There is a phrase in Joseph Conrad's famous story Heart Of Darkness which came to mind as I read recent revelations about gender-selective abortion.
The dying words of one of the novel's central characters are a simple yet haunting refrain: "The horror! The horror!"
Such words seem the only fit response to the news that – according to The Independent – the "illegal abortion of female foetuses solely to ensure that families have sons is widely practised within some ethnic communities in Britain and has resulted in significant shortfalls in the proportion of girls".
It is estimated that the practice has reduced the UK population of females by up to 4,700. Globally, The Daily Telegraph has suggested the equivalent figure could be as high as 200 million.
The news attracted nearly universal condemnation. And yet, I couldn't help thinking that there seemed to be double standards here. For while gender-selective abortion is generally deemed unacceptable on the grounds of sexism, abortion in which gender is not taken into consideration as a factor is apparently quite alright. In other words, many commentators have seemed to suggest that if an abortion takes place because an unborn child is a girl, this is somehow wrong. But if an abortion takes place regardless of the sex of the foetus, then it suddenly becomes okay.
Dominic Lawson has commented: "Their argument can be summed up as follows: abortion is a woman's absolute right and concerns her alone – but not if the reason for termination is that she wants her next child to be a boy. If the woman has been forced into this, such feminists have a point. But otherwise, they are absurdly self-contradictory."
Paul Tully of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children rightly says: "The serious cultural prejudice against girls among a small percentage of UK citizens should not be used as a smokescreen for the ongoing slaughter of many hundreds of thousands of babies in the womb. The injustice done to all these babies is the same – death – whatever the reason."
There are 200,000 abortions each year in the UK. The 1967 Abortion Act makes it clear a termination can only happen if two doctors agree it is in the mother's best interests. However, according to the government's most recent figures, reported in The Times in the last few days, "in over half of all cases there is no record of either doctor having even met the patient". The refrain comes to mind again: "The horror! The horror!"
No one can deny there are situations in which difficult decisions have to be made – for example, where the life of both a mother and an unborn child are in danger, or where a foetus has such a clear abnormality that life outside the womb is impossible.
Yet it is also equally clear that thousands of developing children are being discarded every year like disposable nappies. So many lives unlived – so much love and laughter and human potential discarded as trash.
The Christian view of abortion is shaped by a commitment to the value of every human life based on its reflection of the image of God. Indeed, the rise of Christianity also ended widespread infanticide in previously pagan cultures. As Jesus puts it in a discussion about healing: is it better "to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?" (Luke 6v9).
Such compassion to the unborn and vulnerable must also bring grace to those weighed down by guilt over abortion (as one woman testifies here), practical help for those carrying unwanted babies – and patience, courtesy and love towards those who, for whatever reasons, would vilify the views set out above.