Death of the Innocents
In June Carla Foster was given a custodial sentence of 28 months (half to be spent on licence) for “illegally procuring her own abortion when she was between 32 and 34 weeks pregnant.” Foster had duplicitously obtained abortion pills during lockdown, claiming she was seven weeks pregnant. Foster’s sentencing provoked widespread outrage and on appeal was reduced to 14 months suspended.
Close on the heels of this was the case of Paris Mayo who, aged 15, delivered her baby in secret and then killed him. Unlike Foster, the Mayo case generated little sympathy and she was roundly condemned. As the BBC report concluded,
Mayo’s version of the story is that of a troubled teenager, a victim herself, who feared her parents’ disappointment and acted in panic.
The prosecution, and the jury, see Mayo as a lesser victim than the baby whose life she extinguished.
Her actions, they decided, were deliberate, cruel and criminal.
Mayo was jailed for at least 12 years.
And then there was Lucy Letby, given a whole-life sentence for the murder of seven babies on a neonatal unit. (“Whole-life orders are the most severe punishment available and are reserved for those who commit the most heinous crimes.”) This story generated an incredible amount of coverage and there was widespread horror at the actions of this ‘normal looking’ nurse.
What do these stories tell us about how we understand ourselves?
Objectively – at least for the babies themselves – there is little to choose between these three cases. In each one innocent lives were ended by those who should have preserved them. The very different responses, both in their reporting and in the sentences applied, seem to stem from Mayo and Letby killing babies after they were born whereas Foster killed her baby before it was born; although at 32-34 weeks Foster’s baby was as viable as the babies Letby killed.
In Letby’s case there was a particular revulsion because she was a nurse. The British national myth is largely woven around the wonder that is the NHS with nurses the angels who uphold the whole tottering edifice. So for a nurse to be a killer is a very particular betrayal. But isn’t it at least as much of a betrayal that a mother should kill her baby? That reality was reflected in the sentence handed down to Mayo, but not to Foster.
There’s some incongruity here, and that incongruity comes down to a perception of rights. So Letby is ‘cruel and evil’ while Foster is the victim of ‘archaic’ legislation.
John Piper describes something of this incongruity in his experience of having lunch with an abortionist.
I went to lunch armed with my arguments that unborn children are human beings and therefore should not be killed. I was unprepared for what I heard. He said, almost incidentally, that the main driving force behind his involvement was his wife, because, for her and thousands of other women, he said, this is a root issue of women’s rights. Will they govern their own bodies and reproductive freedom or will others? More essentially, and even more surprisingly, he conceded my arguments immediately and said I didn’t have to waste my time proving that the unborn were human beings. He said bluntly that he believed that. The issue was whether the taking of human life is warranted by the greater good of a woman’s rights. I have found this position repeated in talking with other pro-choice professionals; when pressed they don’t dispute that they are taking the life of human beings. They admit it is not ideal but the lesser of two evils, especially in view of the tragic situations into which so many of these children would be born.
—Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, p233
It’s important that those of us who are pro-life see this, just as we would want those who are pro-choice to acknowledge it. We know that killing babies is wrong regardless of circumstances (hence Mayo being described as a lesser victim than the baby whose life she extinguished), just as we know that a baby in the womb is a baby, so killing it should be equally wrong. But we then run up against the shibboleth of reproductive freedom. Something has to give, and at the moment it is the babies.
What to do? Keep on pointing out the incongruities, yes. But grieve. Mostly grieve. Three different women. Three different responses. Each unbearably tragic.