Downs Syndrome and Wilberforce’s long march


Sally Phillips’ moving BBC documentary ‘A World without Downs’ amazed me. (Those outside the UK can watch it here. Watch it – the best TV you will see all year) It amazed me because it was so refreshingly direct and against the grain of the prevailing liberal elite .  It amazed me because I just didn’t think the BBC would ever commission a programme like that. (Compare and contrast Michael Palin’s interview with Jan Morris, for example) It astounded me for the sheer brutal and inhumane way in which scientific and healthcare professionals talked in such austere was of screening out anyone with Downs Syndrome. They were self-evidently incapable of admitting the humanity of the unborn child, while in the lab next door other medical professionals will be spending huge budgets to try and treat massively disabling conditions (such as cancer, MS, MND and Huntingdon’s Disease) among the born. How can there be such a vast gulf between before and after birth? How can the system institutionalise murder and dress it in a white coat? The scientific amorality of some parts of the medical profession shown in this programme demonstrates in the boldest colours possible the terrifying moral hopelessness of the post-modern generation.

I have been hugely impressed by the blogs of Glen Scrivener and David Robertson on this subject, and cannot express better the arguments that they have expressed. Go and read them. They are both brilliant. Here, I want to look forwards and to ask a question: in this debate, how can we ever counter the ‘women’s right to choose’ argument and protect the rights of the unborn? (The only part of Sally Phillips’ argument that failed was that she defended a mother’s right to choose. Possibly, this was the price of getting the programme aired. Has she considered its implications?)  In a liberal society the ‘free choice’ argument is used to undercut almost any argument we might make, whether it relates to marriage, sexual behaviour, abortion, the broadcasting of pornography, gambling, or the recreational use of drugs. But there is one argument that still holds sway with the liberal elite: defending human rights. If we are ever to make any progress in protecting the unborn, and indeed all the vulnerable, it must be on the basis of human rights.

This is not a new realisation. It was at the heart of the anti-slavery movement at the end of the eighteenth century in Britain. When Wilberforce joined forces with Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp and the Thorntons in the anti-slavery movement, while the utterly appalling and degrading conditions of the ‘middle passage’ across the Atlantic were an evil that was easy to see, it was establishing the humanity of slaves that was the essence of the argument. The famous pottery maker Josiah Wedgwood made porcelain medallions of a slave in chains, bearing the words (based on Paul’s words to Philemon): ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ If slaves were fully human, then they must be respected as fellow human beings. That realisation laid the axe at the root of the tree of slavery.  As people met Africans such as Olaudah Equiano and heard them speak on equal terms, they realised their rights as fellow human beings were being destroyed by the evil of slavery. The campaign to end the slave trade and emancipate slaves set the paradigm for all subsequent campaigns for human rights: establish the true humanity of those you campaign for, and your argument will be incontrovertible.

That is what we need to do for the unborn. Once people grasp that the genetic code is set for an embryo at conception, that that child cannot grow into anyone or anything else than that unique human being, we are in the realm on inalienable human rights. To take the life of an unborn child is to take the life of another human being. The European Convention on Human Rights is clear: ‘Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law. (This is written into the UK Human Rights Act.) That applies to everyone within the court’s jurisdiction. Sadly, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights is vaguer: ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’ So such rights only accrue at birth. That will not do, and is a dangerous limitation. It needs to be extended to protect the rights of the unborn, yet at present as far as I am aware there is no movement to do so.

Current pro-life campaigning strategies target such things as limiting the provision of abortion through state-funded healthcare systems, or arguing over the stage in pregnancy beyond which a baby cannot be aborted. While all such limits are welcome steps in the right direction, they do not address the fundamental human rights issue. In the United States at present, the reason why so many Christians have persisted in supporting Trump for so long, despite his manifest disqualifications for public office, is because he is preferable to Hillary, and the fear is that she would pack the Supreme Court with pro-abortion judges.  But the United States can never rely on a Supreme Court to protect the unborn, all the while its constitution fails to explicitly identify the unborn child as human. Leaving that decision to judges who will be driven by the post-modern currents of public opinion is hopeless. What is needed is an amendment to the constitution as strong as the 13th amendment that settled the slavery issue once and for all. The same is true in Britain. We need a long march, however long it takes, to achieve the goal of enshrining the human rights of the unborn in law.

This week I read a really fascinating article about the architect of Brexit – a description of the long campaign to leave the EU. What is astounding is that it was published in the Guardian. Daniel Hannan, coincidentally my MEP, has been quietly working to convince the British public that the UK should leave the European Union. He started his campaign as a student at Oxford in 1990, and in the words of Lord Salisbury was one of those characters ‘who are morally courageous, who consistently make the arguments, who don’t mind being unfashionable.’ Over the long march of 26 years, he has convinced thousands and moved millions to vote to leave the EU. Whether or not you agree with him, you have to admire his courage and tenacity, his belief in what he stands for. It is probably as much due to him as anyone else that Britain is now leaving the EU.

But there is a far greater example of unfashionable and consistent moral courage. William Wilberforce was a young MP who, having recently become a Christian, sat under a tree in Kent with his friends, and dedicated himself to ending the slave trade. That was in 1787. It took a full 20 years to end the slave trade, and a further 26 years before the slaves were emancipated (The famous clause 12 of the Emancipation Bill was passed the day that Wilberforce died). I wrote a dissertation on the abolition movement in English law at University, and to this day can remember sitting in the bowels of the library reading years of Hansard (and Cobbett that preceded it) on microfiche. Each year Wilberforce would stand to introduce a bill to end the slave trade. Each year he would be knocked back. But quietly, indefatigably, he and those around him convinced the country that the slave trade was a trade in human beings, and therefore wrong. Eventually they won the day. Trawl through all those debates and you will be amazed by his moral courage.

This week Sally Phillips convinced us that Downs Syndrome people are fully human, and they can fill our lives with joy and laughter. We must not create a ‘world without Downs’. Who will be the Wilberforce who takes up their cause? Who will begin that long march to establish the human rights of the unborn?

[17.12.16.  Since I wrote this, the wonderful ‘Speak Life’ video ‘He came down’ has come out for Christmas, featuring a group of Downs Syndrome children acting out a nativity play. It is brilliant. Take a moment to watch and be moved.]



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