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Anti-abortionists' conception of a baby lacks conviction

Pro-lifers seem to take this modern massacre of the innocents rather too well - because they don't really believe a blob of embryo is the same as a baby
What would you do if you found one of the candidates standing in your constituency was a member of the Herod Tendency? The Herods snatch babies from their buggies if they suspect the mother is inadequate/ a drain on the state/ likely to rear criminals or where the child is seriously disabled. The Herods seize these misfits and run them through with a sword in full public view.

They do this with absolute impunity because in our savage society we have passed a law saying they can, a law supported by a majority of MPs and an overwhelming majority (80 per cent) of the voters. We live, it seems, in a society far wickeder than the Third Reich where the Holocaust at least pretended to be secret from the people, or Rome, with its grizzly Colosseum games where many enemies died but not little Roman citizens.

That is what the Roman Catholic Church, the evangelicals, the fundamentalist Muslims and Jews all profess to think of our abortion laws. Innocent "unborn children" - 170,000 last year - are put to death. An embryo, from the moment of conception, is, they say, the very same as a child. That is what the Catholic Cardinals Hulme and Winning have been going on about.

But if they really REALLY believe it, why has the wickedness of abortion not driven them mad? Why are they so passive and moderate about it? Cardinal Hulme, when asked, politely said he thought abortion "a great evil in our society and really unworthy of a civilised society". Modest words, in the circumstances. Cardinal Winning said Scottish Labour's refusal to allow a pro-Life stall at its conference was "almost fascist". Even that seems inadequate outrage.

Would we all stand by as passively, with just a few caustic words, if we thought innocent children were being butchered in their thousands? I hope not. We would mount a revolution, we would storm the barricades, hurl ourselves upon Parliament. For this reason, I have always had some sympathy with the American extremists who picket abortion clinics. If you think children are being killed, it makes sense.

But the pro-Lifers seem to take this modern massacre of the innocents rather well (just as the Vatican took the Holocaust rather well, which maybe why the present Pope compared the two a few years ago). Why? Because, of course, they don't REALLY believe a blob of an embryo is the same as a baby in a buggy. Like a great many absurd things the religious claim to believe, they plainly don't actually. They play at belief. After all, if the people of the Middle Ages really thought a Hieronymus Bosch hell gaped at their feet, they would have been good. The religious only believe with a little bit of their mind, while common sense rules most of their brains.

Instead of rebellion, the Life lobby is mounting some 50 well-behaved candidates to oppose pro-abortion MPs. Instead of barricading themselves inside their cathedrals the Catholic bishops are lobbing snowballs at the Labour Party, in this empty silly season when there is nothing else to fill the Today programme. Why do the media love abortion? Why not the flat-earthers, the anti-fluoridisers of the water supply or the Esperantists? For abortion is not an issue. It is a dead parrot, going nowhere. Ceased to be, expired and gone to meet its maker, rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-issue.

No doubt Labour and Tony Blair feel aggrieved. Why keep picking on them when all the parties firmly hold the line that MPs have a free vote. True, Blair foolishly made himself vulnerable by trying to have it both ways. He voted for abortion and reaffirmed Labour MPs' right to a free vote but then he tried to suck up to the anti-abortionists by adding that he personally was actually against it. What? And then voted FOR it? Either abortion is murder or it isn't. He said individual people should make their own choices. To murder? Surely not. So he deserved a bit of a kicking from the cardinals.

Yesterday Cardinal Winning claimed that Labour anti-abortionists are put under intolerable pressure to keep their views quiet. John Reid, Labour Scottish Catholic MP, replied tartly that the most pressure he had come under was from organised write-ins by pro-Lifers.

A small frisson of unease swept through the pro-abortion lobbies yesterday. Was it possible, as a last desperate gesture, clutching at straws, that the Tories might come out for a tightening of the abortion law? After all, it can be made to seem quite reasonable. As modern technology keeps foetuses alive at an earlier and earlier stage, so the legal date for abortion needs to be made earlier too.

It is an argument to be strenuously resisted. Who needs late abortions? The most hopeless, desperate cases, the 14-year-olds who have no idea what is happening to them, the very stupid and the mentally retarded: all the people who would make the worst mothers. And if soon foetuses can be kept alive at any stage, will we ban abortion altogether?

But the Conservatives could not be that foolish after Senator Dole's experience. Clinton's strongest pitch in winning the crucial women's vote was his veto of a bill to outlaw late-term abortions. Dole's flirtation with the pro-Lifers was the biggest of his many millstones. Few can imagine Major making that mistake. All the British polling evidence suggests even anti-abortionists do not switch votes against a pro-abortion candidate of their own party.

The issue, together with contraception, is even sinking the Catholic Church, now in urgent need of a progressive Pope to rescind the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. Claire Short says the church has lost her generation of women. The National Abortion Campaign points to a poll now nearly 10 years old which shows that even then nearly a third of British Catholics supported abortion, twice as many as those who were strongly against.

But so what? From a population of 58m, only some 7m practice any religion and most of them are moderate, so why should politicians worry? Religions are just one minority among myriads, though they get airtime out of all proportion to their numbers.

Here they are a relatively minor menace but the Catholic Church's stance on these matters continues to cause untold suffering round the world. There might be more sympathy if the Pope took into the Vatican all the unwanted street children of Catholic Brazil, born as a direct result of Catholic teaching. Or if the pro-Lifers were as active about the massacres of those children as they are in defence of British foetuses.