The British public is currently being scandalized by the revelations that hospitals there have been incinerating the remains of aborted infants as clinical waste, in some cases doing so to generate electricity for hospitals. Even in that country which has so steadfastly refused to have the abortion debate, waves have been caused by the news that in the last two years alone the bodies of more than 15,000 aborted and miscarried babies were incinerated by twenty-seven National Health Service trusts. Two used the remains to burn in waste-to-energy plants that provide power for the hospitals.
How did this happen? By stealth. Britain is a country where abortion is essentially available on demand, despite the fact that no law permitting such practices has ever been passed. The 1967 Abortion Act was only supposed to allow for a termination of pregnancy under such exceptional circumstances as those that would result in “grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman.” Today almost 190,000 abortions are performed in Britain annually, most signed off on psychological grounds. Of these, three thousand are women having their fourth abortion.
The Daily Telegraph’s Tim Stanley has described the use of the remains of the unborn to heat hospitals as being “more akin to cannibalism” than the efficient recycling that these macabre practices were presumably being justified under. As with cannibalism we are confronted with the most direct challenge to basic notions about the dignity of the human form. Is the biological matter that constitutes a human being so intrinsically devoid of value and meaning that it is permissible to use this material for some mundane and utilitarian purpose? Many will feel instinctively sickened by such practices but if presented with accusations that this is merely irrational sentimentalism, what could any of us say in the defense of our deepest instincts here?
The bioethicist Leon Kass has spoken in staunch defense of precisely this kind of instinctive rejection of the mistreatment of the materials of human life. Responding to the Gosnell case, Kass has argued for seeing the wisdom in the very sensation of repugnance that we feel towards such activities. “As pain is to the body so repugnance is to soul” states Kass. For as Kass has argued, it is not possible to give full verbal account of the horror we feel at such things.
What is this underlying insight that we feel yet struggle to articulate when it comes to the materials of nascent human life? Kass suggests that although these cellular tissues have not yet achieved full human flowering, they nevertheless still represent the dignity of human possibility. It is surely that and the knowledge that this is the material from which we ourselves emerged that drives our conviction.
The beauty of Kass’s argument may well be that it has the power to resonate with both believer and atheist alike. Yet, we are still entitled to ask where religion stands in regards to this most critical of moral challenges. This in a sense brings us back to the question about how any of this could have happened in the first place. According to a Gallup poll 71 percent of British people say that religion does not occupy an important place in their life. If one were to discount ethnic minorities and immigrant groups then that figure would doubtlessly be considerably higher.
For all the high-minded notions about human rights that are prevalent in British society, it would appear that this has been no substitute for religion when it comes to protecting human dignity. The reality is that much of British society inhabits a paradigm in which, fundamentally, nothing is true and everything is permitted.
Tom Wilson is a British-born writer and political analyst. He is currently a fellow at the Tikvah Fund in New York.