There are any number of reasons to feel irritated about the reaction to Jacob Rees-Mogg’s frankly expressed views about abortion – which hold that it’s wrong in all cases, including rape. One is the entirely characteristic, reflexive intolerance of his opponents: see Suzanne Moore’s piece in the Guardian to the effect that the abortion stuff is all of a piece with being a quasi fascist, that being a Catholic pro-lifer is part and parcel of being ‘a neoconservative bigot’, and that his views on benefits and zero hours contracts are more of the same package. Except of course they’re not; they’re separate issues.
But part of my own irritation is to do with the nature of the debate itself. Like Jacob Rees-Mogg, I think abortion is wrong because it’s the wilful destruction of a human being, because the foetus is human and there’s no logical point during gestation – like 24 weeks – at which you can say it miraculously becomes human and deserving of the protection of the law. It doesn’t help, though, that his observations on abortion were in the same interview as his views of gay marriage which he expressed as a Catholic, in Catholic terms.
Look, abortion is not a particularly religious issue. It’s a moral issue. We can all take a view about the humanity of the foetus; we can all take a view that since it’s human, it is deserving of some protection of the law – that having an abortion isn’t like having your appendix out. Being a Catholic simply means that you’ve had your attention directed towards the morality of the thing in a way that – astonishingly – other people don’t seem to do. And for what it’s worth, the church’s view is that the foetus should be given the benefit of the doubt on the thorny question of its status.
But there’s another aspect to it too, which Jacob – whom I like very much – has to address and I don’t. It’s the extent to which the principle that abortion is wrong should be expressed in law. That is to say, if you’re an MP you must think through whether you want your views to be given legislative expression. So, if Rees-Mogg were framing abortion law, would he really want it to be a full expression of his own principles? I think myself he probably wouldn’t. He’d probably want an abortion law which is a good deal less lax than it is – can I just remind you that at present we can abort foetuses right up to birth, if they’re handicapped? – but not to criminalise it outright.
That would be my take. I’d want the abortion limit reduced to, say, 12 weeks, as in other parts of Europe, not because I think a foetus that’s 11.5 weeks old is less than human, but because I think anything more absolute would be unenforceable. We have a duty to ensure the law is respected, and a law that would be flouted from the outset wouldn’t be.
So, I don’t share the views of those who say he’s wrong, but they respect him for having principles. I think he’s right, but he comes across as equivocal in saying that his views don’t matter and won’t affect anyone because the law takes a different approach. He should think through how he wants that law to change.
But good for him for saying what’s now – as Isabel Hardman points out – unsayable. The cacophony of abuse from the pro-choicers doesn’t diminish him but it certainly diminishes them.