November 2018 | Prof. John Wyatt
“In one part of the hospital we’re trying to save babies’ lives, and in another part of the hospital, bigger, tougher, stronger babies are being aborted…”
Transcript | What we see and what we say about the unborn
Glen \\ Professor John Wyatt, Professor of Neonatal Pediatrics, University College University College, London, you have come to speak about the unborn with your doctor's hat on. Why do you want to protect the unborn?
John \\ So, I spent most of my life working as a baby doctor, and I've invested a huge amount of time, energy, resources and government money trying to protect young babies and trying to give them the very best possible chance of life. The bizarre thing in modern hospitals is that on one side of the hospital we're trying to protect the beginning of life and then in the other part of our hospital in the fetal medicine unit there are actually abortions taking place of babies, often because of medical problems. And sometimes those abortions are taking place even at greater stages - the babies are bigger and tougher and stronger than the babies we're struggling to save in the other part of the hospital. So you say to say yourself, "This can't be right!" So my feeling is that I'm called to be there to be a voice for these babies who can't speak for themselves.
Glen \\ Because from a scientific point of view you're thinking there is nothing morally relevant that is different between the case of a 26-week baby who is trying to be given every chance of survival as opposed to a 23 week old baby who can be aborted?
John \\ Yes. I don't believe there is any fundamental moral significance, and in fact the 26 week baby can be aborted in the UK. It's legal for abortions to happen at any stage in the pregnancy all the way up till term. So there are abortions happening at the very same point that we're capable of keeping babies alive. The only moral difference is that in one case the baby is outside in the world and therefore we as a society can show our compassion and concern for this being. Whatever the parents think, even if the parents don't wish their child to survive, I as a doctor have a duty of care to this child and I have to put the child's interest first. I have a legal duty to put the child's interests first. In the second case at 26 weeks it's as though the unborn baby is hostage within the body of the mother and in fact that the law doesn't recognize the status of the unborn baby. It has no legal personality. So the moral difference is not any difference in the baby, it's in the situation, the context.
Glen \\ You were giving an interesting story about the 12 week scan. So the person doing the ultrasound for the 12 week scan, if that pregnancy is wanted, the language is, "Oh you have a baby and doesn't it have daddy's chin!"
John \\ That's right. So the single most important thing that the person who is doing the scan needs to know is, is this a wanted baby or is it not a wanted baby? And they need to work that out before they start the scan. Once they start the scan, if it's a wanted baby they turn the screen to the mother. The language is all about the 'baby', how he's doing really well, he's wriggling around, he's sucking his thumb, and he looks just like his dad, and it's all this kind of baby talk. But if the baby is not wanted the screen is turned away from the mother and the language changes completely, and they talk about the 'pregnancy'. It's all this impersonal language, and yet the being in the womb is exactly the same. So the bizarre thing that's happened is that your value, your moral status depends on whether you're wanted or not. Yet elsewhere in the whole of human life if we were to say the value of this child depends on whether it's wanted...
Glen \\ ...Or this minority group within society?
John \\ Or this elderly lady who nobody wants; clearly her life is of no significance.
Glen \\ Because the strong have chosen the moral value to place on them, and this is the exact equivalent.
John \\ Any right-thinking person would be appalled at the idea that we value human beings according to whether other people think their life is worth living. But doctors and healthcare professionals have accepted this in the unborn, and what's more they think they're being incredibly sensitive and sophisticated and professional, that they can talk these two languages - completely seamlessly shift from one to the other in order to be sensitive to the person.
Glen \\ And what shifts is what they see - so what they see is managed depending on whether the baby is wanted or not, and then how they speak of the issue is altered. So from the point of view of trying to stand up for the unborn, what do you think we need to do in terms of what people see and how people speak about this issue?
John \\ Well I think you put your finger on them. So language is incredibly important in this whole debate and the interesting thing is there is no neutral language. As soon as we use words in this area we are already expressing a moral commitment. We either talk about the 'unborn baby', or we talk about the 'pregnancy', and as soon as we do that we've already made a moral commitment. We either recognize this being as one of us, part of the human family, or we distance ourselves by using a medical term like'fetus' or 'pregnancy'. So the language is really important. And I think as Christians therefore, although we get criticized for it, and I've been frequently criticized for using this kind of language - that it's coercive and manipulative and so on - I think we have to say there is no neutral language. But the language that I'm choosing to use is because I believe this is a precious person, a member of the human race, it's a baby. And the interesting thing I've found talking to women who have had abortions is that the women who've had abortions generally speaking, they use the same language. So the professionals say, "No, it's a pregnancy, it's a fetus." Then the woman says, "I killed my baby. It was a terrible thing. I felt I had no choice but I knew what I did."
Glen \\ Because no one speaks in the language of 'fetus'. Meghan and Harry are having a royal 'baby', not a royal 'fetus'.
John \\ Absolutely. Look at the incredible fascination there is in the royal pregnancy or in a celebrity's pregnancy. It's all about the baby. So there's this extraordinary doublethink that goes on. But it's the professionals who cultivate this neutral impersonal language because it's to make you feel better. Let's not talk about a baby. We're talking about a pregnancy. You don't need to feel guilty. We're very compassionate people and we're reducing the guilt.
Glen \\ So that's the language that we use about the unborn. What about the images? Why is what we see so very controlled when it comes to this area of life?
John \\ Well again it's a fascinating thing that images are very important. One of the things that interests me is that every child has a photo album, and whereas it used to be that the photo album started at the moment of birth, with some grainy image taken after birth, now every baby's photo album starts with an ultrasound image. The child is shown this image and says, "That's you. That's what you looked like." So the image is again powerful and is recognized by parents. Watching your child on an ultrasound scan is a very moving experience. I've had it myself and I've seen thousands of ultrasound scans of other people's babies. But when I see the ultrasound scan of my own child this has a huge impact. So the images are very important. Wonderfully as science advances it's given us more and more images of the unborn child. Again, amazing paradox - often it's not Christian people who are celebrating the images of the unborn child. It's Discovery Channel or some secular science documentary which shows these spectacular pictures of the developing child and the wonder of what happening in the womb, of the way the child is responding to stimuli, sound, light and so on, and I see that as a very positive thing. It's all about seeing the creation. But again this doublethink in the secular world is that when it comes to abortion all of a sudden we take those images away. We shield people from those images. We say, "Don't think about it, it's just a blob of tissue, it's part of a woman's body, it's of no significance," and this is a misguided attempt to reduce the guilt, to reduce the shame. And one of the things that many women after they've had an abortion, who approach people because of guilt and a sense of distress, very often say, "If only someone had said, 'Are you sure about this?'" But the professionals had said, "No, don't worry about it. It's a pregnancy." So the attempt to assuage guilt it is often completely forlorn. It doesn't work. Nonetheless it's deeply rooted in a professional culture.
Glen \\ Do you have hope that with an ever-increasing ability to see inside the womb, that technologically we're able to see more of this minority group we are oppressing, surely the more we see that minority group, hopefully the more we will feel the empathy?
John \\ I do I think so, and I do wish that churches would celebrate the creation more. It seems to me bizarre that these secular documentaries - the BBC, Discovery Channel, have all these wonderful programs celebrating the creation, and when we go to church we don't have any of that. It isn't seen as relevant to celebrate the beauties of God's creation. So yes I think as we get more of a scientific understanding of what's happening in the womb the harder and harder it is to keep this illusion, this depersonalization. And it is interesting that when the abortion debates were going on in the 90s and the 80s very often the debate was about "a blob of jelly". Very interesting that you don't hear that language now. Nobody talks about blobs of jelly because people know it's not true. We've seen that it's not a blob of jelly. That's my baby. So I think images are powerful. I think one of the very interesting and also controversial issues is whether the images of abortion itself, which are deeply distressing and painful to watch, and which the doctors go out of their way to try and shield people to assuage your guilt - we'll make sure that you'll never see these images of what is actually happening in an abortion, whether actually as Christian people it's our responsibility to painfully but sensitively show people. Actually we can't shield you from the reality of what is actually happening in abortion clinics.
Glen \\ Or even just describe it. I had a friend who just said to me that he just read out to friends from Wikipedia a description of the process for a twenty week old baby and they got angry. He said, "Well, this is not a pro-life site, this is Wikipedia." But the truth confronts.
John \\ The truth does, and I think we have to find a way sensitively of confronting people with the truth, but of course we do it in the knowledge that so many people have been touched by these issues, that one in three people in our society have had an abortion or will have an abortion in that lifetime, that for every woman there's a man, that there are deep, deep scars and hurts. So when we show these images or talk about the reality of abortion we have to do it if you like with tears in our eyes, not with rhetoric and judgement or harshness.
Glen \\ So let's finish with that because I think you spoke very wisely about the grace and truth of Jesus. And yes there is truth and there is that prophetic element that we are called to speak truth to power, but what about that incarnational side that you drew out? How can we speak with grace into this issue?
John \\ Well I do think this combination of grace and truth is a really powerful and important idea, and that the truth by itself can be very harsh. It's like a knife that can be used to stab and wound and hurt. And we've all come across situations where people have told the truth, but in ways which have been intensely wounding and damaging. But if you just have grace by itself, grace without truth is deceptive. It's cheap grace and ultimately it lies. It becomes something which is manipulative. But if you have grace and truth utterly intermingled then I think you have something very powerful and that is the very personal character of the Lord Jesus himself. And you know if we think about how Christ confronted people who were in in deep distress or sin or broken in some way, he combines the two. He doesn't shield the truth. He says some very hard things, but His compassion, His gentleness - He doesn't break a bruised reed. There are these beautiful images of this gentleness - "I'm gentle and compassionate of heart." So what does it look like practically? Well there are many examples thankfully of ways that Christians are reaching out to people affected by abortion in ways that combine this compassionate and gentle aspect of Christ while at the same time not shielding the truth. So I think it's offering people who are asking for help honest, accurate information, but at the same time compassion - not rushing to judgment. One of the images I like is one beggar helping another beggar, telling her how to find bread. We're not in any way sitting in judgment on other people. Interestingly many people are involved in this ministry have themselves have an abortion. Many are women or sometimes men who've been affected by abortion, who found healing for themselves and now they're now reaching out to others and wanting to share the healing that they found, and I think these are often the people who are able to speak with integrity and authority in this situation and other others of us can support them in their ministry. So this incarnational ministry I think needs to go hand in hand with the more prophetic side, and I think you can see that by themselves both the prophetic ministries and the incarnational ministries have potential to go wrong. The people who concentrate on the prophetic ministries can become very harsh, dogmatic rhinos who are always just engaging and rather prickly and difficult people to engage with, and they need the incarnational people. They need to be softened by the compassion and gentleness of Christ and that side of the ministry. At the same time the people who are predominantly involved in the compassion ministries can become compromised. They can lose their commitment to truth, they can blend in with the culture, and they need to be held to account by those who have a prophetic edge. So we need one another in God's church and together we can reflect the activity of Christ. We can be salt and light together.