“I am not a criminal” Guilt, shame and decriminalisation

There were some notable moments of passion in the House of Commons emergency debate on abortion in Northern Ireland last Tuesday.[1] Notably these included the contributions from Sammy Wilson and Maria Caulfield who challenged MPs to focus exactly where they did not on the life of the unborn baby.

There were also passionate and moving speeches by supporters of the motion including Heidi Allen and Jess Phillips who both spoke as women who had been through abortions. From their point of view, access to abortion was part of a woman’s right to control her own body, a right they had been able to benefit from but denied to women in Northern Ireland.

Sin and Crime

In the middle of Jess Phillip’s speech she made a stand out statement which I think goes to the heart of the issue. She said, defiantly,

“I am not a criminal.”

Jess’s point was that

–        Abortion is classified as a criminal offence under the Offences Against the Person Act.

–        The Abortion Act (1967) provides a defence, or exceptions to the criminal offence but the offence remains on the Statute book.

–        The Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland and therefore there is no  defence at all.

Why does this matter? Well, and admittedly this is to some extent a subjective evaluation of those speeches (and others siding with them) but a lot of the emotion surrounding the issue seemed to link to the need for those MPs to find justification for their own decisions and past. One could feel the sense of stigma, a need to declare pride and confidence in past decisions to remove that stigma and shame. This is why decriminalisation matters to pro-abortion campaigners. It’s not just about permission to do something. It’s about removal of shame and guilt.

In previous articles we have talked about the distinction between sin and crime. Sin is something that is morally wrong. Crime is a wrong that the state chooses to restrict and to enforce with appropriate penalties.

This is why the move made this week was so significant. It wasn’t just about extending an exemption for something unpleasant, wrong but sometimes permissible because of a messy world. It was about changing the status of abortion and therefore of those who have had abortions.  The aim of decriminalisation is to first of all say

“The state has proscribed that act as wrong.”

However, a world where there are no objective morals, where people do not look to God or religion and where the culture is secularist, then in fact sin and crime become the same thing.[2] Therefore, in a secular culture, if the state no longer defines something as wrong, and does not penalise it then, no-one else does either. The State says “Neither do I condemn you.”

That’s why it is important for those who support abortion to move from having laws that permit it in some circumstances to a situation where it is no-one else’s business what you do.

Wrong and Individualism

Another passionate speech came from Anna Soubry. She argued against her colleagues Maria Caufield and Fiona Bruce as well as Sammy Miller that they were entitled to be against abortion if they wanted but they could not enforce it on others. By trying to prevent abortion, they were trying to control other people.

What is fascinating here is that we see an extremely individualistic position. I and I alone decide what to do and no-one else can tell me different. The State has now also withdrawn from deciding on moral issues. This form of extreme individualism is often associated with Margaret Thatcher and her statement that “There is no such thing as society.”[3] So, it might be a little surprising to see left-wing MPs essentially following that line of argument.

I want to respond to Anna Soubry by saying that no, this is not about controlling the bodies or actions of others. Rather, it is about communities together having  a legitimate right and responsibility to agree how they are going to live together. In particular, it is about how we choose to care (or not) for the most vulnerable amongst us.

Shame, prejudice and us & them

There’s something else that we’ve seen in the debate -not just in the House of Commons but on social media.  Notably,  a couple of MPS speaking for the abortion side had to ask their colleagues to treat their opponents with respect.  There was a tangible air of hostility particularly towards the DUP speakers.

Have a look on twitter and you’ll see snide and dismissive comments about the DUP MPs coming both from MPS and from their followers on social media.

You’ll also see that on numerous occasions we are told to #trustallwomen -although as we’ve seen, that does not extend to pro-life MPs or the leader of the DUP and then in practically the same breath that men have nothing to contribute and -especially if they are going to disagree with abortion –  they should keep their noses out.

Do you see what is happening here? An “us and them” is being created. First of all, there is the “us and them” of militant feminism. Men are not to be trusted, men are the enemy, certain areas of life must be kept “men free.”  As I’ve previously commented, it is both ironic that this is being said by those pushing something which oppressive men stand to benefit the most from.

Secondly, you will detect a certain unnerving attitude towards the Northern Irish protestant community. Oh of course, we will hear about how really this is about liberating them but event hat is patronising. “It’s just their MPs” but who elects those MPs?  I even saw one person prophesying the DUP’s ancient stranglehold on the Unionist community which is a little odd given that as a party and as the majority party they are relative newcomers.

May I gently suggest that there is prejudice at work here. The Unionist community in Northern Ireland and especially the DUP’s constituency form a cultural minority. DUP support tended to be working class (unlike the UUP).  So, this is a minority culture. But, it’s the wrong type of minority. It’s a minority that isn’t willing to bow down to its liberal superiors. So, to spell it out, targeting the Unionist communities of Northern Ireland is a fantastic way for the establishment middle class to both virtue signal and let out its class and race prejudices at the same time.

Shame puts us on the defensive, it pits us against others. Shame brings division.

Shame, Blame and Hiding

I wanted to look at what happened in the abortion debate again, not just because the debate itself is important but because it shines a further light on how shame and guilt work.

Shame causes us to hide. We look for protection, we look to excuse ourselves. We don’t want to front up to the past and admit that we did wrong. Like Adam and Eve, we hid among the fig trees. Like Adam and Eve, we make our excuses. It’s not just an MP saying “I am not a criminal.” You and I want to say “I am not a sinner” by denying or diminishing the reality of the awfulness of our sin.

–        I didn’t lie, I misspoke

–        It wasn’t fraud, it was an error

–        I forgot to mention

–        I’m sorry if you felt offended

Shame causes us to blame. Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent. There’s an irony isn’t there? Adam and Eve wanted to be like God, to be autonomous but when confronted with the wrong they have done, they want to deny their autonomy and quickly give up their sovereignty claiming to be subservient and weaker than others. Shame means that although I want to be as God I give myself up to other gods. Shame means that I excuse myself by demanding that others take the fall. This is not only  true about the abortion debate but all of us when we blame our family, upbringing, culture, church etc.

A better way

Some men bring a woman to Jesus and tell him that she has been caught in adultery. He says “Okay, form a queue to stone her, guiltless ones at the front.” The crowd melts away because no-one is sinless. Jesus says “Where’s the prosecution?” She says “looks like they’ve packed up and gone home.” Then Jesus says

“neither do I condemn you.”

But then Jesus says something else:

“Go and sin no more.”

Jesus doesn’t excuse us and help us to hide from what we’ve done. He doesn’t let us shift the blame onto others. There’s no doubt that she has done wrong. He tells her that sin must stop. However, Jesus forgives the sin.

Jesus is able to forgive our sin because on the Cross he bore our guilt and took away our shame. Jesus was naked, exposed, mocked, humiliated, shamed so that we can be free from shame. Jesus was condemned so that we could be forgiven our guilt. Jesus died so that we can live.

Doesn’t that offer a better hope not just for those who have had abortions but for all of us.


[1] June 5th 2018.

[2] Just as ironically they do in a theocratic state.

[3] Although actually the full quote, whether or not you agreed with her politics was not an argument for individualism but against an abstract concept of the society doing things for you and to you. I suspect Thatcher might equally say “no, it is not just your individual choice, there are families and communities too.”