Last week, the British Department of Health, with the blessing of the ethicists of the British Medical Association, decreed that girls under 16 mayand indeed shouldhave abortions without their parents knowledge. The girls, health officials reason, have the capacity to decide for themselves whether abortion is right for them; and if they decide it is, they also have the right to medical confidentiality.
No one seemed to notice that this decree stood in stark contradiction to the legal age of consent for sexual relations, which remains 16. According to current law, every pregnancy to a girl under 16 results from a crime, for which men still occasionally go to prison. The law sets the age of consent at 16 because it assumes that until that age most children do not have sufficient maturity to enter sexual relations, with all their emotional and social complexity and consequences. Children under 16, in short, still need some protection.
The Department of Health ruling all but admits this point, for while it insists on an under-aged girls right to have an abortion without her parents knowledge, it also suggests that the doctor performing the abortion would be wise to tell some adult or another connected with the girlor at least the social services.
Here we see the real purpose of this ruling. It is not to serve the interests of the girls who have the abortions but to undermine the family still furtherto end it as the primary locus of responsibility for the socialization of children. After all, if girls under 16 were truly autonomous, to use the cant word favored by contemporary bioethicists, why should any adult be told about her abortion? Nearly a decade and a half after the downfall of the Soviet Union, therefore, the British state wants to replace parents with itself, to insinuate its agents into the most intimate aspects of the life of its citizens. Parents are the great obstacles to this goal. And at a time when health officials can make such a ruling, the number of people on the public payroll is of course rising inexorably.
A girl of 14 who wanted an abortion greeted the news of the ruling with relief. If my mother knew, she reportedly said, shed kill me. A nation that can take such childish relief seriously as a guide to its ethics or its policy on so serious a matter is a nation in serious trouble.