Not all moral dilemmas are resolvable. Or rather, we are sometimes forced to make a choice between two incompatible courses of action, neither of which we find completely satisfactory. Take the case of Carla Foster.
I was recently asked by several people in South Yorkshire to make a statement in support of Ms Foster – a resident of Staffordshire – who had been sentenced to two years and four months in prison for aborting her unborn child after the legal time limit of 24 weeks. She was between 32 and 34 weeks – eight months pregnant. This was during the Covid period when, it was said, she had misled the British Pregnancy Advisory Service about the length of her pregnancy and they had posted an abortifacient to her. Ms Foster already has three children and she wanted to limit the size of her family. So she took the drug.
Those who contacted me were of the opinion that a grave injustice had been done to Ms Fowler. There were two principal arguments.
The first was that it was hard to see what purpose would be served by sending her to prison when there were three children who needed their mother; the judge need not have given her a custodial sentence. I don’t know what discretion the judge had, or what he took into account in passing sentence. I simply note that there were those who did not see this as justice whatever their views on abortion.
The second argument was the familiar one that as long as the baby was in the woman’s body, this was her body and no one had a right to tell her what she could and couldn’t do with it. One person said it was evidence that we were still ‘a patriarchal society’ in which men made the rules and women were (unfairly) expected to obey them.
There was a good deal of public sympathy for Carla Foster for the first of the above arguments: what good did prosecuting her and sending her to prison do? But the public mood is not in favour of extending the time limit and is, if anything, inclined to be more restrictive now than even a few years ago. In any case, there is a law – the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861– and Ms Foster had broken it and pleaded guilty. Don’t we all have a duty to uphold the law? Hence the moral dilemma.
The police, of course, have to enforce the law. But what can we say about the general legal and moral arguments?
The moral issues surrounding abortion have divided public opinion in this country all my life, though in that time we have gone from a total ban to the qualified acceptance that we now have – what some would call a fudge. There were those who opposed abortion in all, or almost all, circumstances arguing that from the moment of conception the unborn had a right to life. There were those who argued that abortion was a woman’s right. But most people were somewhere in the middle, arguing that it should be allowed in some circumstances because without it, backstreet abortions would continue with obvious dangers to women. So abortion became legal in 1968 (David Steel’s Bill) and in 1990 the 24 week limit was set on the basis that after 24 weeks a foetus was viable outside the womb.
This was a pragmatic solution to a difficult moral question on which people were divided. Abortion remained a crime – which was a way of asserting the value of human life, including the life of the unborn – though with allowable exceptions. The tragedy for Carla Foster was that she waited so long to make up her mind and fell foul of the law – unlike the 230,000 women whose abortions last year were legal. The danger of allowing abortion at any point in a pregnancy, however late, is that it could lead some to ask the obvious question – and some, like the ethicist Professor Peter Singer, have asked it – why do we draw an arbitrary line at birth? If a mother decides that she cannot cope with a very impaired child, for example, why not permit infanticide?
There may be some logic in this, but do we seriously want to go down that road?
My own view, then, is that abortion is one of those moral dilemmas where the majority of people probably find themselves somewhere between those who regard it as morally indefensible in all, or almost all, circumstances and those who believe it is a decision for the pregnant woman to make at any stage of pregnancy. For us, the pragmatic stance of British law is where we are most comfortable – or least discomforted – and if this is a ‘fudge’, then so be it.
But I am not sure how this would help the judge.
Lessons from Treeton
The Baptist church in Treeton was packed with over one hundred people last week. The parish council had called a meeting to discuss crime in the village – principally burglaries and car thefts. People were to varying degrees, frustrated, angry and fearful at what they saw as an outbreak of crime. There had certainly been something of a spike recently. Someone is currently under arrest for some of the crime and we wait to see the outcome.
The parish council had asked me, the local neighbourhood police team, a local ward councillor and the MP to the meeting. We each made a few remarks, but the main purpose was to hear from people themselves.
There were specific issues that I will take forward, but the meeting did raise questions that are of concern to similar sized villages across the county.
First, a number of crimes in a village this size – there are 3189 residents – can have a much greater impact on a community’s sense of safety and security than the same number of incidents in a part of a town or city with a similar numbers of people. Since January there had been 6 residential burglaries (and 6 attempted burglaries), 7 thefts of vehicles and 2 thefts from vehicles. In a city this might not be noticed much beyond the affected roads, but in a village, everyone is quickly aware of what has happened and the anxiety levels are amplified as a result. This is something the police need to consider. Ensuring village communities feel safe may require a different kind of bespoke activity from bigger urban areas. I will be speaking to senior officers about this.
Second, the audience was very clear about what would make them feel more secure. They spoke about the visibility of police officers and about CCTV. There was some recognition that a police officer could not be posted in every street every minute of the day or night. All recognised that police numbers had been drastically cut during the years of austerity. But if numbers are now gradually coming back with the new recruits, was there not scope for officers to show themselves more – on foot as much as in a vehicle. There is now some research that backs up this idea that a visible presence such as regular patrolling has a deterrent effect. It must be something that senior officers take to heart: people want it and the research supports it.
The meeting clearly thought that CCTV was important not so much for its potential as evidence after a crime has been committed as its deterrent effect. ‘If criminals see cameras at the entry to our village they will think twice before stopping off here,’ was how one person put it. Again there may be some truth in this and the local authority officers who were present, together with the Treeton parish councillors, can follow that up.
But something important was going on in that meeting that we all might have missed. ‘What are the police doing for us?’ one man asked. What he seems to have overlooked is that five or six years ago, if such a meeting had been held, there would have been no neighbourhood police officers present because neighbourhood policing had disappeared. The neighbourhood teams were abandoned as South Yorkshire police sought to cut costs and balance the books. Now they are back and everyone in the chapel saw and heard from Carl and Nathan, the two constables for whom Treeton is their patch. (There is also a Police Community Support Officer.) Having these officers get to know the village and the people, and vice versa, is a huge step forward from where we were even a few years ago, and as new recruits come through we hope to see more high visibility jackets joining them.
Baron Kerslake of Endcliffe in the City of Sheffield
Shortly after writing this blog last weekend I heard the sad news of the death of Lord Kerslake. Bob Kerslake was chief executive of Sheffield City Council (1997-2008) before pursuing national roles, eventually becoming head of the home civil service (2012-14). But he always retained strong links with Sheffield and South Yorkshire. He was Chair of the Board of Governors of Sheffield Hallam University, for example. He will be remembered here by everyone involved in local political life as an exemplary public servant and missed as a kind man, most generous with his time and good advice.