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Review by Francis Phillips
(From Spiritual Books for September 2013 in Catholic Herald)

Culture and Abortion. By Edward Short. Gracewing. £14.99 Edward Short has written a witty, erudite and passionate book demanding reflection and re-reading. Instead of viewing abortion through its social and psychological effects, he has taken a different road - that of looking at the whole tragedy from the aspect of culture i.e. he asks the question: how does abortion affect the literary and intellectual culture surrounding it and what was that culture like before abortion was legalised. Along the way, he discusses different literary texts and personalities which are rarely considered for their pro-life qualities. After reading his book, one is aware of how abortion legislation has coarsened the kind of society we now live in, when it has been routinely accepted for several decades.

In his preface, the author examines critically Mathew Arnold's influential text, "Culture and Anarchy", pointing out the limitations of Arnold's argument by showing that "you can't conceive of culture outside man's longing for God." As Chesterton (an author whose trenchant perceptiveness on this topic is often quoted in these pages) remarked, Arnold wanted to restore paganism without knowing it. His state ritualism without theology or much belief was the practice of the ancient world.

There is also Cardinal Newman's point:" If we attempt to effect a moral improvement by means of poetry, we shall but mature into a mawkish, frivolous and fastidious sentimentalism". For Short, a healthy culture requires "the gift of contrition" rather than Arnold's "pursuit of perfection".

The author reminds us that if English literature had reflected the pro-choice position, Dickens would have been silenced before he began to write; there would have been no David Copperfield or Pip or one of Dickens' most attractive heroines, Little Dorrit. "The pro-abortion mind abominates frailty" he reminds us. Dickens shows how human frailty and the miserable conditions of birth can rise triumphant and hopeful over adverse circumstances. And what about the inauspicious birth of the great Dr Johnson? "Ill-advised, imprudent and irresponsible" is how Short describes his entry into life, with his aged parents and his sickliness.

Short raises so many interesting ideas and themes it is impossible to do justice to them in a short review. He has good words to say about the neglected poet, Anne Ridler and is critical of Lady Violet Bonham Carter who was horrified at the thought of the Victorian child-workers but supportive of David Steel's notorious Bill of 1967. Roy Jenkins, the then Home Secretary, receives a harsh verdict while Penelope Fitzgerald, niece of Ronald Knox, receives a warm tribute - as does Professor Jack Scarisbrick and the LIFE organisation he founded with his wife. The author includes a long chapter on Wilberforce and the struggle against the slave trade, thus putting the seemingly insuperable setbacks faced by the pro-life movement into some encouraging historical perspective. His concluding chapter, an examination of various modern "progressive" historians who see abortion legislation as progress, illustrates the arid intellectual climate we now inhabit.

The above blog first appeared in the blog of Francis Phillips in the Catholic Herald in September 2013

The Version of this page: 31st January 2014

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