact that he has chosen to reveal his personal view on the matter in an interview given to a religious newspaper during an election campaign with the intention of winning religious votes. I just hope this isn't a sign that abortion is set to become a bigger political issue in this country. If, when answering the question, Cameron didn't intend to make it a political issue he seems to have failed – the story has made the front page of the Daily Telegraph, as well as the Daily Mail.

This isn't to say Cameron has been alone in courting the faith vote – Gordon Brown has been giving it a good go too, declaring last week in an Easter message on the Number 10 website that:
"The Christian churches are the conscience of our country, always ready to bear witness to the truth and to remind us of our responsibilities to what the Bible calls ‘the least of these’. I am incredibly grateful for all that you do to ensure our public square is more than a place of transaction and exchange and remains always, as it should be, a place of shared values and social justice."
If you're feeling like there's little to choose between the parties when it comes to the role of religion in public debate, you may be interested to read the piece I wrote for our current issue on how a humanist might go about voting. One of the conclusions I came to while working on that was that it's time we all started paying more attention to our individual candidates, and where they stand on issues we might care about (I was thinking from a humanist perspective when writing the article, but obviously this can apply to all issues). In the article you're find a list of 10 questions you could ask your candidates in order to gauge their stance on issues pertaining to humanism, secularism and freethought, adapted from lists provided in the BHA's election manifesto and the Skeptical Voter website. Do let us know if you put them to your candidates, as we'd be fascinated to know what kind of answers you receive.

PS - Speaking of Skeptical Voter, now the election campaign has kicked off, they've been experiencing a spike in the number of people contributing to their wiki, which catalogues the positions of as many MPs and candidates as possible on various issues. But in order to make it as comprehensive (and so as useful) as possible, they need more people to get involved. One way you can help is by passing on any relevant answers you receive from candidates. And if you're very keen, you can get involved with updating the wiki. Contact details are available on the website.


impact_tarmac said...

Can't help thinking that Cameron was asked a straight question and (refreshingly) answered it straight ...

Maybe I'm displaying too little cynicism!