Once upon a time, in a college somewhere in England, there was a sign saying ‘Keep off the grass’.
Most people, being obedient types, kept off the grass, though once in a while someone did cut across a corner of it, or even run right across the middle if they felt the consequences of not doing so were worse than any possible consequences of doing so.
And yet…the grass was so lush and beautiful, and some people really wanted to step on it. After all, what is the point of a lawn that no-one can use?
The arguments were persuasive. Perhaps a blanket ban was a little out of touch with the needs of a modern college, perhaps the prohibition should be eased. To save the lawn from being turned into a quagmire, though, a compromise was reached and a new sign was made.
This sign said, ‘Please keep off the grass unless accompanied by a Senior Member of the College’.
But students were students, and many of them really wanted access to the grass without having to take the time and considerable effort required to find a Senior Member and persuade him or her to accompany them. Sometimes there simply wasn’t time – the lecture was about to start, no-one was around, and cutting across the grass would save valuable seconds.
Eventually, one student decided to speak up. “Couldn’t we,” she asked, “remove the original sign and do away with that rule? It is archaic and outdated. It doesn’t take account of the kinds of busy lives people have these days, or the fact that nowadays people like to sit on grass for picnics instead of using the more formal benches around the edge of the quad. The world has changed and this restriction should be lifted.”
Many people objected. “The grass would be ruined,” they cried, “if everyone were allowed to walk on it all the time.”
“No, don’t worry,” she assured them, “they would still have to be accompanied by a Senior Member, we could keep that sign in place. It’s just that there would be no punishment meted out if anyone crossed the grass without a Senior Member.”
To those who supported the motion, this seemed perfectly reasonable. Yet to others, who had been around students long enough to know that they were quite bright really, it seemed that there was little chance of them going through the hassle of finding a Senior Member to accompany them each time they wished to do something that they were already allowed to do anyway.
The question was taken to the College Council: Should they remove the archaic restrictions on walking on the grass and trust the students to always walk responsibly, accompanied by a Senior member?
Was the freedom of the students more important than the protection of the grass? Was the idea of preserving green spaces hopelessly outdated? Did those who cared about nebulous concepts such as beauty and life have any right to restrict what students did with their feet?
How would you have voted?
In case you’re wondering if I’ve completely lost my marbles, try this.
For ‘Keep off the grass’, read ‘Offences Against the Person Act 1861, Sections 58 and 59’ (the law that makes procuring or helping someone to procure an abortion a criminal offence).
For ‘Please keep off the grass unless accompanied by a Senior Member of the College’, read ‘Abortion Act 1967’, which sets out the conditions under which abortions may legally be carried out.
For the question taken to the College Council, read: ‘Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) Bill’.
This Bill, introduced by Diana Johnson MP last week, seeks “to regulate the termination of pregnancies by medical practitioners and to repeal certain criminal offences relating to such terminations; and for connected purposes.”
This wording is confusing, but in her speech Ms Johnson made it clear that she is seeking the decriminalisation of abortion: “I hope that hon. Members will join me in saying that in England and Wales in the 21st century, abortion should no longer be considered a criminal offence, and that the 1861 Act is now obsolete and no longer fit for purpose in this century.” (Emphasis added.)
She claims that this won’t lead to any increase in the number of abortions (ie that students will still meekly seek out a Senior member to accompany them across the grass), even though she cites examples of three women whose circumstances typify the kind of scenarios she’s trying to solve – the implication being that these women are currently unable to procure abortions (or at least would find it extremely difficult to), and therefore may not be able to terminate their pregnancies. In other words, if the Bill were passed tomorrow, Ms Johnson knows of three more abortions that would take place. These would most likely all be conducted outside of the safeguards that Ms Johnson claims would remain in place, since it is those safeguards and restrictions that are currently causing the problem.
I could go on. There are other weaknesses in her logic which mean that unless an entirely new law was crafted making abortion an offence under certain circumstances, the way would be opened for abortion to take place on any grounds – gender, hair colour, inconvenient timing – potentially right up until the point of birth. (There is legislation from 1929 making it an additional offence to ‘destroy the life of a child capable of being born alive’, defined in the legislation as a child at 28 weeks’ gestation. It is unclear whether Ms Johnson wishes to abolish this law or not. Early reports suggested so, but it appears her language may have changed by the time the Bill was proposed, such that this is not explicitly included.)
The second reading of the Bill is scheduled for this Friday, 24th March. Please pray that it will be voted down. If you live in the UK, you can write to your MP (find them here) and ask them to vote against the Bill (you can check how they voted on the first reading, if they were present, here, and thank them and encourage them if they voted ‘No’). Maria Caulfield MP, responding to Diana Johnson in the House, made some further excellent points, that you may wish to use in formulating any such letter.
Even if nothing materially changed, even if every woman seeking an abortion did so following the restrictions currently in place, and there were no more abortions on any more liberal grounds than there are currently, still everything would change. The decriminalisation of abortion would fundamentally change the status in law and, eventually, in the public perception, of the unborn child. A sign saying ‘Keep off the Grass’ might be quaintly old fashioned, but removing it signals loud and clear that grass is no longer a thing of beauty to be treasured and protected, but merely an object to be enjoyed in the sunshine, but trampled on whenever it gets in our way.